Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Le Doulos

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos is a bleak, twisty crime film in which no one is what they seem to be, and loyalty and friendship can never be taken for granted. Moody and brilliantly shot, it's a powerful examination of betrayal and the twisted concept of honor among thieves. Style is everything for Melville: his crooks and criminals prowl around and scheme against one another in a perpetually foggy, dimly lit night that seldom gives way to day or sunlight. Men in trenchcoats and fedoras stalk through the shadows, visible only as silhouettes through windows, staring at their fragmented reflections in mirrors as cracked as their souls. Pistol shots sound as loud bangs in the night, and the bodies pile up as these criminals kill one another in the name of revenge, greed, friendship, and a warped concept of justice.

Maurice (Serge Reggiani) has just been released from prison, but he's already getting tangled up again with his old associates and his familiar criminal schemes. He's tying up loose ends, exacting revenge on a former friend in the opening scenes and then planning his next heist. When his plan goes wrong, he blames his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who everyone has always said was a snitch and an informer, so it shouldn't have been any surprise to Maurice if his friend turned on him. It's expected, so much so that it almost seems as though Maurice wants the job to go badly, wants to get caught or killed by the cops: he's repeatedly told that he's going to be informed on, and he suspects that it's all "too easy" and could be a trap like the job that sent him to prison years ago, and yet he does the job anyway. There's a sense of fatalism in Maurice, a resignation to things going bad, and he's not the least bit surprised when he sees the cops closing in on him just minutes into this job.

Things aren't always what they seem to be, however, and after this point Melville centers the narrative on the supposed snitch Silien, who's involved in a complicated and twisty scheme, the final purpose of which is anything but clear. Melville methodically, rigorously lays out Silien's plans and actions, watching as he seems to be playing everyone against one another, juggling multiple plots and pointing various players from among both the police and the criminals at one another. Throughout it all, his motivations remain cloudy, which is what makes the film so compelling and ambiguous. Is he helping a friend? Is he maneuvering to make a big score for himself? Is he aiding the cops or simply manipulating them into position for whatever his larger plan is? Melville, through Silien, finally lays it all out in a series of explanatory flashbacks towards the end of the film, and the narrative puzzle falls into place with the satisfying click of a well-constructed mystery.

What's interesting is that the mystery here is not a whodunnit but a whydunnit: everything that happens is utterly clear, though a few missing scenes are slotted in by the flashbacks at the end. What's up for dispute, for the most part, is motivation, the unseen thought processes behind the mysterious actions of this ambiguous antihero. It's a mystery of the mind, focusing on the ephemeral nature of loyalty and friendship: there's no way of knowing what's going on in the minds of those who claim to be friends, no way of knowing who's plotting betrayal and who's genuine. This is especially true for these underworld figures, who can trust no one, and for whom lifelong friendships often end in bloody murder — as evidenced, of course, by the opening scenes, in which it seems as though Maurice is betraying his own friend. Of course, nothing is as it seems here, and even that seemingly straightforward action is complicated by certain revelations later in the film.

Melville's high-contrast noir-influenced style adds to this sense of instability and shadowy motivations. Killers are always lurking in the shadows, holding pistols, their faces obscured beneath the brims of their omnipresent fedoras. The streets seem to be empty of anyone other than cops and criminals, which may be why there are never any witnesses to the film's many crimes, only people who say they saw someone, a vague silhouette perhaps, their accounts never lining up to the reality. As a result, the cops have to count on informers, as one detective complains during the stunning sequence where he pumps Silien for information, a scene that Melville stages in a single nearly ten-minute take, the camera restlessly circling the room as cop and criminal try to outmaneuver one another.

This is a man's world that Melville is documenting here. The women, like Maurice's girl Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and Silien's girl Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), are simply used and abused by the men, manipulated as pawns in these games of betrayal and scheming. Though Silien is planning to run off with Fabienne, to get out of this criminal life and live a quiet life with her, everything he does is centered around Maurice; it's for the sake of masculine friendship, not love, that he does everything he does. Le Doulos is a stylish, compelling noir in which those bonds of male friendship are repeatedly strained, tested, and interrogated.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Le Doulosis the first full flowering of the Melville style. Bob le Flambeur shares certain things with it -- principally its loner hero. But it's a realistic film by comparasion. Le Doulos unfolds in a sphere as stylized as that of a Sternberg/ Dietrich movie.

You're quite right that the "why" is more important to Melville than the "how" -- and remains the true mystery. This becomes even more abstract in Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge and Un Flic

I first saw Le Doulous back in the mid 60's on 42nd street. The audience loved it.

Anonymous said...

I find the ending of Le Doulos with all the exposition as a clear letdown. Melville is one of my favorite directors, but I consider his next four films to all be superior.

I will certainly agree though that this is where his later style comes to fruition.....M.Roca

Jon said...

Great stuff Ed. I love this one and think it might be Melville's most underrated work. I also think it's as close to a comedy as Melville ever made. It's so over the top in its homage for old style film noir, that I sensed a bit of tounge-in-cheek at play. It is clearly lighter in tone than Le Deuxieme Souffle, which is incredibly dark and straight faced.

Sam Juliano said...

A hugely underestimated work in the Melville canon, which as you rightly note in a stylistic noir with compelling strains of male bonding. It's a riveting work that is one of the best of it's kind. As always a wholly exceptional piece in support. Yes the great masterpieces were yet to come, but this is a solid work in every sense nonetheless.