© 2016 by James Clark
For the past while we’ve been trying to unlock surprising nuances in current films and those from the middle distance. But here we are, far back with the work of that of that fading comet, Jean-Pierre Melville, with a view to his always valuable coverage of the labyrinthine ways of integrity. After being away for a while from our auteur’s mastery of the magic of sensibility, I’ve come to realize the importance of that mantra, amongst cognoscenti, to the effect that all the commotion boils down to the remarkableness of zeal for mutual loyalty amongst thugs, needing serious recasting. Due to Melville’s telegraphing his unique commitment to American film noir, we tend to overlook the territory of “human relations” (in the vernacular of that Ridley Scott whose Thelma and Louise  has a kinship to Le Doulos ) in effect over and above the world of lawbreakers.
In this context of confusion, Le Doulos may be uniquely equipped to lead us into Melville’s true metier, in relation to which the crime gratifications are but a rewarding foretaste of dawning surreal intensity. Le Doulos introduces us to a couple of protagonists so palpably lacking those bona fides of grace and charm—assets on the order of Bob le flambeur, Jef the samouri, and Corey, contending with a red circle—from out of which claims of sensitivity could actually pull the wool over our eyes. Our two fast friends in the underworld here, namely, Maurice and Silien, are audacious punks on the order of Gu, having a discouraging form of second wind, Philippe being an insubstantial functionary on board an army of shadows and even Leon Morin a smart, but half-baked, con artist. Whereas Gu, Philippe and Leon circulate amongst associates with cogent integrity whereby fine feelings make some sense, Melville has crafted this current display with such minimalist barrenness as to prompt the viewer to consider that mysteries are afoot which far supersede the mysteries of stealing, murdering and eluding arrest.
Maurice, recently (we soon learn) released from prison after serving a 4-year sentence for armed robbery, puts the disclosure in motion while walking (a picture of grim dejection, as was Gu, being barely able to keep up with the rigors of rushing away from a jailbreak and life sentence [a coup engineered by a more able figure], in Second Wind) along a scuzzy sidewalk running parallel to a rail line on the outskirts of a Paris sooty on land and in the air. His trench coat pegs him as a deserter from the front lines. (A sign on a cement works reads “Reaction.”) Pausing, he’s seen in a close-up with a devastated but determined visage and with a mist-covered Sacre Coeur basilica many miles away. Notwithstanding that gloom (and his smallish physical stature, too small to fill that dashing warrior’s uniform), his trek has been accompanied with a cool jazz soundtrack, taking flight as he negotiates an echoey underpass, first in the form of a brief clarinet solo and then swinging into lilting vibes. Prior to that rather incongruous emission, there was a more predictable big band march; and as he veers off the blackened mid-century cement and stonework and onto a semi-rural sweep and gravel path the martial band returns. The vibraphone reasserts itself as he approaches a 19th century edifice where a matter of some edginess is written all over his face. The wind howls. A train howls as it rushes past. On his entering, we find a clerkish, middle-aged man assessing the value of a heist of jewels and going on to discuss an impending invasion of a mansion. “Turn the job down if you’re not up to it,” the canny advisor suggests, not without solicitude. Maurice acknowledges, “I’m not up to any rough stuff… Nothing left…” He thereupon asks for a handgun and, on taking it from a drawer and loading it he shoots down the careful soul, who had argued, “I don’t like to see you carrying…” Though we hear later that the victim had some involvement in revealing to the police the whereabouts of a friend of Maurice’s, it is intrinsic to this film’s purpose to show in this way the first of our leading lights being a vicious wild animal. On helping himself to those jewels and a wad of cash, Maurice evades the approach of more visitors to the seer and makes his way, in nearly pitch darkness, and with the wind blowing disconcertingly, to a street lamp without a street. There he digs with his hands (operating like the claws of a beast and into the hole he places the valuables, including the gun [therewith indicating the irony of his remark, on holding the weapon, “Thanks, this will make me feel better…”]). The sound of rapidly moving footsteps puts terror into his eyes and he frantically looks around for the source of the trouble to come. The sounds abate, however, and, with a cut to his girlfriend Therese’s bedroom the vibe motif has resurfaced while he smokes a cigarette lying on his back.
