#3 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
It’s rare to find a final ten minutes that adds as much to a film as the last ten minutes of Le Doulos. Up until then, it had been a twisty, intentionally and occasionally unclear narrative that got sorted out with a quick bit of exposition near the end, and then the film keeps going. What follows ends up providing a marvelously tragic cast to the whole affair, elevating everything that came before not with narrative trickery but with character depth.
The ethical code that Jean-Pierre Melville criminals live by is one of loyalty. They don’t always keep to it, but that’s the struggle in these hard times where the cops are always just around the corner. When Maurice (Serge Reggiani) gets out of jail he goes to visit Gilbert (Rene Lefevre), a fence dealing with the jewels and cash from a recent robbery organized by Nuttheccio (Michel Piccoli). Maurice borrows Gilbert’s gun and shoots him with it, an action driven by the death of Maurice’s girlfriend six years ago that Gilbert organized because she was going to play informant to the police. Maurice is also planning a small heist in the outskirts of Paris. The only people who know about it are his accomplice Remy (Philippe Nahon), his girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy), and his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who provides Maurice with some equipment for the job.
When the job gets interrupted by the police, in particular Inspector Salignari (Daniel Crohem), a friend of Silien, Maurice knows who set him up. It was Silien.
Here is where the film diverges into dueling narratives. Silien starts taking actions that are hard to discern on their own. He finds the jewels, cash, and gun that Maurice buried. He goes to Nutthecchio’s club, reconnects with Nutthecchio’s girl, Fabienne (Fabienne Dali) and brings her into his efforts to put the jewels into Nutthecchio’s hands. All of this ends up feeling unconnected from everything. The effort to keep the audience in the dark is something that I generally don’t appreciate, but Melville was a very good filmmaker and can make the individual moments compelling in their own right even if I feel a bit lost while watching, wondering how all of these pieces come together.
The other side is Maurice determined to take out Silien, convinced it was Silien who gave him up to the police. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and he’s hobbled by a gunshot wound to his arm. He can only go so far, and when the police find him at a bar after he leaves the house he’s supposed to be recuperating at, he gets sent to jail for his probable involvement with the death of Gilbert and the robbery.
Everything gets sorted with Silien killing Nuttheccio and his confederate with the help of Fabienne, framing them for the murder of Gilbert. Maurice gets out of jail, and Silien explains everything. Silien was looking out for Maurice, figuring out who the real informant was, and trying to save Maurice.
The film up to this point has been pretty solid stuff. It intentionally keeps things from the audience to help keep up tension while giving us enough to keep us along. I was pretty happy with the film up to this point, not in love with it but pretty happy. The reveal of Silien’s purpose through the whole film suddenly provides the grounding in the film. This is the ethical and moral code that defines Melville’s main characters, and it’s been hidden and obfuscated throughout the film. It’s intentionally casting a negative light on Silien’s actions, almost like it’s from Maurice’s point of view (despite seeing a whole bunch he can’t see).
The problem is that Maurice was so convinced of Silien’s guilt in setting him up and getting Remy killed that, in prison, he organized a hit on Silien. The final ten minutes becomes a chase against the clock as Maurice tries to save Silien, and it’s what gives the film its emotional power. Up until that chase begins, the film is an interesting look at the criminal underworld. With the explanation and the knowledge of the hit, everything in the film up to that point gains a new character and elevates because of the revelation. It’s the ideal twist.
It’s weird to consider how much my opinion of the film as a whole moved up because of the ending. It took an interesting crime film and gave it a moral subtext that ended up permeating the whole story up to that point. It turned a good film into a great film in one final ten-minute segment.
Jean-Pierre Melville was unique amongst his French filmmaking brethren. The godfather of the French New Wave, though never really part of it, he proved that the French could take influences from America and make them decidedly their own, telling compelling stories in purely cinematic ways. Using the biggest French film stars like Belmondo once he got some real money, Melville was able to achieve sustained financial success and independence. Le Doulos is Melville being experimental with confidence in his own talent.