We’re already dead
But not yet in the ground.
C’mon, shake my helping hand—
I’ll show you around.
—John Cale, “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”
It is pretty much a convention of the hard-boiled gangster picture that most, if not all, of the principal characters wind up dead by the final shot. So it ought not constitute a “spoiler” to note that Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le doulos hews to that quasi convention with a particularly grim ferocity. (I’ll further note that this essay won’t be giving away too many specifics.)
This 1962 film, Melville’s seventh feature, was his first true foray into the post–film noir, so-called Série noire crime genre in which he would subsequently forge some of his most celebrated works: Le samouraï, Le cercle rouge, and Le deuxième souffle. Yes, Melville’s 1956 Bob le flambeur told the tale (eventually!) of a casino heist, and his 1959 Deux hommes dans Manhattan has its eponymous two men undertake a missing-persons case. But both films are discursive, rambling affairs, often concentrating on the charms of their respective settings (the fairy-tale sleaze of Bob’s Montmartre/Pigalle, the Broadway bright lights of Deux hommes), and ending things reasonably well for their heroes (Bob le flambeur, in particular, is one of the greatest shaggy-dog stories ever put on film). In Le doulos, Melville makes his genre move with a vengeance; for all its atmospheric touches, it has a relentless forward movement unprecedented in any of his prior films. Which is at least slightly paradoxical, as all of Le doulos’ characters are living in the past.
The picture teems with incongruities, large and small, from the very beginning. After a text explains the meaning of the film’s title—“doulos,” argot for “hat” or “hat man,” also for “informant”—Melville quotes Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s cynical epigram on morals, “One must choose: to lie or to die,” leaving off Céline’s admission that he’s never “killed [him]self” (and not crediting Céline, either). For most of the credit sequence, we watch a figure in an almost too de rigueur trench coat and fedora walking purposely under bridges that throw gigantic shadows over him. At first one assumes that it’s the top-billed actor, Jean-Paul Belmondo, by this time an international star. But very quickly we learn it isn’t; it’s the intense, anxious Serge Reggiani (so memorable in Jacques Becker’s 1952 Casque d’or, a factor in his casting here), playing Faugel, a gangster out to settle a particular score. Is he the title’s “doulos”? Shortly after entering the house of the fence Gilbert, Faugel looks into a broken mirror; the distorted reflection that peers back tells you almost everything you need to know about the guy. (“A man in front of a mirror means a kind of stocktaking,” Melville reasonably asserted, and near the end of the film, Silien, the character played by Belmondo, will find a particularly ironic moment in which to gaze balefully into a mirror with a garish sunburst frame.)
As Faugel makes amiable but strangely terse chitchat with Gilbert—we later learn that Faugel (rightly) suspects the fence of having rubbed out his girlfriend several years prior, for fear that she’d talk—the mix of visual signifiers we think of as French and American becomes so intricate that one almost starts to imagine this is some kind of science-fiction film. The view from a very pretty, Old Europe oval window reveals the most hideous railway bridge imaginable. In the wake of Faugel and Gilbert’s confrontation, that noir staple, the swinging lightbulb, appears—not via overhead wire but rather a proper table lamp, after the table has overturned. The presence of a lamppost in the middle of the seeming moon crater into which Faugel flees and buries some stolen loot is as incongruously eerie (and funny) as the ringing telephone in the heart of “the Zone” near the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. This convincing creation of a near alien landscape, a no-man’s-land where these all too human figures act out their fates, reflects more than Melville’s mordant wit. It provides a subtle but palpable sense of a hell on earth, wherein the familiar is constantly destabilized.
Melville purposefully plays not only with vision but with sound. When Belmondo’s enigmatic hood, Silien, pays a visit to Faugel’s postprison girlfriend, the slatternly Thérèse (Melville’s then secretary, Monique Hennessy), he turns on a little amiable charm before beginning to—shockingly, brutally—slap her around. As he does so, Paul Misraki’s cocktail jazz begins heating up . . . and then Silien goes and turns off the radio sitting on the coffee table. His subsequent abasement of Thérèse is all the more disturbing for being done in silence.
