Hard-boiled French director Jean Pierre Melville has enjoyed an unexpected posthumous revival in recent years with the rediscovery and re-release of the '50s and '60s underworld masterpieces Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai and Army of Shadows. Just in case the crime-doesn't-pay maxim somehow hasn't penetrated our dense craniums, Le Doulos, another shimmeringly gorgeous and defiantly grim tale, comes our way this Friday for a week-long stay at the Castro Theatre.
Melville's milieu is the shadowy, nocturnal world of crooks, cops and informers. Betrayal is a recurring theme, revealing and ridiculing the paradox of "honor among thieves." (A line of dialogue explicitly addresses the so-called criminal code.) A thief named Maurice (Serge Reggiani), fresh out of prison after four years, drops by the flat of a fellow heist artist in the brilliantly photographed opening scene. Gilbert is a solid pal, helpful in every way, and yet their reunion ends badly. In Melville's world, no good deed goes unpunished. It's film noir with a French twist.
The wild card in this nest of vipers is Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a tall, bony raven who's secretly a double agent; that is, he's a crook and a double-dealer who sells out his erstwhile buddies to the police. The plot he concocts to stay a step ahead of everyone -- and to save his miserable hide -- provides the crux of the film.
Le Doulos is a minor work compared to the best of Melville, but it is still impeccably crafted, utterly mesmerizing from the first shot to the last and shockingly, effectively violent (even after 45 subsequent years of movie-makers refining -- and wallowing in -- the depiction of murder and mayhem). Melville's use of black-and-white is consistently exquisite, with every single frame a lustrous, suitable-for-framing, silver nitrate composition. There's a wonderful lengthy interrogation/negotiation scene between Belmondo and some detectives down at the station that Melville shoots in a single uninterrupted take; he seems to be looking back to The Big Sleep and ahead to Goodfellas, but he doesn't call attention to himself.
As fabulous as the cinematography is, the soundtrack is equally outstanding -- and perhaps more important to the film's impact. There's precious little of the witty, empty banter favored by Scorsese and Tarantino's wise guys; Maurice and Silien talk only when they have a purpose, namely when they're running a scam on somebody. The judicious, occasionally minimalist use of both dialogue and music serves a crucial function; When a gun goes off, it blows a hole in the theater.
The cognoscenti and pop-culture mavens will lap up the Melvilleisms that dot the picture -- Silien drives a big-finned American car (an homage to Belmondo's ride in Breathless, perhaps); the ticket slid into the band when Silien checks his chapeau at a club is #13 -- but this is serious adult entertainment. Every shooting raises the stakes, and the criminals do not reserve their ruthless brutality only for men. It might seem odd to release Le Doulos during the dog days of summer, but in fact the timing is perfect. With one sharp stroke, Melville erases the manic insipidness of a summer's worth of Hollywood blockbusters from our dense craniums.
Le Doulos plays August 17-23, 2007 at the Castro Theatre, Castro at Market, San Francisco.