Active Ingredients: Jean-Paul Belmondo; Complex plot
Side Effects: Strained tone; Exposition
With Le doulos French great Jean-Pierre Melville attempts to exploit the “cool” aesthetic of film noir, the French New Wave and his star Jean-Paul Belmondo, but while the shadows, trenchcoats and revolvers typical of the genre are present, something of its luridness and immediacy is missing. Even compared with Melville’s later Le cercle rouge (1970), already years removed from the New Wave noir that Melville practices here, Le doulos lacks the discipline and light touch needed to achieve true “cool”. The film’s plot is convoluted, and while the wrinkles unravel nicely (except for one long scene of exposition), the full scope of the story inspired ambivalence.
Still, it’s somehow comforting to watch the way Melville moves his chess pieces assuredly around the film. His movies are deliberately crafted and he always knows what is needed of each scene. Le doulos is no different, and it benefits from the added bonus of Belmondo as the most important chess piece. He breezes from scene to scene with an intriguing mixture of boyishness and gangster toughness. He’s having fun, but the tone of the film around him is more sombre than his famous Breathless (1960), perhaps too sombre to either truly inhabit “cool” or to provoke much involvement from the audience.