This stylish French noir is a tribute to the classic Hollywood gangster flicks of the 1940s and a precursor to director Jean-Pierre Melville's later policier thrillers.

Small-time hood Faugel (Serge Reggiani) is just out of prison and already planning his next job, a house break in. He hooks up with an old partner in crime, a fence by the name of Varnove (Rene Lefèvre), who agrees to help him out till he gets back on his feet. Varnove is like a father-figure. He warns Faugel to be careful, but makes the mistake of lending him his gun. Faugel reassures him he'll only use it in an emergency, but before you can say, "Whatever happened to honour among thieves," Faugel turns on Varnove and shoots him dead. Faugel then meets up with another old acquaintance, the mysterious Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo). He might be a back-stabbing murderer, but he's a pussycat compared with Silien, a scheming, charismatic lowlife and police informer, with the morals of an alley cat. Silien tips off his contact in the gendarmerie and Faugel is arrested during the break in. Just for good measure, Silien also tortures and kills Faugel's girlfriend.

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Back in jail, Faugel vows revenge, but to reveal more would only ruin the major plot twists that follow. Suffice to say that not everything is as it appears and it soon becomes clear that Melville has been playing us all along. This is a film about trust and betrayal and blurred edges, and Melville keeps us guessing from the outset. In the opening credits, we see a trenchcoated figure walking through the shadows of a grim Parisian suburb. We see Belmondo's name on screen and we're led to believe this is him, only to learn, when the camera zooms in, that it's Reggiani. It's a cheap trick, but it works, and Melville does it again later at a crucial point in the story. We think we know who we're watching, but we're never quite sure.

Melville constantly tries to wrong foot us. Midway through the film, Silien gives his version of events, but he's about as reliable as Verbal Kint, so why should we believe him? Maybe he is telling the truth, or at least a version of the truth. Who knows?

Le Doulos - from the French slang for both hat and police informer - owes much to Hollywood, from the chain smoking wiseguys, with trilbies and trenchcoats, to the gangsters' molls and classy jazz clubs, but it's much more than a play-it-by-numbers tribute. Belmondo oozes Gallic charm, as the Bogart-like Silien, and Paris itself is beautifully captured by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. There's an early shot of a distant Sacre-Coeur, but all other familiar landmarks are off limits, as we follow Silien through the shadowy back streets on the edge of the city.

Reviewed on: 27 Jul 2004
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Stylish French noir thriller, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo.
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Writer: Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Pierre Lesou

Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani, Jean Desailly, René Lefèvre, Philippe March, Fabienne Dali, Monique Hennessy, Carl Studer, Philippe Nahon

Year: 1963

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France/Italy

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