Auteurist film books from the early ’70s touted the crime pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville, a Yankeephile Frenchman who chose a new name for himself and embraced crime pix because he loved John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. This tale of utter ruthlessness among thieves is one of Melville’s best. The great Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani leading a superior cast of underworld losers: Fabienne Dali, Michel Piccoli, Jean Desailly and Monique Hennessy.
KL Studio Classics
1962 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 109 min. / Street Date July 2, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani, Fabienne Dali, Michel Piccoli, Jean Desailly, René Lefèvre, Aimé De March, Monique Hennessy, Carl Studer.
Cinematography: Nicolas Hayer
Film Editor: Monique Bonnot
Original Music: Paul Misraki
Written by Jean-Pierre Melville from a book by Pierre Lesou
Produced by Carlo Ponti, Georges De Beauregard
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Having plumbed the libraries of some of the major studios for vintage Blu-ray attractions, Kino Lorber made a deal a while back with the European concern StudioCanal … which for the last two or three decades has been buying up loose film classics from the continent. That’s why we’re receiving a bounty of exciting product that’s long been out of reach, at least to American buyers.
Le Doulos is an excellent early choice. Criterion released this and several other Jean-Pierre Melville greats on DVD about 11 years back, and apparently couldn’t hang on to the license. Kino manages a couple of attractive extras, but the excellent encoding is the draw — this is an excellent entreé into the world of French crime classics.
American thriller fans didn’t know what they were missing in the 1950s and early ’60s, when our domestic crime fare was restricted to Eisenhower-sanitized pictures like The F.B.I. Story and the occasional Don Siegel shoot-out. French crime thrillers called policiers celebrated hardboiled American crime fiction and depicted everything verboten under the Hollywood Production Code: sympathetic sleazy characters, ruthless violence, casual nudity. French director Jean-Pierre Melville loved everything American to the point of wearing cowboy hats and having his mobsters drive large Detroit cars through those narrow Parisian streets. If the goal was to generate the kind of pulp fiction thrills found on paperback covers, the French crime thrillers of the time put ours to shame. Le Doulos is one of the best.
Midway through this absorbing utterly non-sentimental crime epic, star Jean-Paul Belmondo enters a nightclub and checks his hat. A pretty attendant tags it: #13. Belmondo is Silien, a slick mobster who doesn’t play straight with the cops or his confederates in crime, and manages to fool both. In standard French the film’s title means ‘the wearer of the hat,’ but in Paris crime parlance it also refers to a police informer. Silien is Bad Luck for whomever crosses his path; although played out on the Boulevards and empty lots of the City of Light, Le Doulos is as stylized as a Japanese yakuza picture.
Pierre Lesou’s clever suspense concoction is so complicated, the main bad guy must interrupt the last act to recap the previous action. Since his explanation is a complete lie, viewers that haven’t been paying close attention are bound to be confused. Loser thief Maurice Faugle (Serge Reggiani) exits prison to exact revenge on a fence (René Lefèvre), for reasons not immediately disclosed. The tired-looking Faugle regards himself in a broken mirror, so we know he’s the flawed hero. Although a thief and a murderer Maurice believes in the criminal code. He doesn’t rat on his friends, whose honor he trusts until proven otherwise. Unfortunately, honor among thieves is once again revealed to be a cruel myth.
Silien (Belmondo) is the exact opposite, a realist who believes in nothing except coming out on top. He’s one of the cagiest villains in crime history, working a double con that convinces both cops and cohorts that he’s playing straight with them. In reality, Silien informs, murders, steals from his friends and frames them for murder. Unlucky associates like Faugle are either on the run for crimes they didn’t commit, or set up for murder so they can’t talk. Silien’s method is so brilliant, his victims end up convinced he’s their best friend, even as he sets them up for murder. The whole thing could be an analogy of modern business, where some players behave like gentlemen while others do their best to bury the competition with two-faced lies.
Film Noir abounds with sharpies that trip over their own schemes while confident that they can play both ends against the middle. The classic loser-noir example is Harry Fabian in the uncompromised Night and the City. Belmondo’s Silien is the amazing exception. He gets away with outrageous deceptions, smooth talking the police and playing the stand-up good pal to the trusting Faugle. He knows he can seduce an old girlfriend in just a few minutes, and convince her to aid him in his schemes. Silien’s a marvel. He doesn’t even come close to tripping up.
