Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Le Doulos (1962) - Jean-Pierre Melville

There were a couple of bits of graffiti that I'll never forget from back when I was a nipper. In fact so old were they that they were done with white paint and a paint brush. Not quite Banksy. The first was off of Southend high street and declared 'Neil Queen* is a supergrass', the second was in Wickford and said 'Watkins** is a coppers nark'. Now God alone knows why they have both stuck in my head, but they have. What's this got to do with Le Doulos? Well Doulos is French slang for a grass, maybe somewhere in Marseilles there is a guy in his late thirties writing about remembering Doulos being badly painted on a wall. Well perhaps not.

Anyway as you probably already know Jean-Pierre Melville only really made two kinds of films, WWII French resistance flicks and crime capers. This one falls neatly into the later category, what with it being about robberies and the naughty types that do that sort of thing. The big question that runs through the film is, who is the police informant? The set up is simple and the mid film reveal is a stroke of genius. It's one of those moments where you realise that the director has pulled the wool over your eyes. It'll have you wanting to rewatch it again ASAP, just so you can say to yourself that you saw it coming a mile off.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays his usual brash, treat the girls like shit they love that sort of thing character, Serge Reggiani as always is far more understated, and for me at least is the real star of the film. He appears to not do much, but conveys far more emotion with just one glance than Belmondo manages with his mugging to the camera style of acting. As per usual in a Melville film the female characters (of which there are only three) are very two dimensional. They only exist as an extension of their male counterpoints. I don't think Melville is quite the misogynist that critics have labeled him, he just made films about relationships between men. Plain and simple. It's just that sometimes you have to put a dame in there too.

There are a few things to look out for in Melville's crime films, some obvious some less so. So let's start with the simple ones. Hats, if you're not wearing a hat, you're not in the film, same goes for trench coats. Then there are the huge American cars that all the bad boys drive, they look so out of place when they have to park up next to some little fart box Citroën. But then Melville's Paris is like something out of Sapphire & Steel, a kind of parallel Paris that is twinned with Chicago. Then come the smaller things, white gloves for instance, the top boy always has white gloves. The lead characters looking at their reflection in a mirror, is another. All of these things are in Le Doulos, if they weren't then you wouldn't be watching a Melville film.

Of course there is a lot more to Le Doulos than that, for starters there is a fantastically shocking scene between Belmondo and Monique Hennessy, and enough little twists to keep things moving along at a decent pace. Oh and a lovely long tracking sequence during the main titles. There is one other thing that always happens during Melville's police and thieves films, and that is how they end. Now I'm not going to give anything away here, but I'll just say they always have the same ending. If you haven't seen this, then you really should if you are a fan of this sort of thing. Things got a whole lot better for JPM after this, and his genius years were just around the corner. I've convinced myself whilst writing this that I really need to rewatch them all. Happy days.

*I can't remember the actual name and have substituted a friends name instead.
**Same story here as the one above. As far as I'm aware neither Haydn Watkins or Neil Queen have grassed anyone up, only time will tell though.

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