“Le Doulos” – A.J. Hakari

Some genres tend to get a free pass when it comes to stories. The likes of horror flicks and family movies are usually forgiven when they come up short in the plot department; as long as they’re entertaining, no one really seems to care. The same rules apply to film noir, whose tales are often so convoluted, it takes oodles of style to help the medicine go down. Unfortunately, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos isn’t so easily swallowed. A picture that has the noirish look down pat, its story is so mishandled that it drags the rest of the flick down with it, moving at a leaden pace in addition to being flat-out confusing.

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) has just been released after a lengthy stay in the clink — and what better way to celebrate his newfound freedom than to blow away an old associate and make off with his loot. But our story doesn’t end there, nor is it really where it begins. After hiding his haul, Maurice finds himself itching to get back into action and plots a small-time heist to supply himself with some extra cash. But when he assembles his old crew to help him pull off the job, Maurice finds himself wary of one member in particular: Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Word on the street is that Silien is an informer for the cops, the one responsible for sending Maurice up the river in the first place. Surely enough, the police interrupt Maurice’s big steal, his sights soon set on exacting revenge — that is, if Silien actually is the snitch people think he is.

Le Doulos is a surprisingly tactless film, especially from a filmmaker of Melville’s stature. I may not admire all of his films, but I expected him to have a more sure hand in storytelling than what he displays here. It all comes down to a problem also shared by the recent crime drama Righteous Kill, and that’s Melville not knowing exactly how to play his hand. It’s no surprise to know that Le Doulos has a few twists up its sleeve, unleashed during the film’s latter scenes to spin the story in a different direction. But where Melville runs into trouble is making it all too obvious from the get-go that what we’re seeing isn’t the whole truth. Instead of holding the audience in suspense, he bides his time before unveiling his revelations, at which point most viewers will have lost the ability to care. The film becomes a lot less interesting when you know where it’s going, especially when Melville provides little to distract you in the meantime.

That’s not to say that Melville doesn’t try, but it comes to pass that most attempts to enhance Le Doulos are hampered by its haphazard storytelling. Just as he did with Le Deuxième Souffle, Melville’s intentions are to delve into criminal psychology and not let mindless violence overwhelm the story. There are a few moments when he intriguingly ponders the concept of honor among thieves, ending the film on an ironic but not altogether unfitting note. Melville is also a master at conjuring up an ideal noir atmosphere, creating a distinctive universe of shadows and back alleys that never feels like he’s ripping off someone else. But all the introspective characters and dark cinematography can’t disguise the fact that Le Doulos is a big fat bore. The plot moves at a snail’s pace, kicking up one confounding scenario after another even as it dangles its secrets in front of our noses. The entire picture is a web of crime and deceit that Melville has rendered exhaustingly complex, providing a mystery that’s anything but a joy to solve and characters who seem as bored with the proceedings as we are.

It’s difficult to tell whether Melville meant Le Doulos to be a love letter to or subtle parody of the American film noir. He certainly nails the style, but what he’s lacking is the genre’s soul, that special essence that invites viewers to tag along on a dark journey they won’t soon forget. It’s one thing to play your audience like a piano, but Le Doulos bashes on its viewers like a three-year-old learning “Chopsticks.”

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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