LE DOULOS

1963; adapted and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; 109 mins

I’m not a smoker but neither am I anti-smoking and the amount of fag smoke wreathed around the mise en scène of this movie put me in mind of the low-hanging cloud that used to permeate so many pubs my family went to when I was a kid. I mean this is in a good, nostalgic way and also as a demonstration of how Jean-Pierre Melville‘s films still work so well…

Silien is a rat. A doulos. Maurice Faugel, virtually his only friend, now knows Silien has betrayed him, ratting him him out to the police and screwing up a safe job, costing the life of Maurice’s compadre, Rémy. Maurice vows revenge but the police are also onto him and Silien it seems – and they’re not stupid…

Melville’s films still hold up as super stylish. Every peaked cap, every coat, every curtain even seems placed there for a reason but it never feels stale or aloof and here’s why, I think: like with the cigarettes, it feels real. It feels like it belongs in a smoking, stinking world. Consider the opening tracking shot, with Maurice walking through an underpass, in and out of the harsh daylight, under a grille. This is literally, the underworld – we are under the world, beneath civilisation with these characters.

This is my third Melville film after Army of Shadows and Bob le flambeur and the two themes I see emerging are those of appearances and chance. Image seems to be everything for these guys. Early on, we see Maurice check himself out in a mirror which apes a similar scene early on in Bob, where he sees his reflection and remarks; “the perfect crook”. However, this and chance (or, fate) here are tragically interwoven into the narrative. Maurice refuses to believe his friends’ accusations that Silien is “scum”. Maurice will not have it, saying that he’s a friend and his untrustworthiness must be proven but these assumptions around Silien’s appearance will prove the undoing of many characters…

That social-prejudice-as-plot-device also links nicely into what a tightly written piece this is. Reading back the synopsis whilst writing this review, I see the details that add up towards the end concerning incidental characters and their place in the puzzle. It’s clearly a film that will reward second viewing (which I will undoubtedly give it), as the plotting and also the way in which Melville and DOP Nicholas Hayer use light and shade in the cinematography to keep cards close to their chests, meaning that there are Easter Eggs to be scrutinised at a later date.

Cast-wise: Belmondo is effortlessly super-cool as Silien but also scary if need be. Serge Reggiani is the perfect mix of regular guy and gangster, movie icon. The whole cast, as seems to be in keeping with Melville’s films, acquit themselves with verve and grit becoming of the genre. If you’ve not seen a Melville film – do yourself a favour because in the worlds of Louis CK; “This shit is thoroughly good!”

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