10 great French gangster films

We round up the usual suspects and a clutch of forgotten gems for our list of 10 great Gallic gangster movies.

5 September 2013

By Matthew Thrift

Classe tous risques (1960)

Adapted from a novel by José Giovanni, a death-row inmate whose work also formed the basis for Le Trou (1960) and Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Claude Sautet’s magnificent sophomore feature Classe tous risques (1960) swiftly fell from circulation in the wake of his star Jean-Paul Belmondo’s bigger success that same year: Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle.

Seeing the film today, it’s hard to see why Classe tous risques isn’t better known. Sure, it lacks the studied meticulousness of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1960s pictures or the hipster immediacy of À bout de souffle and François Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist (1961), but then it’s going for neither. Instead, as he would continue to do throughout his career, Sautet favours the psychological character study over the transatlantic cultural exchange adopted by many of his peers. That’s not to say the film is without event: the alarming daylight robbery in its opening moments alone sets in motion a propulsive forward momentum soon to be laced with tragedy.

Where Melville would more and more seek to dehumanise his protagonists, reducing them to archetypes, Sautet’s interest lay in the psychological complexities compounded by a life of crime. In Classe tous risques you feel the collateral damage of every one of Lino Ventura’s actions, as well as the residual guilt the consequences carry. Sautet seeks out the remnants of fragile humanity when the codes of honour and trust by which these characters lead their lives begin to tumble in on them.

With Classe tous risques now available on Blu-ray and DVD, where it can finally be judged the equal of its better-known contemporaries, it’s gangsters and Gauloises time as we round up 10 definitive examples of the French mobster movie.

Pépé le Moko (1937)

Director: Julien Duvivier

Pépé le Moko (1937)

Evidence that cinematic cultural appropriation wasn’t always a one-way street, Julien Duvivier’s marvellous Pépé le Moko was for years suppressed overseas by those responsible for its (largely forgotten in the wake of Casablanca) US remake, Algiers (1938). Still, it was a star-making turn for one of cinema’s great leading men, Jean Gabin – at 33 years old looking a little like Kenneth Branagh, had he grown up between a Pigalle boxing club and pie shop.

Despite arriving a good four years before what is generally considered the first phase of film noir, Pépé le Moko is as stacked with signifiers of said style as anything that would emerge later. Hiding out from the police in the multicultural labyrinth of the Algiers Casbah, Pépé (“The Prince of Plunder… As quick with a smile for friends as a knife for foes”) is as trapped psychologically as he is physically. As his smitten lover Inés tells him: “They want to arrest you, but you’re already under arrest”. But he falls, of course, for the beautiful, vacationing Parisienne Mireille Balin, and loses reason to fate.

Mixing location and studio photography, Duvivier’s Casbah hums with life. If the wonderful sequence in which the crowds listen to Gabin singing from his rooftop after an evening with Balin evinces a blissful romanticism, it’s in the film’s exquisite final moments that this doom-laden, proto-noir truly soars.

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

Director: Jacques Becker

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

About as far removed from the acutely rendered style that would characterise Melville’s later masterpieces as it’s possible to get, Jacques Becker’s 1954 film remains one of the great French gangster pictures. Jean Gabin stars as Max, a laconically weary but genteel thief, well into middle age, who’s dirtied his hands for the last time lifting a stack of gold bullion to send him off into retirement. We don’t see the heist; in fact we see little by way of action for the best part of an hour. But it matters little as Becker spins out his tale of friendship and betrayal in the cafés, nightclubs and apartments of Paris.

It offers a first role for Lino Ventura as the double-crossing Angelo, and an early one for Jeanne Moreau, but the heart of Touchez pas au grisbi is found in the affection between two lifelong friends, Max and Riton (René Dary). While plot mechanics satisfyingly take over the latter stages of the film, it’s in the details of its extended central section that Becker so elegantly humanises his criminal protagonists. As the two friends escape to Max’s safe-house, wine is poured and crackers are shared, Riton is lent pyjamas and a toothbrush, and the duo go about their bedtime routines in an unstrained silence that exudes warmth. It may be a top-drawer gangster picture, but it’s also one of the greatest bromances to grace the screen since Stan and Ollie.

Rififi (1955)

Director: Jules Dassin

Rififi (1955)

Any heist, in any movie, from Thief (1981) to Inception (2010), from Le Cercle rouge (1970) to Mission Impossible (1996), owes a debt to Jules Dassin’s masterful Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes). One of the most breath-holdingly virtuosic set-pieces in cinema history, the dialogue-free, 30-minute-plus robbery of the Rue de Rivoli jewellers is yet to be bettered, and remains quintessential. This is lean, mean genre filmmaking of the highest order, a masterclass in both suspense and precision-tooled narrative momentum.

