With that in mind, Le Doulos may be the most tragic of Melville's crime films. The Frenchman is one of my ten favorite directors on the strength of his later films: Le Duexieme Souffle, Army of Shadows, Le Circle Rouge, and Un Flic (Dirty Money). I own a DVD of Le Samourai but haven't watched it yet, opting instead for this earlier yet just as characteristic effort. The tragedy of Le Doulos is almost classical: a man believes a friend has betrayed him and makes plans for revenge, only to discover too late that he was mistaken.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is the star of the film, but the main character is played by Serge Reggiani. He's Maurice Faugel, a criminal who we first encounter visiting and suddenly killing a man and stealing his jewels. He goes a discreet distance from the victim's house, finds a streetlamp for a landmark, and buries the loot and a gun by the base.
Le Doulos was seen as a comeback film for Serge Reggiani, who had some hits in the 1950s but then seemed to drop out of cinema for a while. He later became better known as a singer, though he made cameos in later Melville films.
We next see Maurice in his apartment receiving some burglary gear from Belmondo, who plays Silien, Maurice's close friend who's on the verge of getting out of the business. Maurice has a girlfriend, Therese (played by Melville's secretary, Monique Hennessy) who doesn't like Silien for starters and will have less cause to do so later.
Leaving chez Maurice, Silien places a call to the cops. After Maurice and his partner in the upcoming robbery depart for the job, Silien returns to the apartment to make small talk with Therese and punch her in the face. The Europeans take such matters to greater extremes than the Americans, so we see Silien truss her up pretty good and tie her by the neck to a radiator. He gags her, then revives her by pouring booze on her head and demands to know where Maurice was going. She spills. We next see Maurice's job interrupted by a police detective. He kills the cop, but his partner dies as well.
Monique Hennessy as Therese, before (above) and after (below) in Le Doulos.
People have warned Maurice that Silien is not to be trusted, that he has too cozy a relation with the police, but he refused to listen. They called Silien Le Doulos, the (guy with the) hat, the gang slang for a stoolie. Now Maurice second-guesses his pal, but before he knows it he's nabbed for the earlier crime. This time Silien springs into action with an elaborate scheme to spring his friend by framing some other gangsters for the original crime. This middle section is where Belmondo dominates the film as we discover his grudge against the man he's going to frame: it's about a woman, and does that surprise you? Without giving away the details, I can tell you that his plan works and Maurice is released. When they meet again, Silien has a revelation: the person who ratted him out on the second robbery was Therese. He went after her to find the robbery location so he could help Maurice, but was too late. By the way, he went back to the apartment later with an accomplice, grabbed Therese, put her in a car and sent it off a cliff. Oh, and his calling the cops? Well, he already knew that Maurice was going to rob a place that night, so he was calling his buddy the detective to set up a dinner date and keep him tied up (figuratively, not Therese-style) to protect Maurice.
Belmondo applies the charm to a smoky Fabienne Dali as his old flame. She will later appear in Mario Bava's Kill, Baby, Kill!
Are you supposed to believe all this? Melville presents it in flashback form, giving it the authenticity of something you can see rather than simply something Belmondo says, inviting you to believe it. In any event, Maurice believes it, perhaps as much because he wants to believe his friend as because of any plausibility to the story. So Silien heads off to his new home to plan his future, and Maurice gets a phone call from a man named Kern who tells him that he's got the wreath Maurice had asked for and will make the delivery as arranged.
This would be the part in a Warner Bros. cartoon when Maurice's head is temporarily replaced by that of a jackass, or by the image of a shoe heel. This Kern is someone he met in jail, when he was convinced that Silien had betrayed him. At the time, almost frivolously, he suggested to Kern that he'd pay well if someone would, er, deliver a large wreath to Silien's house. Now he realizes, or believes, that Silien is guiltless, or at least as guiltless as a career criminal gets, and that Kern is free and about to kill the guy. There's nothing to do but get in a car and drive like a devil and hope to catch Silien before he walks into a death trap. This sets up a supposedly Psycho-inspired drive down a rainy highway as doomy Bernard Hermann-style music by the excellent Paul Misraki looms on the sidetrack. Shall we ratchet up the tension a little more? Very well: Maurice is in such a hurry that he doesn't realize that he's passed Silien, who has pulled into a gas station to fill his tank. So instead of saving his friend from the death trap, he's going to walk into it himself....
First Reggiani, then Belmondo make their way toward doom at the close of Le Doulos.
Le Doulos is vintage Melville, with luminously noirish cinematography by Nicholas Heyer and more fluid camera movement than I'm used to from the director. That attitude of cool fatalism pervades the film, paying off in a finish that might be tragically ironic, if you believed Silien's story, or tragically appropriate, if you didn't, or tragically inevitable, if you recall that these are criminals with the odds always against them. The finale is very nicely done, as Melville builds suspense through repetition. We first see Maurice racing frantically down a rainy road to Silien's house. A few minutes later, we see Silien strolling blithely down the same path towards where we know trouble awaits. It's a great Melville moment from another great film. It cements his standing on my director list, and there's still more to see. That's good to know.
Here's the trailer, uploaded to YouTube by Felixxx999.