This week at the Wellington Film Society: Putting a finger on the brilliance of Melville’s classic French noir.
Few filmmakers had Jean-Pierre Melville’s talent of turning the faintly ridiculous into something so damn cool. My first reaction after watching Le Doulos was to buy a slim fitting black suit and skinny tie, don a fedora, and take up smoking (Mad Men be damned). Melville’s French noir is sieved via Nouvelle Vague techniques (despite the director’s disavowal of the movement), easily making it an historically contextual piece of filmmaking. Of course, he’s assisted by the magnificent New Wave icon Jean-Paul Belmondo as the potential informer, or “finger man”—a morally dubious sass. But it’s Melville’s craft that impresses above all—he manipulates the lighting and camera to such an extent, that their unbelievability becomes the film’s absolute strength.
Le Doulos opens with a long, gorgeous tracking shot of burglar Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) walking through the subway. He’s recently been released from prison, and is meeting a friend in a house almost perched in a snowy, misty field. From there we enter standard film noir territory, with twists and dead body counts increasing with each scene. The film is structured around Maurice’s relationship with Silien (Belmondo), a man who’s friends with both criminals and police. Melville’s characters are men’s men, and live by some lost chivalric code (except for their treatment of women, which perhaps doesn’t follow this), even though none of the men actually trust each other. Police work alone, informers lie, and criminals rely (to their doom) on a strict moral code in order to survive. All the actors underplay their performances, as if their emotions must be hidden beneath their self-prescribed roles.
Although Le Doulos focuses on images of movement—trains, cars, people walking in and out of locations—it’s a largely interior film, full of claustrophobic walls and rippling textures (the curtains, patterned walls, and clothes stand out). Despite their ostensible freedom, the characters have no escape and are forced to act in particular ways; their inexorability meaning they never manage to maintain proper relationships. Melville creates some bravura set-pieces in amongst this all: from the near ten-minute long interrogation shot, in which the camera moves 360 degrees, and Silien leads the police on an intricately choreographed dance of lies, to the stark imagery of the lamppost in the snow scene. His expressionist techniques (shadows, light, space, silence) defy reality to appear even more real than they should.
Le Doulos is also a film that expresses considerable love for the genre. Americanisms dominate, from petrol stations, to ’30s gangster film homages, to Misraki’s wonderful score. It’s noir through and through, and Melville’s ultra-cynical view of humanity lends itself well to the genre (although arguably, Melville’s few noirs have probably limited his overall reputation). Perhaps most of all, Le Doulos shows exactly what Melville’s talent could create: he had that rare ability to mash the ugly and beautiful in such a way that the ugly became beautiful.