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The Criterion Collection presents

Le doulos (1962)

"In this business, you either end up a bum, or full of lead."- Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo)

Stars: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:49m:08s
Release Date: 2008-10-07
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

Even if it's going back nearly half a century, there's still something deeply bracing and extraordinarily surprising in seeing a French of artist of such prominence embracing America and American culture wholeheartedly. Director Jean-Pierre Melville took his nom de guerre from one of the greatest American writers, and his films brim with a love of pulpy Hollywood product, with an unmistakable emphasis on film noir and the police procedural. Le doulos shows his refinement of story elements and themes he first explored six years earlier, in Bob le flambeur, and makes for a bewitching and stylish motion picture.

It's also a madly complicated one, one of those movie for which you long for a road map, and on some level Melville's filmmaking style doesn't help much. Some of the images are sharp and wonderful, and he's got a great eye for finding the tension in the room, and for the play of light and dark; but it also means that a lot of this movie is guys in suits and fedoras exchanging threats and/or information, so at some point you're better off deciding not to try to tease it all out, and simply to let the style of the piece wash over you. The title of the film (we're told in the opening credits) is a bit of French slang, referring both to someone who wears a hat, and to a police informer. One of the points of many of Melville's films is that there aren't fiercely drawn moral lines between good and evil, that we spend most of our lives in a morally murky place, and that's borne out here—and the director is helped out immensely by his two very gifted leading men.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Silien, clearly the title character—he's not one to get muscled out of a score, and whether out of revenge, or loyalty, or sense of moral authority, he can narc anybody out with the best of them. Belmondo is certainly dashing—this is just a couple of years after his indelible performance in Breathless—but he doesn't seem like a mad egotist. His rubbery features and consistent self-effacement make him absolutely charming, even if his Silien is something of a sociopath—he's trigger happy, for one thing, and the only one brazen or stupid enough to hit on a mob boss's girl, even if she's an old flame. And Serge Reggiani plays Faugel, who may or may not be Silien's principal mark—particularly in comparison with Belmondo's repose, Reggiani seems like a fired-up little sparkplug of a guy, not the kind you want to wrong incidentally or by accident.

The plot becomes Byzantine in its double- and triple-crosses; it's based on a novel by Pierre Lesou, which might mercifully provide some clarity. But Melville's brio is so winning that it's worth sticking with, and you can certainly see the influence, of Melville's work in general and of this film in particular—it's a crucial precursor to The Departed, for instance. One other cautionary note: Melville's world is very much a boys' club, and being arm candy is about the best a woman can hope for. There are a couple of sequences of violence inflicted against women that are pretty brutal—garden variety compared to public access cable, certainly, but still, kind of startling and disturbing in the august Criterion Collection.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A decent transfer of occasionally muddy source material; still, it looks good enough on this DVD to make some of the film's matte shots look fantastically cheesy.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Adequate audio transfer, with some buzzing and muffling on occasion on the mono track.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Ginette Vincendeau
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: What's billed as a "selected-scene commentary" is very selected indeed—Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau's comments play under three scenes in the film, and clock in at under thirty minutes. Still, it's nice to see quality over quantity, as her remarks are well chosen—she discusses the place of the film in Melville's body of work, compares it to the source novel, and goes over the evolution of the policier. Three brief clips from French television feature the names above the title. We see Melville and Belmondo promoting the picture, in a 1963 joint interview (4m:26s); a puffy celebrity profile of Reggiani from the same year (7m:09s); and a 1970 clip (3m;15s) of what may be the Gallic equivalent of This Is Your Life, as Melville comes out and "surprises" Reggiani.

Two interviews with Melville protégés are even more illuminating. Bertrand Tavernier (15m:30s) served as the publicist on this project, a halfway point for him between film critic and director, and discusses Melville as mentor; and Volker Schlöndorff (13m:18s) spent years as Melville's assistant, before his own time in the directorial chair, on such pictures as Tin Drum, and also attests to Melville's generosity and enthusiasm for those moving up the ranks. The accompanying booklet features a brief essay on the film by Glenn Kenny.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

Stylistic mastery frequently makes up for some storytelling intricate to the point of opacity; it's a dark pleasure to visit Melville's Hobbesian world of Parisian gangsters, and this DVD has some heartfelt tributes to the film's auteur as well.

Jon Danziger 2008-10-06