There’s an unforgiving streak of brutality that runs through Dassin’s Parisian underworld, exemplified most explicitly in the harsh, humiliating beating Jean Servais’ Tony gives his mistress on release from prison. Dassin paints in much deeper, darker shades of noir than he could ever get away with in his earlier US films.

It was a result of the Hollywood blacklisting that Dassin found himself in France for Rififi, his Stateside reputation in tatters. Much like Servais’ character, out of luck at the poker table at the beginning of the film, Dassin needed a hit. It’s touching that he would cast himself in the film as safecracker Cesar le Milanais – the key figure in the key sequence of his key film – as meticulous onscreen as off, and as in need of redemption as Servais’ Tony. At least one of them found it.

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Often seen as something of a patriarchal inspiration to the French New Wave for his reflexive cinematic plays on appropriated US culture, Jean-Pierre Melville took his Americanophilia seriously, going as far as to adopt a literary American name to match his Stetson and cowboy boots.

Bob le flambeur was his first gangster picture – a playful, rough-around-the-edges riff on US genre iconography, transplanting with a knowing wink the trench coats and fedoras of 30s and 40s crime films to the streets of Montmartre. Heavier on character and atmospherics than narrative momentum, the vibrant location photography by Henri Decaë (blended with that shot at Melville’s own studio) provides a real-world foundation for the heightened style personified by Roger Duchesne’s Bob.

Here we find the thematic and aesthetic seeds that would codify more explicitly and archetypally in his later masterpieces – the streaks of cynicism and existentialism, the criminal and homosocial codes – all doomed studies in masculinity. It comes as little surprise that Melville’s favourite film was John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), yet there’s no heist for Bob here – he forgets about it, too busy gambling in the casino he’s supposed to rob. It wouldn’t be until 1970 that Melville gave us his own heist sequence. But it’d be more than worth the wait…

The Sicilian Clan (1969)

Director: Henri Verneuil

The Sicilian Clan (1969)

The Sicilian Clan is basically the Avengers Assemble (2012) of French gangster movies. Actually, it’s more like the Destroy All Monsters (1968) of French gangster movies – the one where they haul out all the old Toho monsters and don’t really give them anything to do until the end. We’ve the holy trinity of gangster icons: Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura; a screenplay by Auguste Le Breton (Rififi, Razzia sur la chnouf, Bob le flambeur) and a score by Ennio Morricone.

It’s a big, multinational affair, shot – simultaneously in French, English and Italian – in France, Italy and the US. Gabin plays the capo of the Manalese family, hired by cop killer Delon to spring him out of jail. With trying-to-quit-smoking cop Ventura on his tail, and one eye on Gabin’s French daughter-in-law (Irina Demick), Delon convinces the Manalese clan to rob a high-end jewellery store as it transports its wares to the States.

If the film gathers a degree of momentum during its major set-piece, the hijacking of a plane carrying the jewels, its highlight proves the moment that seals Delon’s fate. Having been caught in flagrante on a beach with Demick by her young nephew, the boy is sworn to secrecy. Days later, the robbery a success, the clan are sitting watching From Here to Eternity (1953) on television. As Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr roll in the sand, the little brat hilariously pipes up, “Look! That’s just like Roger and Auntie Jeanne!” An in-joke from uncredited Sicilian Clan script doctor James Jones, upon whose novel From Here to Eternity was based? 

Borsalino (1970)

Director: Jacques Deray

Borsalino (1970)

As its millinery title suggests, Jacques Deray’s Borsalino is certainly the nattiest dresser of the films on this list, even if it’s also the most affected. A knockabout gangster romp set in 1930s Marseilles, its primary point of interest lay in its tag-team casting of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo for the first time since 1957’s all-but-forgotten Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Beautiful and Shut Up).

Charting the ascent of the duo from street hoods to criminal overlords, the tone veers all over the place. The film is most successful in its first half, which brings to mind both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973) in its period playfulness and buddy-caper riffing. An early punch-up between the two that cements their friendship a highlight, but the later blood-letting and descent into proto-Godfather posturing feels at odds with the breezy vibe with which it starts.

That said, Delon and Belmondo seem to enjoy access to what amounts to the biggest dress-up play box this side of the Moulin Rouge, and Deray certainly gets his budget up on the screen. Deray’s attempt at a Belmondo-less sequel four years later, Borsalino & Co. offered (much) less of the same, but his 1980s Dirty-Harry-meets-Bond flicks with the actor (Le Marginal, 1983; Le Solitaire, 1987) remain the best kind of rubbish.

