BluRay/DVD Reviews

LE DOULOS

By • Nov 19th, 2008 •

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Say the name Jean-Pierre Melville, and one conjures up a flurry of contradictory images. A man slowly shifting the angle of his fedora while hit men wait silently in the darkness outside. The jagged streets of Montmartre at dawn, the camera capturing the encroaching light in a kind of recalcitrant dance. The denizens of the “New York” bar, cigarette smoke cloaking their hardened features with the tenderness of a dream. Here is a world where a stoicism and spiritual-like intensity go hand in hand with the essentials of a gangster’s life: a Colt .45, a double-breasted suit and a bottle of bourbon.

In one of the extra features, director Bertrand Tavernier, who was Melville’s press agent for two and a half years, mentions that Cahiers du Cinema co-founder and New Wave director Jacques Rivette was horrified by LE DOULOS. French gangsters were used by the Nazis to torture resistance fighters and were also notoriously anti-Semitic. How could it be possible, Rivette asked, to ennoble these people with a clear conscience? From these reprehensible figures, however, Melville created a private mythology, unconnected to any logic but his own vision, transforming noirish iconography with an almost experimental sensibility, while dealing with the universal, and ultimately tragic, questions of friendship and betrayal.

Melville had a huge influence on the cinema that came after him. His style helped shape not only the films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard — imagine DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST without the long takes of LE SILENCE DE MER, or BREATHLESS without the improvisational location shooting of BOB LE FLAMBEUR — but also the early work of Fassbinder and John Woo.

In his love of what he perceived of as American – fast cars, spare yet impeccable tailoring, the clockwork precision of incremental violence – Melville created a form that is distinctively French and comparable, in its rigor, to the expansive yet closed universe of Racine. Whereas this classical author expressed a tragic essence through a language based on rhythm and rhyme, Melville used light and shadow (along with crime novels from Gallimard’s Serie Noir) to shape the boundaries of his characters’ concerns, all the while bringing into focus the contingencies of fate and desire.

For much of the 80’s and 90’s, it was difficult to see Melville’s films, as they were considered too American by most French critics, and too French to have much appeal in the US. Thanks in large part to Rialto Films’s Bruce Goldstein, who has been re-releasing Melville’s films in what were often American premieres, Melville is once again in public view. This reached a fever pitch two years ago when ARMY OF SHADOWS, Melville’s 1968 film about the French Resistance, topped many US critics’ ten best lists.

Criterion has now released on DVD one of Melville’s first (after BOB LE FLAMBEUR) and most characteristic gangster films, LE DOULOS. In its obsession with fashion smarts alongside an acute awareness of the unraveling of time, the film plays like a collaboration between Karl Lagerfeld and Albert Camus.

LE DOULOS has the glamour and excitement found in the early James Bond films, as well as a subtle sense of silence. While LE DOULOS is superbly stylish, it’s much more than an exercise in style. Throughout, the images weave a spell that in their subtle playfulness has the lackadaisical seriousness of a Chet Baker trumpet solo. (In this film, if a character checks his fedora at a nightclub and gets the number 13, he knows his luck will change for the worse.)

The story, initially confusing, resembles a series of Chinese boxes that link all the characters to each other. Maurice Fagel (Serge Reggiani) an ex-burglar, has just come out of prison. Physically exhausted and emotionally isolated, he finds himself wanted by the police for a robbery and two murders, while surrounded by people whose motives are a wee bit ambiguous. First, Maurice’s girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) may be an undercover cop. Then there’s his old friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who may be a police informant. At least, that’s what Gilbert (René Lefèvre), the fence says. Except Gilbert may also be the person who drowned Maurice’s ex-girlfriend while Maurice was in prison. If this isn’t complicated enough, there’s the ubiquitous Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli), an elegantly dressed night club owner who may be responsible for some of the crimes the cops want Maurice for. Of course, in a film by Melville, plot is not the thing, but instead a means for exploring the transformation of character in that 3 AM of the soul where one is left with nothing but oneself.

LE DOULOS is all about the dangers in crossed signals, and the difference between appearance and intent. In other words, the film is very much a Resistance story, though set in the world of crime. Since the release of ARMY OF SHADOWS, Melville’s gangster films, which previously seemed highly abstract, have taken on a new sense of urgency. The question remains, is the cell of French Resistance fighters in ARMY OF SHADOWS the model for the doomed gangsters in LE DOULOS or is it the reverse?

Unlike the anarchic sensibility of American film noir, filled with psychopathic killers and loose cannon cops, Melville essays a secret world of criminals who operate according to a strict code in order to avoid detection by the police. This parallel world that must be maintained at all costs is, I think, related to Melville’s experience of being a resistance fighter during the Second World War.

It’s interesting to compare Melville’s gangster films to the work he often cited in interviews as his model, John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950). In the ASPHALT JUNGLE, the focus is on the personalities of the gangsters. We learn a great deal about their wives, families, hobbies, hopes and fears that have little to do with the story at hand.

