Jan. 30, 2011

Le Doulos (1962)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Stars: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani, René Lefevre

What it's about. A French organized crime film noir from the director of Bob le flambeur (1955). Maurice (Serge Reggiani) is a middle-aged recently paroled bank robber. He murders his friend, jewelry fencer Gilbert (René Lefevre), to avenge a past betrayal, then buries the loot from a recent notorious heist.

Maurice confides his burglary plans to lover Thérese (Monique Hennessy) and thug Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The burglary by Maurice and safecracker Remy (Philippe Nahon) is interrupted by police. In the shootout that follows, Remy is killed, and Maurice is wounded while gunning down a cop. Maurice passes out but is mysteriously rescued, and taken to the home of confidante Jean (Philippe March).

Maurice believes that Silien set him up by informing the police of the burglary. Maurice attempts to track Silien down, but is arrested due to further tips given to the police by Silien. In jail, Maurice takes out a contract on Silien. Meanwhile, Silien attempts to win back former lover Fabienne (Fabienne Dali) by murdering her gangster keeper, Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli).

Maurice is bailed out, and he learns from Jean and Silien that they murdered Thérese, the true informant, and the Silien was responsible for the risky rescue of Maurice from the burglary crime scene. Thus, despite his murders of two men and one woman, Silien's actions have in fact been honorable, by the code of conduct held by Jean and Maurice. But can Maurice stop the pending hit on Silien?

How others will see it. Perhaps because he was an independent filmmaker and thus without a studio marketing machine behind him, director Jean-Pierre Melville received little acclaim during his lifetime. Now that he is long dead, many of his films are highly regarded by the likes of Quentin Tarantino.

Crime dramas are a favorite genre of many cinephiles. They should enjoy the present effort for the ruthless and often surprising actions of its characters. The imdb.com user ratings are very high at 7.9 out of 10, and are generally consistent across gender and age demographics.

How I felt about it. This plotty crime drama has a twist that changes Silien's character from out-and-out evil to mere anti-hero status. Silien's version of his motive and actions is collaborated by Jean, and his heroism in rescuing Maurice and Fabienne impresses even jaded, morose Maurice. Still, one wonders why Silien goes to such lengths for his friend and lover. It would have been much easier to dig up the jewelry and money, and simply leave town with them. Here, there is too much honor among thieves.

Apparently, France had a production code in place in 1962. In this film, crime does not pay. All the criminal characters die, except for Jean, who is merely arrested, and Fabienne, who is an accessory to murder but is apparently given slack due to feminine beauty. The body count is especially noticeable by the final scene, which is moderately bogus. Silien is the master of his environment, and deserves to survive.