*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review in order to more effectively discuss the film.*
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and adapted from a novel written by Pierre Lesou, “Le Doulos” is another criminal caper from Melville that examines the paranoia and uneasy friendships between gangsters and thieves. This was an interesting film that effectively utilized confusion and intentionally misleading filmwork to hide the true intentions of the characters involved. It reminded me a lot of “Inherent Vice” or “The Big Lebowski” where the plot can seem fuzzy and incoherent, but the magic comes through when looking back at the film as a whole. This film isn’t exactly about the double crossings, who did what at which location or even at what time, this film feels a bit looser than say “Bob le Flambeur” in its details. “Le Doulos” is more concerned with the look of a gangster in a trenchcoat at night, in the rain, with a snap-brim hat and a slowly burning cigarette hanging from the corner of the shadowy figure’s mouth. That’s not to say the character work isn’t good fun, but it all feels like mere dressing for the actors’ to look cool and be gangsters that are both aloof, yet highly invested in their code of criminal honor.
Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just gotten out of prison after serving a six year sentence for a previously botched job, and he’s out for revenge. Maurice makes his way to Gilbert’s (René Lefèvre) place initially. While Gilbert, the fence, and Maurice were once close friends, Maurice found out that Gilbert had his girlfriend killed after he was sent to prison just to make sure she wouldn’t talk to the cops, and thus, Gilbert had to go. Maurice quickly takes the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun and buries it all next to a lamppost not far away from the murder scene. Maurice then moves on to a small and uncomplicated robbery in a wealthy suburb and gets in contact with his old friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who helps provide a few essential tools for the low level heist. Silien’s burden in the underworld of crime is his reputation for being a “doulos” (or informant) for his friendship with inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem). Unfortunately for Maurice and his partner in crime, Remy (Philippe Nahon), their burglary was interrupted by the police and ended with a shootout in which both Remy and Inspector Salignari are shot dead with Maurice only getting a bullet in the shoulder as he ran for his life. This results in the best cinematography of the film in which Maurice darts away from the shootout scene and the camera stays pointedly fixed on him as it keeps pace with him which makes the world racing by seem all that more frantic and fuzzy. Maurice runs until he collapses and a mysterious car pulls up before a cut to Jean’s (Philippe March) apartment, a friend of Maurice’s, in which neither he nor Jean’s wife Anita (Paulette Breil) knows how he got there. There’s a few scenes in which it’s not initially easy to identify if we’re looking at Silien or Maurice at times as the characters are dressed similarly in the stereotypical Noir film ‘outfit‘, and that plays very much into the assumptions the audience builds about Silien throughout the first half of the film. We see Silien tie up and interrogate Maurice’s current girlfriend Thérèse (Monique Hennessy) and tie her to a radiator at one point, we also see him find and take the money, jewels, and gun that Maurice buried at the beginning of the film, and we also get the recurrent theme of the gangster performing a few last tasks before ‘getting out of the game for good’. Due to his plans to get out of the underbelly of Parisian crime, we get a scene with Silien courting the girlfriend, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali), of a notorious local gangster Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). She wants out from under the thug’s thumb, so she agrees to a plan formed by Silien. During this time Maurice is furious at Silien as he thinks that his friend could be the only one to have sold him out to the cops, and after the cops previously shook down Silien earlier in the film Maurice was fingered for Gilbert’s death but he couldn’t be pinned down for it so he was returned to jail for refusing to give up information. While in prison Maurice meets Kern (Carl Studer), whom he hires to kill Silien for this transgression.
So, while Maurice is in prison, Silien enacts his plan with Fabienne. They lure Nuttheccio and his business partner Armand (Jacques De Leon) into coming to Nuttheccio’s office where Silien lay hidden in darkness and kills them but not before getting Nuttheccio to open his safe so Silien can plant the money, jewels, and Gilbert’s gun to make it look like they killed each other over the spoils accrued from Gilbert’s death. Fabienne backed up the account of their deaths and Maurice was set free. However, since Maurice still believed that Silien sold him out in the first place, he , Jean, and Silien all meet at a cafe where Silien explains himself, and how the real informant was actually Thérèse- who was mysteriously killed by Silien earlier in the film when he pushed her in a rolling car off a cliff. In truth, Silien was actually looking out for Maurice the whole time. His only two friends in the world were inspector Salignari and Maurice, whom Silien went to great lengths to help out, after all, he had to uphold his honor as a fellow criminal. Silien announces his intent to move out to the country with Fabienne, and then happily departs the cafe. However, it dawns on Maurice that he still has a hit out on Silien and rushes back to his friend’s place to tell Kern that the hit is off. He beats Silien to the house and walks through the doors only to be mistaken by Kern for Silien and is shot immediately. Silien arrives shortly after and finds Maurice dying on the floor who warns him that Kern is there hiding behind the screen divider as he dies in Silien’s arms. Silien then fires into the wooden screen as Kern stumbles forward and falls to the floor- but in the flash of an eye as Silien turns back to Maurice, Kern raises his arm and shoots Silien in the back before dying. Silien stumbles, and haphazardly makes his way to a mirror before adjusting his hat and falling over dead.
This was a solid noir film, and if you’re looking to learn more about the essentials of the sub-genre then I’d highly suggest this one. It’s not the most easily digestible Noir film out there though, if you’ve gotten a lot of the American classics down then this will be a welcome addition. However, if you have not seen a lot of Noir cinema I suggest seeking out “The Maltese Falcon”, “Chinatown”, “The Third Man”, or “Touch of Evil” first. Those will give you a great foundation before bounding deeper into this corner of film history.
Final Score: 2 cases of mistaken identity