13 July 2007

Le Doulos (1962)

Written & Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville

Grade: B

The iconic French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos (roughly translated as, say, The Police Informant or The Stoolie), but he looks like he's being restrained, playing a gangster rather straightly. He has his impassioned moments, sure, at one point coming off like Richard Widmark without the bug-eyed madness (but with the cruelty in tact), but coming off such free-wheeling Godard vehicles as Breathless and A Woman is a Woman, in which he delivered the playful performances that cemented his reputation for generations, watching Belmondo here is akin to seeing a bird in a cage—pretty enough to look at, but you'd rather see it soar.

That's not necessarily a drawback for the film, just a disappointment; Belmondo is nevertheless something to see even while reigned in by the traditionalistic Melville. Le Doulos is a straight-up gangster flick, like it or not, that's more classical Hollywood than French New Wave; it's more John Huston than it is Jean Godard. (Something of an Americophile, Melville assumed his nom de camera in honor of our, arguably, most eminent novelist.) Like Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, it's stylistically cool and sumptuously shot in black-and-white. Set in and around a dilapidated Paris—it opens with a long tracking shot by, one assumes, is the banks of the Seine but looks more like the edge of a sewer—Le Doulos focuses around an ugly-mug named Faugel (Serge Reggiani, admirably dour), who spent the bulk of the last six years in prison. He's got scores to settle and capers to manage, but when one heist goes wrong and his partner in crime is cut-down, he suspects his old pal Silien (Belmondo) is not the chum he pretends to be, but in fact un indicateur du police!

Who's exactly scamming whom is kept a tight secret until the end; appearances are deceiving in Melville's world: Faugel speaks in a friendly tone, as friendly as his perpetual frown can muster, to a buddy before shooting him in the gut; Belmondo flatters a girl's brown eyes before he beats her and ties her to a radiator by, among other ropes, a belt around the neck. As vile as they sound, Melville is constantly realigning the sympathies throughout the film, ultimately fashioning a rather cynical portrait of the world in which the cops are conniving creeps, dames are nothing but backstabbers and having a friend always results in death.

The problem with Le Doulos is that riding along with its plot, and it's a plotty film, is an up-and-down process, having all the vacillating emotionality of a snowy day spent sledding—the thrill of the rapid descent, and the trudgery of the uphill return. For every brilliant sequence, such as the final reel (amazing!) or a mid-film encounter at a jazz club (fantastic!), there are fidget-inducing scenes of dialogue that are so talky they approach the interminable. There is, for example and in particular, a scene in the middle, an interrogation at the police station, that takes all the credibility the film has earned to that point and sucks it dry. It's a dastardly case of the second act murdering the first. While the Film Forum says, of the sequence, that it was "one of the two shots Melville was most proud of in his entire oeuvre," for all the dazzlingly fluid camerawork I was simply left bored by the content; as much information that the audience already knows is revealed as is information that we don't.

Apostatically, however, I felt similarly about last year's critical cause celebre, Army of Shadows, appreciating it as a share of masterful sequences set together, like bricks, by inferior mortar. Still, when Le Doulos is strong it's strong; when Belmondo checks his hat and gets ticket number thirteen, there's little else Melville needs to say. Unfortunately, however, he keeps on talking.

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