In fact, we know almost nothing about the gangsters in a Melville film (or, for that matter, the resistance fighters in ARMY OF SHADOWS) outside of their adherence to a professional code of behavior. Melville’s insistence on viewing his characters primarily by the means of that code links his films to those of Howard Hawks (especially ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, in which the pilots’ stoic view causes them to choose death rather than dishonor) and also makes them seem extremely contemporary to an American audience.

As Melville says in an interview on the disc: “There haven’t been many serious gangster films in the last 15 years. There was RIFIFI [available from Criterion]. That’s all. My film draws on the mythology of American gangster films of the 30’s, which follow a very distinct code of behavior. Actually, the code is the same in Westerns: the hero must be the quickest, the smartest, the best of them all.” In his direction of actors, Melville spent an inordinate amount of time getting the precise slant to a hat –this in a decade when no one wore a hat! — but refused to allow any emotion or characterization.

According to a subtitle in the beginning, “doulos” is French criminal slang for “he who wears the hat”, which may also mean a police informer. Naturally, LE DOULOS begins by focusing on Serge Reggiani’s grey trilby to the exclusion of the actor’s natural charm as he transverses the labyrinthine back alleys of Paris and its outskirts. While Melville pares down the story to almost archetypical elements, his use of the camera infuses what happens on screen with an overriding sense of realism. The shots are composed in such a way that you can feel the intake of your breath as the camera moves through space.

Many of the film’s bleak landscapes of fog-enshrouded streets and oddly-patterned shadows seem more akin to post-apocalyptic science fiction than an urban noir. Especially there’s the opening, set along the rail yards on the outskirts of Paris, similar to the scenes in the “zone” from Cocteau’s ORPHEUS. Perhaps not coincidentally, both films were photographed by Nicholas Hayer. Criterion, to their merit, did not clean up the film grain. This doesn’t come across as grit but rather another layer of poetry.

Reggiani is simply remarkable, with a beautiful languorousness in his delivery and movements, expressing Maurice’s burnt-out core in the way he lights a cigarette or buttons an overcoat. Belmondo’s Silien, on the other hand, is a figure of studied ambiguity. Although it’s impossible to tell what he will do next, it’s equally impossible to take one’s eyes off him. Under Melville’s influence, Belmondo’s natural enthusiasm has been replaced by a soft spoken diffidence, reinforced by the perfect length of his cuffs. Even his sipping of whiskey has the precision of a mathematical formula. His seduction of Fabienne Dali is so underhanded, it seems like magic.

None of these people seem to wake before dusk, giving the action mythic overtones as well as imparting a rich chiaroscuro. The film’s visual style could be said to possess that harsh lighting scheme from John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE along with something more serene and metaphysical. Played out in a series of virtuoso sequences shot in extended takes that simultaneously expand and contract time, the film, in its simplicity and stunning visualization, is as good as anything Melville has ever done.

There’s an extraordinary police interrogation, trumping similar scenes in Melville’s LE SAMOURAI and LE CIRCLE ROUGE. It’s shot as one continuous 360 degree pan, the rhythm as concise as in a classical fugue. As Silien and Captain Clain (Jean Desailly), the police inspector, shadow each other like Siamese twins, reinforced by the obsessively moving camera, I couldn’t help but think of Jorge Luis Borges’ story Death and the Compass, where the detective Lonnrot is trapped at the center of a perfect labyrinth by his assassin Scharlach, expressing an almost intuitive communion between the hunter and hunted.

My favorite sequence is set in the “New York” bar. There, a black jazz pianist ruminates on the keyboard, his dark fingers beautifully contrasted against the ivory keys. Somehow, like the motorcyclists in Cocteau’s ORPHEUS, the dazzling light turns him into a striking figure of fate. The piano improvisations continue over the violence that follows, making it all lazily lyrical and elegiac.

Although LE DOULOS is clearly the work of a cinéphile, there is a directness and purity that belies Melville’s cinematic sophistication. Watching LE DOULOS is like being transported back to the birth of cinema, and to experience what it might have been to capture for the first time the spectacle of a train entering a station or the intimacy of two lovers joined together in a kiss.

As noted above, Criterion has given us an exquisite transfer of this innovatively photographed film, with blacks as solid as casino chips and whites that caress the pixels in my widescreen tv. I rave about almost every Criterion disc, but this one is really a marvel, possibly because the photography is itself so dazzling. (According to Volker Schlondorf, who was assistant director on the film, Melville sued Nicholas Hayer for forgetting to turn on the second camera during an action scene, denying the director his alternate angle.) It’s difficult not to play this film over and over, not only due to the beauty of the images, but because living in Melville’s private world is so very appealing.

Emerging from the theatre into the sweltering heat of July when the film played NYC’s Film Forum last year, my friends and I scoured the West Village for a piano bar hidden down some dark alley where we could sip Johnny Walker Black and exhale cigarette smoke in glorious tendrils. Alas, today such places seem to exist only within the confines of Jean-Pierre Melville’s cinematic imagination.

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