Le Doulos (1962)

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Jean-Pierre Melville

Starring

Jean Desailly Jean-Paul Belmondo Serge Reggiani

Anticipation.

One of French maestro Jean-Pierre Melville’s lesser-known works gets another run out.

Enjoyment.

Some amazing moments, but something of a drag all told.

In Retrospect.

Stick to Le Cercle Rouge or Army of Shadows if you want to see the best of this lauded, hard-boiled film artist.

This dark, complex 1962 policier heads up a celebration of French director Jean-Pierre Melville at London’s BFI Southbank.

This excessively cheerless policier from 1962 sits smack dab at the centre of Jean-Pierre Melville’s career as a writer and director of muscular films about bewitching anti-heros and the artisans of France’s criminal underworld. As an opening inter-title explains, Le Doulos is a slang term for “hat”, but also doubles as “rat”, used to refer to snitches and paid informants. If you’re a rat, Melville thinks you’ve got what’s coming to you.

The question posed by this verbose and not entirely satisfying work is: whose side is Jean-Paul Belmondo’s shady rogue, Silien, really on? Is he stumping for sad-sack recidivist Maurice (Serge Reggiani), who executes and robs a dishonourable jewel thief as his first order of business having been just been released from prison? Or is Silien pretending to be Maurice’s buddy in order to feed information of this sucker’s ongoing criminal endeavours to the fuzz?

Melville makes no bones about inducting murderous Maurice in as the tragic hero of the piece, while the police, using every trick in the playbook to curb this one-man crimewave, are seen are the bureaucratic, underhand antagonists. In Melville’s world, law-enforcement is depicted as dishonourable and unromantic – it’s too black and white when it comes to basic right and wrongs. There’s no deeper consideration when it comes to looking at the intricacies of men trying to settle their dealings with blood and fists. And why should one group of men be above the law, while another are shackled by it?

The crims, meanwhile, are forgiven their sins because of the lengths they eventually go to in order to uphold an unwritten code of honour, where only the selfish and needlessly cruel receive the punishment they clearly deserve. Kind-faced Reggiani isn’t the type of actor you’d cast as an evil crook, so its relatively easy to fall on side (he only kills really bad guys). Belmondo, however, is a more slippery fish, delivering a performance that is, to quote Tom Waits, colder than a well-digger’s ass.

And still, this one is very much a second-tier Melville effort, as it often leans too hard on lengthy, coldly expositional dialogue passages which are sapped of any real drama or intensity. So adamant is the writer-director to make sure he has all his moral ducks in a row, that he takes great pains to make certain that every small impulse is rationalised, and it’s often to the detriment of any real emotion or energy. A stretch which comes before the final act is pure explanation – had this tale been adapted for the screen in the US circa 1940, it’s hard to see how it would’ve taken more than a crisp and curt 70 minutes, including credits.

Published 10 Aug 2017

Tags: Jean-Paul Belmondo Jean-Pierre Melville

Anticipation.

One of French maestro Jean-Pierre Melville’s lesser-known works gets another run out.

Enjoyment.

Some amazing moments, but something of a drag all told.

In Retrospect.

Stick to Le Cercle Rouge or Army of Shadows if you want to see the best of this lauded, hard-boiled film artist.

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