Three Faces of the French Tough Guy
Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo defined Gallic crime cinema
The TIFF Cinematheque retrospectives Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville and Panique: French Crime Classics run to September 3.
As inveterate revolutionists, it is perhaps natural that French audiences tend to favor crooks to flics — and from this springs the Grand Tradition of the French crime thriller. If not uniquely then at least to an elevated degree, these are films which recognize criminality as a craft, a collection of closely-guarded trade secrets to be handed down through the years, the intermixture of young bloods and veterans being something of a signature of the crime ensemble film. As A.J. Liebling wrote of boxing, the French crime film is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder: from the Apaches of belle époque Paris to Jet Age international assassins, from Les Vampires to Le Samouraï (1967), tradition is almost as vital in the French folklore of criminality as it is in French cuisine. Each inductee into the brotherhood leaves their signature mark in the annals of infamy, to be imitated by those coming up — whether it be Alain Delon’s deadpan, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s lank physicality, or Jean Gabin’s eyes.
“One eye smiles; the other frowns” — that famous appraisal of Gabin’s mug in Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939), a chestnut from the typewriter of the film’s scriptwriter Jacques Prévert, is as good an analysis of Gabin’s persona as we are ever likely to get, for it emphasizes not only the actor’s mingling of melancholy and mischief, but also the fact that he lets those eyes do an enormous amount of his work. Sound-era French screen acting is divided between two poles defined by Gabin and Michel Simon: the minimalist and the maximalist, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The whole lineage of “interior” French film performers, which leads through Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert, begins with Gabin, with that ambivalent glance and steely sang froid.
This is an awfully pretentious way to introduce a performer who always made a point of presenting himself without pretense. The French, being good Republicans, have generally preferred their idols with working-class bona fides in order, and Gabin fulfilled this requirement in spades: he came to films through the music hall, but had been a labourer and a soldier, and the memory of what it was to work for a living never left his carriage, something that his public loved him for. A cult item through the early ’30s, he had his annus mirabilis in 1937 with Grand Illusion (the most celebrated of his four films for Jean Renoir), and Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, the film which more than any other codified a particularly Gallic version of the Tragic Gangster in the mold of Gabin: compactly built, peasant-wily, weary to the bone from the moment he arrives on screen, and receiving his inevitable downfall with a fatalistic shrug. After portraying the underworld maven who knows every twist of the labyrinthine Algiers Casbah, he would soon emerge from the nighttime fog of Le Havre in Carné and Prévert’s Port of Shadows (1938), which was adapted from a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan, whose novels of urban lowlife helped to nourish the French film noir much as hard-boiled fiction would the American version.
Gabin would star alongside Ida Lupino in one American proto-noir, the troubled production Moontide (1942), during his brief stint in Hollywood. He stayed long enough to turn out one more film — The Impostor (1944), a Resistance thriller directed by his old friend and fellow émigré Duvivier — and kick off an affair with Marlene Dietrich, then joined General de Gaulle and the Free French in North Africa. Decorated for valour, he came home a hero, but, even once the French film industry had begun to recover, his career lingered in the doldrums, enlivened only by a small part in Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952).
It was Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) — directed by Jacques Becker, a former assistant of Renoir’s — which found a viable way to use the visibly aged actor, who had come back from the front with his hair frosted silver. While on the face of it there is nothing new about Gabin’s role in Touchez pas au grisbi — a principled Parisian gangster whose personal code is tested by circumstance — what is unusual here is that Becker shows Gabin’s character indulging in the domestic comforts of middle age even in his safe house, going through bedtime rituals in pajamas. Gabin had found his footing again, and calls came in from friends new (Claude Autant-Lara gave him a cherry part in his 1956 La Traversée de Paris) and old: Renoir gave him the lead in his French Cancan (1955), while Duvivier cast him as a restaurateur drawn to his destruction by femme fatale Danièle Delorme in Deadlier Than the Male (1956).
Seemingly every national film industry not harnessed to Socialist Realism enjoyed a postwar boom in crime pictures — the American noir, the British “spiv” film, etc. — and that of France was no exception. In Bertrand Tavernier’s recent Journey Through French Cinema (2016), the director traces the entirety of postwar French film culture back to the experience of Occupation, Resistance, and Liberation. The case of Gabin is studied at some length, as is that of the man for whom Tavernier began as an assistant: Jean-Pierre Melville (née Grumbach), who first took the name by which he is best remembered as a nom de guerre during his own service with the Resistance, and who — in the back-to-back productions of the Resistance drama Army of Shadows (1969) and the Alain Delon-led caper ensemble The Red Circle (1970) — made the affinity between partisan skullduggery and planning the perfect heist eminently clear.
