Le Doulos

(FR/IT - 1962)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Serge Reggiani, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Daniel Crohem, Fabienne Dali, Michel Piccoli, Philippe Nahon
Genre: Crime/Film-Noir
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville from Pierre Lesou's novel
Cinematography: Nicolas Hayer
Composer: Paul Misraki

“If it goes as expected, you won't be sorry” - Maurice Faugel

Jean-Pierre Melville begins his celebrated film noir gangster quintet with this bleak, bitter, and stylish depiction of friendship and love as fleeting moments in time that will eventually yield to betrayal. Melville’s experience serving in the French resistance during WWII is arguably the key episode informing his filmography, making him value loyalty and friendship above all else at the same time he knows it's finite because people can't communicate and will do what suits them based on their own understanding and outside pressures.

The central figures in the sombre Le Doulos, ones who would certainly not become uncommon to Melville, are ambiguous anti-heroes whose identities seem concocted from their imagination, carefully projected through their rigorous adherence to their choice of trench coat and hat. These efficient grudge settling men don't exteriorize their thoughts or feelings; when they do talk, they lie so often that it becomes their truth, and if they are manipulating well, everyone else's as well. In this world where friends, lovers, acquaintances, partners, you name it, are manipulated, framed, betrayed, and/or murdered, usually for the crimes they did not commit, it's difficult to maintain the viewpoint that your bond with another person guarantees their faithfulness.

The near four minute opening shot tracks a solitary figure walking in the shadows under bridges in an eerily vacant industrialized landscape. This specter of a man, recently discharged from a six year stint in the pen, looks as though he may have been better off going to the gallows, that is if that's not where he's currently heading! This fatalistic, intense, anxious, brooder turns out to be Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani). Jail has not treated the 40ish man well, he's not as vigorous or carefree as he used to be; he's become frail, isolated, and fragile.

The younger Silien (Jean Paul Belmondo) is much more cocky than Maurice. He still has his strut even when the cops pick him up. The main difference between the two is Maurice lacks Silien's fantasy of an idyllic future where he's free of the past. “I think I'm going to retire. In this profession one always ends up as a tramp or with a few bullets in one's body,” says Silien. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he dreams of a place where there's no cops or crooks, but he'll settle for his new country house where he can reunite with his old flame Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), now married to mob boss Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli), and ride his horse.

The title Le doulos literally translates as the hat, but is also slang for a police informer, hence the now forgotten English title for the film, The Finger Man. This article of clothing which, for the longest time, seems inseparable from Silien somehow represents his toughness and mysteriousness. This is a man who believes he cannot be defeated, and that's partly because we can't know who or what lies beneath the garb. Although Melville consistently switches back and forth between his two anti-heroes, the fact that we spend the opening portion with Maurice makes us believe this is his story. Even when we see Silien, for quite a while it's through Maurice's perception, casting him as his incorruptible friend then, when Maurice' burglary is bungled, as yet another backstabber.

Maurice is also known for his fedora, and one of our first experiences with him sees him gun down Gilbert Varnove (Rene Lefevre), his friend who has taken him in since his release and offers to lend him money so he doesn't have to return to crime to pay his debts. Much of the intrigue of Le Doulos lies in the fact the motivations of the characters are revealed after the fact, but also change over the course of the film as the situation suits them. Our perceptions are constantly altered by the new data that's revealed to us on a selective and often posthumous basis, but these revelations are part of the characters current deception of whomever they are with, as well as their desperate attempt to discover if this person is actually loyal to them, so we are constantly forced to consider whether they are conning them, us, or both. We can have our hunches, but life in Melville's world is about not knowing who, if anyone, can be trusted. The question is not so much what do we know about someone, but how much of it is actually true?

Le Doulos seems to suggest that a friend must be cherished above all else, and an enemy destroyed, the question is which is which? It's eventually revealed that Maurice took revenge on Gilbert for killing Maurice's girlfriend Arlette while he was in prison to ensure she didn't finger Gilbert. Maurice believes she would never have informed, and that Gilbert was only helping him out of guilt. The current web is quite tangled, as Silien has two friends, Maurice and Inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem), the later being the reason Silien is rumored to be a stool pidgeon. Salignari has a relationship with Maurice's current girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy), the only person other than Silien that Maurice trusts. When Salignari shows up during the burglary, and is killed by Maurice after Salignari kills Maurice's partner, the loyalties of both Maurice and Silien are called into question.

One of Melville's most stylish films, Le Doulos boasts exceptional use of shadows and lengthy tracking shots through open exteriors. The latter would seem to contradict the film noir basis, but the space is utilized in an ironic manner, as Maurice is as isolated and confined in a vacant landscape as in the tightest noir set. Maurice is always on the run when he's outside, panicking at the site or sound of another person. It's almost comical when, in the middle of a vast open space, he suddenly comes across a lamp post to hide the money and jewels he stole from Gilbert under.

The acting is universally brilliant, everyone perfectly underplaying in the model of controlled restraint Melville's performers would become known for. Belmondo wasn't the biggest fan of Melville because he didn't allow him any freedom to improvise, but this is one of his greatest, and certainly most enigmatic performances. I love Piccoli's brief role, as he is anything but the caricature cowardly Hollywood crime boss. He is so calm and reasonable. Even when he's about to die, he never squirms. Still, Reggiani outdoes everyone with his ability to believably show his frailty.


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