Sometimes corporations know exactly what they’re doing. By the time Giant Video Store Chain finally made it into my yuppie/hipster neighborhood about a decade ago, they had clearly done some demographic analysis. In addition to the standard miles upon miles of new releases, the store also stocked goodies that wouldn’t be in suburban outlets a few miles away. Loads of obscure art films. A healthy selection of martial arts flicks.

And, on a dusty bottom shelf, a single VHS copy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos.

Prior to that point, I’d never seen a Melville film. I had only read about the world that Melville had created onscreen. A world of shadows and style, where men knew how to wear hats and lived by a code that made sense to them if no one else. Where the women were impossibly ripe. Where you could never drink too much or brood enough.

I knew sight unseen that it was a world I wanted to visit if not live in. Le Doulos was the first stamp in my passport. Since then, several of Melville’s films – Bob Le Flambeur, Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, and his grandest achievement Army of Shadows – have returned to theaters and been made available on DVD. Now Rialto Pictures has reissued the film that introduced me to le monde de Melville. High time I saw it again.

The title is a slang term from the French underworld meaning a police informant, and was originally translated in the U.S. as The Finger Man. Such is the reputation that Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) has acquired. His cohort Maurice doesn’t care; he’s putting together a heist after being released from prison, and Silien is one of the only people he trusts to help him plan it. When the cops show up in the middle of the job, Maurice begins to rethink everything he knows about his pal.

The script, based on a Série Noire by Pierre Lesou, can at times be difficult to follow, packed as it is with double-crosses and ulterior motives. It’s the kind of movie where one man will cold-bloodedly murder his close friend, another puts his life on the line for a guy he seems indifferent to, and you’re not entirely sure why. But all is made crystal clear by the gut punch of an ending. Belmondo makes no play for audience sympathy. He plays it cool and looks that way as well.

Le Doulos is showing in Seattle and Los Angeles through Thursday, and around the country for the next several months. My take on Melville’s Army of Shadows – for my money, the best movie in theaters in 2006 – is here.

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