From the first frame, Le Doulos sunk its gritty hooks into me with a shadowy backward tracking shot that must have been three minutes long. Set in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Paris (the one that looks like New York), the film is an examination of friendship, loyalty and trust between male animals. A resurrected Serge Reggiani stars as Maurice Faugel, a professional thief recently released from prison with some scores to settle. His cracked reflection near the start of the film telegraphs a trajectory as the story begins weaving a web of false impressions and backtracking timelines. If Le Doulos’ alternate universe is guided by a law, it is surely bitter irony.
Jean-Paul Belmondo costars as Silien, an underworld acquaintance of Faugel with an impressive poker face. The film tells us at the opening that Le Doulos is a slang term for a police informant (the American release title translation was The Finger Man). Faugel is warned that their loosely associated criminal circle regards Silien as a snitch, but despite his recent prison time he is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The film is an exercise in contrast, shot on black and white film in intentionally exaggerated, extreme shadow and light. Duplicity is represented in half lit, half dark faces and a shadow on a wall is an ample hiding place in Faugel’s world. Melville speaks this highly stylized visual language fluently and his cinematographer Nicholas Hayer and production designer Daniel Guéret are up to the task of capturing his technically difficult vision.
The mood and story remind me of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and other works of gritty pulp noir writer Jim Thompson. It seems likely that the tightly woven structural storytelling elements and the subject matter of this film have been heavy influences on Quentin Tarantino’s first few films as well. Using the transitive property, that makes this film deeply influential on a significant percentage of the films of the past fifteen years. I should note that the screenplay is a Melville adaptation of a novel by crime writer Pierre Lesou.
The print is newly and nicely restored for this Criterion release. The special features are slight but worthwhile with a three scene commentary track by Melville biographer Ginette Vincendeau, and two select new interview segments on Le Doulos with former Melville Assistant Director Volker Schlondorff and Melville’s Publicity Agent Bertrand Tavernier (both subsequently went on to directing careers of their own). These interviews have really piqued my interest in Melville as a personality. Finally there are two archival interviews with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani (whose appearance on a chat show also briefly features Melville himself) as well as an essay on Le Doulos by film critic Glenn Kenny.