Has anyone ever looked better in a trench coat than Jean-Paul Belmondo? For evidence, I offer up Jean-Pierre Melville's LE DOULOS. All the correct accoutrements are on view here: said trench coat, glowing b/w cinematography (by Nicolas Hayer) complete with noir shadows and gleaming darkness, criminals, attitude, a heist, loot and betrayal. Yet, with the recent release of this film and Le Deuxième souffle, M. Melville, as director/adapter (from Pierre Lesou's novel), is looking less and less interesting, except as a primer on how NOT to make a thriller. Initially, the story involves us, as characters change from who and what you first imagine into something quite different. But entire scenes are given over to ludicrous, lengthy exposition, while chance -- rather unbelievable chance, at that -- plays far too much of a part in the events, which, once you learn who's what, become more and more predictable until they climax/collapse into an ending so manipulative and obvious that it approaches camp.
Perhaps, back in 1962 when the film was first released, it seemed less obvious. But today it comes off as a kind of compendium of French noir tropes, without ever coalescing into real emotion or narrative truth. Serge Reggiani provides stellar support to Belmondo, who looks fabulous. I can understand Criterion's releasing (via Rialto) this second-rate Melville for completists' sake. The transfer, as usual with Criterion, is everything you could want. And the Extras on Le Doulos are splendid: interviews with both Bertrand Tavernier, who handled PR for the film!) and Volker Schlöndorff, who acted as Melville's first assistant director.
Expectations do the darndest things. A supposed "classic" can leave you cold, while a little trifle like GARDEN PARTY, which ought not to rate too high on any scale, manages to surprise and entertain while providing a sometimes silly but very pleasant 90 minutes. Writer/director Jason Freeland's film observes some almost "haves" and some barely registering "have-nots" on the radar of the L.A./Hollywood scene. There's little new here, and yet Freeland's observations seem generally real and quirky enough to engage. If the movie's title reminds you of a very popular Ricky Nelson song, that's intentional, and the song itself is played more than once. Were the entire musical score and various songs selected for the soundtrack not so damn good, this might seem like crass misuse of an oldie-but-goodie. But no: the music here is generally wonderful and well-chosen.