Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Le Doulos (1962)
And so we’re furtively back on the mean streets of Paris, striding purposely toward an inevitable, nihilistic end. As an opening title crawl informs us Le Doulos is underworld argot capturing two interrelated concepts, the first a form of headwear that denotes a particular clandestine profession, the second an informer, a stooge or grass as we mockneys like to say, the vermin of the dregs of the depraved criminal society. Opening with a pneumatic, expansive tracking shot we are introduced to a new face in Melville’s rogue’s gallery, symbolically enclosed in a murky underworld which foreshadows his inevitable fate. This is Maurice, a recently paroled criminal with a hang-dog expression shielding a cunning mind, played with laconic intensity by Serge Reggiani like a gallic iteration of Walter Matthau. After meeting him and whom we assume to be one of his tribal allegiances in a remote suburban safe house are expectations are shocked when he callously guns down his fence, stealing his contraband with the dispassionate shrug of a career psychopath. We will find no empathic alternative in his nemesis Silien, another trench-coated hood played with the usual smouldering charm of Jean-Paul Belmondo, as the two combatants are locked in a psychic array of guile and deceit. Silien reports Maurice to the authorities, almost leading to his arrest during a robbery of a wealthy estate, but is such a blasphemous breach of the criminal code all that is really at play? Together they led us through a labyrinth of shifting allegiances and false fronts, deceptions and desire, a murky world which as Churchill said of the Soviets is reminiscent of a mystery, contained in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma. Oh, and did Boorman ‘borrow’ that opening for Point Blank six years later? Enquiring minds need to know….
Although Melville was clearly inspired by his affection for the snarling American gangster pictures of Bogart, Muni and Cagney in some spaces the diversions between classical Hollywood and vision couldn’t be more starkly diverted. In Les Doulos the genre iconography and urban trapping are similar, but the locales are more attuned to some remote hinterland waste ground than the glittering Jazz era speakeasy’s of Little Caesar, White Heat or The Public Enemy. Gone are the neon shrouded rain swept streets, the seductive curl of smoke blossoming from a lipstick kissed cigarette holder, instead the continental environment is particularly decrepit, the criminals dossing in barely functioning decaying shelters that are falling into severe neglect, a simple step removed from emaciated vagabonds roaming the ghostly streets. It’s a milieu where every death matters, every resigned yet essential killing just another incremental slide into hell for their exhausted souls, as the law of the gun dictates the desperate accrual of black market francs and firearms. The women in Le Doulos are no less distant and dispassionate, they get slapped around in an ugly way but are more defined that just the cliché cardboard gangsters moll, and in some twisted early example of feminine equality they are just as likely to be killed as the menfolk – clearly gender qualms concentrating on ideals such as ‘only cowards hit women’ hold little moral weight in Melville’s noxious nebula. One particularly gruesome covering of tracks is reminiscent of that unfortunate murder in Get Carter, the one where some broad is sequestered into a car-truck before the vehicle is unceremoniously knocked into the water, leading to a horrifying, pitch dark drowning death. In France however they are far more sophisticated, as they tend to ruthlessly execute their women with a single gunshot to the head before throwing their lifeless corpses into a quarry. More akin to your Veronica Lake, Gloria Grahame or the other femme fatales of yesteryear is the character of Fabienne, an aloof and enigmatic figure mummified in her kimono and geisha garb, initially coy and cold she quickly evaporates in the glare of Silien’s aggressive charm. Like her we are unsure of his endgame, the shifting perspectives for his motives of turning to the authorities in an apparent betrayal of all that remains holy within the criminal moral codex – never rat on your comrades, and never become a stool pigeon for the man. Is he resolving to eliminate his competition, or out for vengeance for previous, unexplained slights? Perhaps machinations even more darker and more complex are at work, orchestrated by an unseen existential puppet master who cruelty manipulates our fates…..
Sometimes I feel like a broken record, breathlessly praising the same aesthetic antics, but you can’t ignore the inky shroud of black and white photography that bathes Le Doulos in an intimate shadow play, very much a continental film noir that respects and reflects its American forebears. After the last film in this sequence I’m slightly warming to Jean-Pierre Belmondo, we have to recall that this was only a couple of years since he exploded on the scene with Breathless, Godard’s seminal debut which ushered in a whole new vibrant film movement. In Le Doulos you can appreciate the screen acting, as character and plot are constrained in the looks, the glances, in the body language of a hesitant sense of pregnant purpose. This being Melville the dialogue is stripped back to the bone, the exchanges barely providing enough plot detail to keep the momentum idling like an anxious getaway car. Belmondo cleverly oscillates between implacable poker face and a slow oozing empathy, when we learn that Silien may just be orchestrating a complex triple bluff the recognition grows with the careful reveal of a silenced sidearm, even if a simple flutter of his eyelids causes the women to instantly fall into bed with him in that particular 1960’s way. The film wields a great labyrinth plot which keeps you guessing as to motives and subterfuge from every corner of the cast, everyone is playing an angle and grifting the con, and no-one can be trusted to follow their particular métier on either side of the law – it’s no surprise that Tarantino has cited this as a massive influence on his ferocious debut, alongside Kubrick’s The Killing and Ringo Lam’s City On Fire.
The direction is crisp, brisk and efficient, the camera snaking through deft movements and gimlet eyed character interactions, as sharply defined and callously cruel as the combatants secret ambitions and purpose. The various twists and turns begin to shed their chameleon skin in the third act, presented simply and unobjectively with perhaps a slightly questionable validity as flashbacks from unreliable narrators should always be viewed. We are invited to accept that one characters primary objective a) was reached by prompting plot revelation b), while one of the wider charms of the picture is to interrogate these assertions and not accept flashbacks and explanations spilling from the lips of figures we know to be duplicitous, black-hearted fantasists. In that light Le Doulos feels like a reconnaissance of some of the later symbols and themes which are fully crystalized in both Le Circle Rogue and Le Samurai, yielding a decent enough score but lacking the full retirement fund of both those movies deeper, impenetrable mysteries. Now, I need to muster a final push on this season (just two more movies to go) as outside forces have conspired to molest my carefully modulated screening programme, regular readers may recall I had already earmarked our next viewing strand for the second half of the year following an acquisition of a compact little box of Blu-Ray brilliance. I have been outflanked however by a recent announcement at the BFI – I can’t think of kicking off our next season in a more majestic style than a breath-taking 4K restoration of an undisputed and unimpeachable masterpiece. Until then enjoy one of our final walks on the wild side in the company of Melville and his gallery of doomed Doulos doppelgängers, as remorseless as a stiletto switchblade speared through to its nihilistic, yet dramatically nourishing ending;