Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos, in a typically excellent DVD transfer from Criterion, was a pleasant surprise. I've seen Melville's most celebrated films -- Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows, Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic -- and they usually left me wavering between admiration and inattention. Both responses were largely for the same reason: the director's fondness for weary nihilism.
Melville (a nom du cinema, which he adopted out of enthusiasm for Herman Melville) was usually strong on atmosphere and visual composition. His generation of French filmmakers went slightly bonkers on the auteur theory -- the idea that the director is the "author" of a film based on the personal style he imposed on the material. They claimed to have derived the notion from junk Hollywood movies (mainly gangster and suspense films) they believed were transformed into a kind of art by the director's touch.
Of the three directors most identified with the auteur theory -- Melville, Godard, and Truffaut -- only Melville strikes me as being a genuine author, and the most talented of the triumvirate. There's no doubt that he had a vision of what he wanted his movies to look and feel like, with the technique to realize it.
But that vision could carry his work only so far. Bleak, yes, sometimes to the point of being icy. Injections of Existential Dread. And a certain distance plus emotional sterility, partly due to his casting the marginally alive Alain Delon in several of the films. (Dwight Macdonald described Delon, I think in The Leopard, as "a decorative hole in the middle of the picture.")
Le Doulos, released in 1962, has Melville's signature neo-'40s look carried -- almost -- to a comical extreme. But for once, the drama isn't smothered under a pictorialist blanket. The thing has external, not just internal, drive. It moves.
Part of what distinguishes Le Doulos from Melville's other crime films is the casting. Instead of Delon's talking-statue routine, we have Jean-Paul Belmondo, a year after he created a sensation in Godard's Breathless, and he's equally commanding here. He may not have been a great technical actor, but he owned one of those proverbial faces the camera loves, and could project a fascinating mixture of cruelty, sensuality, and feline grace.
The luxury casting also includes Serge Reggiani, in a striking performance as a crook who spent years in jail after being set up by -- well, that's for you to figure out. Reggiani plays a soulful, haunted killer, but energy spills from him; he's no watery mope. The other standout in the cast is Jean Desailly as a police commissaire. He interrogates Belmondo in what I have since learned from reading is a much-admired scene among film buffs. So it should be. It punches through the screen: two utterly self-confident personalities on opposite sides trying to get the better of one another.
(The critics I've read all seem to think the scene's greatness lies in being a single take eight minutes long. Do they view movies with a stop-watch? Do they notice acting? Screen presence? The shot could have been eight minutes of tedium with another director and other actors.)
Why the kinetic vitality that Melville's other films mostly lack? I suspect it's down to the actors, who weren't the sort to be turned into bloodless symbols, if that's what Melville had in mind. Maybe when Melville saw the gifts that Belmondo, Reggiani, and Desailly were lavishing on his concept, he got into the spirit and let them run with it.
As to the plot, forget it. You can play the game of who did what to whom, but you'll probably be frustrated. It's maddeningly confusing. By the end, I sort of knew the what, but not the why or how. That would require seeing Le Doulos another time or two. I wouldn't mind.