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Burglar Maurice Faugel has just finished his sentence. He murders Gilbert Vanovre, a receiver, and steals the loot of a break-in. He is also preparing a house-breaking, and his friend Silien brings him the needed equipment. But Silien is a police informer ... A movie whose "all characters are two-faced, all characters are false", according to director Jean-Pierre Melville. Written by
one of those treats in the genre that keeps you guessing, in a good way
How I would've loved to see this movie on the big-screen; as it is, one of the only set-backs in watching it is that the current Kino VHS copy is of poor quality, with the kind of subtitles you can't read when it's with a white background, and the aspect ratio is off at times. But it is a kind of "lost" classic in some ways, harder to find than Jean-Pierre Melville's films on Criterion DVD (Le Cercle Rouge, Bob le Flabeur, and Le Samourai), but still as rich in his own style than with his other films. If at times it might not seem as much Melville as usual, it may be because it's based off a book by Pierre Lesou. But Melville still instills his distinctive flair at making old-fashioned crime stories involving criminals with codes of honor, police with some level of respect and intelligence, and a perfection of dead-pan dialog and silences.
The film also includes a star of the times- Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Silien, a sort of smooth operator of underdog criminals, who is friends with Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani, a man with soul in his face if that makes sense). Faugel, at the start of the film, does something that may or may not have been the right thing, but he still has to hide it, in the midst of gearing up for a heist (again, this IS Melville). The heist doesn't go as planned. There's also been another murder, which Silien cannot stand, even as he is placed in the realm of a police investigation. I hesitate to describe much else of the story; on a first viewing one may think there is too much exposition at times (in particular when Silien reveals some of the details later in the film to Faugel, with fades to flashbacks and so forth), and the double-crossings that occur make the story very twisty, in the perfunctory crime-novel sense of course. In some ways it's a little more novelistic in the storytelling than a film like Le Cercle Rouge.
The style of Le Doulos is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and senses. It isn't always fast and it isn't always slow, but when Melville wants a level of suspense he somehow brings it. Like all his other crime films, he's working in a framework akin to the American genre pictures of the late 30's and 40's- tough guys almost always shielding their emotions, kind to most women but not all (there's an interrogation scene by Silien with a woman that is effective, and rather disturbing in just the set-up of the woman), and a kind of fate that is and isn't expected with the characters. One might even try and make naturalistic comparisons with the story; Faugel with his own problems, Silien with his lonely but loyal life to his few friends, the police's professionalism.
But what really catches me with Le Doulos, like the best moments in Melville's films, is how he subverts the kind of expectations of the classic style of the 40's American crime films - dark shadows in the background coming into the foreground, creeping in on the characters, and usually basic camera moments - with the 'new-wave' sensibilities. There are certain shots that are stunning, some of which elude me even after seeing the film three times. The Silien scene I mentioned is one, but also note the hand-held use as the robbers run away from the cops after the heist; the extraordinary long-take in the police investigation (you almost forget that there isn't a cut); the occasionally very unusual angles put onto characters to add a certain 'kick' to the feeling behind it.
Despite the straightforward attitude of the characters, there is emotion behind the style. Many have said Melville's films are 'cool', very 'cool', or sometimes too 'cold' for their own good. Both could be attributed. But the coolness outranks everything else; Belmondo, by the way, is so cool in this film, so unflinchingly so at times (even if in sometimes a little ineffectual), it makes his performance in Breathless seem amateurish. Coincidentally, he is more like the Bogart character here than in Godard's film. Reggiani, too, gives an excellent supporting performance, usually without having to say anything. The climax of the film, where the characters come to a head in the 'Halo', is like the icing on the cake of the film.
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