You come here expecting me to tell you what I know about Le doulos. Perfectly reasonable on your part, but you read me all wrong, you really don't know me. I don't rat on my friends. Go ahead, bring whatever heat, apply all the pressure you got. I won't squeal. There are other stoolies out there that you can get to sing, but don't count me among 'em. I'll tell you what I got to say, when I'm ready to say it.
But Melville? Sure, I got plenty to say about him. He and I haven't been too deeply acquainted for all that long, but... you know, I think I got a bead on that guy. Went through the war, did his share of dirty deeds, played both sides of the fence, got by just like the rest of 'em, did what he had to do. I can't fault the man for coming out of that ordeal cynical, jaded, a hard-boiled skeptic through and through. He's seen plenty of the worst that humanity has to offer... traitors, back-stabber, liars and cheats all around him. So it makes perfect sense to me that, if you give him a budget and creative free reign, he's going to tell you a story that basically slices off any trust and optimism you might have in your fellow man bluntly and brutally off at the knees.
Sure, by 1962 the war had been over for 17 years, the occupation was by then a swiftly receding memory, of course. But it's not like human nature had really changed all that fundamentally over the course of those nearly two decades. Indeed, moving along as he did into the movie industry, and maintaining, at least for the purpose of "professional research," a few of his ties to the gangster underground, I figure Melville saw enough betrayal and petty larceny going on all around him to merely confirm his jaundiced regard for what to expect from his peers when push comes to shove. And Le doulos only serves to illustrate the core self-serving dishonesty and deceit that runs like a bright red streak through so many person-to-person interactions.
So Melville, coming off the semi-successful Leon Morin, Priest, in which he revisited (at a critical distance) some of the misadventures of those critical war years, turned his attention to a convoluted film noir suspense yarn that already felt a bit archaic by the time it hit the theaters in December 1962. Truthfully, the story could have been set in just about any decade prior, going back to the 1930s, without much adjustment needed in the costume design, for the men anyway. The women, well, they had to be attired in the fashionable dresses of the early 60s of course, since they were included to serve as pleasant eye-catchers, nothing more or less. And the harsh violence inflicted on Monique Hennessy, Melville's personal secretary at the time, not to mention the nude scenes featuring Fabienne Dali, were only conceivable in Europe, and only under the protective cloak of art house auteurism, at the time that Le doulos made its theatrical debut. Put the same film out just five years earlier, and those segments will look fundamentally different. But setting all that aside, the plot line and core values of Le doulos hearken back unerringly to American gangster flicks of the 1930s and 40s, only with a more disciplined and fully articulated expression of existential nihilism as only the French seem capable of formulating.
Unconstrained by the need for studio approval in response to the mandates of the Hays Code, Melville used this film, and the new creative space opened up by his younger friends in the Nouvelle vague crowd, to begin his celebrated, stylistically pared-down explorations of the Way of the Gangster that he would subsequently refine even further in Le deuxieme souffle, Le samourai and Le circle rouge. Of course, he would pack in enough star power (Belmondo, Reggiani, Piccoli) and intriguing entertainment value to keep his viewers enthralled - he certainly understood the dynamics of what made movies successful beyond their purely intellectual and aesthetic merits. But at an even deeper level than simply creating an engaging cinematic diversion, Melville was making an additional statement, one that confronts and lingers with viewers for whom those names, the film's iconography (hats, trenchcoats, pistols, stolen jewels, swinging light bulbs, et cetera) and its abundant references to the cinematic past hold little attraction. His statement was this: watch out who you trust, or better yet, don't really, deep down and genuinely, trust anybody.
Without divulging the convulsive twists and turns of Le doulos' plot (a formula that, while not original to the film, was certainly enshrined and considerably advanced through its artifice) - because, as I said earlier, I'm not a rat and I don't squeal - let me just offer this word of caution, coming from the voice of five decades plus of real-world experience. While I agree with Melville's verdict, to an extent, that one must be cautious and skeptical about when and with whom to place one's trust, I don't see the situation as entirely bleak and hopeless as what seems to filter through Le doulos. Yes, your mileage may vary, depending on what kind of companions and predicaments you may have gotten yourself into over the years. Both the hoodlums and the cops in Le doulos find themselves almost hopelessly snarled on the inside of a grotesquely complicated Gordian knot, where any effort to unravel the entanglement will only serve to bind them more hopelessly in an even more diabolical compromise. In fact, that's exactly what we see happen over the course of Melville's story-telling, as Silien's scheme to extricate his friend Maurice from the trouble he's landed in leads inexorably into a trap that seals (more or less) everyone's doom.
So is Melville sounding a cautionary note about exercising care in selecting one's companions? Or is he simply passing along received wisdom that patiently informs us no matter how hard we try, we really can't sidestep the doom that our past swindles and treacheries have earned? You'll have to draw your own conclusions. It may just very well be that the auteur is committing little more to his project than the fruits of a long-studied exercise in cinematic style; as a known frequent habitue of Parisian movie-houses (taking in up to five films a day, as noted somewhere, I'm sure, in the supplements that Criterion included on this disc), Melville is well within his rights to simply offer up a fresh take on the rat-a-tat primitive gangster film subgenre in which most disputes are settled definitively with a well-placed and usually fatal gunshot. A mere aesthetic diversion and nothing more than that in regard to its importance in the great scheme of things...
That's the downhill sprint toward which Le doulos is aimed, after we've had at least one explanation of motives proferred (seemingly to be believed, but then, who can ever really tell...?) Silien's, and by extension, Melville's, is a brutal and reductive world, where the finality of snuffing out a life presumably makes up for the suffering and grief that life might have inflicted on so many others, whatever their relationship might have been to the criminal underclass that perpetuates this cycle of violence. For all of its simplicity, I'm not sure that the economy and clarity it promises delivers much in the way of moral satisfaction.
Still, we have but little choice, when we behold the various bodies strewn across their respective floors, but to either accept the premise as sufficient or to press our demands for purpose, meaning and justice to some higher authority. Personally, as much as I enjoyed the thrill-ride of Le doulos, even to the point of smiling as I realized just how brazenly Melville had picked my mental pocket in devising his ingeniously sinister plot, I have to give the nod to his predecessor Jacques Becker, who a decade earlier had cast Serge Reggiani in a similarly doomed role as Manda in his 1952 masterpiece Casque d'or. Maybe it's the more fully realized and reality based world of that earlier film, or merely the fact that Becker chose to put a proud and strong female protagonist (Simone Signoret) into his story as compared to Melville's androcentric gangland fantasy, in which the women serve as pretty but disposable and exploitable sideline observers, that wins my allegiance as the superior production. Le doulos boils down to a battle of affable but hollow ciphers, whose victories and defeats seem to matter very little in the end, whereas Casque d'or, and even Bob le flambeur, Melville's earlier foray into organized crime as a mode de vie, both have stronger beating hearts at their core. Never mind the fact that Bob le flambeur's ending is clearly more farcical than the bleak tragedy of watching Le doulos tumble emptily across the floor.
Be careful about clicking on this video - it contains spoilers that you shouldn't see if you've never watched Le doulos! Like I said, I'm not a rat, but I suppose it's OK to point you in the direction of those who are willing to spill the beans, if you really insist.
This wraps up my coverage of 1962 films here on the blog. I have one more movie from that year to write up for my Journey Through the Eclipse Series on CriterionCast.com - Koreyoshi Kurahara's I Hate But Love - but then it's on to a new year, covering a bunch of titles celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2013!
Next: This Sporting Life