That diminutive rally is readily obliterated by the arrival of Silien, who looks far more at home in his coat of derring-do than Maurice and matches his ability to look cool with a top dog’s little cautionary sermon (the actor playing Silien, Jean-Paul Belmondo, having served Melville in the role of Leon Morin, Priest, one year before) and some charitable piety. “Sure you’re not being stupid again? I’ve bought a house…” Maurice, catching the full sense of that latter gambit with its providing him a job as caretaker, replies, “Smells like charity… We’ll discuss it in 20 years from now” (and the memory of Bob the flambeur vowing never to go down “on all fours” like his prematurely old mother fills out the reflective range of self-assertion going forward). He also declares, “I’m tired being kept by Therese.” Remarkable, then, we have Silien, flush with the proceeds of successful crime, on tap to live out his life as a model citizen, while still a supporting player in his chum’s reviving career. “Drilling [a safe, courtesy of Silien’s equipment] will take about two hours.” By striking contrast, the self-characterized “Nothing Left,” complains that the dinner of snails Therese prepared had left him feeling “queasy.” She returns home after casing out the very large and opulent home, deserted save for an elderly caretaker (that loaded word). Having overheard details of the target but not the location, Silien leaves and then returns after Maurice has embarked. He loses no time smashing her face, roping her like a steer, putting a noose around her neck, attaching it to the radiator and beating the address out of her, leaving her bleeding and her mouth stuffed with a cloth. His sunny-boy façade and prissy, mocking voice come in for a sharp revision at this point, which he punctuates by pouring a bottle of Scotch over her head. Silien follows up by not only rescuing a Maurice wounded and unconscious during a police ambush greatly assisted by a police informer as to the heist; but he returns to Therese and, with an associate clearly not a fellow Little League coach, shoots her dead and pushes her body over a steep cliff in a stolen car. This is the guy so self-dramatically determined to go the extra mile to keep a sputtering gunslinger gracing the streets and thereby illogically put to rest astronomically questionable issues of essential equilibrium. On Silien’s momentary exit, Maurice reproves Therese for not being friendly toward this hell of a guy. She may be treacherous; but she knows a maudlin creep when she sees one. Part of this film’s quite fascinatingly murky backstory suggests that Maurice (who, we soon discover, has a witty if sharp and derivative tongue) was not always so fussy an avatar of friendship. The first kill by the train tracks levels with him: “For you everything’s changed.” Perhaps Therese would not have been so eager to sell him out if he hadn’t become such a bore.
It takes quite a while before the viewer learns of Silien’s final form of good deeds meted out to Therese. In its first hour Le Doulos is honed to needy, peevish Maurice and over-confident Silien becoming adversaries (Maurice actively, Silien unwittingly) from out of a pool of rumor that Silien has been making hay betraying to the police his business associates, especially on the basis of a peculiar, long-standing friendship with a quite high-ranking detective, Salignari. The narrative pushes this angle by having Silien’s brief departure involve calling up Salignari and making a quick cut as someone picks up the receiver. Even without our vantage point of looking over Silien’s shoulder while he dials in, Maurice, on spotting police cruisers blocking both ends of the roadway (while he waits out the two hours of drilling into the safe by associate, Rene), spits out accusingly, “…the bastard! Bloody Silien!” Silien is picked up by a police cruiser and at the station he is questioned about Maurice’s involvement in the abortive and darkness-obscured episode—Rene dead—his dying words, “Don’t forget that bastard!”; Salignari dead (shot by Maurice, in fact). And he can’t resist not only “loyally” refusing to tell them what he knows, but eagerly insulting them (“I say you’re shits!) He also, very typically, takes umbrage at the chief investigator’s alluding to his profiting from the drug trade— “I don’t touch drugs. I’m just a poor slob!” (Soon after this, Maurice is found and brought before the same interrogator. Accused of shooting the man he shot at the beginning, Gilbert, Maurice shows how similar to Silien he is when he piously declaims, “I didn’t do it! I’m a thief, but I use my fists!”)
