Le Doulos (1962)
Duplicitous Relationships in Le Doulos by Guy Savage
Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 film Le Doulos (AKA The Finger Man) is not an easy film to get your mind around. Based on the crime novel by Pierre Lesou, the story is told through fragmented chapters in the lives of two, not particularly pleasant or charismatic gangsters Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) and Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo). For almost the entire film, the tale of these two criminals creates a vacuum in which one central character is noticeably absent. The fact that the plot is deliberately murky, deliberately deals out crumbs of clues (which may or may not be correct) and periodically delivers slivers of plot development often leads to viewer frustration. More than one critic is left with the idea that either Melville was not at his best for Le Doulos, or that the film is an exercise in cinematic style more than anything else. But Le Doulos is a perfect, complex film, and the plot’s symmetry of duplicitous parallels works out with the smooth synchronicity of an unemotional Greek drama.
Le Doulos, which translates in slang to the hat or the informer, is Melville’s seventh film, and here the director does not attempt the sort of splendid character study achieved in Bob le Flambeur, and he also avoids the intensity of La Silence de la Mer. Instead in Le Doulos, a film in which no one is what they seem, Melville chooses to examine the relationship between several thuggish crooks. A relationship between criminals is hardly unexplored territory, but Melville boldly avoids displaying the relationship between the film’s hoods in spite of the fact that this is the film’s central theme. Apart from a couple of scenes together, Silien and Maurice act alone, so there’s no apparent bond, no allegiance declared until close to the end of the film. Using a fragmented, restricted narrative, Melville follows the actions of Maurice and Silien, and for most of the film it’s left to the viewer to solve the problem of exactly what is going on.
Le Doulos begins at night with trench-coated Maurice walking alone. There’s no voice over narration to hint at what is afoot, and instead Maurice’s footsteps ring out in the night as he eventually reaches his destination--a lonely house in a desolate wasteland. The camera hints at Maurice’s need to steel himself for one split second before he enters the house. Once inside the seemingly deserted house, Maurice stands in front of a mirror and examines his reflection in a broken mirror before mounting the stairs and entering a small attic room. Inside the attic room, a man sits clearly expecting Maurice. This man is a fence named Varnove (Rene Lefevre), and he is dismantling jewels stolen in a recent heist. During Varnove’s brief conversation with Maurice, valuable slivers of information appear: Maurice is planning a robbery, he’s recently been released from prison, and Varnove distrusts Maurice’s pal, Silien. Then entirely unexpectedly Maurice shoots Varnove, grabs the jewels and a wad of cash, hightailing out of the house just as a car arrives with two men, Armand & Nuttheccio (Jacques de Leon & Michel Piccoli) and the sultry Fabienne (Fabienne Dali).
Maurice again walks out into the night. Clearly nervous, he glances around as though he fears he may be followed. He stops under a lamppost, and using his hands he digs a shallow hole in which he stuffs the money, the cash and the gun. Then he covers up the hole and continues on.
Later, Maurice is in his apartment with his some-time accomplice Silien when Maurice’s girlfriend, Therese (Monique Hennessey) comes home from a hard day casing out the next burglary target--an affluent home in Neuilly. There’s an exchange of dirty looks between Silien and Therese. She isn’t particularly friendly to Silien and he isn’t particularly friendly to her. It’s easy to sniff that there’s some sort of history between these two.
The Neuilly burglary goes horribly wrong, and all things indicate that Silien has betrayed Maurice and his accomplice Remy to the cops. But if Silien is the informer, why are the cops all over him for information about Maurice? Why is Silien trying to find Maurice? Why does Silien beat Therese and tie her to a wall radiator?
Well you won’t get the answers to these questions until you watch the rest of the film. In one scene close to the end called ‘All is Revealed’, Silien, Maurice and fellow criminal Jean gather for what could be described as a debriefing. Silien explains all the twists and turns of the plot while Maurice, ultimately a far more interesting character sits there in the bar looking decidedly disgruntled. And why shouldn’t he be? Not only has he got incredibly bad luck with women, but he’s the last one to find out the nitty gritty details while Silien, with a smug expression on his mug explains exactly how he outwitted everyone. Like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat, Silien performs for his audience--in this case Maurice and Jean. While Maurice looks glum, Jean listens with undivided attention to this ugly tale of murder, torture, beatings, backstabbing and double-dealing.
Jean-Pierre Melville was an Americanophile, and that shows in his films, but in Le Doulos, Melville unabashedly indulges in the fetishism of objects that rivals notorious cult, sexploitation director Doris Fishman. The camera lovingly focuses long and sometimes repetitive shots on objects such as Silien’s hat, as if the hat itself holds some secret to the often-murky plot. Long shots also focus on outsized American cars, which seem incongruous on the Parisian streets, and then there’s the trench coat fetishism, which denotes a sort of uniform of choice for Melville’s gangsters.
While the males in Le Doulos are bound in blood and form relationships that frequently demand monumental demonstrations of loyalty and trust, the females in Le Doulos endure problematic roles in the lives of their gangster lovers. Whereas Bob le Flambeur treats women protectively and with affection, there’s no such sentimentality for the ‘weaker’ sex in Le Doulos. There are three female characters in the film--Therese, Fabienne and Jean’s wife Anita. These women are used and abused to various degrees by the men in their lives, and to the gangsters in Le Doulos, the brutal beating and murder of a woman ranks considerably lower in importance than a ripped raincoat.
Le Doulos is a gorgeous film with inky blacks, brilliant use of light, and shadows on the wall. The new Criterion release contains interviews with directors Volker Schlondorff (assistant director for Le Doulos) and Bertrand Tavernier (publicity agent for the film). Additionally the Criterion DVD includes scene commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau (who’s recently contributed on the Noir of the Week site) and her analysis of the film’s three pivotal scenes should not be missed.
Ultimately Le Doulos is strangely rendered closer to perfection by the fact that there are no characters to identify with and only a fragmented plot to hang onto. The explosive, apocalyptic ending is made more spectacular by the fact the viewer has no emotional link with the characters and is forced to reevaluate the entire film in view of the final scene and the delivery of its information. Melville’s brilliant strategy of deliberately withholding vital plot information becomes clear in the final scene and the film is framed by its two parallel mirror shots--Maurice staring at his reflection in a broken mirror and Silien adjusting his hat at the film’s conclusion. It is only at the end of the film when the characters’ motivations are revealed that it becomes possible to appreciate Le Doulos as an incredible, groundbreaking film. It’s easy to see how Le Doulos influenced Quentin Tarantino, for example, and for a modern updated version of a restricted fragmented and deceptive narrative watch the 2006 Scottish film Red Road.