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The Finger Man  
Jean-Pierre Melville
1962 || 108 mins

Maurice (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con recently released from prison, murders a fence and steals his stash of stolen jewellery. Soon after Maurice is visited at the apartment he shares with girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) by the charismatic Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who lends him safebreaking equipment for a burglary he is planning. The burglary goes awry, however, when the police arrive halfway through. Maurice manages to escape but his accomplice is killed, and in an exchange of fire, a police detective is also shot dead. Maurice has always refused to believe the rumours that his friend Silien is a police informer, but who else could have tipped them off? Wounded and vowing revenge, Maurice goes out looking for Silien, but in the murky world of the Paris underworld he soon discovers all is not as it seems…

see also articles on:
Top 10 Films by Lesser Known Directors || Jean-Pierre Melville Profile|| French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

Le Doulos marked another landmark in
Jean-Pierre Melville’s celebrated series of French gangster films inspired by the classic American crime thrillers he revered. Whereas his previous stabs at the genre – Bob le flambeur (1955) and Deux hommes dans Manhattan (1959) – had taken place in the relatively recognisable locales of Montmartre and Manhatten; Le Doulos, from its dramatic opening tracking shot of a solitary figure clad in raincoat and fedora, walking grimly along a shadowy walkway, to the bitterly ironic final shoot-out, took the trappings of film noir to a new level of abstract stylization. As Sergio Leone was about to do with the western, Melville redefined the gangster genre by adapting its conventions to a European setting and imbuing it with a weighty atmosphere of existential fatalism.

Le Doulos was adapted by Melville from a 1957 novel by Pierre Lesou, a young Serie Noire writer renowned for his first-hand knowledge of the underworld milieu in which his stories were set. Melville’s adaptation remains largely faithful to the source material, though he cuts most of the slang and accentuates the characters’ ambiguity. Unusually, the narrative unfolds through the actions of two main protagonists, Maurice and Silien, constantly cutting back and forth between them, leading the audience to grasp for a distinct main character or hero. Melville blurs the distinction further by having both characters wear exactly the same outfits. It’s a perfect strategy for the theme of duplicity that runs throughout the film. Undoubtedly influenced by his own experiences serving with the French resistance during World War II, Melville returned again and again to stories of deception, in which men under pressure depend on friendship and loyalty to survive. The world he evokes is one in which nobody is altogether trustworthy and everyone has the potential to be a traitor or a collaborator.

At the request of producers, Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti, Melville agreed to cast a big name star to boost Le Doulos’s box office appeal. Having worked with Jean-Paul Belmondo on his previous film Leon Morin, prêtre, the director had no hesitation in calling on him again. Although they sometimes had a difficult working relationship, under Melville’s influence Belmondo gave some of his best, most controlled, performances. His Silien is a fascinating figure; enigmatic, softly spoken, capable of both great charm and sudden outbursts of violence. His ambiguity of motive provides the central focal point upon which the movie’s suspense depends. Serge Reggiani is equally remarkable as Silien’s foil Maurice. If one was seeking to dissuade a youth from the path of crime, one glimpse of Maurice’s jaded reflection in a cracked mirror in the film’s opening scene would surely do the trick. His world-weary features and brooding presence, suggest a man burnt out and exhausted by one to many late nights and a lifetime on the wrong side of the tracks. Along the way these two encounter a wonderful supporting cast that includes Jean Desailly as the police inspector Clain and Michel Piccoli as the shady nightclub owner Nuttheccio.

In collaboration with cinematographer Nicholas Hayer, Melville conjures up a remarkable noir atmosphere in Le Doulos, augmented wonderfully by Paul Misraki’s expressive score. Most of the film takes place at night; dark, shadowy exteriors contrast with brightly lit interiors. Melville avoids the specific locations mentioned in the book, preferring a more abstract, generic universe. The bleak, fog-enshrouded wasteland in the opening scenes seems more reminiscent of the “zone” from Cocteau’s Orpheus than a real place. The nightclubs and bars more 1940s New York, than any such establishment in Paris. This is the universe as filtered through Melville’s imagination. At the same time his use of camera infuses what we see on the screen with a visceral sense of realism. Several scenes unfold in long unbroken takes. Clain’s interrogation of Silien at police headquarters is filmed in one brilliantly sustained, constantly circling single shot. “Bringing off a shot like that was pretty extraordinary,” Melville recalled later. “I remember just as the moment when Clain, Silien and the two cops went out of the door and out of the shot, my assistant cameraman announced that there was no more film in the camera. We had been shooting uninterruptedly for nine minutes thirty-eight seconds. A thousand feet, in other words.”

Beyond its technical excellence and stunning visual quality, Le Doulos’s real fascination rests on the enigmatic Silien. When, in the final stages of the film, we learn the real truth behind his motives, it comes as both a surprise and pleasure. In spite of what appeared to be abhorrent behaviour, one has come to like him. To discover that all along he was engaged in a Quixotic endeavour on behalf of a friend, makes him doubly attractive. That is, of course, if we believe his story, and it must be taken into account that we are dealing with a supreme confidence man – remember that opening epigram courtesy of Celine: “One must choose. To die … or to lie?” His explanation of what happened fulfils all of our narrative expectations and would serve as a thoroughly satisfactory ending in its own right. But Melville has another ace up his sleeve. A final twist in which the past which Silien has attempted to put right before moving onto a new life will finally catch up with him.

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