The term, “film noir”, was coined by French critics to describe a class of mostly B-grade Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s that covered the criminal underworld, in which the “heroes” as well as the villains were cynical, disillusioned lawbreakers living in a dark, gloomy, and corrupt urban environment. Some of the archetypal films of this period were The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Killers (1946), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But it was French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville who distilled the essence of film noir as an art form, and his films reached its highest levels of expression. Melville’s first complete realisation in this genre was Le Doulos (1962), although his earlier Bob Le Flambeur (1956) had some noirish atmospheric elements without the full panoply and without a satisfactory narrative payoff. But you can’t get by just on atmosphere. While style and atmosphere would always take precedence in Melville’s subsequent film noir renderings, the narrative elements of film noir are also crucial, and they are probably what attracted most viewers to Le Doulos.
There are three fundamental features of film noir:
- Fatalism. Most of the characters have pasts that they would like to forget and little hope for the future. In addition, the deck seems to be stacked against them, and the world is full of traps and unanticipated disasters. This leads to the narrative quest for an escape.
- Truth. The world is dark and obscure, and the truth is always elusive. At every turn, there is someone ready to doublecross you, and the police are as untrustworthy as the gangsters. This leads to the narrative quest to know what is true, a necessity in order to effect an escape.
- Loyalty. Because everyone, including the cops, are liars and noone can be trusted, there is a heavy demand to find someone who can be trusted – and then to remain loyal to that rare person. This leads to a professional code, the “honour among thieves”, which places life-threatening demands of loyalty on the trusted partners in the story. The required level of “professionalism” is almost inhuman, and when any human sentiment is manifested, it is a sure sign of weakness that leads to inevitable failure. It is only from the professional, trusted, loyal partner that one can know the truth that can lead to escape.
In narrative terms, the syuzhet is the plot as revealed to the audience, while the fabula is the overall story that lies behind the syuzhet. It is up to the viewer to form a mental construction of the fabula as he observes the syuzhet, and in Le Doulos, Melville places numerous obstacles in the way that make this a far from straightforward task. First, consider the syuzhet as presented in the film:
- Maurice Faugel, recently out of prison, pays a visit to fellow criminal Gilbert Varnove, who urges Maurice to go ahead with his partner Remy and pull off a robbery in the in the Neuilly area of the city. As they converse, Gilbert warns Maurice not to trust his friend, Silien, who is a suspected police informer. Maurice then shoots and kills Gilbert and makes off with a lot of his stolen jewels. Leaving just before some other his criminal colleagues, Nuttheccio and Armand, arrive, Gilbert buries the jewels in a shallow hole near the apartment.
- Later in Maurice’s room his two friends, Silien and Jean, show up, and Silien gives Maurice some safe-cracking tools that will be needed for the Neuilly job. Then Maurice’s girlfriend, Thérèse arrives, having been casing the Neuilly site in preparation for the robbery.
- After Maurice leaves his apartment, Silien returns and brutally beats up Thérèse to find out the precise location of the upcoming Neuilly job. Then he makes a mysterious phone call to police inspector Salignari.
- The robbery at Neuilly initially goes smoothly, but it is interrupted by the arrival of the police. In the ensuing gun battle Remy and police inspector Salignari are killed, and Maurice, though wounded, escapes and is taken to Jean’s place.
- Silien is picked up on the street by the cops for questioning. They want to know the identity of Remy’s partner who killed Salignari and got away. They also explain that Thérèse has died in a car accident. Silien, threatened with further police harassment, helps them find Maurice, whom they suspect of killing Gilbert.
- Someone is seen digging up the jewels that Maurice had buried outside Gilbert’s apartment.
- Maurice is duly arrested and thrown in jail. Maurice, now certain that he has been betrayed by Silien, wants to see his former friend dead and discusses his wishes with fellow inmate, Kern.
- Silien goes to Nuttheccio’s nightclub, “The Cotton Club”, and bullies his former girlfriend, Fabienne, who is now Nuttheccio’s gal, to testify that Nuttheccio killed Gilbert, rather than Maurice. He then kills Nuttheccio and Armand and places the stolen jewels on them to make it looked like they are Gilbert’s killers.
- Maurice is let out of jail, and he, Jean, and Silien repair to a local bar, where Silien (still suspected of being a police-informing rat by Maurice) explains everything. Silien gives Maurice some money that he had taken from Nuttheccio and convinces Maurice that he is, in fact, a truly loyal friend. He then departs for his house in the country.
- A few minutes later, Maurice gets a phone call reminding him that he had contracted Kern to kill Silien. He rushes to Silien’s place to head off the killing, but fails to prevent disaster. In the ensuing gun battle, Maurice, Kern, and Silien are all killed.
Within the context of this narrative framework of double-crosses and reversals, Melville embeds his treatment of the film noir triad of fatalism, truth, and loyalty.
