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Le Doulos review – Jean-Pierre Melville's brilliant but moody tough-guy drama

Fabienne Dali and Jean-Paul Belomondo in Le Doulos.
Fabienne Dali and Jean-Paul Belomondo in Le Doulos. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 thriller Le Doulos is rereleased in connection with a complete retrospective for his centenary at London’s BFI Southbank. The title means “hat”, slang for informer, stoolpigeon, rat or grass, and it’s a moody, ruminative lowlife crime drama winding up with as many corpses on the floor as Hamlet, and pungent with the sweaty maleness of Melville’s tough-guy pictures.

It’s also a world of grisly unreflective misogyny, in which women can be slapped around and beaten up. The movie features Melville’s classic images: the nightclub scenes, impassive criminals in cars wearing the uniform of snap-brim hats, trench coats, cigarettes dangling from the mouth – so uniform, in fact, that they look alike, and Le Doulos is the one Melville film that finally puts a self-aware, black-comic narrative twist on this generic mannerism.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Silien, a safe-cracker who labours under the reputation of a “doulos” because of his friendship with a cop. His buddy Maurice (played by the Italian actor and singing star Serge Reggiani) is just out of prison and, having already whacked the fence he knows killed his girlfriend while he was inside, is now on the run again because his latest robbery was interrupted by Silien’s inspector friend, whom Maurice shoots dead before escaping. Silien is suspected of fitting him up, so he realises that to redeem his criminal honour, he must get the law off Maurice’s back by framing an alternative suspect for the cop killing: creepy club-owner Nutthecchio (Michel Piccoli).

It’s a very distinctive movie, although not as good, for me, as Melville’s Le Samourai or Army of Shadows. There is a brilliant moment when a victim stares terrified into the camera lens – and we realise he is staring down the barrel of the gun that will kill him.

This article titled "Le Doulos review – Jean-Pierre Melville's brilliant but moody tough-guy drama" was written by Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian on Friday 11 August 2017 12.00pm

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