Criterion // 1962 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 7th, 2008
Beware the finger man.
"If you had done it, would you tell me?"
Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani, The Leopard) has just been released from prison. He goes to visit his friend Gilbert Varnove, has a brief conversation, and then kills Varnove. Faugel quickly snaps up some various valuables, making it look like the killing was committed by some sort of burglar. Faugel's purpose in killing Varnove was not theft, but he is a thief. He is plotting a high-stakes robbery of a wealthy man, and he's certain that nothing can go wrong. Unfortunately, things do go wrong, and Faugel suspects that someone attempted to sabotage him. He immediately suspects his close friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Breathless), who is indeed working as an informant for the police. However, not all is as it seems. Do not assume at any point that everything has been revealed. In this world, odds are pretty high that you're standing on a rug that is about to pulled out from under you.
Le Doulos is widely acknowledged as director Jean-Pierre Melville's first official foray into the world of crime movies and noir. Though previous films such as Bob le flambeuer contained elements of such films, none was fully committed to being crime movies. Le Doulos marked the beginning of a new period for Melville, and the director would mostly make similar films for the remainder of his career. It is a genre that suits Melville immensely. Here we are given a solid plot that is engaging enough but not especially remarkable. Melville makes this tale special with his astonishing direction, giving us endless images and cinematic sequences to marvel over and think about.
Just look at the opening shot of Reggiani walking down the street. Who is this guy? What is he up to? Wearing a trench coat and hat, he looks like someone who walked out an American gangster film (a genre Melville deeply admired). Melville's lengthy tracking shot carefully paints an ominous portrait, using shadows and fog to great effect. Then look at the striking shot of Reggiani when he stands at the bottom of the stairs in Varnove's house (I am convinced that this served as the influence for a similar shot of George Clooney in the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading). We are already intrigued, and yet we haven't really been given anything yet. It is the first of many absorbing sequences to come.
I will not tell you about all of them, for fear of spoiling moments that should come as a surprise. But just look at the scene where Belmondo pays a visit to a woman, which begins with low-key charm and ends at the brink of horror. Then consider that police interrogation scene, which is performed in a perfectly ordinary way but filmed with a subtly sinister tracking shot of great skill. For the vast majority of the film, Melville seems hesitant to do much cutting. His shots are long and penetrating, slowly observing each moment in unflinching detail. When his cutting starts to become more frantic during the film's final ten minutes, the impact is huge. It's still a lot slower than what you might see in most crime thrillers, but Melville has preconditioned us to be excited by it. How can anyone not delight in those shots of Reggiani driving frantically as the rain ceaselessly throws itself against his windshield?
The biggest star of the film is obviously Jean-Paul Belmondo, who was perhaps at the peak of his popularity when Le Doulos was released. Here, he has the confident swagger of a movie star, but also manages to be far more complex than we expect him to be. Who is this guy, and what is he up to? Belmondo's face and expressions have seemingly limitless reserves of ambiguity, and he keeps us guessing. However, my favorite performance comes from Reggiani. We see him commit rather cold and brutal acts of violence, so why do we keep sympathizing with him? Reggiani brings such humanity to the role, contrasting nicely with Belmondo's coolly inscrutable persona. When Reggiani tells the police that he did not commit a murder we know he committed, we almost believe him.
The fine folks at Criterion have seen fit to give Le Doulos "The Criterion Treatment," though that is perhaps a little less lavish and jaw-dropping than usual. The transfer is a bit grimy and very grainy. I don't know what condition the original materials were in, but there are numerous times when the film looks disappointingly rough. Still, as grainy as everything is, the picture is otherwise clean and mostly free of the sort of scratches and flecks that you would expect from a film of this era. The mono sound is solid, nicely conveying Paul Misraki's diverse score (which covers everything from jazzy atmosphere to source material to Wagnerian blood and thunder).
The supplements here are predictably compelling. First up is a scene-specific commentary with Ginette Vincendeau, which runs about 30 minutes. Vincendeau covers three key sequences in the film, and proves to be quite insightful and informative. It's too bad she didn't elect to provide a full-length track, but this is good stuff. Next up are two video interviews with directors who worked on the film back in 1962, Bertrand Tavernier and Volker SchlÖndorff. Both are engaging and pleasant, sharing their memories of the colorful Melville. There are also several video clips featuring Melville, Belmondo, and Reggiani on various French television program. Finally, there is an essay by film critic Glenn Kenny included in the booklet.
Some viewers may find the plot here a little baffling. I admit, I had to watch the film twice before I had a really solid grip of what was going on. This isn't really a liability, but viewers should be warned that they need to view this film with a good deal of alertness, or they're going to miss something. Odds are they are going to miss something the first time around regardless of how alert they are.
All of the special features here are good, but I do wonder about Criterion's price tag. With only 45 minutes or so of interviews and a half-hour commentary, it's surprising that Criterion didn't drop down to $30 instead of their usual $40 (something they have frequently done for feature-light releases).
Those who enjoy a good atmospheric crime flick will undoubtedly love Le Doulos. It's a solid entry on Jean-Pierre Melville's impressive resume. Budget concerns aside, this is a very easy DVD to recommend.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1962
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Scene-Specific Commentary
* Video Interviews
* Archival Interviews