“I do not like assassins or men of low character,” Gene Hackman’s Little Bill tells a writer as they ride out a Western rainstorm in Bill’s ramshackle house, water drizzling down from holes in the roof. The movie is Unforgiven, the Oscar-winner directed by Clint Eastwood, and the scene is the key to the film.
Bill is the truculent sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, determined to keep the lid on his potboiler of a town. He’s the NRA’s worst nightmare, seizing the guns of everyone who enters and keeping his own. Early in the film, he roughs up a British gunslinger (Richard Harris) attempting to collect the bounty on two men in town who viciously attacked a local prostitute and later does the same to Eastwood’s William Munny, another hired killer.
The trick to the film is that Bill sees himself, as most of us do, as the hero of his own story, the one person with a code of ethics in a town perched on the edge of lawlessness. Indeed, it wouldn’t be difficult to invert the film and tell it from his perspective, turn him into Gary Cooper repelling the bandits who threaten the good folk of Big Whiskey. Bill’s utter shock at his death at Munny’s hands reflects a narrative that to him that has been upended, even stolen. The brave lawman shouldn’t be killed by the amoral thug. “I don’t deserve this,” Bill gasps as he bleeds on the saloon floor. “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” Munny answers and pulls the trigger one more time.
Unforgiven has no use for codes. Eastwood’s point is that they’re fictions, rationalizations used by killers to differentiate themselves from other killers. Bill and Munny are of a kind–something that the self-named Schofield Kid recognizes late in the film when he fails to see it in himself. “I ain’t like you, Will,” he says to Munny. 
The law is just another code, another tool that BIll can use to jail and torture his enemies; it gives him no moral purchase. The house he’s building serves as the ideal metaphor. One of his deputies observes that it seems to lack right angles at any juncture, but Bill is as blind a carpenter as he is a sheriff. So enthralled is he with building the framework himself, he can’t appraise the product with any clarity.
That clarity falls to Munny at the end, as he realizes exactly who he is and who he will forever be. There is a fearsome moment near the climax of the film, when Munny finally takes a swallow of the whiskey he has denied himself and transforms. The act is the irreversible rejection of Munny’s own fiction, the fantasy that he could be anyone else, ever be a simple pig farmer and father raising two children alone on a miserable patch of Kansas dirt.
In the film’s early moments, Eastwood positions Munny prone in the mud, face down, dragged through the slop by unruly pigs. As viewers, we’re shocked to see this, to see Eastwood’s iconic Western gunfighter brought so low. That’s one of Eastwood’s goals with the film, of course, the deconstruction and revision of his own myth. But beyond that, it’s Eastwood illustrating how ill-suited Munny is for this life.
That helps explain the ending, when, against convention, Munny survives and ends up prospering. His failure to be “punished” for a life of misdeeds, ones that included killing innocent women and children, is representative of a universe that pays no heeds to the codes and laws fashioned by man. Munny endures because he abandons those rules and rituals. After the death of his partner Ned Logan, Munny confronts Bill and the townspeople and immediately guns down the unarmed Skinny without hesitation, as a warning. No shootouts on Main Street for Munny.
Afterward, the narration tells us, Munny returns home to Kansas and then decamps with his children to California, the implication that he has given up on one iteration of himself while perhaps working toward another, one entirely separate from the cycle of sin and redemption he has been living.
It would have been easy, and predictable, for Eastwood to give Munny a samurai’s death, to have him avenge Ned’s death amid a hail of gunfire and head off to the afterlife with a final mission accomplished. That is, in fact, what happens in two other films I screened during the same week, Le Samourai (1967) by Jean-Pierre Melville and Hara-Kiri (2011) by Takashi Miike.
Both of those movies are centered on codes and rituals as well. Le Samourai’s hitman anti-hero, Jef Costello (Alain Delon), fetishes his work to the degree that he outfits himself in a fedora, trenchcoat and white gloves, operating with a robotic precision. Killing is simply a service, done in exchange for money. Delon’s ice-blue eyes and flat expression suggests a man beyond caring. If Unforgiven is about William Munny coming to terms with the amoral killer he is, Samourai’s Costello shows us a man who has no illusions about himself save for his professional constructs. When he leaves his one-room apartment, he makes a point of adjusting the brim of his hat. It has no meaning; it’s all affect, theater.
The film is caked in method. Not only is it in the way that Costello goes about his business, but also the meticulousness of the police. The story derives its tension from the interaction of the archetypal (Costello in his costume is almost a fantasy figure, an apparition) and the procedural. The film’s major action set-piece doesn’t pivot around a gunfight but instead an extended and somewhat convoluted chase through the Paris Metro, with Costello calmly outwitting his pursuers at every turn.
