Monday, May 1, 2017

Le Doulos

The world of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (l963) is that of gangsters and cops. Following the opening credits it’s explained that Le Doulos means hat, which happens to be the hallmark of the lead character played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. But the hat, it’s explained, is also street argot for snitch and it’s an important component of the amoral morality of Melville’s universe. The movie, which is currently being revived at Film Forum, has a convoluted plot which is at times impossible to parse. A recently released ex-con murders a seemingly beneficent fence who has taken him under his wing. You learn that the murder is an act of vengeance, but more questions are created than are answered as Belmondo’s character navigates his way on both sides of the law. New wave French cinema was obsessed with American gangster movies; Breathless was, of course, the most well-known example of this and rather than Citroens most of the characters in Le Doulos drive American cars like their Hollywood counterparts. But the director’s vision is not the Manichean universe of right and wrong. Le Doulos poses a kind of forensic version of a Kuhnian  "paradigm shift" in which the underworld of murderers and thieves mirror and reflect that duplicity of normative society. The lack of empathy is at first shocking. The amount of killing is more reminiscent of a bloody Jacobean drama than film noir. A woman is savagely beaten and then disposed of in a car that’s pushed over a cliff. Belmondo, who orchestrates it to look like two gangsters have shot each other by placing murder weapons in their hands, eventually receives his own comeuppance. There’s both honor and dishonor among thieves who are neither better nor worse than anyone else, seems to be the operant point.

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