I’m not entirely sure why it has taken me this long to come around to writing about Le Doulos. This was another (mostly) great French noir that played at the Wellington Film Society and, for one reason or another, I just haven’t been able to marshal my thoughts on it. I found it neither revolutionarily great with a masterfully intricate plot nor ploddingly dull with no sense of style.
Usually when I think of French films of the 60's I might think of Umbrellas of Cherbourg or A Bout de Souffle. This feels very much like a noir film of the old school - filled with tough guys in trench coats smoking, drinking and living by their own strange code of honour.
A bit of pre-film text informs us of the meaning of the title: le doulos is French slang for "hat". In the criminal world this has come to refer to someone who is a finger-man; a snitch. One of these aforementioned trench-coated tough guys is thief Maurice. He's just got out of a stint in prison and a friend, a fence, is putting him up in his small shack. There is talk of a new heist brewing. And then Maurice kills him for an as yet unknown reason and then makes off with an armful of jewellery. He stashes the loot (in a beautiful and evocative shot - underneath a lone streetlight, surrounded by darkness) and makes his getaway to his girl's place. There his friend Silien brings him the tools for the next job. But the job turns out to be a set-up: the cops arrive and a shoot out ensues. Maurice's accomplice dies, along with a copper. Maurice survives thanks to a mystery saviour – but now he suspects his friend Silien
The film is stylish and beautifully shot, soaked in black and white atmosphere. But it is also at times brutal, cynical and misogynistic. It becomes a slippery beast, balancing these two opposing forces; the cool and the coolly violent. The personification of this is Silien, the man who seems to be playing both sides off one another smoking and chatting while he does it. He shows no compunction about casually smacking around Maurice’s lady, tying her up and smacking her around some more. What also shocked was the abrupt change in protagonist; the film focuses on Maurice until the job goes South and then switches to the traitorous snitchery bastard Silien.
I can’t really confirm what my ultimate thoughts on Le Doulos are. It’s a film I think I’d like to revisit some time, now knowing more of what I can expect but one that is currently sitting in a weird part of my brain. I certainly didn’t hate it; wasn’t repulsed or bored by it. But neither did I love it and find it to be a smart, stylish reworking of noir tropes. It's a film I would totally recommend and part of my difficulty with writing about it has been attempting to review without spelling out the plot, as that's one of the inherently interesting things about the film. What has been successful with Le Doulos and Touchez pas au grisbi is getting me excited about seeing even more French noir and crime films.