“Doulos,” based on the explanatory note at the beginning of this movie, and on the little bit I’ve read about this movie, evidently is French for “hat” or perhaps a certain kind of hat, or colloquially can refer to someone who wears such a hat, or can be slang for an informant or “finger man.” The subtitle under the opening title of the movie translates it as the last—“finger man.” On the other hand, when I entered the term into an online French-English dictionary, with no reference to this movie, it informed me that the word means “dog.”
Confused yet? Le Doulos has the reputation of being an unusually confusing French film noir by director Jean-Pierre Melville from 1962. It is indeed filled with shifting alliances, double crosses, and triple crosses, and for most of the movie all you get are little clues as to who is doing what and why. Not to mention virtually every scene is at night, and the characters all dress in pretty much the same gangster costumes to make them hard to tell apart. But in the end, the character played by Jean-Paul Belmondo (who, prior to seeing this movie I believe I had never heard of except in the lyrics of Donovan’s “Sunny South Kensington” where he’s getting stoned with Mary Quant) explains the whole thing.
There’s always the chance he’s not being completely forthcoming, since he’s one of the crooks himself, but I get the sense we’re supposed to believe his explanation. Still, even with his little speech, it’s all rather convoluted. If asked to summarize the plot of this movie, prior to Belmondo’s explanation I could have described maybe 40% of it and after maybe 80%, so it clarifies things significantly but doesn’t make everything obvious and understandable, at least not on a first viewing.
Frankly though, grasping 80%, or heck even 40%, is better than I could do with plenty of other movies I’ve seen (e.g., Gomorrah or L’argent, just to name a couple off the top of my head) even if we limit it to just foreign crime dramas, so I don’t know that it’s as confusing as one might expect from its reputation.
By the way, was this type of “reveal,” where one of the main characters fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle with a monologue at the end, already an established trope in 1962? I’m pretty sure it was, as it’s the kind of thing we’ve all seen a million times in movies or TV shows (or for that matter novels or any other storytelling vehicle I suppose). I don’t remember for certain, but I’m picturing it maybe in old Charlie Chan movies or those Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies. I recall a more recent instance of it on The Simpsons where Bart explains one of Sideshow Bob’s murder plots to Homer. (The best part of that was how Homer still couldn’t figure it out no matter how clearly it was explained, so Bart was reduced to acting it out for him with hand puppets. Belmondo does not resort to hand puppets to explain himself to his fellow crooks in Le Doulos, though it certainly would have been awesome if he had.)
This is the kind of movie that’s probably appreciated as much or more for its atmospherics as its story anyway. But I would think that for those who are into these old black and white gangster noir movies, both the atmospherics and the story would get high marks. The story is not just there as an afterthought (like in, say, Diva), but in the end is at least somewhat interesting and, as I say, somewhat understandable.
For me, though, this is a genre that I only like OK, not a favorite of mine. So even if I’d be inclined to give Le Doulos, say, a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 for films of this genre, the genre itself doesn’t do all that much for me, so Le Doulos isn’t a film that made a big impression on me.
Still, I’m inclined to rank it modestly above Bob le Flambeur, which I believe is the only other Melville film I’ve seen and written about.