Fatalism. Very few people in this tale escape. In a Melville film, the existential characters are the men – the women don’t count for much, but I will discuss them further, below. Of the ten male characters of any consequence in the film, nine of them meet existential termination:
- Gilbert – killed by Maurice
- Maurice – killed by Kern
- Silien – killed by Kern
- Kern – killed by Silien
- Jean – arrested by Police Superintendent Clain
- Remy – killed by Police Inspector Salignari
- Police Inspector Salignari – killed by Maurice
- Nuttheccio – killed by Silien
- Armand – killed by Silien
- Police Superintendent Clain – survives
Truth. Hardly anyone in the film has certainty about what is true. Gilbert says that Silien is untrustworthy. Maurice says that Nuttheccio and Armand are untrustworthy. Silien says that Jean talks too loosely. Thérèse lied to Maurice about being an informer. Fabienne is willing to lie about Nuttheccio for Silien. Superintendent Clain says that eyewitness reports of a crime are always untrustworthy – he needs hard evidence and confessions. And Silien (a) withholds his suspicions about Thérèse from Maurice, (b) lies about Maurice to the police, (c) lies to Fabienne to get her to testify against Nuttheccio, and (d) lies to Nuttheccio and Armand prior to murdering them. Yet in the end, Silien claims to be finally telling a really true story.
Loyalty. There are numerous betrayals and suspected betrayals throughout the film, as we might expect from the title, Le Doulos, which means in French underworld argot, the police informer. Informing to the police is an unconscionable act for a man in these underworld circles, but Melville’s women are treated as lower beings and are considered virtually incapable of loyalty. For example, there are four significant women in the story, and they are all abusively treated by their men and dismissed as weak creatures.
- Arlette, Maurice’s unseen girlfriend, has been murdered by Gilbert prior to the beginning of the film’s action, because Gilbert thinks she might talk to the police.
- Thérèse, the police informer, is brutally beaten up and then murdered. In fact, Jean boasts to Maurice later that he beat her unconscious and then had to waste a perfectly good coat in order to kill her.
- Anita, Jean’s wife, reveals the truth about Jean to the police. Even when the wounded Maurice is tended by Anita, he treats her rudely.
- Fabienne betrays her boyfriend Nuttheccio and is willing to lie about him to the police. At the end of the film, Silien reclaims her as if she were a temporarily mislaid object.
In general, Melville’s camera shoots the portrayed characters from constantly changing angles, thereby avoiding any sense of a specific point of view. The spectator is the voyeur watching from many perspectives and thereby not up close and identifying for long with the characters under inspection. Adrian Danks has remarked on this aspect of Melville’s style:
This concomitant sense of seeing and hearing things from both within and outside character is one of the most fascinating facets of Melville’s style. In the process, Melville's films constantly throw up new perspectives, cross-cutting between multiple points of view. Thus, his films don't exclude the optical point of view of characters but they don't privilege it either.With the film’s spectacular narrative reversals coupled with Melville’s mise en scène, could we say that this is film noir classic? Unfortunately, not this time – these would come later with Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). There are some weaknesses to Le Doulos that hold it back. For one thing, all of the characters are essentially despicable murderers. The viewer is not motivated to care about any of them and/or have a concern for what happens to them. In addition, the deliberate attempts to subvert the viewer’s understanding are far too conspicuous. There are three red herrings in the film that are intentionally posed in order to confuse the viewer: (1) when Silien calls police inspector Salignari after conversing with Maurice, (2) when he beats and ties up Thérèse, and (3) when he digs up the jewels outside of Gilbert’s apartment. All of these scenes have the uncomfortable air of artificiality. Of less concern, but still a problem is the character of Jean. Jean initially seems to be an important figure, and yet he disappears for most of the film, only to turn up again near the end. His disappearance would not be significant in real life, but in the tight scenarios of a film noir, it is noticed. Finally, there is the problem of casting Jean-Paul Belmondo as Silien. The Silien character is supposed to be a super-smooth string puller who gets his way with women, the police, and fellow criminals by spinning yarns. But Belmondo, already a young star from films like À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman, 1961), is too good-natured. His boyish impishness is charming, but doesn’t fit the role of the cold, tough-as-nails Silien. Much better is the performance of Serge Reggiani, as Maurice. His dour, tense expression and body language prefigures a sense of impending trouble – the perfect image of a film noir character.
– Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema
Because both Robert Bresson and Melville focussed on existential themes of loneliness and were the consummate film industry outsiders, one is tempted to look for affinities between the two. Indeed there are some connections, which deserve further exploration, but in a thematic sense, we can also see some opposite tendencies. Bresson was profoundly pessimistic about human greed and selfishness, yet there is always a suggestion that there may exist a transcendent reality – a higher existential plane that exists beyond these grim circumstances and which may offer grace. Melville, on the other hand, is a complete contrast on this score. For him, there is an optimistic belief in male loyalty in the here-and-now world, a belief in the honourable upholding of a professional code, even in the criminal underworld. At the same time, Melville’s world doesn’t offer even the slightest hope of transcendent salvation.