Those who serve

Somewhere in Paris there is a room, sparsely decorated and populated by one man and his caged bird. The man lies on his bed, cigarette smoke billowing above his head. Later he will rise, don a trench coat and hat and head out into the city to set up alibis for the murder he is going to commit later that evening.

In Sweden, in a heavily forested area there is a snow covered cabin. Inside, a man and woman sit by a fire. The man appears distant. When the two head out for a walk the man notices some tracks in the snow right before they are shot at. He takes out the shooter. Now that will ruin a date.

There may not be a literal correlation between the first moments of Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010) but as a whole, despite the slight differences in approach, their thematic similarities are undeniable. Here are two films about men who have become ghosts, who do not know how to make real connections because they have spent so long trying not to, men who, like samurai, are loyal to their masters without question.

Melville’s film explores this concept in a more straightforward manner, which is no surprise given its title. His subject, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), is cold and intelligent. He lives the life of a samurai, lacking any real connections aside from his fierce loyalty to his master, and maintaining a minimalist existence. He feeds his bird in the manner one might rake a Zen garden. His “girlfriend” is frequently used as an alibi. Why she’s so loyal to him we do not know. A police officer interrogates her:

Don’t you love him?


Really? I’d have said you did. Laying yourself on the line for him like that, I thought you must love him.

You’re not the psychologist you imagined.

Early in Le Samouraï Costello commits a sin amongst his kind; he gets noticed. The witness, a young pianist at a club where Costello has just completed a job, gets a good long look at his face. Surely he is doomed to a life in prison? It turns out that that’s not how things work. She does not identify him in the line up. Later, Costello asks her why, but only as a formality. An assassin with a face is no good to anyone and in this business they like to handle things internally.

The American‘s Edward (or Jack, or Mr. Butterfly. We never really find out) is similarly undone, right from the start. After all, someone did manage to track him down at that cabin. His employer kindly reminds him:

Above all, don’t make friends. You used to know that.

It is implied that the woman he was with may have had something to do with his slipup, and both films handle women differently. In Le Samouraï the only female presence comes in the form of Costello’s “girlfriend,” serving almost exclusively as an alibi for him, and the pianist, serving as the instrument of his undoing. Their relationship to Costello is purely surface, only representing a device without any real emotional investment.

For Jack (I think I’ll stick with Jack) there is a woman who represents a potential escape to normalcy. The fact that she is a prostitute notwithstanding, she appears to genuinely enjoy his company. Jack probably makes frequent visits to prostitutes. They are conducive to his way of life and, after all, we all have needs. The thing is, Jack’s way of life is not conducive to trust. 

Samurai code: Never let 'em see you sweat

Both men are ice cold and methodical, performing their jobs with the kind of meticulous attention one pays when there is no separation between one’s work and the rest of one’s life. But there is something in Jack’s eyes, a certain sadness that Costello does not appear to have. Perhaps he hasn’t been on the job long enough to feel the same weight as his counterpart? Or, perhaps it’s quite the opposite?

A great deal of that appearance may be due to the fact that Jean Pierre Melville seems more interested in the procedure of Costello rather than the man himself. His approach to his film is similar to Costello’s approach to his work—cold, calculated and distant. When one of Costello’s targets asks him why he’s doing this he simply replies, “I’ve been paid to.” Melville merely watches what he does without judgment, the eye of god.

Like I said, samurai code.

Anton Corbijn seems more focused on his samurai’s psyche. Jack is on edge, keenly aware of all that surrounds him, always waiting for someone to jump out of somewhere with ill intent. The world around him is often soft, slightly out of focus, as though he knows it’s there but cannot fathom being a part of it. We only see Jack kill in self defense, but I’m sure that isn’t always the case.

The mistake that leads to the attempt on Jack’s life at that cabin is never fully explained, but from his employer’s exhausted reaction we can infer that it’s been happening a lot lately. Or that once is enough. And while Costello’s mistake and subsequent struggle to survive seems like protocol, Jack appears to be making mistakes of the heart, seeking some real connection, some way out.

The way out, it seems, is the same for all men of the profession. There’s no retirement plan for assassins. Both of these men have outlived their usefulness in the eyes of their masters, and it’s interesting how the two of them arrive at the same end, but for different reasons. Costello eventually opts to commit a kind of symbolic hara kiri. It is in keeping with the film’s tone and Costello’s code of ethics; a samurai must die with honor rather than be captured. Jack, however, meets his fate due to a panicked attempt to get out. After discovering that his master has ordered a hit on him, Jack decides to run away with his new found love. The only thing standing in his way is his past, creeping around the corner with a gun.

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