Whereas ‘Bob le Flambeur’, for all its undertone of melancholy, is a wry and often playful homage to American film noir, ‘Le Doulos’ – made six years later – is noir to the nines and grimly ironic with it. Maybe it was the relative failure of ‘Two Men in Manhattan’, his most literal attempt to fuse his native aesthetic with that of the American crime movies he loved so much, that knocked the playfulness for six: Melville’s next film was the guilt-ridden war drama ‘Leon Marin, prêtre’ (his Resistance films are as essential as his work in the crime genre), and he followed that with ‘Le Doulos’.
‘Le Doulos’ certainly doesn’t contain any traces of humour. An adaptation of Pierre Lesou’s novel, it is at once a brutally focused and aesthetically stripped-down crime thriller, a meditation on honour and dishonour among the criminal underworld, an exercise in narrative trickery (the mid-film shift in protagonist is brilliantly effected, the lacunae neatly explained towards the end), and as shattering a statement on what William Ernest Henley called “the bludgeonings of chance” as anything by H.G. Clouzot. It’s not hard to see the seeds of ‘No Country for Old Men’ in the kick-in-the-guts finale, while a coldly observational shot of a car being pushed over the rim of a quarry was explicitly homaged in Umberto Lenzi’s terrific giallo ‘Spasmo’.
Things kick off with haggard thief Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) paying a visit to Gilbert Varnove (René Lefèvre), a receiver of stolen goods. Gilbert is currently separating the diamonds from the precious metals, the better to fence them, of a large quantity of jewellery stolen from an establishment on Avenue Mozart. Maurice and Gilbert discuss a job Maurice is planning. Gilbert mentions his association with club-owner and gang boss Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). Maurice is suspicious of Nuttheccio. Gilbert is equally suspicious of Maurice’s old friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), suggesting that he’s a police informer. ‘Le Doulos’, a pre-title card informs us, is slang for both a hat and, in certain circles, an informer.
When Maurice leaves, it is with seconds to spare as Nuttheccio arrives. Nuttheccio discovers Gilbert’s lifeless body. Maurice heads home, where he talks with Jean (Aimé de Marche) and Silien. We learn that Gilbert was responsible for the death of Maurice’s wife while Maurice was serving a prison sentence. The current woman in Maurice’s life, Thérèse (Monique Hennessy), arrives just as Jean and Silien are taking their leave. Maurice and Thérèse discuss a robbery Maurice is planning. Thérèse has reconnoitred the property; Silien has lent Maurice the safecracking tools.
Later, Silien calls on Thérèse and beats the information out of her: the location of Maurice’s job. Cut to: Maurice and his accomplice surprised by the arrival of Inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem), recently the recipient of a phone call from Silien. Shots are exchanged. Maurice’s accomplice is killed. So is the inspector. Maurice, aggrieved and injured, sets out to settle the score; however, Commissaire Clain (Jean Desailly) is out to finger him for Salignari’s murder. And Clain is nothing if not persistent.
With Maurice detained while Clain voraciously builds the case against him, the focus shifts to Silien, his involvement with Nuttheccio and their rivalry over bouffant-haired temptress Fabienne (Fabienne Dali). The nature of Silien’s duplicity comes under the microscope, and it gradually becomes evident that his agenda is complex and personal.
‘Le Doulos’ is a study in ambiguity; appropriately, it is a film of shadows and blunt imagery.
Like ‘Bob le Flambeur’, it has its fair share of flash cars, bad dudes and sultry dames …
… but whereas ‘Bob le Flambeur’ was, to quote my last review, “a black valentine to Montmartre and a smashmouth love-letter to film noir USA”, ‘Le Doulos’ is a poison-pen letter falling from the hand of an anti-hero as he stumbles forward and collapses, a bullet in his back. It sets the tone for the stark, haunted filmscapes of ‘Le Samourai’, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ and ‘Un Flic’.