But Costello abandons his code when he needs it most. He leaves a witness alive–and it proves to be a crucial mistake. Was it simply because he wasn’t paid to kill her or did it have something to do with honor? The title of the film implies a certain nobility. In Japan, the samurai were knights of the realm. But Melville, tellingly, opens the film with a (phony) quote from the Bushido, the code of the samurai, which equates Costello’s solitary hitman to a tiger in the jungle. But a tiger has no morals, holds no principles. It simply is.
When Costello chooses his ultimate path, it’s with the full understanding that his dogmatism will be his undoing. He will be the tiger again–one who will be cut down by its hunters. He dies a killer, but one, finally, with honor, the samurai’s death eluded by William Munny.
Westerns, police procedurals, samurai films, they all borrow from each other. Akira Kurosawa was influenced by John Ford. Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai begat The Magnificent Seven. Melville was similarly inspired both by Hollywood and Tokyo in crafting Samourai.
So Miike’s Hara-Kiri is both a samurai film that honors that particular tradition and a genre exercise that, like Samourai and Unforgiven, subverts those traditions. The film is subtitled The Death of a Samurai, but that belies its subject matter. A remake of a well-known 1962 film, it’s anything but straight-ahead swords-and-sandals fare. Instead, it’s a bruising indictment of the samurai caste and the way it manipulates its codes to self-serving ends.
Like Unforgiven, it is a story of revenge. Set in the 17th century, it details a world where samurai who serve powerful families that have fallen out of favor become desperate for work. The rigid rules of their warrior caste prevents them from finding other occupations. They are ronin, wayward knights in search of patrons.
That struggle for survival gave rise to the so-called “suicide bluff” in which downtrodden samurai would approach a prosperous house to ask for the right to commit suicide on their grounds as a matter of honor. It was a gambit; the hope was that the wealthy lord of the manor would pay him to go away. But as the opening of the film makes clear, the warriors of such a house had little compassion for those who didn’t share their fortune.
The result is a cruel and shocking scene, in which a young boy is forced to gut himself with a dull bamboo sword as the samurai of the house watch, a scene as disturbing as the disfigurement of the prostitute Delilah a the top of Unforgiven (albeit much more graphic).Through a flashback, we see that the boy, Motome, made the request because of a sick wife and child, hoping to simply get a handout. His father-in-law Hanshiro, himself a fallen samurai, then sets in motion an elaborate plan to avenge Motome’s death by making a similar suicide request.
In doing so, Miike exposes the samurai code as an instrument of oppression, a vehicle for abuse, perverted by the elders of the house in a manner not so different than that of Little Bill in Wyoming. They, too, are the heroes of their narrative, protecting their manor from misfits operating outside society.
Hanshiro, who undoubtedly once proudly slayed the enemies of his clan, sees through it. “A warrior’s honor is not something simply worn for show,” he says. Killers are killers. Swords and badges are totems with no real meaning. What matters is whether you retain some measure of humanity. Hanshiro never loses his, and he too finds his warrior’s end; Costello and Munny ultimately find theirs. They know who they are. More than that, they know, more than anyone, what they have done. -James Oliphant
 It is Munny who shows far more compassion toward his victims than Bill after Munny and Ned Logan ambush Davey-boy, one of the cowboys marked for death, in a canyon. Munny calls on Davey’s companions to ease his suffering.
 This scene is echoed by Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), another movie that operates as a meditation on killing and identity, when mild-manner diner owner Tom is finally unmasked as Joey, a mob enforcer in hiding. Violence owes a debt to Unforgiven, as well as Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), which begins with two hitmen seeking a fugitive in a diner.
 It’s a reversal of Eastwood’s earlier revisionist Western, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), in which a citizen farmer and father reluctantly becomes a killing machine after the slaughter of his family.
 Melville was inspired by Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942), in which Ladd plays a fedora-and-trenchcoat-clad hitman named Raven who ultimately finds a shred of decency in himself, saves Veronica Lake, and dies for his trouble. That movie endeavours to provide an explanation for Ladd’s ruthlessness in the form of a troubled childhood, but Melville provides no such rationale for Delon’s Costello.
Also, I couldn’t stop wondering why, after Costello kills his quarry in an early scene and the police are on the lookout for a man in a trenchcoat and fedora, not only does Costello not dispose of the incriminating accessories, but he puts them back on when the police raid the gambling den where’s hiding out. I haven’t found any explanation for this, other than that since Costello has his alibi ready, he isn’t bothering to play games. Still, it seems like he easily could have avoided ever being a suspect fairly readily. That speaks to odd unreality of the film: dressed like Ladd from ‘42, Costello’s anonymous hitman stands out in any crowd in 1960s Paris.