A Silky, Smooth Way to Die

Jean-Pierre Melville's 1962 film, Le Doulos, opens today at Film Forum and you should dash over and see it sometime in the next two weeks. In some ways, it's something of a dry run for his masterpiece, Le Samourai, a coolly deliberate, methodical noir, immersed totally in the mores and culture of a higly stylized French underworld. Of course, those of you who are just recovering from the end of The Sopranos will immediately recognize the utter falseness of this picture of criminal behavior and code, but Melville is without irony, a moralist to the core and, as Tim Cawkwell suggests in his intelligent (if not entirely convincing) The Filmgoer's Guide to God, creator of an existential world in which ethics takes on the role of faith.

As is the case in almost all of Melville's gangster films, the plot is vastly more complicated than it would be in a comparable American genre film. (The same may be said of Leone's westerns, which raises an interesting question: are these Europeans more interested in the working-out of intricate plots for their own sake or is there some larger intellectual/cultural difference at work here?) Maurice (Serge Reggiani, looking shockingly like the young Walter Matthau) has recently been released from prison. He seeks out the fence who may have ratted on him and kills him. When he is picked up by the cops for questioning, he begins to think that an old acquaintance, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), may have fingered him this time. Needless to say, nothing is that simple.

Melville creates his shades-of-gray Paris with gliding camera movements that help him establish a moral equivalence between thieves and thief-takers that Sam Fuller would love. Just as the Syndicate in Underworld USA, made at the same time, follows the same rules and superficially obeys the law, therefore bearing more than a slight resemblance to the Feds who are tracking them, Melville's cops and crooks are visually undistinguishable. Yet the casting of Belmondo, an actor who exudes a kind of moral certainty onscreen, gives the bad guys a heft that goes beyond our natural desire to side with outlaws. The devil not only has the best tunes, he also has star quality.

Of course, in the Melville universe, the devil is a medieval irrelevance. What matters is the tilt of your hatbrim, the way you light your cigarette, the sharpness of your lapels. I have too great a love for Melville's films to reduce his ethical code to a matter of Parisian haute couture; he's much too great a filmmaker for that. But stylishness is certainly a valid visual signifier for moral potency. American filmmakers prefer to do it the other way 'round, of course. The guy with the colorful mode of dress in a Boetticher western is invariably the villain, the rapid ascent of the gangster in Hollywood films is usually accompanied by overt displays of expensive gaucherie. Tony Camonte (in Hawks's Scarface) isn't the only guy ever to mistake "gaudy" for a compliment.

Melville's underworld, then, is a fairy land. His gangsters are more like medieval knights than the real knights were. But that's fine. He is offering us parables, tales with moral lessons to teach, not documentaries on the actual Parisian version of Five Families. And his crisply analytical approach to action sequences is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying, shot through with a detached architecture of violence, just cool enough to keep us from turning away, but plenty smart enough to keep us engaged. Le Doulos isn't as transcendentally brilliant as Le Samourai, but an artist only makes one work like that in a lifetime, and Le Doulos is more than good enough.