Jean-Pierre Melville – Le Doulos aka The Finger Man [+Extras] (1962)

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s existentialized gangster films are one of the glories of the French cinema, American forms played out with European self-consciousness. This 1962 effort stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as an informer on the lam, but plot pales before Melville’s detailed noir imagery of dingy hotel rooms, back alleys, and subterranean passages. Melville’s love for American films (he was a man of taste as well as talent) was one of the most profound influences on the New Wave generation.

Plot Summary :

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Maurice Faugel has just been released from prison when he kills his friend Gilbert Varnove. Maurice then attempts to commit a robbery. The police appear and he tries to run but the police shoot at him and he is wounded. He looses consciousness and awakes in his friend Jean’s apartment. He believes that his friend Silien told the police about his plans because Silien is rumoured to be a police informant.

Silien is questioned by the police about the murder of Gilbert and the robbery before the police collect Maurice from a bar where he is reading a newspaper report about his girlfriend, Therese’s death. Therese has been found in her car at the bottom of a quarry. Silien is released and goes to meet his ex-girlfriend Fabienne.

With Fabienne’s help, Silien frames someone else for the murder and robbery, leaving Maurice in the clear. Maurice is released from prison and discovers that it was Therese who told the police about the robbery and Silien and Jean who killed her. Maurice reveals that he killed Gilbert because Gilbert killed his girlfriend Arlette four years ago to keep her quiet. Silien returns home but once Silien has left, Maurice remembers that he hired a man to kill Silien because he thought he had betrayed him and chases after him.

Films de France Review :

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Le Doulos is a sophisticated policier which shows its roots in classic film noir throughout. The American gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s had a great appeal to director Jean-Paul Melville and in this film he creates one of the most memorable French film variants of the genre.

As in his subsequent film, Le Samourï, Melville explores the apparent contradiction of honour and morality in a gangster milieu. The criminals are ruthless but they adhere to a code of honour and fairplay which places them on a sounder moral footing than the police. Whereas Le Samourï achieves this through a very minimilstic plot, with little dialogue, Le Doulos is closer to the mould of a traditional detective film, but which is more intelligent than the norm, and far less predictable. The plot is complex, and it is only in the last fifteen minutes of the film that we discover who are the villians and who are the good guys.

Jean-Paul Belmondo is surprisingly effective as the hardened criminal who appears, quite convincingly, to be capable of betraying his friends to the police, in spite of his usual nice guy image. There is a nice touch of irony in that.

The photography is moody and effective – classic film noir. The shots accompanying the opening titles are particularly memorable and set the scene of what is to come very well indeed. The use of flashbacks in the last few minutes of the film appears something of a cop out, but it works very effectively to resolve the plot fully without adding further complexity or ambiguity. It also allows the suspense to be bottled up until the last possible moment, whilst making the tragic conclusion appear completely unavoidable

While French film noir retained much of the harshness and
cold-bloodedness of the American, it united these qualities with some measure of poetic realism`s spirituality. Its grounding, though, widely differs. Whereas American film noir provides extensive commentary on greed, masculine prerogatives, misogynism and the entrenchment in the American psyche of the nineteenth-century political myth of manifest destiny, French film noir refers, naturally enough, to French experience – specifically, during the war the German occupation in the north, and the role played by the collaborationists. Together, these national events and their aftermath of disillusionment explain the genre`s grip on the French imagination; they are the dark night of France that, at whatever remove, the images of French noirs evoke.

The title Le doulos translates as the finger man – in American parlance, the stoolie, or the rat. The film is an ambiguous descent into a morally clouded world of hoodlums, cops and, treading a line between the two, informants. In this world, people may not be what they seem, in either direction on the moral scale. Somebody`s loyalty may prove as unexpected as somebody else`s treachery.

The story, I presume, derives from the novel by Pierre Lesou that the credits cite as the film`s source.

Le doulos is a deeply affecting work, full of embittered sorrow and a sense of regret. Typical of noir, its visual form, outstanding, often involves underlit interiors or some intrusion of light into utter darkness – the collision of small light and vast dark along the metaphysical line where life passes over: flashlights illuminating stretches of interior space; street lamps seemingly exhaling tenuous breath. Nothing is quite clear, in an atmosphere of suspiciousness, betrayal and ever possible betrayal: an evocation of the Occupation, to be sure, but also a description of its legacy: France, coping with her memory.

Befitting a film descended from poetic realism – recall the ringing clock that outlasts François in Le jour se lève? – Le doulos shivers with symbolism. The principal one is Silien`s hat. For the longest time it seems inseparable from him, an extension of him that – I can`t resist the pun – encapsulates his toughness, privacy, secrecy, unknowableness, even indominability. Well into the film, at the gangster-owned night spot the Cotton Club (an American reference to match the earlier, funnier French one, the Mozart jewel heist), Silien doffs his chapeau for the first time that we see. (Ominously, the check number he is given is 13.) This transforms him. He appears exposed, boyish, vulnerable. Now we`re convinced of his innocence; somebody else must have fingered Maurice. The film`s last shot is of the empty hat. A true, brave, unselfish man, whom we thought a monster once, diminishes yet ennobles us in his passing – the tragedy of goodness in a fallen world.

Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Silien. (One year earlier he was superb for Melville as Léon Morin, a young priest involved in the Resistance.) His is a piercing performance, of such beauty and resilience as to justify both his own name and that of his character.

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Language:French
Subtitles:English – .srt

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