With a career in French cinema spanning over 70 years, beloved character actor Michel Piccoli has an extensive filmography to cherry-pick for a retrospective. So it seems odd Film Forum would choose Jean-Paul Melville’s Les Doulos, in which he had a relatively minor role, as part of their retrospective Michel Piccoli. Perhaps they thought it exemplary of his ability to ably blend into the supporting cast.
Here, Piccoli plays big-time gangster Nuttheccio, set up and taken down by Jean-Paul Belmondo’s inscrutable Silien, a gangster with a police pal who’s looking to get out of the game. The film belongs to Belmondo and Serge Reggiani as workaday crook Maurice Faugel. Recently out of jail, Maurice has another heist all lined up, with Silien providing supplies. When the police ambush them as if anticipating the crime, Maurice suspects Silien of ratting them out and plots his revenge.
Melville’s obsession with 1930s gangster films and internal codes of honor reaches a high watermark with Les Doulos. Belmondo suppresses his intrinsic charm to perfect, cold effect—he and Reggiani are ruthlessly efficient, the deep emotions behind their actions barely breaking their placid surfaces. But it’s that slight crack revealing humanity that inevitably leads to doom, and Les Doulos features the most ideal death in all cinema. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say it’s Melvillian, a sublime moment of personal romanticism, gallows humor, and nonchalance in the face of eternity. Would that we could all die so gallantly.