Top 10 French Crime Films
By James Oliver
It's quite simple: French crime films are some of the greatest pleasures the movies have to offer. Gallic filmmakers took formats developed in America (the gangster film, the hard-boiled detective movie, the prison flick) then filtered them through their own sensibility to create something both tough and stylish – a combination that's damn-near unbeatable.
With a newly restored Plein Soleil sailing to our shores this month, our list is a tribute to ten of the very best...
NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK
Let's start with this two-part – or 'diptych', as I believe the proper term is – biography of the most notorious French peacetime criminal of the twentieth century, a man so nefarious that one film just wasn't enough. Starting as a soldier in Algiers, Jacques Mesrine returns to a life of crime, graduating to bank robbery and more (and, indeed, mort). Vincent Cassell excels as the charismatic, psychotic Mesrine, fully alive to his despicable allure.
9. Plein Soleil
In her native America, Patricia Highsmith was initially regarded as an accomplished crime novelist; the French were rather quicker to recognise her genius. Taken from her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plein Soleil is a film of identity and deception set beneath the burning Mediterranean sun. Alain Delon is at his most dangerous as the blank slate that is Tom Ripley, studying and then absorbing his friends like some especially beautiful bodysnatcher. Sociopaths have rarely been so alluring.
8. A Prophet
Jacques Audiard is the current kingpin of French crime movies and this prison drama might be his masterpiece; it follows a small time criminal entering the Big House, then making his way up the crooked ladder to becoming – well, watch the film and find out. Audiard doesn't so much draw on the great tradition of French crime as create a new variant, based on the multi-cultural reality of modern France. Either way, it proves French crime films are in rude health.
For all Jean-Luc Godard revolutionised movies with his jump cuts and cinephilia, let's not forget that A bout de souffle is also a straight up crime film, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the Bogart worshipping cop killer and Jean Seberg as the gal who grasses him up. Godard would later return to the underworld (Bande à part, Pierrot le fou) but this is both his most accessible work and also his most influential. Note the presence of Jean-Pierre Melville in this clip. The celebrated crime director has a film of his own on this list, as we shall see later...
Taking his inspiration from Dostoevsky (especially Crime and Punishment), French cinema's greatest holy man Robert Bresson went underground to make a film about sin and redemption amongst the petty criminals of Paris. And while Bresson's purpose is undoubtedly high-minded, his criminal set-pieces compare favourable to those in more conventional crime films, suggesting he could have turned to more orthodox policiers if the whole 'art film' thing had fallen through.
Henri-George Cluzot trained in Germany and was usually drawn to more expressionist styles and stories than in more traditional crime dramas – witness the nightmarish spin he places on Le Corbeau, his sensational film about poison-pen letters. Quai des Orfevres is his most straight forward, the tale of a show girl, a killer and the dogged copper who ensures that justice is done. Cluzot made the film under a cloud (he was suspected of collaboration); its success blew the doubts away.
While most exiles of the McCarthy witchhunts settled in Britain, Jules Dassin chose France. Already a veteran of hardboiled thrillers (Thieves Highway, The Naked City), he brought the same energy to his first French film. Most famous for its lengthy robbery (largely silent, Dassin claimed, because he barely spoke the lingo), it was hugely influential, kickstarting the French gangster film and it still packs one heck of a punch.
3. Le Trou
Sometime just after the war, a bunch of convicts performed a particularly audacious escape from one of France's most secure prisons. Ten or so years later, film director Jacques Becker heard the story, by way of a book by Jose Giovanni, and decided it would make a great movie. He was determined to be authentic – even down to casting the real ring leader, Jean Keraudy as the brains of the outfit. The results are the best prison escape movie ever (stuff The Shawshank Redemption), painstaking, pared down and hypnotically compelling.
First things first: had Le Samourai been available, we'd have chosen that. But Le Cercle Rouge is nearly as good – a collage of fedoras and trenchcoats, stares and guns. It's about process, about inevitability, about fate. It could only be the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the all time great stylists and the director most associated with French crime. He's damn close to his best here.
And an interview with JPM:
Generally speaking, we restrict ourselves to one film per director on these lists but on this one we make an exception. However, our repeat director isn't – as you might expect – Jean-Pierre Melville but Jacques Becker; I can (just about) live with only one JPM film but this list would not be complete without both Le Trou and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. Touchez Pas... is a gangster film, about veterans being sucked back into the game. But it's not about old men regretting how the world has changed; Becker prefers to show how class doesn't age, with Jean Gabin is the hero teaching upstarts like Lino Ventura and Jeanne Moreau how it should be done. And don't just take my word for it: Jean-Pierre Melville cribbed from it for Bob Le Flambeur. C'est magnifique.
What did you think of the selection? Let us know below
Rene Clement, 1959
The first adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plei...
Jacques Becker, 1953
Gabin, the quintessential tough-guy, and Moreau, resplendent as always, pair up for this heist fi...
Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947
A classic French film noir set around the dancehalls of 1940s Paris. Singer Jenny...
Jacques Becker, 1960
The story of five prisoners who meticulously plan their escape, only to learn that one of them is...
Jacques Audiard, 2009
Acclaimed as one of the best films of 2009, Un prophète won the 2010 BAFTA for the best film not ...
Jules Dassin, 1955
Jules Dassin's classic French film noir, acknowledged as the inspiration for many modern-day crim...
Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970
Le Cercle Rouge is Melville's masterful take on the American crime thriller, combining the Hollyw...
Robert Bresson, 1959
An undisputed masterpiece of cinema from Robert Bresson in which a young man is driven by his sel...
Jean-Francois Richet, 2008
A terrific double-header containing both parts of Jean-Francois Richet's Mesrine, chronicling the...
Jean-Luc Godard, 1959
Godard's groundbreaking Breathless sees a dash of flair and subversive Gallic ins...