(The following review is free of spoilers.)
Maurice Faugel is a criminal who had just been released from prison after serving a 6-year stretch. He meets up with an old partner of his who informs him of the plan of a new heist he had just set up. Maurice agrees to the plan and then murders him. He escapes with his loot and buries them under a lamp post. Soon after, he meets with his trusted friend Silien and shares the details of the plan with him, even though he is aware of a rumor going around that Silien is a police informer. He proceeds to carry out the robbery but the police show up in the midst of it. Maurice manages to escape but his accomplice is killed in the gunfire exchange. He starts to suspect that Silien is behind this and decides to have his revenge. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos is his second love letter to the American film noir thrillers of the 1940s (the first one being Bob le flambeur). The result is something that I’m sure would’ve made some American filmmakers of that time extremely jealous. It has one of the best and most complex screenplays I’ve ever seen. I was happy to know that even Quentin Tarantino loves this film so much. There is a video on Youtube in which he talks about his favorite directors. Melville is one of them and he specifically mentions this film. It was apparently one of the influences for his 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs, which also deals with a heist gone wrong, stylishly dressed criminals and police informers. Melville made a wise choice by casting Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien, the dapper, ruthless and no-nonsense gangster. Even though Melville was an independent filmmaker, he still did not have complete creative control over the film. It was at the suggestion of his producers that he had to cast Belmondo. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless had only come out two years ago and made Belmondo a household name. Of course, it helped that Melville had already cast him in his previous film Léon Morin, prêtre and he had such a comfortable experience working with him that he didn’t think twice when the producers suggested his name. But this time, around, Belmondo didn’t find it that easy to work him as Melville did not give him the freedom to improvise and instead had to give a restrained performance. But sometimes great performances are born under such testing conditions and Belmondo has delivered his finest performance to date. He bestows Silien with a sense of brutality that in certain scenes, you are repelled by his actions. Serge Reggiani plays Maurice, a man doomed by the wrong choices he continually keeps making.
Le Doulos contains so many themes that would show up in the director’s later efforts, like Le deuxieme Souffle, Le Samourai, and Le Cercle Rouge, all of which are my favorites. The screenplay has so many twists and turns that you are not sure who is playing whom. This is a nearly flawless film. It is one of Melville’s most darkest films. A mood of mistrust permeates the entire film. The motivations of some of the characters are vague and this contributes to the building up of tension. The audience is in the dark as much as some of the characters and Melville withholds the mystery from us right until the end.
Le Doulos was initially not really given the kind of attention that it deserved but gradually, came to be regarded as a masterpiece of French cinema. There has been many French gangster films that came out in the 60s but only few can boast of the kind of the exceptional technical brilliance displayed here. Despite the absence of any likable characters and it’s cynical tone, Le Doulos is an overwhelmingly compelling film.