From there the poor slob plunges into an elaborate “discovery” to support the groundless idea that Maurice was not at that murder scene by the tracks, but that in fact it was those two hoods who almost bumped into him (apropos some other profit centre which Gilbert apparently had a special talent for pinpointing) who were behind the little crime wave. But as the factual gyrations of Silien become increasingly cynical, we find therein a more pronounced cue to attend to, in this coldly puzzling deposit’s blazing heartland. Silien’s Good Samaritan ploy, in the impenetrable darkness outside of the manor whose safe won’t be violated anytime soon, is seen only by way of his trench coat and his hands and arms pulling a wounded and fainted Maurice out of harm’s way. The latter wakes up as a veterinarian finishes patching up the flesh wound to the frail marauder’s shoulder. The woman left to attend to his recovery can’t enlighten him as to the rescuer; but he feels it must be Therese along with that Jean who in fact helped to dispose of her body. The orbit of disintegration here, leveraging a tale of unfocused animality, poses the task of surpassing such disarray. Here we are put on notice to link the pervasive shadows and dark nights to nocturnal predators. (The lady left in the car by the follow-up visitors to an already dead Gilbert wears a leopard-skin coat. The police inspector doing all the questioning is markedly and endlessly picking at his teeth with a toothpick to release a morsel of meat. Therese’s blousy sexiness and big hungry eyes evince a carnality hungry for meat [beyond Maurice’s present capacity] but also a ravenous, ruthless thrust on behalf of self-preservation. The blood Silien causes her to shed further displays her law of the jungle. Her candid distaste for Silien speaks to a lone wolf’s detection and suspicion of desperate, rootless benevolence.
Picked up—by a team ridiculing his footprints at the jewel station (“You ran like a rabbit…”)—and held on suspicion (lacking substantiation beyond the remarks of the now defunct Salignari) and sketchy data regarding Gilbert, Maurice, in efficient, rapid, wilderness-beast battle mode, hires a cell-mate to murder Silien for his supposed unnatural treachery. With the tooth-pick accessorized hunter of crime, Maurice had inadvertently drawn attention to the sonic component stirred up by the many desperate animals in view. In the course of lying to the investigator that he hardly knew that Rene with whom he had developed the invasion, he, clever-puppy-style, shifts the blame for the earlier murder to the later visitors. “His Avenue Mozart associates killed him.” The composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was, and still is, widely considered to be a paragon of creative elegance in the form of reflective synthesis—in some ways the Antipodes of the operatives in our view. Over and above the ironies brought into play by the Mozart touch, that motif draws attention to the topspin of sensual energy here being frittered away by crude, weak reflexive appetites and similarly dreary compensatory display of helping a friend.
The vibraphone jazz welling within Maurice’s solitary walk to an intersection with Avenue Mozart might have represented a lost chance to avoid, as Silien (soundly, for a change) says later, “being stupid again.” (A stupidity, however, trailing back beyond the incarceration, when they were a pair of self-satisfied, tone-deaf partners in crime.) As the engaging tonality loses its range, we have Silien (still imagining that Maurice is a friend indeed) clawing open that buried treasure (by way of a map drawn by cell-bound Maurice and given to Jean [the second car-wrecker] with a view to paying off the hit man, thus coming into Silien’s hands, who does his clawing with a switch-blade) in order to deploy it for the sake of incriminating those passers-by. Putting that death-trap into effect, he invades the Cotton Club, a redoubt of the rebel grandees of Avenue Mozart. Two factors of sensuality give this scene its sizzle. The night club—Silien finds from a bartender that a high-stakes poker game is very likely in session upstairs (failing to gauge the full dimensions of his own [truncated] moment of truth)—offers jazz; but rather leaden jazz. Moreover, a cat walk including the bar features an overweight, rather graceless chorine clumping along in showgirl array and carrying a baton as if ready to precipitate a sluggish war. Ranged against that eyesore is Silien’s spiffy pork-pie hat which he checks with typical self-satisfaction. Does that contrast assure him of any more promise than the woeful livestock doing the entertaining? The definitive answer to that question is in the music.
