Le doulos [DVD]
Director : Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay : Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by Pierre Lesou)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Jean-Paul Belmondo (Silien), Serge Reggiani (Maurice Faugel), Jean Desailly (The Superintendant Clain), René Lefèvre (Gilbert Varnove), Marcel Cuvelier (A police inspector), Philippe March (Jean), Fabienne Dali (Fabienne), Monique Hennessy (Therese), Carl Studer (Kern), Christian Lude (The Doctor), Jacques De Leon (Armand)
Although he would come to be identified almost exclusively with American noir-inspired gangster films, Jean-Pierre Melville did not actually make one until Le doulos, which was his eighth film and came nearly 15 years into his career. Granted, he had directed Bob le flambeur in 1956, which is widely regarded as a kind of gangster film, but Le doulos is the first of Melville’s pure distillations of the genre, inspired in equal parts by the moral codes of the 1930s gangster cycle and the dark, cynical machinations of film noir. And, whereas Bob le flambeur was a fundamentally Parisian character study, rooted deep in the culture of post-World War II Europe, Le doulos looks like it could be set in the seedy underbelly of Chicago or New York, thus bringing to fruition the Stetson-wearing Melville’s obsession with all things American.
Le doulos was based on the 1957 novel by Pierre Lesou, who reportedly said that he preferred Melville’s film adaptation to his book. The story, in both novel and film, is a densely packed web of deceit in which desperate characters manipulate those around in them in a dual effort to preserve their own lives and discover who is loyal and who is not (loyalty is one of the film’s primary themes, and its maintenance and betrayal drive most of the characters’ actions). The story’s focus is divided between two main characters, both of whom remain opaque until the film’s final moments. We first meet Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who is introduced walking beneath shadowy bridges in a fatalistic lengthy tracking shot under the opening credits. Wearing the iconic gangster trench coat and fedora, he is clearly walking toward death, although in this case it is not his own, but rather his friend Gilbert (René Lefèvre), whom he kills in cold blood. Maurice then steals a bag of jewels Gilbert was assessing from a previous robbery and buries them beneath a lamppost, an action that will set off an inexorable chain of events.
We then cut to the other main character, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, already an international icon only two years after his star turn in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless), a friend of Maurice’s who is rumored to be a police informant (the title of the film means “the hat,” which is also French-gangster slang for a stool pigeon). Maurice tells Silien about a robbery he’s planning, and when said robbery is foiled by the police and results in the death of a cop, it seems that Silien’s informant status has been confirmed. But has it? Melville’s narrative trickery relies heavily on upending the obvious, which means that questions are never answered the first time around; every character is lying on some level, which underscores another of the film’s most important themes: the nature of deception and how it is necessary for survival, but also the constant source of death. Thus, Melville is playing with the cruelest irony of the underworld.
Even though it was his first true gangster film, after watching Le doulos you would think that Melville had been making them for years. He had clearly absorbed the gangster worldview from countless American films, which he cherished far above the inferior French gangster films that had glutted the market in the 1950s (in a television interview, Melville dismissed French gangster films, noting that the only “serious” one he could think of was the 1955 masterpiece Rififi, which was not incidentally directed by the American expatriate Jules Dassin). The film is infused with a perverse sense of violence, which is first suggested in the unexpected opening murder, but is solidified when Silien’s casual conversation with Gilbert’s girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) turns suddenly and sharply cruel, reminding us that every interaction, no matter how seemingly benign, can turn dark. Working with veteran cinematographer Nicolas Hayer, Melville gives Le doulos a classic noir feel that, as others have pointed out, creates a sealed universe that is completely artificial, but also utterly compelling. Melville’s use of inky shadows, canted angles, and fluid camera movements imbues the film with its crucial fatalism, and as characters step in and out of the light, we are reminded of both their moral duality and the fact that nothing can be trusted until the final bullet has been fired.
|Le doulos Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||October 7, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer of Le doulos was made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. The image looks about as good as one could expect, with excellent detail, sharpness, and strong black levels that emphasize the film’s noir-ish visual approach. The film has been digitally restored to remove dirt and damage, but there is still a fine layer of film grain that gives the image an appropriately filmlike appearance. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from an optical print track and digitally restored, sounds clean throughout.|
|The disc does not include a full-length audio commentary, but rather a selected-scene commentary (about half an hour total) by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, which had been previously included on the BFI’s Region 2 DVD from 2004. While obviously limited in terms of scope, Vincendeau’s insight and background are quite illuminating as she talks over the opening sequence, Therese’s beating, and the final shoot-out. The video image over which Vincendeau talks is unfortunately a nonanamorphic, interlaced image with burned-in subtitles that is quite inferior to the film’s transfer. There are also two video interviews, one with Volker Schlöndorff (13 min.), who worked as Melville’s assistant director on the film, and one with Bertrand Tavernier (15 min.), who served the film’s publicity agent. Given that both men have gone on to become highly acclaimed directors in their own right, it’s quite fascinating to listen to them reminisce about working with Melville and his various idiosyncrasies. In addition to the more recent interviews, there are also excerpts from several archival interviews from French television: one with Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo from 1963 (4 min.) and two with Serge Reggiani, one from 1963 (7 min.), and one from 1970 (3 min.), the latter of which also includes Melville.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection