Is there anything that better exemplifies Gallic cool than Jean-Paul Belmondo in a trenchcoat and fedora? No? All right, then, we agree.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s exercise in film noir Le Doulos gives Belmondo ample space to be icy cool, and that’s just the way I like it. The film opens with our main character Maurice (not Belmondo, but Serge Reggiani) walking down suburban streets. He enters a darkly lit house and has a cryptic conversation with an old jewelry fence named Gilbert, the importance of which will only be understood in retrospect. The entire opening sequence sets the tone, though: this is a film of the underground, with gangsters that act like Humphrey Bogart in the midst of an existential crisis.
Maurice is recently out of prison, planning that ever popular ‘final job’ that will enable him to run away with his girl Therese (Monique Hennessey). He involves his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ‘doulos’ or police informant of the title. Silien’s entrance shows us nothing but an overcoated, hatted figure shrouded in darkness. Belmondo keeps his hat and overcoat on through most of the first hour of the film, only removing them when he enters a nightclub. He wears the costume of his trade.
As expected, the heist goes horribly wrong and Maurice finds himself in the unenviable position of having shot a police officer with his partner’s gun. Things go from bad to worse for Maurice, as we follow Silien – apparently the one who betrayed him – as the police ask their informer about the murder. Silien’s motives are obscured – he beats up and then apparently murders Therese, yet does not tell the cops that Maurice was the other man involved in the robbery.
Much of the plot is initially confusing, made all the more so by Melville’s roving camerawork. I would have to watch it again, but I’m 95% positive that Silien’s interrogation scene is filmed all in one take. The camera moves rapidly, turning to follow Superintendent Clain (Jean Desailly) as he circumnavigates the room. Belmondo remains the fixed point that occupies the center of the frame, practically stopping the camera’s kinetic movement each time it lights on him.
The audience does not know where their sympathies lie for much of the film, as Silien moves from one inexplicable act to another. Belmondo’s impenetrable gaze and ice-cold stare give nothing away, nor does the somewhat detached nature of Meville’s camera. The script is as dense as a Raymond Chandler novel, the characters flitting in and out and speaking in clipped, arcane tones. There’s almost no music to build the tension or clue the viewer into a sympathy with one character or the other. Belmondo jumps between iciness and sudden, frightening violence, but remains the anchor of the film. This is a gangster flick, after all.
I can’t complain about a single moment in Le Doulos, except to say that the final reveal is a bit of a let down. While it explains everyone’s actions, I confess that I wanted a bit more subterfuge. The film set me up for that, and I would have loved to see it fulfilled.
Le Doulos is an exercise in noir tones, a French version of an American gangster film, but in my opinion better than anything Godard ever came up with. This is post-war French filmmaking at its finest.