To dramatize gangsters because of some fictitious "code"...to romanticize them by dressing them in trench coats with the collars pulled up and Borsalinos on their heads...is not just naive, it's downright silly. One wonders what Melville, with Cagney and Raft in his system, would have done with some modern thugs like Vincent "Vinny Gorgeous" Basciano, Peter "Rabbit" Calabrese or Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik. These hefty slobs would look ludicrous in fedoras, and their "code" included back shooting each other.
Melville's fascination with idealized and rigidly unreachable gangsters comes across almost as weird as Hitchcock's fascination with blond ice queens who can be humiliated. We're talking fetish, and if Melville and Hitchcock weren't such masterful moviemakers they'd probably be discussed in psychology textbooks and not in articles by film historians. But Melville and Hitchcock are masterful directors, and even their failures are interesting. Melville's Le Doulos is by no means a failure. It's a story of betrayal and double crosses and then more double crosses, some real, and some by tough men who make wrong assumptions. There's a sizable body count among those who wear trench coats and Borsalinos. The movie has that gritty, depressing, shadowed look of great noirs. If you're into masterful craftsmanship, Le Doulos is hard to beat.
Le Doulos tells us about Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), a tired gangster just out of prison who knows someone informed on him. He kills the man, but did he get the right man? He plans a burglary, using his girl to check the place out and a friend, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), to loan him the safe-cracking equipment. Bad luck again; the cops show up, one gets killed and Faugel gets a bullet in his shoulder. This time we think we know who the stoolie is. We'd be foolish to place a bet on it. Or would we? Now the story becomes as much about Silien as Faugel. Belmondo's Silien may be an oily charmer, but Belmondo gives him dangerous shock value as well as star charisma. His questioning of Therese, Faugel's girl friend, is startling
I don't buy the theory that a storyline that appears confusing is probably a great director's way of either playing with the audience or having an approach that is just too subtle for most of us to grasp. My theory is that, more often than not, the director simply lost control of the material, or ran out of production and editing time, or possibly just got a little bored with the project. I have no idea which was the reason with Le Doulos, but the storyline, already intricate with double crosses, leaves a lot for last minute tidying up. Silien's recapitulation of events, shown in flashback, doesn't help much. I started to think I must be in an English drawing room listening to Hercule Poirot explain how it all happened. Except...did I miss something at the end? No, but you sure better have an excellent memory for characters seen once, almost instantly. When you see finally what the last twist is, it seemed to me to be a case of heavy-handed theatrical irony.
The movie is a great technical experience to watch. It's a fine example of Melville's technical mastery of his craft and his fascination with film gangsters and the self-imagined world he places them in. The story? For me, not all that involving; it's the storytelling that's the pay off.
Melville's reputation, in my view, rests firmly on Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection, Bob le Flambeur - Criterion Collection and, to a lesser extent, Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) - Criterion Collection. The more he veered into gangster style at the expense of the story, the more he veered into the world of film dilettantes and of professors of film studies. You know, the kind who love long tracking shots. Melville deserves better than what some of his professional enthusiasts lavish on him.
The Criterion issue of Le Doulos has a fine black and white film transfer as well as several extras.