Le Doulos (Day 90)
My Opinion: 7.9 || Dark, tight crime thriller that plays cat-and-mouse with our loyalties and assumptions. Not a roller-coaster so much as a slow-track ride with trick mirrors and surprising turns. Once we get the story figured out, a supremely tight pivot in the third act turns everything upside down.
TITLE: Le Doulos
Writer & DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Melville (from a novel by Pierre Lesou)
LANGUAGE: French | COUNTRY: France
PROFILE: Thriller | 108 minutes | IMDb (7.9)
SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): Burglar Maurice Faugel has just finished his sentence. He murders a receiver and steals the loot of a break-in. He is also preparing a house-breaking, and his friend Silien brings him the needed equipment. But Silien is a police informer . . .
Strengths: Great script. Melville keeps us guessing the whole way through, and not just through trickery (though there’s plenty of that), but by building ambiguity into the characters. As soon as we start to get a bead on a character, Melville forces us into second-guessing. Angles repeatedly shift, altering our understanding of the story and, eventually, our interpretation of what we’ve seen.
In most thrillers, the big twist is rooted in cynicism: characters are shown to be deceptive or the story is subverted with a dark revelation. But nothing in Le Doulos is as we expect, including the twist, which inverts the presumed deception — and undercuts our cynicism.
Melville’s camera work is often inventive, and he maintains an absorbing film noir atmosphere throughout. His style is noticeably patient, closely following characters’ minute movements — or lack of movement — for long beats.
Weaknesses: Melville is no lover of introspection, and although his characters are well drawn, there’s minimal depth. Despite a storyline that revolves around loyalty, the movie has nothing very interesting to say about loyalty’s emotional or ethical dimensions. It’s great that Melville keeps us guessing, but a better film would also make us think.
Characters/Performances: Serge Reggiani is good as the world-weary Maurice, who begins the film admitting that he’s lost the strength to use his fists (though he does pretty well with guns). Jean-Paul Belmondo is the star of the film, though, as Maurice’s (maybe) buddy Silien. Belmondo is a suave, charismatic actor who brings vitality to every scene he’s in.
Best Moment: The highlight of the film is the third-act pivot that turns everything inside-out. But I also love the opening sequence. It begins with a long walk through shadows accompanied by the rumble of trains. Then, a few minutes later: sudden violence followed by a swinging lamp that’s an arresting visual — and a metaphor for the shifting light-and-shadow in the rest of the film.
See Also: Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. Good film, but Le Doulos is superior in every facet.
File Under: crooks, double-crosses, informants, stylish hats, clever plans, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Paul Belmondo