Leaving the service after a stint which included participation in Operation Dragoon (the Allied invasion of southern France), Melville was rebuffed in his attempts to be licensed as an assistant director, and so instead struck out on his own to independently produce, write and direct his debut feature Le Silence de la mer (1949), based on a famous Occupation-era novel written pseudonymously (under the handle “Vercors”) by Jean Bruller. Given their shared Resistance experience and the fact that Melville preferred his male leads to work in the wry, strong, silent mold of Gabin, it is somewhat surprising that the two men never worked together — though in remembering Bob le flambeur (1956), the film that inaugurated Melville’s cycle of crime pictures, you could be forgiven for thinking that they had, so closely does Roger Duchesne’s seen-it-all gambler hew to the template created by Gabin.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, who starred in three films for Melville beginning with Léon Morin, Priest (1961), was a different creature entirely. Where Gabin’s screen persona relied on occasional bursts of volcanic energy punctuating long stretches of calm and reserve, Belmondo had energy to burn. He was only a few years younger than Gabin in Pépé le Moko when he had his own breakout part as Bogart-worshipping thief and killer Michel in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) — which also featured an extended appearance by Melville — but he seemed young on screen in a way that Gabin never had, as when playing the still-green driver matched to Lino Ventura’s veteran mobster in Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques (1960).
(The Bogart persona is a kind of missing link between pre-war Gabin and nouvelle vague-era Belmondo: Gabin’s Pépé le Moko, a cynical-yet-romantic tough guy adrift in French North Africa, presaged Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca, who was subsequently homaged by Belmondo in Breathless. Andrew Sarris elaborated on the Bogart-Belmondo connection in The Village Voice in 1966: “Undoubtedly there is something in Belmondo, as in Bogart, that deeply disturbs a certain type of authoritarian personality… In two very different generations a genuinely independent spirit flows out of an actor’s apparently casual on-screen gestures. The surface arrogance of both Bogey and Belmondo conceals a tough-guy gallantry underneath.”)
Belmondo’s father was a sculptor, so his proletarian cred wasn’t quite on par with Gabin’s, but he did have a short record as a professional prizefighter and the mashed pugilist’s nose to prove it, and in films he remained very much the athlete. In François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969) he scales a building like Spider-Man in a single take, continuing a tradition of doing his own suicidal stuntwork which was first allowed free rein in the films he made with Philippe de Broca — particularly the hair-raising That Man from Rio (1964) — and taken to ludicrous heights in the enjoyable potboilers he made with Henri Verneuil (a director every bit as much attuned to the American pulp sensibility as Melville, but with not a smidgen of his moody decorum). Belmondo had a touch of Bogart in his DNA, to be sure, but as a kamikaze action star, he also serves to connect the dots between Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan.
Alain Delon was almost an exact contemporary of Belmondo’s, and as two of the most popular French leading men of the 1960s they covered quite a bit of the same turf: Delon twice starred in Verneuil films opposite Gabin — Any Number Can Win (1963) and The Sicilian Clan (1969) — and he took over for Belmondo as Melville’s favorite leading man beginning with Le Samouraï. Despite these overlaps, the differences in their personae were pronounced. It is difficult to imagine Delon, for example, being released from a dump truck to tumble end over end down a pile of jagged rocks, as Belmondo does in Verneuil’s The Burglars (1971); his was an entirely different skill set. If Belmondo showed Dionysian tendencies, Delon was much more in Gabin’s Apollonian tradition — though where Gabin’s reserve signified watchfulness, Delon’s tended to suggest an aloof disdain on top of that. Both were capable of acts of violence, but for Gabin this was usually a case of scrupulous self-control surrendering to simmering passions, while for the cool, calculating Delon, it was business as usual, nothing personal.
This is, very likely, because Delon was beautiful in a way that Gabin and Belmondo never were (though Gabin could quite suddenly transform into a matinee idol in the proper close-up, and Belmondo radiated virile good health and vulnerable, puppyish ardour). With the possible exception of Pierre Clementi, whom he appeared alongside in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), Delon was for many years the most beautiful man in French cinema, with ice-blue eyes and a face whose symmetry seemed almost inhuman. As Visconti noted, there was something aristocratic in Delon’s bearing, though in point of fact he was every bit the blue-collar product that Gabin was: an insubordinate dropout, an ex-butcher’s boy, and a veteran of the French Navy during the years of the First Indochina War, which he spent a significant portion of in the brig, falling ass-backwards into acting after his dishonourable discharge. This peculiar combination of princely comportment and rabble-rouser background would be crucial to his starmaking role in René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), in which he plays Patricia Highsmith’s arriviste imposter Tom Ripley, a poor boy who murders his way into the smart set.
As the title Le Samouraï suggests, Melville found in Delon an aristocrat of crime — living in monastic austerity, yes, but conducting his business in a manner which suggested the serene self-confidence that comes of a long, proud lineage and chivalrous tradition. The figure of the prideful, detail-driven professional criminal was nothing new in French cinema (it wasn’t new even in Pépé le Moko), but Melville and Delon gave this archetype a clean, streamlined, and distinctly modern manifestation — Delon’s flawless profile well suits playing a character who seems half automaton. The template created by Melville and Delon was to be subsequently drawn on by many films — notably including Jacques Deray’s 1972 The Outside Man, which starred Jean-Louis Trintignant (perhaps the only French actor more opaque and taciturn than Delon) as a Gallic hitman in Los Angeles, a very literal instance of the transatlantic exchange that coloured both French and American crime films. Deray also presided over a big-budget, blockbuster 1970 teaming of Delon and Belmondo, Borsalino, in which the men play uneasily allied gangsters in 1930s Marseilles — a nostalgic throwback to the pre-war underworld of Mac Orlan and the aging Gabin, and a salute from one generation of French tough-guy actors to another.