Sunday 13 December 2009

Le doulos (1962)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Star: Jean-Paul Belmondo
I usually provide the English language titles of foreign films, at least where there are such things, but it seems like a bad idea here. The original French title of this Jean-Pierre Melville film is Le doulos, which has a double meaning. In French slang, 'le doulos' simply means a hat or 'le chapeau', something innocuous that everyone wears in a sixties crime movie. In the language of outlaws though, it also means a man who wears a hat, or to be a little more clear, a police informant. The only English language title we have is The Finger Man which sounds more than a little clumsy, especially for an actor as intrinsically cool as Jean-Paul Belmondo, who is obviously le doulos here from moment one, but a far more complex character than 'the finger man' could suggest.

In fact everything here is complex, though Jean-Pierre Melville's adaptation of Pierre Lesou's novel subversively cons us into thinking we're watching an obvious story for quite some time. The transition is very cleverly done. We get a solid and dependable set up, full of names and details, so that we know who everyone is and what they mean, and then all that solidity becomes vagueness, so that we then have to question what we know in an attempt to discover which parts of it are real and which parts are front. We're still asking questions right up until the end but I only had one left when it was all over. The solid stuff is easy and it all revolves around Maurice Faugel, played by Serge Reggiani, who was so good a year earlier as the drug addicted gypsy guitarist in Paris Blues.

He's a thief, one who has only recently been released from prison. He has a hat, le doulos, a trenchcoat and a worn in face. He also has a really neat trick of rotating a stack of coins that he's holding between his fingers, all with a flick of the thumb, a detail that fits well with sixties cool. Faugel goes to see his friend Gilbert Varnove, a receiver of stolen goods, who is sorting through the proceeds of the Mozart Avenue heist, separating the jewels from the precious metals. They talk about a job, an easy safecracking job in Neuilly at an isolated and empty house, but when Fagel borrows his gun, just in case, he shoots Varnove dead with it. He takes the jewels and the gun, empties the house of money, and buries it all under a lamppost.

Varnove has warned him about his friend Silien, who nobody knows too well and everyone suspects, but Faugel trusts him. At least he trusts him until the Neuilly job goes south and everything points to Silien as le doulos, not just to Faugel but to us too. We watch him ask Faugel where the job is, to no avail, and we watch him come back to Faugel's apartment after he's gone; we watch him tie up and beat up his girlfriend, Thérèse Dalmain, to find out the location and we watch him ring Inspector Salignari. The police raid in Neuilly leaves Faugel shot in the shoulder, but his partner in crime Rémy and Inspector Salignari dead. And while I'm sure you can see the potential for story development and could write what follows yourself, it wouldn't match what we get here.
We're also given a theme at the beginning of the film: 'One has to choose: to die or to lie?' There's certainly a lot of both going on here and while it's obvious who's dying it isn't obvious what any of the truth behind it is. Most blatantly, we don't know how Silien fits into anything. When the police pick him up after the Neuilly fiasco, he tells them that he wants to move somewhere else and start anew, somewhere that has no police and no crooks. He obviously spends his entire life working with one or the other or both, but what really isn't clear is which side he really counts as. Jean-Paul Belmondo is more than up to carrying this ambiguity, being one of the preeminent names in French neo-noir of the sixties.

There are lots of questions. We don't know who rescues Faugel from Neuilly after he collapses after being shot and neither does he. We don't know who dumps Thérèse Dalmain at the bottom of a quarry. There are also other suspicious characters around, whose names have been dropped but who we don't see until later on, like club owner Nuttecchio, whose girl Fabienne used to be Silien's. Even when we know things for sure, other characters don't, meaning that we watch a tangled web weave ever more tangled as the story runs on. Nobody in this film is really what they seem to everyone else. Everyone is concealing something from someone and some of them are concealing plenty from us. This is my second Jean-Pierre Melville movie, after Bob the Gambler, and I'm hooked on his style. Fortunately I have Army of Shadows ready to follow up with.

I'm starting to discover who these people are through a process of submersion into French film, a national cinema that's beginning to impress me like none other. Probably four of my top ten films of all time are French, from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to Jeunet's Amelie, but I'm still only scratching the surface. Belmondo debuted on screen in 1956 and through films like Breathless and Crazy Pete promptly became one of the most prominent actors in the French New Wave. The other names were more established in 1962. Reggiani racked up credits from 1938 to 1999, though the earliest I've seen him was in 1950's La ronde and the latest thus far is this one. He followed up Le doulos with a small role in Visconti's The Leopard and is also in Melville's Army of Shadows.

It's Michel Piccoli, who plays Nuttecchio, who I seem to seeing everywhere nowadays. His screen career began in 1945 but he's still going strong with a couple of films in production. The last time I saw him in was Louis Malle's May Fools, or in French Milou en Mai, in which he played the title character of Milou. He was a joy to behold in that film and it was only there that I realised that a whole bunch of actors who kept impressing me were all the same person. This is the youngest I've seen him, just as 1990's May Fools was the oldest, but he's made a whole string of notable films in between, including French films like Contempt, Belle de Jour and Diary of a Chambermaid, as well as rare American ones like Topaz and Atlantic City. I haven't even seen The Young Girls of Rochefort, Danger: Diabolik or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie yet, but the diversity of those three films suggests a huge range and I'll be watching for him now.

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