‘Le Doulos’: Melville’s Game of Shadows

The archetype of cool in French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinema, for most, is the fedora-and-trenchcoat wearing killer Jef Costello in the 1967 policier Le Samourai. While Alain Delon’s performance was a trend-setter for the gangster film, I would argue Melville’s finest achievement came five years earlier, in 1962. Le Doulos (meaning “the hat” or “the one who wears the hat”, signifying a police informant) is perhaps Melville’s strongest noir, despite the fact he would make many more later into his career; Le Deuxieme Souffle and Le Cercle Rouge in particular stand out.

The appeal of Le Doulos among a line of top-tier Criterion restorations comes both in the film’s labyrinthine, double-cross laden script and some of the best noir cinematography ever captured on film. The film’s concluding dictum, “One must choose: to die… or to lie?” is one that most noirs live by.

To write even a minor plot summary risks giving away the best thing about Le Doulos: its narrative twists and turns. The double-cross is one of noir‘s most important conventions, and here it’s used in a way that makes the film almost befuddling to watch. Upon my first viewing of the film, I didn’t understand much of what was going on. I remember reading somewhere that Quentin Tarantino said of the film that he didn’t understand what was going on until the last 20 minutes. Though that description may not sound flattering, it actually speaks quite well to the brilliant narrative the film employs. One is not likely to trust anyone the first time around, as all of the characters appear to be pretty sketchy people.

To give some clarity, I shall paint a brief picture. The two key players here are Faugel (Serge Reggiani) and Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Faugel has just been released from prison after being crossed six years prior in a heist gone bad. Upon re-entering into society, as many of these stories go, he plans on another job or two, with the aid of Silien, an old friend.

However, there is word amongst many of the hoods that Silien is a doulos, a police informer. His enigmatic and charming personality certainly lends evidence to that suspicion; throughout the film, it seems he could wriggle any solution he desired out of a particular situation. This tension is the central exploration of the film; as the heist of a safe in a rich family’s house goes wrong, all sorts of questions rise up about the loyalty of both persons and those around them.

The acting here is uniformly excellent. Belmondo, fresh off his turn in Jean-Luc Godard’s nouvelle vague-defining masterpiece, Breathless, steals the movie with every scene he’s in; as he’s the most suspect character in the story, Silien has to embody ambiguity, which Belmondo does with a strong air of class. He manages to maintain this ambiguity even in scenes of shocking violence, namely a scene where he ties Thérese, Faugel’s girlfriend, to a radiator and beats her viciously. Despite the horrific nature of the act, Belmondo sells it off as if he has the best intentions in doing so. This is particularly difficult, given the subordinate status of women in much of noir‘s history; it’s obvious to any scholar of noir that for the most part it’s a boy’s club.

Meanwhile, Reggiani effectively plays Faugel as a man not sure of the world he’s been thrown back in to. Faugel may be a hood, but the grim landscape he now occupies is one that is suspicious of him, for everyone in Le Doulos has reason to suspect the other.

The most important question of the film, the same one that drives Faugel and Silien’s relationship, doesn’t have a clear answer: when is it that one should lie? At any given time in the film, a cost/benefit analysis could be made to determine the option a character can take to maximize his ends. Faugel or Silien could turn at any time. And though even in the world of hoods and gangsters loyalty means something, but loyalty doesn’t take away one fact: these men are criminals. The very basis of their identity is in the subversion and undermining of the law, which is a moral fabric that binds a society together on the basis of trust, however vague that trust may be. Notions of social contracts, of assumed agreements, are by their nature foreign to criminal enterprises. Thus the question of “to die… or lie?” is one criminals like Faugel and Silien must always face on a situational basis.

Just as striking as the narrative and the performances is the film’s cinematography. Both Melville and Director of Photography Nicolas Haver have crafted a film with an impossible amount of shadows; like the morally murky dealings of the plot, the bleak scenery contributes to the air of uncertainty that pervades the film. Criterion’s restoration here is one of its best; it both fixes what was likely a buggy initial print and retains a classic feel essential to old noirs. There’s nothing quite like the shadow cast by a fedora over a poker face or the flaps of a trenchcoat blowing in the chilly night breeze.

Not at all doing away with their sterling reputation, the folks at Criterion have put out a stellar package for this release. The cover art is appropriately cool and gun-centric, and the inner booklet, featuring an essay by the excellent Glenn Kenny (film critic for MSN) matches its noir décor. The special features, while relatively sparse to past Melville releases (the exhaustive, two-disc release of Le Cercle Rouge is tough to follow up), are effective in providing context and background to the film. The best of these are a series of interviews with Belmondo, Reggiani, and Melville, who are all magnetic and intriguing personalities, Melville especially.

Paired with a similarly packaged release of the great Le Deuxieme Souffle, Le Doulos is one of the Criterion Collection’s strongest noir releases. The publishing house’s devotion both to noir and the nouvelle vague has produced high-quality editions of essential films; their emphasis on Melville and Godard is very rewarding for this reason. Le Doulos is all about the shadows: the literal ones cast by the lampshades of Parisian streets and the metaphorical ones cast by the lies criminals tell to each other and themselves. It’s a messy, confounding business, but it’s enthralling to watch.

RATING 9 / 10