Le Doulos (1963)

Le Doulos first published by Movie Gazette

‘Doulos’ is French slang for a hat, and also for a police informer – and accordingly both hats and duplicity feature large in Jean-Paul Melville’s film Le Doulos, in a combination and quantity not seen again until the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990). Maurice (Serge Reggiani), fresh out of prison, ends up straight back in after a burglary which he has planned with his girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and his friend Rémy (Philippe Nahon) is interrupted by the police, leaving Rémy dead and Maurice injured. Maurice is in no doubt who has ratted on him – the charming, smooth-tongued Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is on friendly terms with a police inspector – and Maurice’s hatred is only exacerbated when Thérèse turns up dead at the bottom of a quarry. Yet in the shadowy underworld that these characters inhabit, nothing and no-one is quite what they seem, and everything has an alternative explanation (although not necessarily a true one).

Le Doulos, made in 1963, is only the first of a run of policiers made by Jean-Pierre Melville, but already it shows the spare style and concern with tragic male heroes which characterises his later classics like Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) – as well as the sort of technical mastery and narrative verve of which most filmmakers can only dream, as it grips, manipulates and bamboozles as deftly and beguilingly as the wily double-dealer that it portrays.

Yet although Le Doulos is a studied adaptation of Pierre Lasou’s crime novel into the idioms of classic American film noir (with a French existentialist twist), its central concerns – loyalty, betrayal, revenge, paranoia, deceit – are equally informed by Melville’s wartime experiences in the French resistance, making this a film which, like the later L’Armée des Ombres (1969), reveals the thematic continuity between Melville’s resistance films (La Silence de la Mer, 1949; Léon Morin, Prêtre, 1961) and his more genre-bound policiers. Even the sets of Le Doulos – especially in the earlier scenes – are more suggestive of Occupied France than 1960s Paris.

In the film’s final tragic sequence, a man is concealed from view behind a screen, and only a verbal warning alerts the main character to his presence there. This scene plays out in miniature the very essence of Le Doulos, a film whose characters and plot are concealed as much as they are revealed by the images that flicker on the cinema screen, and whose black and white cinematography (by Nicolas Hayer) beautifully choreographs the ambiguous interchanges of clarity and obscurity. With more dialogue than all Melville’s other policiers, Le Doulos makes great demands on both the eyes and the ears of the filmgoer – but such attention is rewarded with a remarkably intricate narrative reversal that transforms the film from a standard, if engaging, crime drama into a bleak meditation on the fickle nature of truth.

Summary: This bleak tale of double-dealing criminals will pull the hat over your eyes.

© Anton Bitel