The Cotton Club presumes to afford an American jazz-bar experience, whereby rhythmic and harmonic topspin take the customers far from the predictable. It doesn’t. On entry, Silien (who, we know by now, wouldn’t know or care) is immersed by way of the house band in quasi-jazz, which includes a heavy load of Gallic folk motifs. Treated to free drinks by the manager he’s headed for preying upon, in the course of being such an impressively sweet friend, he swoops down upon a table where the owner’s girlfriend (a former girlfriend of his), namely, Fabienne—at best superficially fabulous—bides her time, he hands her the line, “I wanted to see you…” Knowing him very well, she asks, “What’s the other reason?” And embedded in the certainty here that Silien would have a totally self-serving objective (not well hidden by another line, “Don’t you believe I can get you out?” [of that species of gangland he was in the course of torching]), is her unwittingly brushing upon the primordial sufficient reason as hard to discern amongst this context as it is hard to discern real music amidst the dreck on tap. (The actress playing the part of Fabienne is named Fabienne Dali. Getting to her true heritage may be another way to approach Melville’s musical drivenness here.) Cutesy Silien flashes his cocker spaniel eyes and rallies her with, “Try to remember… An innocent man is in jail. Believe me, [Maurice] Faugel didn’t kill!” (He goes on to induce her [whom we first saw in the back seat at the scene where her fellow riders pay a visit to no longer responsive Gilbert] to remember that a noisy train nearby covered up the gunshots. “I need your evidence… You’ll be free in a few days…”) Going from there, he maintains that there she was, in her leopard-skin coat, a la Elsa Schiaparelli, left in the Dodge-brand (omnipresent in this movie) “forward-look” boat-like vehicle, while the two slickers from the Cotton Club murdered the old man we saw Maurice murdering.
Fabienne becomes instrumental, as an anonymous phone caller moving the plot along, in Silien’s manipulative coup by which he draws (separately) the two principals of the daytime-closed Club to their office; has the stolen jewels incriminatingly placed in their safe with their prints on some of the merchandise; guns them down (the second kill being a cat and mouse pretense of being wounded and allowing the victim to seize a weapon without bullets and thereby having his fingerprints on one of the pistols as part of a subsequently arranged montage of two dead gunmen having killed each other). No music graces that primitive butchery with a view to material and ludicrously spiritual advantage.
At a shadowy jazz bar on a rainy afternoon, with a real-live jazz pianist filling the skies with sonic endeavor and love of life, Silien smugly regales a chastened Maurice— “I’m an ungrateful bastard… I wanted to kill him…”—with how he whipped his inferiors into a diorama putting his depressed friend, if not on easy street, on footing a lot easier than it might have been. Jean adds to this nasty little farce, by remarking, “Silien doesn’t show his feelings. But he’d do anything for a friend…” The bluesy ballad, rendered with utmost care and subtle delicacy brings to us that up-beat revelation swirling all-round for the supposed master contrarians, at the portal of serious expenditure of sensual action—a portal which no one of the three of them would ever care to traverse. (Le Doulos features a horde of fundamental traitors playing a complicated game of hide-and-seek, and leaving the viewer and listener the task of recognizing the crucial role of emissions like those being played at that bar while no one on camera pays any attention. Melville, on record of pretty much hating everyone he’s ever met, fires a fusillade here of such alienation as to give his other [dark enough] works seemingly an operetta touch.)