Le Doulos has plenty of well-staged action: a safecracking robbery, some point-blank murders, the killing of a police detective. Detective Superintendent Clain (Jean Desailly) can’t shake the truth out of either Silien or Flaugel, and crooked nightclub owner Nuttheccio (guest star Michel Piccoli) hasn’t a chance when framed by Silien for robbery and murder.
Only in retrospect do we realize that women are at the center of the mayhem, even in a criminal world that keeps them on the sidelines. Faugel consistently makes bad decisions out of loyalty to his girlfriends. In a sequence of unmitigated misogynistic cruelty, Silien mercilessly executes one beauty simply because his plan requires it. It’s a murder suited for a psycho into bondage and punishment, but Silien carries it out like a household chore. His strategic endgame is to reclaim his old flame Fabienne (Fabienne Dali of Kill, Baby … Kill), eliminate the man who stole her away and take an early retirement in the country.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s direction unfolds the tale with unerring logic and clarity. One scene in a police station plays out with few if any cuts, constantly re-framing itself as Belmondo’s crook steps back and forth, dogged by the questions of Jean Desailly and his cops. Melville’s camera strategy never becomes obvious or dull.
Almost all of the characters are sympathetic. Nobody behaves like a standard hero or villain, as would be the norm in a Hollywood picture. The acting is marvelous, with Belmondo smoothly sincere and Reggiani doggedly honorable. The triple-twist ending, an improvement on the gimmick at the end of the noir quickie The Pretender (1947), is especially satisfying. In this amoral world, one honorable act can ring down the curtain on everyone. Melville, we’re told, so liked the amoral world of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle that he strove to recreate it in his various crime pix, which invariably see flawed men swallowed up by their own notions of camaraderie and teamwork.
Really good murder/crime tales can be confusing, especially when characters are throwing around the names of people whose identity is not firmly fixed in our minds. But only impatient viewers become lost in Le Doulos. Every time somebody loses us with an unfamiliar name, the very next scene catches us up on who is being talked about. The screenplay is consciously constructed to keep us slightly off balance.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Le Doulos is a great encoding of this Melville crime classic. What looked drab or unlit in the older DVD now reads as a carefully modulated B&W tone. Nicolas Hayer’s grey B&W cinematography begins with a moody shot of Faugel traversing a railroad underpass, and mixes gritty street work with glamorous shots of Fabienne Dali. The jazzy music of Paul Misraki is also a big plus. The opening is particularly impactful. Melville’s film is like watching a David Goodis or Ross McDonald paperback come to life.
The Blu-ray is identified as a Special Edition on Amazon. Samm Deighan provides a thoughtful, spirited audio commentary; her analysis shows a ‘casual discipline’ that makes her observations compelling. Assistant Director Volker Schlöndorff is on hand for a lengthy interview in which he describes working with the enigmatic Melville. A documentary with Schlöndorff and Melville biographer Denitza Bantcheva digs deep into the production, which was apparently initiated to provide producer De Bauregard with a can’t-lose project while raising money for a less commercial Chabrol picture. The image given of Melville is fascinating, a self-made filmmaker with the cost-cutting sensibility of Roger Corman and a hunger for order and control. Schlöndorff discovered only long after Melville’s death that the man had been very active in the resistance in WW2 — Melville never discussed it.
The trailers include several French originals in this batch — be careful watching because you’ll want to own all of them. The last trailer is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s blank-faced, inscrutable coming attractions, for his great picture Alphaville. I’m hanging on to the older Criterion DVD of Le Doulos for its extras (including an interview with occasional CineSavant correspondent Bertrand Tavernier), but this disc is the one to play — the picture has real presence.
One thing noticed in the higher resolution of Blu-ray: Melville was noted for finding cheap work-arounds for his (sometimes) self-financed pictures. The location of Nutthecio’s night spot The Cotton Club appears to be the director’s own small studio; the excellent sets sometimes betray the fact that they’re thrown together in a very tight space. The director often used photo-blow-ups, carefully photographed, as backgrounds — shooting a setup in front of one of them might save an expensive trip to a real location. When we get to Silien’s newly-purchased country house we see that his front room features artistic cast bricks, like the designer concrete bricks in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. In Blu-ray, we can see that the ‘bricks’ are nothing but photographs of the same brick, multiplied ad infinitum. The 3D relief is an illusion — every brick has the same shadow pattern, no matter where it is in the room — even when seen in close-up.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary by Sam, Dieghan, interview with Volker Schlöndorff, documentary Birth of the Detective Story, Trailers. Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson