Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) is a thief just out of prison, but wholly unreformed by his experiences there, it's simply another hazard of the job of a career criminal. He already has another heist planned, on a town house that contains riches, but before that he ventures to the rundown home of one of his associates, Gilbert (René Lefèvre), an ageing fence who passes on Maurice's spoils and takes his own cut of the profits. Maurice is there to ask him a favour: does he have a gun he can borrow for this next robbery, just in case things turn ugly? He makes it clear he is not planning to shoot anyone, simply make noise and intimidate with the pistol, and Gilbert agrees...
Or at least he does until Maurice removes the firearm from his desk drawer and murders him with it, the first example of a burst of brutal violence that sparsely punctuated this thriller from cult French director Jean-Pierre Melville. He had recently enjoyed his biggest hit with his wartime religious drama Léon Morin, Priest, which had been out of character in his oeuvre since he was, then and now, most associated with his film noir-aping suspense and crime drama, and seeing as how he was regarded as a safe pair of hands in this genre, producer Carlo Ponti had hired him knowing that a Melville gangster yarn was a certain success, his standing having come along in leaps and bounds.
If you can stand while leaping and bounding. Anyway, Le Doulos was very much business as usual for the director who had studied his beloved Hollywood thrillers of the nineteen-forties and fifties to serve up his very particular tribute to them, his underworld depictions both grittily realistic in their lack of sentimentality about these very bad men, yet also curiously romantic, as if their lack of a code and looking out for number one right to the end was somehow admirable in its purity of purpose. As the title character, Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had starred in that priest success, could not have been more different, but was by now an old hand at playing shady men who had no qualms about lawbreaking.
As long as they could benefit, that was fine, and it was accurate to say once you realised not only was Belmondo's Silien out for himself at any cost, but everyone else was displaying a caustically cynical self-interest as well, then you would have what turned out to be a somewhat convoluted narrative sussed. If that meant no surprises, so be it, though if you were new to Melville then his tricks would seem a lot fresher, and his callousness in how the denizens of this criminal atmosphere were treated, including the women, was a lot harsher than much of what Hollywood was conjuring up at this point in the sixties, though ironically (or was it appropriately?) as he made a name for himself that self-same Hollywood began to take notes and apply his tough mindset to their own thrillers.
That would largely come about in the seventies, and not only in Hollywood - the Far East were picking up tips from watching Melville's output as well - so it was engaging to watch where those tough thrillers got their ideas from, ironically when he was merely paying his respects to those film noirs he so loved as a younger man. Le Doulos, it is explained in the opening titles, was slang for "hat", but it was also slang for an informer, which was effectively who Belmondo was playing, yet as we come to understand it, not out of a desire to see justice done, not out of the common good, not even to save his own skin should be find himself facing a judge in a courtroom, more to play both ends against the middle and emerge triumphant. He was a striking personality, you think surely this is the hero, however by the conclusion you realise he has done nothing, or very little heroic at all, and the star played him to the hilt as Melville directed him to essay the role as if he were an actual forties gangster star, aptly as Belmondo had idolised Humphrey Bogart in À bout de souffle. Bone deep in its pessimism, Le Doulos was mid-range Melville, but better than most of his contemporaries. Music by Paul Misraki.
[This film and five others directed by Melville are available on a Blu-ray box set The Jean-Pierre Melville Collection, with in-depth featurettes as supplements on each disc.]