The title refers to a type of men's hat, but it's also a slang term for a police informant. The hopelessly convoluted plot revolves around gangsters threatened by and trying to act against an informant, whose identity remains unclear until the end. As with Melville's other crime films, it's a fascinating mixture of American-influenced iconography and emphatically French characters and atmosphere. Quentin Tarantino regarded it as a major influence on his Reservoir Dogs (1992), but I was struck particularly by the long opening sequence, which, stylistically, strongly resembles the opening sequence in Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Late at night Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), newly released from prison, enters the remote house of Gilbert Varnove (René Lefèvre), who is disassembling stolen jewels, separating the gold from the gems, before they can be fenced. Maurice consults with Gilbert about a robbery planned for the following evening, the two discussing the reliability of Maurice's partners, Silien and Rémy. Gilbert, feeling sorry for the down-and-out ex-con, offers him a meal, spare cash and even a job, but Maurice is only interested in borrowing Gilbert's gun, should there be any trouble at the robbery site the following night. Worn out, he can't rely on his fists any longer. Gilbert offers his pistol, and in a genuinely shocking moment, Maurice shoots him with his own gun. As a car pulls up to the house, Maurice gets away on foot, burying the jewels, the gun, and stolen cash at the base of a lamppost.
That evening Maurice spends the evening with his girlfriend, Thérèse (Monique Hennessy), and later meets with Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his associate, Jean (Philippe March), delivering safecracking equipment. Silien then calls police inspector Salignari from a subway payphone.
Maurice and Rémy (Philippe Nahon) arrive at a mansion in Neuilly, while at Thérèse's apartment, Silien mysteriously returns, beats her up and ties her up and to a radiator, demanding to know the address of the robbery. Salignari and a few other cops arrive at the scene, but is shot dead after fatally shooting Rémy. A wounded Maurice escapes, returning to consciousness at Jean's apartment, his bullet removed by an old veterinarian, and Maurice unsure how he got there.
Everything points to Silien fingering Maurice, but the rest of the film's increasingly labyrinthine plot suggests otherwise. Commissaire Clain (Jean Desailly) questions Maurice but also Silien, ultimately releasing them both. Silien begins taking action against gangster and nightclub owner Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli) while courting his girl, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), apparently an old flame of Silien's.
What, pray, is going on in Le Doulos? The final scenes put most but not all of the pieces together, and the enigmatic nature of the plot seems to be the point. Rather than the standard approach of having the movie audience ally themselves with a single protagonist whose actions are clear, until the very end they have no idea who the informant is. Is Belmondo's Silien a hero or a heel? The audience sees Maurice murder Gilbert in cold blood, but over the course of the film he becomes much more sympathetic, as does Silien, despite his violent beating (and the eventual murder) of Thérèse. The movie is less about plot than honor among thieves, and how easily their intentions are misinterpreted.
The men all wear ‘40s trench coats and hats of the style favored by Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and it's jarring when early 1960s cars and hairstyles begin turning up about 30 minutes into the film. As Roger Ebert points out his long-ago review, they all drive boat-like American cars dwarfing the little European ones, vehicles that don't even fit standard Parisian parking spaces. Yet the movie has singularly French qualities, such as franker attitudes about sex; in Melville's films the women are often seen lounging around on a bed in the nude smoking Kools.
Belmondo was a huge star at the time, but the movie is as much a vehicle for busy postwar character actor Serge Reggiani (Casque d'or, Paris Blues, The Leopard), whose career had been in a long slump. The film, being a big hit, revitalized his name value and soon after embarked on an even bigger second career as a chanson singer, initially supported by Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. Good as Belmondo is in this, playing against his usual screen persona, Reggiani's is the standout performance and, in the movie, really has the authentic air of a career criminal and ex-con.
And, confusing as it is, there are many great scenes and wonderful little moments (during the robbery, a ceramic vase is repeatedly bumped into yet never topples over and breaks, a nice touch). Beyond that superb opening act, running perhaps the first 30 minutes, a confrontation between Belmondo's Silien and Piccoli's Nuttheccio is similarly great, with fine acting and the kind of dialogue that would so influence directors like Tarantino.
Video & Audio
? Presented in its original black-and-white and 1.66:1 widescreen from a 4K remastering, Le Doulos looks like a brand-new release, so clear is the image and so inky its blacks. The transfer, like Bob le flambeur, is basically perfect. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono, in French only with optional English subtitles, is likewise very good. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include the Canal-Plus documentary "Birth of the Detective Story," with a nice overview of the film's production; and a new video interview with first assistant director Volker Schlöndorff. He's actually in both pieces, speaking French in the former, English in the latter, and my one complaint is that many of his interesting anecdotes and observations are rather pointlessly repeated in the new featurette. There's a trailer and also a thorough audio commentary by Samm Deighan.
Though not quite as outstanding as Melville's best films, Le Doulos has many fine elements and is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.