Le Doulos

Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1962 classic noir gangster film Le Doulous blew me away. Beinning simply with ex-con Maurice walking though a squalid neighborhood, it soon delivered its first of several completely surprising murders. Maurice visits his friend Gilbert, who gives him information and offers cash to tide him over with the promise of more. After Maurice asks Gilbert to borrow a gun, he turns the gun on his old friend. It’s the first of several betrayals and murders.

Maurice then grabs Gilbert’s cash and all the jewel’s he’s reworking and was going to fence. Before he’s out of the house, Maurice hears a car drive up and he scrambles to escape and stash the jewels and money. Nuttheccio and Armand, big time gangsters, were to get the jewels from Gilbert and when they see he’s dead. Maurice manages to flee and bury the loot.

Next thing we see is Maurice is at his girlfriend Thérèse’s apartment preparing to meet his crony Rémy to carry out their heist. Maurice and Rémy’s jewel heist fails with both Rémy and the victim killed and Maurice is shot and passes out. Selien visits Thérèse and brutally beats her to find out Maurice’s whereabouts. Somehow Maurice winds up at a friends home where a doctor is tending to his wound, while Selein appears to be double crossing him with the police.

Melville treats us to a well lit, dark gangster film that pays homage to American gangster films while exploring friendship, loyalty and betrayal. The plot is loaded with shocks and surprises till the last scenes. There isn’t one point that didn’t hold my attention.

The Criterion Collection DVD is now unavailable, but many libraries probably have it. Mine did. Besides the masterful film there are bonus items like two interviews with directors who began as Melville’s apprentices and an analysis of three pivotal scenes.

From these extrasI learned that Melville always had to be at war with some one on the set. He built an apartment cum studio and his apartment was decorated in a New York rather than Parisian style. He tried to make this film look as American as possible. On the first day of filming he’d say “Good Morning” to everyone working on the film then he’d announce that he would not be wasting time with these greetings in the days ahead. He had no time for that!

Memories of Melville’s Army of Shadows led me to find another film of his and I’m glad I did.

Army of Shadows

An amazingly powerful film, Army of Shadows shows the ordinary people joined the French Resistance and courageously opposed the Germans during WWII.

From the solemn beginning with German soldiers goose-stepping in front of the Arc de Triomphe to the bitter end, when . . . oh, I won’t say, Army of Shadows grabbed me.

After the opening sequence, we meet Gerbier, who’s sitting in the back of a German truck getting transported to a prison camp. Scenes of ordinariness follow. The truck driver makes a stop to pick up provisions from a farmer. Gerbier’s guard makes small talk to let Gerbier know he’s going to a “good” prison camp. At the camp, Gerbier is housed with two groups of prisoners, the first three amuse themselves with dominos and chit chat and seem to be and to have been men who just go with the flow. The other two prisoners are a young communist and a dying Catholic teacher. The division reflects French society, two groups, one that’s earnest and sickly and the other that’s lively, but superficial. Neither one gets much accomplished. Thus Gerbier sets his own course and doesn’t join either “side.” He’s the lone, strong, sensible man.

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Gerbier is transported to the Nazi headquarters and manages to escape. Then as he meets the other members of the Resistance, we watch as Gerbier leads a plot to abduct and kill the young man, who betrayed the Resistance. ordinary people plan and organize what would be criminal acts they’d never undertake in ordinary circumstances.

All the actors deliver compelling performances. The story presents a fascinating look at history and was quite controversial when it was released in France in 1969. Critics were divided on the film because of its controversial portrayal of the Resistance fighters, who sometimes act like very intelligent gangsters.

What’s amazing about the film is how little action it contains. In certain instances there are chases and attacks, but that’s subordinate to the characters’ thinking, sacrifice and courage.

This film was so compelling that after I finished watching I started watching again, this time with the commentary running.