In 1962 Belmondo was a young actor who had already toured with the greatest, including Melville, whom he found for this intriguing thriller. Return to the scene of the crime.
To see his hat, you have to hang around the Place de l’Étoile side. At the top of Avenue Kléber, the Raphaël hotel is a Parisian palace which sees the great and the rich of this world pass by. During the winter of 1962, the filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville and his typewriter lived in one of the bedrooms. For this short-breathed 45-year-old man, the bed serves as a desk.
He hastily writes the screenplay for Doulos a thriller adapted from a novel of the “Série noire” by Pierre Lesou. It is about jewelry hidden under a lamppost, a woman tied to a radiator, oversized raincoats, finely cut hats and settling of scores between cops and thugs. All in a hazy Paris in black and white.
Jean-Paul Belmondo died at the age of 88
The little guys of the New Wave: Godard, Truffaut and the others – regularly climb the Raphael stairs four by four to visit the holy man. Melville is one of the rare “old” filmmakers to escape the vindictiveness of these young wolves with long and sharp teeth against “French quality cinema”. Melville doesn’t care, he’s American. Well almost. He acts as if. Porte Stetson and Ray-Ban, drives a Ford Galaxy in the heart of Paris.
The filmmaker even exchanged his real name – Grumbach – for that of the author of Moby Dick! Melville is a loose movie character in real life. Godard was right in giving him a role in his first feature film, Breathless. The man, flattered, complied, barely forcing his nature.
If the first part of Melville’s filmography is in a very French vein, with adaptations from recognized authors such as Vercors (the silence of the Sea) or Cocteau (Terrible children), the filmmaker actually swears by Hollywood B-series. Bob the High Roller, in 1955, marks his foray into the genre: a marvel. In a deserted Pigalle, the Parisian underworld lives in isolation, a twilight world where time has stood still. Alas, his New York escapade in 1959, Deux hommes dans Manhattan, was a disappointment.
Melville does not yet know it but, with Le Doulos, he will reinvent the thriller and announce his future masterpieces: The second breath, The samurai, The Red Circle … Today, we no longer count the directors who, from Quentin Tarantino to Jim Jarmusch via John Woo or Johnnie To, quote The Doulos as a reference and can decipher any image. However, Melville conceived the film as a recreation shot in two parts three movements while waiting to materialize a more ambitious project.
Cult interview with Jean-Paul Belmondo for Première
“In a horror movie!”
In 1962, Volker Schlöndorff was 23 years old. This former Idhec student has been Jean-Pierre Melville’s official assistant since Léon Morin, priest. For this German living in Paris, Melville is more than a boss, he’s a “super-father, very demanding and possessive“. If Melville impresses with his authoritarian manners, his deep voice, his meter eighty and his mafia look straight out of the suburbs of Chicago, the man leads the life of an ascetic, surrounded by his wife, his mother and his cats.His fragile health prevents misbehavior.His only sprains are night trips at the wheel of his Ford where he remakes and destroys the cinema.
“JI remember our first meeting, Volker Schlöndorff point. We had just seen Johnny Guitar, by Nicholas Ray, in a film club. Everyone loved the modernity of this iconoclastic western. Except him. In his car, he explained to me how this film represented the decline of cinema. He preferred more classic directors like Robert Wise or William Wyler.”
When he is not in his room at the Raphaël, Jean-Pierre Melville lives at home, at 25 bis, rue Jenner, in the 13th arrondissement. It was there, in a former garage, that he built his own film studios. From his bed to the film sets, there are only a few steps and a spiral staircase that he descends in a dressing gown to imagine, with his assistant, the shots to be shot.
“It felt like we were in a Franju horror film, continues the author of Le Tambour. Everything was crammed into a few square meters. It was small, but Melville wanted to prove that you could do great things there.“The entire Doulos is shot between the four walls of Jenner Street. Only a few exterior shots prevent a total confinement.
This room cinema sticks with the spirit of Melville who sees himself as a craftsman of cinema and shrugs his shoulders when he hears his New Wave admirers talking to him about improvised filming in the street. Adept of minimalism in his staging and the acting, he refutes any idea of realism. “He hated cutting.
For the sequence from the police station, where Jean Desailly and his men question Jean-Paul Belmondo at length, I see him lying on his bed and telling me: “How about we do it in one shot?” The camera had to cover the whole set 360 degrees and follow different characters. At the time, large power cables did not make it easy to move devices. It was impossible. Melville insisted. We did it.“Result, the sequence lasts 9 ’38? And impresses by its extreme simplicity. No surprise. The prowess is discreet and only serves the purpose, not the ego of the filmmaker.
“I forgive you!”
Restraint in work is desired if we want to rub shoulders with the beast. Jean-Paul Belmondo is, however, the exact opposite: hopping, boastful, he embodies everything Melville hates. The 29-year-old actor has a habit of sticking cheat sheets with his lines on the walls. But the filmmaker needs this casualness to suggest the ambiguity of his character on the screen. Silien-Bébel is the doulos, the police informant in slang. A perfect bastard, at least we believe.
Melville’s script is, anyway, so complicated that the young actor isn’t quite sure who he is exactly. Seeing the film for the first time, Belmondo would have exclaimed: “Shit, the indicator, it’s me!“” In contact with the actors, Melville changed his attitude, suddenly becoming cold and bossy, recalls Schlöndorff. He gave them very little guidance, only a few details about their attitude.
On the set of Samurai, I saw him spend hours correcting the way Delon had to readjust his hat in front of the mirror. On Le Doulos, he venerated Serge Reggiani. For him, it was a demigod. When the actor arrived on the set everyone was silent and Melville seemed to say to us: ‘Take advantage of its presence and learn!‘Which annoyed Belmondo deeply! ”
The Doulos is shot quickly, on a tight budget. When it comes out, the fragmented story is confusing. In the first part, the staging deliberately digs holes in the plot to blur the benchmarks. This perilous structure which juggles with the tools of cinema (ellipses, flashback …) today participates in the cult of film. Yes The Doulos does not explode the box office, it easily falls within its costs.
Melville can now move on to his adaptation of Georges Simenon, The eldest of Ferchaux. Volker Schlöndorff, he decides to take off and leaves with Louis Malle to shoot The wisp. A betrayal for Melville who no longer speaks to him. “When we passed each other at screenings, I was scared. Man could be awesome!“The reconciliation will take place years later, in a cinema on the Champs-Élysées. Schlöndorff enters the room. The screening has been on for a while. So as not to disturb, the young man sits in the front row.
“I discreetly look at my neighbor: Jean-Pierre Melville! On the screen, The Obsessed, by William Wyler, his favorite filmmaker. When the movie is over, the lights come back on. We don’t move. The silence is heavy. Suddenly he addresses me without looking at me: ‘Since it’s Wyler, I forgive you.’ All of Melville is there.“It is 1965. Soon, an accidental fire will destroy the studios on Jenner Street and, with them, the filmmaker’s illusions.
Melville died of a heart attack in 1973. At the Raphael Hotel, records have been kept that bear witness to the man’s numerous visits to the Steston. Volker Schlöndorff went there recently. He looked for a long time at the documents signed by the hand of this spiritual father. Upstairs, a bedroom suddenly seemed quite empty.