Why is Silien, our putative hero, so unspeakably violent to Thérèse? The answer, like almost everything else in the convoluted plot, lies in what has gone before. As Faugel enters Gilbert’s house at the film’s opening, he carries himself like a specter, one who is himself haunted. Only later do we find out what he was avenging, and having committed the deed, he then can’t stop obsessing over what he’s done to a former friend. By contrast, Silien (“a guy who does not exteriorize himself,” as per Pierre Lesou’s source novel—and can’t that be said of almost all of Melville’s gangster heroes?), brisk and efficient as he lends Faugel some gear for a robbery, is confidently looking forward to getting out of the rackets and enjoying his newly built house. But his eye isn’t entirely on the future.
After the aforementioned robbery is, thanks to a mystery informant, utterly botched—complete with the killing of a police inspector Silien has some sort of connection with—Silien manipulates both the cops and his fellow criminals to achieve his mysterious ends. He’ll clear the figures he wants cleared, and eliminate some others. Melville takes his time letting us know precisely who’s who in Silien’s labyrinthine scheme. One of the film’s most breathtaking sequences is a seemingly tossed-off shot of almost ten minutes’ duration in which Silien plays a cat-and-mouse game with another inspector and his two partners. This interrogation, and a subsequent questioning of Faugel, superemphasize the “lie or die” adage from the film’s opening: these guys lie and lie and lie again, so much that the very idea of “the truth” seems another lie.
But then moments of truth do begin to tick off, inexorably, and we can see that Silien himself is also imprisoned in the long ago. One of his targets is the gambling kingpin Nuttheccio, who stole Silien’s “old flame” Fabienne (Fabienne Dali) from him. Fabienne is the final piece in Silien’s grudge-settling puzzle; when the game is over, he’ll reclaim her and retire. He’s playing the white knight here too, as Nuttheccio apparently possesses Fabienne against her will. But as portrayed by the great Michel Piccoli, Nuttheccio is hardly designed to repel viewers or to increase their sympathy for Silien; the character is calm, measured—a rather reasonable man of affairs, albeit criminal ones. “I wanted to bring to life the kind of bastard who doesn’t sponge his face in sweat when he knows he’s about to die,” Melville told critic Rui Nogueira. Piccoli’s gangster, Jean Desailly’s Captain Clain, Belmondo’s criminal chess master—all these portrayals are models of underplaying, a style Melville especially valued.
These performances throw Reggiani’s more expressive moves into bold relief; still, for all the sad-sack anxiety he conveys, he isn’t much more tragic than anybody else in the picture. Shortly before the finale, after all the explanations have been made (not that Melville obliges the viewer to completely believe any of them), and as a final showdown is, to borrow a phrase from Philip Larkin, coming like Christmas, Melville allows us a glimpse of—we suppose—the real Silien. Arriving at his new house in the driving rain, he goes into a stable, and there looks in on his horse, a black beauty. He tenderly caresses the horse’s neck before heading to the house, and his destiny. Melville nods here to the ending of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, a favorite film of his. In the Huston film, the mortally wounded Dix (Sterling Hayden) races to a field to see his prized colt one last time. He knows he’s finished. Silien, on the other hand, believes this horse is part of an idyllic future; for the first time, he is free of the past, and he allows himself to breathe in that freedom, for a few moments at least. But he is mistaken: for all his machinations, for all the blood he’s spilled, the freedom he tastes is an illusion. Once he gets to the house, the past that he has attempted to set right will catch up to him. And he has it coming, so to speak. Viewed a second or third time, after we know his fate, Silien’s communion with the horse is, of course, all the more poignant. And despite that, his end never seems anything more than apt. The inevitability of it all twists around Céline’s maxim: It may be true that one must choose to lie or to die. But one is going to have to die regardless.
Glenn Kenny is a film writer whose work has appeared in Film Comment, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice, and other publications. He was the film critic for Premiere from 1998 to 2008. His film blog is Some Came Running (somecamerunning.typepad.com).