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Le Doulos (1963)

Doulos: The Finger Man, The Finger Man, Lo Spione

Directed by:

Jean-Pierre Melville

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 106 minutes

UK Certificate: 12

On DVD

Country: France, Italy

'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'. 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', or gangster films, 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 a technical mastery and narrative verve the likes 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', 'Léon Morin, Prêtre') 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.

It's Got: An eight-minute police interrogation filmed in a swirling single take so fluid that you barely notice; a seductively inscrutable main character played engagingly by Jean-Paul Belmondo; and enough hats, trenchcoats and big cars to make the Paris outskirts look like a noirish Manhattan.

It Needs: Careful attention (nothing is quite what it seems)

DVD Extras French language with English subtitles; animated menus; original theatrical trailer; a thirteen-minute interview with assistant director Volker Schlöndorff, who reminisces jovially about Melville the man and Melville the director, revealing how he would both intimidate and flatter his actors, how he would literally cut and paste the novel he was adapting so that "he built his script without writing a single line", and how he would create "a completely artificial universe"; a directors biography; a twenty-minute introduction to Melville by French film academic Ginette Vincendeau; and audio commentary by Vincendeau on three key scenes (the opening, the dénouement, and the scene where Silien first charms, and then torments, Thérèse), including discussion of Melvilles deviations from the original novel, his misogyny, an untranslatable pun in the final scene, and the observation that the horrifically abused Thérèse was played by Melvilles real-life secretary. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Alternatives:

Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï, Millers Crossing, Mystic River, The Usual Suspects

Summary

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

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