Le Doulos

 

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The world of Jean-Pierre Melville ahead of its incarnation in colour.

 
Doulos, Le

Belmondo, naturellement

 

2017 marks the centenary of the birth of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville and that has prompted both a season of his films at BFI Southbank and the release here of this film made in 1962. What made Melville’s work especially distinctive was the way in which his passion for American cinema led to his creation of a series of underworld thrillers that were wholly individual. The three films that he made with Alain Delon, starting in 1967 with Le Samouraï, were his most fully realised in this respect being rooted in Hollywood film noir but with a tone that, drawing on existentialism, gave them a decidedly French flavour. But the fact that they could be marketed as thrillers meant that they reached the U.K. in dubbed versions, while the earlier piece that foreshadowed them, Le Doulos, failed as far as I am aware to get a release here at all despite the star presence of Jean-Paul Belmondo.

 

As a written statement tells us at the start, doulos is a French word that refers to a hat, but it is also for those in the know a term that indicates a police informer. The relevance of the latter meaning is soon made clear when a robbery undertaken by an ex-con, Maurice (Serge Reggiani, admirably cast), is interrupted by the arrival of the police. The inspector who turned up and then got shot had been known to Maurice's close friend and fellow criminal, Silien (Belmondo's role), so we suspect that it was he who informed. But as the story, adapted by Melville from a novel by Pierre Lesou, continues it is not just this issue that intrigues us. Moments in the film that suggest friendship suddenly lead to violence instead, and the world of Le Doulos is one in which the key question is the extent to which it is ever possible to know if a person is trustworthy or not.

 

In Melville's later work colour, albeit with a very subdued palette, would add to the tone whereas here, finely photographed by Nicolas Hayer, we have a movie that would lose its character if not in black and white. As Paul Misraki's music score confirms, this is very much a film of its period, and that's so in a good way even if it does mean that it is a man's world that is depicted with women appearing only as subsidiary figures.  Belmondo and Reggiani, suitably contrasted, carry the film, but the mise-en-scène (that seems the right term to use here) is magnificent. Having perhaps taken a hint from Jules Dassin whose Rififi had appeared in 1955, Melville knows how to use silence and, in contrast to much American noir with equally complicated twists of plot, the story is told less through explanatory words than through images. Le Doulos takes us back to another age (Michel Piccoli specially billed but in a small role, Bertrand Tavernier listed as the film's publicist) but it is a very welcome reminder of Melville's highly personal cinema.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani, Jean Desailly, René Lefèvre, Aimé de March, Fabienne Dali, Monique Hennessy, Carl Studer, Paulette Breil, Philippe Nahon, Michel Piccoli, Volker Schlöndorff.

 

Dir Jean-Pierre Melville, Pro Carlo Ponti and Georges de Beauregard, Screenplay Jean-Pierre Melville, from the novel by Pierre Lesou, Ph Nicolas Hayer, Art Dir Daniel Guéret, Ed Monique Bonnot, Music Paul Misraki, Costumes Paulette Breil.

 

Rome-Paris Films, Paris/Compagnia Cinematografica Champion-Park Circus.
109 mins. France. 1962. Rel: 11 August 2017. Cert. 12A .