1962Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Desailly, Serge Reggiani
ne of last year's most celebrated re-releases, J.-P. Melville's Army of Shadows played like a dark, dreary punch to the gut. This year, Rialto Pictures treats us to more of an ornery prick of the finger or a chill down the spine in the form of Le Doulos.
Full of cheap thrills and clever twists, Le Doulos presents a similarly doomed cast of characters, but from the standard film noir milieu (gangsters and the cops who tail them) rather than Shadows' harrowingly grim band of freedom-fighters. Melville shot his wartime France in leaden gray tones, but here Belmondo and company flit between light and dark, right from the opening scene where Serge Reggiani's recent parolee, Maurice Faugel, emerges from underneath an elevated railway, strolling forward half in sunlight, half in shadow.
When Maurice meets his benefactor, a man who says he has a job for him, a small flame flickers on the table. Later in an outside view of the house we see a stumbled-into lamp oscillating wildly in their room, or rather the effect of the lamp as the window changes from light to dark and back again. Indeed, even the climactic shooting (the last in a long series) plays out in a darkly humorous mistaken-identity silhouette.
Jean-Paul Belmondo's Silien makes a striking entrance with his face entirely shrouded by a hat underneath an overhead light in the hallway outside the apartment of Maurice's girl. Dialogue in an earlier scene had led us to believe that he was something of a traitor, though as with anyone else in the picture, we find it necessary to hedge our bets about his loyalty until the end. He emerges, naturally, with the smile of a Cheshire cat.
Melville keeps our view of the crooks' hidden alliances shifting constantly, including kindhearted cops and old girlfriends who either make themselves useful or get in the way and wind up dead. The score is restrained and contemplative, as if we're meant to be coolly studying the intricacies of these underworld ties, attempting to solve the puzzle of who will earn the last laugh, perhaps with a whiskey in hand, much like the one Silien holds while he seduces and then tortures the girl in her apartment for vital information.
Neatly and precisely, the plot eventually folds in on itself. While plenty of poor films have featured a clever plot twist or two, the surprises are a lot of fun and serve as a kind of counterpoint to the atmosphere of casual cruelty that prevails.
Yeah, we've seen these characters play out variations on this same story thousands of times over many decades. First in the US, then in France and so on and so forth around the world. Subway Cinema, producers of the New York Asian Film Festival, declared in their 2007 program notes: "Sometimes Korean cinema feels like a long, unbroken string of interchangeable gangster movies." J. Hoberman even goes so far as to deem Le Doulos ritualistic. Just taking us through the motions of the crime film again would be routine, but directors like Melville elevate the experience by each time supplying fresh ideas and images, somehow remixing the ingredients of an old, familiar recipe into an experience that enlivens the senses and stimulates the imagination.
Le Doulos is currently in limited release.
By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-07-13