"One has to choose. To lie...Or to die" and that little tagline perfectly describes both the plot and characters of Jean-Pierre Melville's twisty crime-drama, Le Doulos. Here is a dialogue-driven film that goes by American film noir tendencies with a deceptive charm. Melville never fails at creating characters with irresistible suave that nullifies just about all of their flaws. Sometimes Melville has put more of his effort into the slick, effortlessly cool look of his films than into the stories that they tell. Jean-Luc Godard did the same thing in his debut film Breathless (1960), but if it wasn't for them putting so much of his time and effort into the look and visual style of those films from the early 60s, the French New Wave just wouldn't have been the same.
Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) and Sillien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) are two very similar men who are in very different situations. Maurice is a career criminal who has just recently been released from prison, Sillien is younger and has taken very dangerous risks, which has lead him to become a police informant, in hopes of moving away to a "nicer" place. Both men have created lives for themselves that requires them to lie just as much as they tell the truth which makes it close to impossible to even know when they are being genuine. When going into this film you just need to let yourself know that nothing is what it seems.
One of the best scenes has Sillien being brought in by the cops who are accusing him of informing about a robbery at a mansion that Maurice is involved is a real highlight that is wonderfully ironic. This conversation is filled with lies on both parts along with lies conflicting with their previous lies. At one point they talk about how the police are unable to get any information about a the mysterious murder of Maurice's girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) due to none of the witnesses being able to come to any conclusion besides that a women was in the car and a man left. Superintendent Clain (Jean Desailly) says that the cause of that is because witnesses are easily "influenced" by lies in the newspapers. By the end of this exhausting lie-fest Sillien, the police, and also us, are so lost in the conflicting stories, so when Sillian submits to a lie by the police that has nothing to do with the plot all we can do is laugh.
Dialogue is the driving force, without a doubt, but Belmondo and Reggiani's performances are essential to the one-of-a-kind style. Those two men, especially Belmondo, could be put on the cover of a magazine for 60s style. Both embody roles that work perfectly with their natural flair. Belmondo first worked with Melville in Godard's film Breathless, that I have mentioned before. That one film is given credit by many for perfecting the style of the French New Wave. His role in Breathless is as Michel, a wild petty-criminal who lives life without direction or purpose. Here he fits much better in a role as a street-smart criminal who devises patient, genius plans.
Reggiani's career in film ended with Le Doulos. After tiring of acting he turned to a singing career which he had much success in. Though seeing how perfectly his rough image worked in these kind of films really makes me wonder what his acting career could have become. I can easily say that his performance as Maurice is one that drifts into the shadow of Belmondo's towering presence, but there are many scenes that Reggiani quietly steals.
Melville miraculously keeps this roller coaster of a plot from becoming frustrating, at any point really; plot twists lead to confusion, and confusion leads to frustration and frustration leads to a unpleasant viewing experience. By making it obvious that the real truths will never be given to us, that give a relaxed feeling of just going with the flow of a plot that never stops throwing curves when you so surely expect a fastball.
Le Doulos is set in France and has all the classy French culture from the marvelous 60s, though it is an American film noir narrative direction that is taken. Shouldn't it be illegal for a movie to make being a criminal so cool? I'm very glad it isn't, Melville is a man who is dedicated to certain looks and feelings that he expresses in each of his films, so you will always have some fascinating to look at. With saying that, when he gets a good story going watch out because you just may be witnessing something very special. Le Doulos is Melville's first film to bring look, feel, and story together with near perfection.