Instead of an acrid celebration of crime’s paying off, we have a nemesis (not, you can be sure, on the basis of any critical mass of honesty; but because the perpetrators are apt to induce malignancy that spills over on themselves). And yet, as our concluding remarks will indicate, this brilliant vehicle, almost grudgingly, has, with its soundtrack, no less, confirmed, Dali-style, that though you’d hardly suspect it from planet Earth’s world-history, the cosmos cannot be so readily obviated. The ravages come in the form of that hastily-commissioned cell-mate directed to assassinate Silien at his rural estate. When flagging Maurice receives a call (to this regular scene, perhaps its attraction being in both regarding and disregarding the music), to the effect that another murderous beast is good to go, he borrows Jean’s car to shut down the ambush (at the reward for successful business, where he, Silien and Fabienne were to have a victory feast later in the day). You have to imagine that Maurice was once not as stunned as he is now. Could that subliminal music have distracted him, causing him to lose the predatory sharpness that had defined his utterly appalling career. The frantic drive to call off the dog, on a highway undergoing some hard knocks from a rain storm (nature being [unlike Maurice and Silien] no patsy), has banal Maurice accompanied by banal big band melodramatics, in stark contrast to the searching, challenging glimmers cutting across the grain of Silien’s account of how clever and caring he has been, and all but smothered by figures as runaway middling as those populating film noirs—with generic film noir “suspenseful” musical motifs like those slotted into Maurice’s “desperate” “race against time.” Then there is Maurice’s “ironically” passing “all the time in the world” Silien, pausing for gas, at a gas bar with the sign “Total.” (With this sign, Melville brushes aside flaccid coyness and gets down to showing no mercy toward Silien and Maurice’s unreconstructed animalism.) The nouns one could string to that adjective! In another sense, the word covers a highway of sensibility with the exigency of a total inclusion and synthesis of all the kinetic factors welling up from those rare musical productions. Then again, as our protagonists are about to be gunned down, severally –like Silien’s victims at the Cotton Club—that contract killer hiding behind a chic screen in murky light, we are cued to notice what lives like Silien’s and Maurice’s amount to. That screen serves as a hunter’s blind from which to kill wild animals in season. Both “friends” enter Silien’s mansion— “I’m going to pack it in. I’ll retire there with her [Fabienne]. In this business you end up either a bum or dead…” –by way of tony French windows. As so often in this creation by a witty and formidable designer, the peripheral craftsmanship far outstrips the cadre of wayward appetites. Before his unbeknown time being up, Silien honks to and then comes up to and shows admiration for a fine black thoroughbred, the world of impulsive beasts making far more sense to him than the world of human creativity. (Such an artefact recalls the magical white charger in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.) On succumbing to the easily found killer, the new horseman has time to regard himself in a mirror inspired by Giotto. And then he makes a call to Fabienne, a transmission belittling his famous circumspection: “I won’t be able to make it tonight.” (This tough-guy noir cliché is an artefact strikingly lacking the range of the serious musical ventures.) Similarly, Maurice shows one flash of his former self; and it comes across as puerile. The elderly caretaker with his little poodle chafes at the (ultimately abortive) invasion. “This is an attack! This is aggression! Couldn’t you do any better than thieving?” The unsmiling aggressor retorts, “We’d like to be cops. But we want to make our pile first.” Then, again, as he enters the cell, he addresses his two cell-mates as, “Hi, men. I hope…”
Anchoring this film’s spate of carnivorous cynicism and cheap self-justification, there is a sketchily disclosed backstory to fill out the protagonists’ lifetime of rabidity. We hear snippets about Gilbert and his loose-lipped girlfriend, Arlette, toward which that pair Maurice was conflicted to a nightmarish extent. Over and above business imbroglio, he chillingly explains, “Killing Gilbert was hard… What made it necessary was his turning around and looking me in the eyes…” As you might expect, Silien’s backstory is more extensive. The other “good” friend of his, Salignari, a leading detective having been killed by trigger-happy Maurice during the bust, would have had to be as rotten to the core and preoccupied with stolen wealth as his confidant. This well-known situation of symbiosis had led to Silien’s untrustworthy (doulos, police informer) status (which crazily instinctive Maurice had for years chosen to disregard, as a form of talisman). During the interrogation of Silien about one of his two friends having killed the other, the fixer brags, “I’ll get the killer. Or if I can’t the police can’t either. And I won’t go to jail for it…” (The nature of his famous friendship is indirectly divulged along a gambit by the cop with the toothpick supposing he’d be touched by the death and feel cooperative. “You and Salignari were friends.” The less than crushed friend flips back, “Salignari is dead…”) The interrogator, actually stung by the loss of a personable colleague, begins to threaten opening the way for the Vice Squad to lay what are probably myriad charges having been put in limbo by that peculiar axis. But on Silien’s phoning around for the cop to discover Maurice’s whereabouts, that same lawman laughs off the vice connection when the versatile syndicate leader reminds him to close that door. “We’re smarter than you,” Mr. Toothpick chirps, looking forward to a new axis. (Before beating Therese like a violent owner of livestock, Silien runs by her her favorite color being brown. The same, in fact, could be said of him.)
