Le Doulos (Criterion, 1962) D: Jean-Pierre Melville, w/ Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
Le Deuxième Souffle (Criterion, 1966) D: Melville, w/ Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse. Rating: NNNNN; DVD package: NNNNN
Jean-Pierre Melville makes crime films like no one else. They're filled with realistic detail, yet they centre on iconic, abstract, defiantly unreal characters. They're loaded with action, but the mood is contemplative. They're crammed with Americanisms and riffs on 1930s Hollywood gangster films, but they're purely French in tone.
Throughout the extras packages, people call these "gangster movies," but Melville's heroes aren't Hollywood's mobbed-up strivers. Better comparisons are Michael Mann's Thief or Richard Stark's Parker novels. These guys are loners, professional thieves who come together for one specific job (in Le Doulos it's a safe-cracking, in Le Deuxième Souffle an armoured-car heist), then go their separate ways. Nobody trusts the others enough to form a gang.
Trust is at the centre of Le Doulos. Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) acts like Faugel's best friend, but Faugel (Serge Reggiani) begins to suspect that he's a police informer. Betrayals and murder abound.
Along the way, Faugel delivers the chilliest reason for murder I've ever heard, a short speech beginning "He looked at me."
Le Doulos also contains a strange process shot in which the apparent direction of a car full of cops combing the city for Silien is at odds with the movement of the background. It looks like a mistake at first, but it gives the cops an eerie, looming power.
Melville's films are filled with powerful visuals, but this is one of the very few that's immediately noticeable. For the most part, he favours long takes so well paced and composed that they're virtually invisible.
In Le Deuxième Souffle, prison escapee Gu Minda (Lino Ventura) gets involved in an armoured car job and multiple betrayals as he tries to put together a getaway stake and shake the informant label.
In both movies, Melville's goal is tragedy. In their solid commentary, critics Ginette Vincendeau and Geoff Andrew propose that Gu's downfall is a matter of revenge. I think it's something stranger: Gu is willing to die for the good opinion of worthless people. Melville and old friends Volker Schlondorff and Bertrand Tavernier also have great insights into Melville and his work.
EXTRAS Le Doulos: selected scene commentary; director and stars archival interviews; Tavernier, Schlondorff interviews. Widescreen, b&w. French audio. English subtitles. Booklet. Le Deuxième Souffle: Commentary, director and stars archival interviews, Tavernier interview. Widescreen, b&w. French audio. English subtitles. Booklet.