I found it hard to review this film- I saw it this evening and it has taken me until now and listening to the dismissal of Stephen Fleming for the last time in Test Cricket (an occasion which is notable for New Zealand cricket if only for its historical significance.) Its not because the film is exceptionally complicated in form- its no Holy Mountain- of which I am still waiting for a review from Dave Cole after the behatted one dragged myself, Mr Sinclair and Vino to a screen to see it last Autumn. That is a call for the blogging community to put pressure on his hattiness to write that review- I am looking forward to it. But Le Doulos is no Lynchian masterpiece of the incoherent, its a very coherent detective and criminal drama, its got all sorts of the elements that one might expect from something like that- an interesting twisty plot, good acting, morose surroundings- dark and dripping with rain, a great jazzy soundtrack and irresistably cool leading actors- not to mention some sleek femme fatales at the side. It ressembles the great American noirs of the forties- deliberately- its structure reminds me of Out of the Past or of the Maltese Falcon- perhaps the closest modern parallels would be the Usual Suspects or LA Confidential. Getting hold of this film's plot is like trying to catch water in your hands, not easy, trying to get its point though is possibly easier.
What is its point? The film begins with a very didactic line- that the alternatives in its universe are to lie or to die. You have to watch the film in the light of the statement at the beggining where the director offers a commentary on his own film: and his commentary, his prologue, is a statement of the ambiguity of the life of his characters. They all live on the edge and to some extent, Jean-Pierre Melville the director, has tried to make us see them as all living in the same world through choices in his cinematography. None of these characters has a style of their own: they all fit into the film's style. All the men are dressed in trench coats, looking like so many Mitchums or Elisha Cooks. The scenes are dark- the interiors all seem underground or the curtains are drawn. When we are outside, we go out there in the middle of the night or in the evening and more often than not the camera follows the rain. This film has a style- and its characters are drawn into that style. They all are part of the same world- the criminal underworld. Most of the film revolves around a couple of robberies- we are dealing here with the classic figure of the depression, an individual gangster without a gang who makes a hit and makes his life through making hits.
This is a world then of gangsters and their molls. From the first frame of the film, Melville makes another point: that you can't trust a single individual in this world. That the world beyond the state is a world where everyone might be a liar. Its interesting that in the first conversation we hear in the film- after a long establishing scene with a lead character going through the rain to a desolate house- is about who is deceiving who. Both characters in the room don't trust each others' friends- they think that the other's mate is an informer for the police and at the end of the scene, despite the fact that they seem to be friendly with each other, one of these men shoots the other in cold blood. A shooting which the character that is shot does not expect and reacts to with surprise. Its an incredible opening scene and it sets the tone for the entire film: when you watch this do not expect anyone's motivations to be what they say are or to understand why people take the actions they take. This is a film in which one man can be said to have only two friends in the world: both of which he deceives compulsively. Beyond the rule of the law, everyone is imprisoned in his own distrust of everyone else and the most successful man is the most cynical, the most callous. You cannot even trust that when you open your own door, the consequence will not be deadly. In this game, outside the law, you either end up as a bum or dead- as one of the characters says.
This world produces a particular kind of character- Melville goes beyond the Hobbesian analysis he offers of the world beyond the law, to sketch the individual beyond the law. Again its interesting that all of them seem the same. They all have the same style, all speak in the same way- with short sentences, undignified by reference to art or music or anything beyond the matter in hand. This is a world where everyone is an undifferentiated egoist. All of them seek nothing but their own gain in life, their own satisfaction. There are ways of seeing the film as a testiment to one character's kindness to another: I don't completely see it that way. None of the characters demonstrate real kindness- fellowship there is a lot of, but there is a distinction between the thinking that makes you and I part of the same gang and the thinking that places you as a chief object of my actions. The first sees you as an instrument to the attaining of my end, the second sees you as an object of my generosity. The first action constantly recurs in this film: the second is nowhere to be seen. These are characters so free that they conform in every way to a type- they lose their individuality through their freedom. Anarchy here does not liberate but imprison.
And it imprisons them in a last and crucial way- a way in which it imprisons the audience and in which to return to my introductary paragraph makes a profound point about the nature of truth and its relationship to power. In this film, a narrative is offered of events and we all believe it: at the end that narrative is flipped. But unlike say in the Usual Suspects, Melville doesn't allow you the luxury of imagining that one of these narratives is true. Both could be. There is plenty of evidence that everyone in this film is a compulsive and perpetual liar. They tell lies all the time and they never tell the exact truth. At the end of the film, the forces of law enforcement are unable to find the truth about what has happened- at two points in the film anyone objective arriving on the scene would suppose that there has been a shootout between three characters whereas actually in both cases (the first in all seriousness and the second in black comedy) the scene we see has been directed by one of the characters involved. Truth is a casualty of the loss of order, memory is a casualty of the loss of law. These characters don't know what is remembered about them and what is remembered about others. They don't know what to remember. They don't know what to rearrange and who to beleive. Truth in this film is the ultimate reason why humanity beyond the law destroys itself and why it reduces itself into a common denominator- the egoist. Hobbes was right: life outside the law is a state of perpetual fear where man's equality with his comrade in their ability to deceive and kill each other is the only constant. Art and literature, philosophy, music even film vanish into a vortex of criminal suspicion.
Le Doulos is a great film which handles topics which are seldom touched, because it investigates human nature without the constraint of a state and human nature without a state is not a pleasant thing. Life beyond the law is the domaine of wisecracking gangsters, is the domain of noir and film noir is all about the inevitable downfall of all of its protagonists. The only way to escape is to leave that world and yet once trapped within that world, it is almost impossible to leave- characters do try but they cannot escape their pride or their pasts.