If you do not know the films of Jean-Pierre Melville you need to go rent some immediately. Melville was a part of the French New Wave, but instead of opting for portraits of disaffected youths and urban ennui, Melville chose as his subjects the men and women of crime life: assassins, police, gangsters, thieves, gamblers, fences, molls, bartenders, chanteuses, safecrackers, spies, and con-artists.
I saw a great many of Melville's films years ago when I was living in Los Angeles. My friend Karen and I became slightly obsessed with his genius film Le Samouraï, and from there watched Le Cercle Rouge, Bob le Flambeur, and the Cocteau adaptation Les Enfants Terribles. We were fortunate enough to be able to cap off our obsession when Army of Shadows, which was released in France in 1969 but had never been released in the U.S., finally made it to theatres in early 2006.
Since, as you know, I have been obsessed lately with 1930s gangster pictures, I got a hankering to watch the old master at work, to see the genre as it was so gorgeously updated by Melville in the '50s and '60s.
And so I rented Le Doulos, which is a slang term referring to a stoolie, someone who plays both sides and rats out his friends to the police. Melville is just. so. good. Anyone who loves movies simply has to rent this man's work.
Le Doulos is a clean, sleek, cold film noir with a fascinating set of characters, a surprising series of twists, and gorgeous photography. It stars Jean-Paul Belmondo (the sexpot star of Godard's Breathless) but Le Doulos is truly an ensemble film with a whole bunch of fabulous actors.
One of the things I love about Melville's work is that his criminals are always career-criminals. People who have been in prison before, men who have been fencing stolen jewels for forty years, women who are never surprised when their boyfriends show up with a gunshot wound and don't bat an eye when they are asked to case a house. These people are often attractive, likable, even sexy, but they are also always exhausted. The years of working as hard as they have to stay ahead of the law and away from the assassin's bullet have always taken their toll on their bodies and you can see the weariness in their eyes. These are films about latter-day Hamlets, men and women who have seen too much of life and who are no longer delighted by its charms, who have come instead to see the whole thing as kind of pointless and absurd. In this way, the movies remain, for me, powerful and deeply moving. They're gangster films, sure, but they are also fundamentally about life in the 1950s and 1960s, and if they are formally very different from the films of Godard or Resnais or Truffaut, their content seems, to me, very similar, and just as profound.