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Melville’s final hymn to American cinema (not counting 1972’s Un flic, which he as good as disowned) takes his career-length preoccupation with genre iconography and crafts a majestic formal distillation of said tropes, as indebted to the open plains of the American west as to the streets of its east. Even more so than with his earlier masterpiece Le Samouraï (1967), Melville reconfigures the work of his idols, teaching them how to properly pronounce noir as he elevates it to the level of Greek tragedy.

Le Cercle rouge shows Melville as master wrangler of archetype and myth, his mise-en-scène as precisely orchestrated in the minutiae of one of cinema’s great set-pieces (the heist, tipping its hat to John Huston and Jules Dassin) as in the existential spaces under a vast, growling sky. His is a cinema of exquisite detail, where gesture reigns over talk, words saved and deployed like bullets. It’s a reduction of genre, the ingredients simmered down to their essence with a uniquely Gallic culinary flair, to allow their flavours to be tasted more keenly.

Melville’s is a defiantly masculine world, the codes of honour and conduct as rigidly defined as the frames within which he fixes them. These would be God’s Lonely Men, if there were any god present. Nothing exists beneath the trench coats and fedoras. With no interior life of their own, they’re pawns in someone else’s game. It may be an image of a laughing Buddha under which their fate is spelt out in the film’s opening frames, but the words – and their fate – belong to Melville.

Max et les Ferrailleurs (1971)

Director: Claude Sautet

Max et les Ferrailleurs (1971)

Once again eschewing any half-inched genre accessorising in favour of a psychological study in ego and manipulation, Claude Sautet divests his masterful 1971 gangster-policier of all but the merest echo of noir, painting its weather-beaten milestones in a thousand shades of grey. In Sautet’s Nanterre, Melvillian archetypes live only on the cinema screens across town. Here, the would-be hoodlums and femmes fatales hustle and dream for the weekend, too blinkered by today to think further than tomorrow. But any noir framework must ultimately hand its characters’ destiny over to fate, which Sautet personifies in the self-serving orchestrator of everyone’s downfall – Michel Piccoli’s police detective, Max.

With his informant dead and only a weak lead to follow in the wake of a spate of Paris bank robberies, Max’s reputation stands on the line. Nothing suggests that his old army acquaintance Abel (a magnificent Bernard Fresson), a petty criminal who steals cars for scrap with his gang of ‘ferrailleurs’, had anything to do with the heists. But Max needs a conviction, even if it also means setting up a crime. And so begins an ever more twisted series of mind and money games, as the wealthy Max shacks up with Abel’s prostitute girlfriend, Lily (Romy Schneider), feeding her information on a vulnerable bank in the hope that Abel will take the bait.

Sautet’s unfussy direction charts a melancholy course of inevitability to the explosive denouement, but it’s the devastating bitterness of the psychological power that Max wields over Lily that creates a moral fissure at the centre, its tributaries seeping out at the edges. It’s one of Sautet’s very best films.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

Director: Jacques Audiard

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

While the basic premise for what remains, for me, Jacques Audiard’s best film to date originated across the pond, there’s little evidence in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté) to suggest that the director was interested in making a ‘gangster’ movie, or any other kind of genre picture for that matter. But then, nor was there in Fingers, the 1978 James Toback film on which it was based. Sure, one could make an argument for the inclusion of either in the bottom half of a list of modern neo-noirs, but Audiard’s primary concern lies with the internal dynamics of character over any overtly externalised style.

Front and centre is Romain Duris’ combustible performance as Tom, a man torn between loyalty to his father (Niels Arestrup) and friends’ violent business interests and a desire to pursue a career as a concert pianist, a skill inherited from his deceased mother. Audiard keeps us close to Tom, his inner duality mirrored in the divergent attitudes expressed by his father and his patient Chinese tutor, whom he can understand about as well as he can himself. Duris endows his character with a host of tics and twitches; he’s never still, with an explosive energy oscillating between pent-up rage and erupting passion, the ticks of a metronome indistinguishable from those of a bomb.

Mesrine (2008)

Director: Jean-François Richet

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 (2008)

It’s often hard to decide when in the midst of this two-part, blockbuster crime saga, whether it’s really about the true-life story of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine, or really just about the actor Vincent Cassel. So all-consuming is his larger-than-life performance that it often threatens to overwhelm not only every other actor brave enough to share a frame with him, but also his clearly adoring director, as seemingly in love with the largesse of his lead’s interpretation as he is with the character he’s supposed to be playing.

But then what’s not to love? All snarls and swagger, Cassel inhabits what could well prove a career-defining role with luciferous gusto. Director Jean-François Richet does his best to keep pace for what amounts to a four-hour marathon, run at a breakneck charge by his star. This is gangsterdom writ large and in primary colours. It’s rip-roaringly entertaining, but divested of the shade and structure that marks the best of those on this list.

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