To leave you with a magnified sense of the wash of far from well-known instincts driving this film I want to cover more closely the soundtrack during Maurice’s crossing paths with Avenue Mozart and the upshot of his turning on the radio at Therese’s. Along the stark rail siding, we first encounter him in dashing trench coat apparel disconcertingly too big for him, almost dress-like, as if he were a military nurse wandering far behind the lines of decisive action. A big band brass section presents a rather perfunctory march, as the protagonist tunnels under a series of overpasses, often consisting of grating reminiscent of World War I trenches and alerting us to a type of warfare always a presence however faintly noticed. Wafting out of this ho-hum sonic rote, there is a jazz flute bounce which is soon joined by a jazz vibraphone passage—giving this pan-shot a rather incongruous lightheartedness. A rattling antique train and the eerily whistling wind join this moment of decision between contrasting forces (Maurice’s funereal face being utterly unimpressed by the vibrancy in the air). The credits roll and a Metro train re-sets the era but not the mood. Then he pauses, the stilted band sound recommences and he trudges along a rural-looking dirt road (presumably an apt location for the various bumpkins hovering there). This composite endows the trek with the tone of a (divided) military invasion of a civilian home, questions of appropriateness weighing down. Once the camera comes inside, the resident cordially asks Maurice, “Have you eaten?” He cleans off his shoes on the rug by the door and looks at himself in a mirror there. He doesn’t like what he sees. (A while later, Silien will regard himself with his final move, still thinking, “What’s not to like?”) After the kill and the concealment of one form of the staff of life, Maurice is seen on his back in Therese’s bed and in an insufferable silence. He turns on the radio at the bedstead and once again those vibes are out there in their uncanny plenitude, trying to revive a constituency that not only doesn’t get it at the moment but doesn’t get it period. (With his [hardly unique] murder victim-to-be, Maurice responds to the old man’s exaggeration, “For you, everything’s changed,” by showing a fist and saying, “Nothing’s left.” As the organizer falls by reason of being shot through with lead, a lamp swings crazily, endowing the scene with vivid, alarming light and shadow in a testament to a dynamic which incompetent low-life cannot extinguish.) The arrival of Silien and his big and empty ideas to Therese’s (“I said I could hide you forever”) does not utterly silence those air waves seemingly from another planet. There is a little uptick of volume when Maurice refuses to enter into a life being Silien’s servant. When Jean arrives with the photo-journalism of Gilbert’s murder, the radio gives us some blues trumpet which operates as a nudge to look on the bright side that no one wants to look at. Conversation about that troubled constellation, Gilbert and Arlette—the paper wondering, rather generously, “An old score to settle?”—is graced (if you take the trouble to notice) by the soloist and his trumpet out there in the wilderness. Therese arrives and a piano line joins the vibes—impingement for better or worse. Silien praises the equipment he’s brought to let Maurice try to feel like a going concern— “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore”—and his departure brings on a rise in volume of the enduring vibe.
Maurice and Rene board a Metro car en route to getting nothing out of the best cutting instrument Silien’s ever seen. They surprise us with their matching, spiffy gas-jockey uniforms and startle us with their two-toned kickers the likes of which mall rats love to steal right up to the present. Those little surprises, missing in action, constitute an instance of that compass point (in a flood of lostness) leading the way by music. This motif reappears in a scene where Silien is picked up, on the heels of Salignari’s murder, by an unmarked police car (bringing along melodramatic musical crime themes heard only too often). The interception of our protagonist as he strolls along an up-scale retail street takes place at a shoe store window—in fact, a football-field-length of display covering a strange (you could say, this being a Melville event, a surreal) sweep of options. And any way you want to move with the inventory, glowing so strikingly in the night, what are the chances of someone making less of a mess than Maurice and his good friend? Pretty good, you’d have to admit, right? But this being a Melville film, there’s no happy medium. (All that half-assed music—quietly challenged by real music—is meant to engage the happy medium in a rigorous way, a supple way suggested by the instances of true improvisation.) But all those shoes confirm that there are kinetic initiatives to buy into. (One of the epigraphs, “Lie or die,” hardly gets things off on the right foot. That’s the world at small, not the surreal more, speaking. Similarly, another testing declaration, “Kill or swear,” leads us astray. I look forward to exploring next, another plague-filled scene, namely, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor .)