One of Jean-Pierre Melville's trickier propositions, 1962's Le Doulos centres on a gang of jewel thieves made jittery by the implicit understanding that one among their number is working for the police. We're pointed early on towards Jean-Paul Belmondo's Silien as the most likely informant, before the film turns into a study of a man having the squeeze put upon him from all angles, and rather warming to it. Placed first at the mercy of the cops, who treat him like a yo-yo after his alleged contact is shot dead, Silien comes to realise his importance in the chain of intelligence, and starts to play detective himself. The familiar Melvillian universe - a self-sealed, hermetic underworld from which no-one can easily escape - is here pushed to the nth degree: this densely plotted film leaves not much room for anyone - characters, director, least of all the audience - to breathe. If you like your noir pitch-black, it's possible to admire the uncompromising purity of the exercise, yet long stretches are as tersely uncommunicative as the Belmondo character inside the interrogation room; precisely the least convincing aspect of the film are those scenes where Silien starts to explain his masterplan in a sit-down with the two people in the film who would seem unlikely to take his words at face value. Still, it remains a cinephile's delight: the credits list Volker Schlöndorff as an assistant director and Bertrand Tavernier as the film's press officer, and note an early screen appearance from Philippe Nahon, later to re-emerge as the corpulent butcher of Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone.
Le Doulos returns to selected cinemas this Friday.