Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 109 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: October 7, 2008
Review Date: October 2, 2008
By 1962, film noir on a large scale was pretty much finished in the United States, but French director Jean-Pierre Melville kept the genre flying higher than ever in the masterful Le Doulos. Filled with the deceitful gangsters, brittle stoolies, and vampish vixens that codify the genre, Le Doulos is made even more powerful with superb, charismatic casting, a plot with enough labyrinthine twists to confound even purists on the first viewing, and the look and feel that’s unmistakably noir: lots of expressionistic shadows and a gritty, untrustworthy atmosphere where even one’s mother would be a questionable presence.
Two ex-cons Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and Frugal (Serge Reggiani) are involved in more elaborate schemes than they first appear: one involving a robbery and the other involving vengeful murders. But who’s faithful, and who’s a rat? Who can be trusted, and who’s out for blood? Who’s lying, and who’s truthful? With that last question, there is reason to believe we may not know the whole truth even by the end of the film.
Melville’s screenplay (based on the novel by Pierre Lesou) begins by positing that the word “doulos” in the title has two meanings: “hat” and “informer.” Not only will those two words play significantly into the story about to unfold, but the duality of the title is also symbolic of the duplicitous nature of Melville’s storytelling. For much of the running time of the film, what we think we’re seeing isn’t exactly as it appears. We get clued in late in the film about what we’ve seen and wrongly assumed to be true, but Melville’s skillful manipulation of information, both with words and images, is beyond brilliant. And as the real story begins to become clear late into the movie, our first urge is to go back to the beginning and watch everything again with this newfound knowledge at our disposal. Le Doulos is one of those movies that gains in power with repeated viewings. And with repeated viewings, one can really appreciate Melville’s assertive film noir style. Those deep shadows, the clacking footsteps in darkness that give one pause, the jazz music on the soundtrack (which in one brazen moment, Belmondo stops by snapping off the radio), the smoky, sultry nightclubs where anything sinister is possible: Melville exploits these noirish staples and broadens the effectiveness of the film in the process.
After his meteoric rise to stardom with Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo appeared in a dozen films in a two year period before tackling Le Doulos. His star turn is effortlessly charismatic: slick but deadly. Serge Reggiani scores as the pitiably doomed huckster who can’t catch a break. Jean Desailly, René Lefèvre, and Michel Piccoli play the other primary cops and cons with a measured amount of snide arrogance. Philippe March as the faithful Jean and Monique Hennessy as the put-upon Thérèse also make solid impressions.
Le Doulos is superb filmmaking, a bracing film noir which keeps one’s attention constantly aroused with its twisting plot and duplicitous characters.
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is beautifully captured in this amazing anamorphic transfer. The medium grain used in the filming gives just the right amount of grit that this somber tale of robbery and revenge requires, and the transfer displays it to perfection. The grayscale is magnificently rendered with deep blacks, shadow detail that’s wondrous when needed (and obscured when appropriate), and pristine sharpness. The print shows no age related artifacts either, something of a surprise with a film of this age. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack mixes the dialog, music, and sound effects very nicely into the center channel though some higher ranged audio can sound a bit shrill on occasion. There is momentary flutter on the track, too, but nothing that lingers for very long.
Three sequences in the film receive a scene specific audio commentary by Melville scholar Ginette Vincenderu. Her explanation and analysis is so fascinating that it’s a pity she didn’t offer insight for the entire film. However, the comments which are here are most worthwhile. Oddly, the film that plays as she talks is a nonanamorphic letterboxed version of the movie.
Three vintage television interviews can be chosen from the user menu. A 1963 interview with director Melville and star Belmondo runs 4 ½ minutes. A later 1963 interview features co-star Serge Reggiani and lasts 7 minutes. The third interview done in 1970 lasting 3 ¼ minutes features Reggiani and a surprise appearance by director Melville. All are in black and white and are presented in 4:3.
Director Bertrand Tavernier speaks for 15 ½ minutes recounting stories about his work as a publicist on the film. This featurette is in anamorphic widescreen.
Director Volker Schlöndorff served as an assistant director on the movie and he reminisces for 13 ¼ minutes on both the brilliance and the aggravation of working for Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s presented in 4:3.
A theatrical trailer for the film, beautifully put together by showing high points of drama without giving any secrets away, runs for 2 ¼ minutes in nonanamorphic letterbox.
An enclosed leaflet includes the cast and crew credits along with the chapter listing and an appreciative essay on the movie by film writer Glenn Kenny.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos serves as a graceful homage to the Hollywood film noirs like The Asphalt Jungle that he admired so strongly. This is every bit their equal and is presented here by Criterion with an exceptionally strong video encode. Highly recommended.