The universe of Jean-Pierre Melville is so specific to the movies that it verges on abstraction. The sun rarely shines and the universe weeps when tough guys die. Le Doulos, a 1963 thriller opening at the Nuart in a new and improved 35 mm print, unfolds in Melville’s characteristically austere and heavily encoded demimonde — a bleak, black-and-white terrain inhabited almost exclusively by petty thieves and their tawdry blondes. The title is underworld argot for “hat” and the one who wears the hat, namely an informer.
The most America-philic of French cineastes, Melville named himself after the author of Moby-Dick, drove a Ford Galaxy, affected a Stetson, drank Jack Daniel’s and fetishized Hollywood gangster flicks. Le Doulos’ specially designed phone booths, its police station and even its Venetian blinds are self-consciously American. The movie features eight fatal shootings, six of them point blank, but Melville is less interested in violence than in a certain kind of poetry: He feasts on the sight of a world-weary killer beneath a suburban street lamp, scratching out a shallow trench to stash his gun; adores the image of a black car drenched by a hyperbolic cloudburst; ends his movie with a thunderous close-up of a hat fallen to the ground.
As steeped in ritual as a Japanese tea ceremony, Melville’s underworld is governed by primitive emotions, rigorous classicism, and the veil of illusion. Honor among thieves is at once the supreme value and ultimate fantasy. Appearances are deceptive by definition — the only constant is the underlying misogyny. But why blame women? Le Doulos is a movie in which just about everything and everybody proves false. The movie’s twists and turns are so convoluted as to leave the viewer pondering a pretzel. Nouvelle vague icon Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as a professional stool pigeon and thug of mystery, whose divided loyalties are never entirely resolved. According to Melville, “It was only when Le Doulos was finished and Belmondo saw himself on the screen that he realized, with great astonishment, ‘Christ! The stoolie is me!’?” (Nuart)
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