The Criterion Completist – Le Doulos (1962)
written by: Jean-Pierre Melville
produced by: Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard
directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville (screenplay) and Pierre Lesou (story)
runtime: 108 min.
U.S. release date: March 2, 1964
DVD/Blu-ray release date: October 7, 2008
The Criterion Collection has exhaustively catalogued the great French directors of the 20th Century, and seems to pay special attention to the crime noirs of the early 60s and of course the new wave movement that came soon after, so it’s time I knock one of these off the list. Director Jean Pierre-Melville is often credited as being a crucial link to the work of new wavers such as Jean Luc Godard, but it is perhaps the transitional nature of a work like Melville’s “Le Doulos” that makes it unsatisfying as either a noir or a new wave film.
The title “Le Doulos” means, “the hat”, which in police slang means “informer”, as in “the man who wears the hat”. The informer in this case may or may not be the cruel and violent Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard’s “Breathless”) who seems to have the upper hand over the main protagonist, Maurice (Serge Reggiani, who bears somewhat of a resemblance to Rowan Atkinson of “Mr. Bean” fame). Maurice is fresh out of prison, but already onto a new caper that goes awry when the police seem to have been tipped off as to details of the heist.
This boilerplate crime plot could’ve have been lifted from any number of American crime noir films of the forties and fifties. Indeed, this was Melville’s primary influence: the hats, the trenchcoats, the smoldering jazz soundtrack, the pouty femme fatales, and enough cigarettes to fell the Marlboro Man. Unfortunately, the twisting plot is so over-stuffed with shadowy liars and double-dealing agents that keeping track is near impossible, so we’re left with a style over substance situation. The sharp shadows seem to swallow the characters whole in true noir fashion, and the criminal lingo and banter is fresh and fast-paced. The elements that set “Le Doulos” apart however are the same things that later filmmakers would end up borrowing as the new wave scene started to emerge.
One scene has a hand-held camera following two characters right onto a Paris subway, while later in a police station, the camera swirls between three cops discussing the complicated case in a dizzying and flawless single take. The violence is sudden and brutal, more so than in older noir films (Maurice’s girlfriend is hog-tied to a radiator and beaten by the sadistic Silien) yet casually executed by these cool and emotionless criminals. Despite all this, I found myself bored and confused throughout much of the film, and completely uninterested in the fate of these characters, which, if familiar with crime noirs, you can pretty much guess.
The only other Melville film I’ve seen is the semi-autobiographical “Army of Shadows”, but he has many other crime films (for a total of 7 more Criterion releases!), that I look forward to viewing. The single-disc release has a beautiful digital transfer that really allows the black and white contrasts to pop on an HD screen. There was apparently a new subtitle translation made for this edition, though I still found them somewhat difficult to follow especially when multiple characters are involved in rapid-fire dialogue. And Criterion has been kind enough to reprint a new essay for the film in the DVD booklet on their website.