While many may think that French cinema is dry, boring, and stale, those initiated into the country’s movie industry know that France has one of the world’s richest crime film heritages. French cinema is brimming with tales of enigmatic heroes, daring heists, and malevolent criminals. Inspired by Hollywood detective stories and film noir, French crime films would go on to become some of the greatest in the world. It is interesting to note the development of the crime film in France, as they are a part of just about every important film movement with which the country is associated. Many of France’s greatest (and most cerebral) directors would go on to direct at least one crime film. With the plethora of masterpieces that France has produced, it can be intimidating to try and find a good place to jump in and explore the genre. To help, I have compiled a list of ten such classics. They are arraigned chronologically from the times of their initial release dates. By listing them in this order, we actually can see the progression of French film as a whole. So grab a cigarette, a fedora, and a good glass of champagne- here are the ten greatest and most influential crime films ever made in France:
10. Pépé le Moko (Pépé, the Man from Marseilles)
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Released on January 28, 1937
The first film on this list is a touchstone of French poetic realism, a genre that predicted film noir by combining gritty realism and storylines with stylistic flourishes of heightened aestheticism. This film centers on the infamous criminal Pépé le Moko who lives in the Casbah of Algiers. He lives an ideal life complete with fame, women, and an uncanny ability to disappear from the cops whenever they try to find him. But this all changes when a Parisian playgirl tries to convince him to leave his home and return to France, a choice that will force him to become vulnerable to the cops and the other Algerian criminals who want him dead. Sometimes referred to as the French Casablanca, Pépé le Moko is both a gripping crime thriller and a heartbreaking melodrama. Easily director Julien Duvivier’s best film, it laid the groundwork for every French crime drama that would follow.
9. Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot)
Directed by Jacques Becker
Released on March 3, 1954
In the film that re-launched Jean Gabin’s career after World War Two, we are taken into the sophisticated yet seedy underbelly of the Parisian criminal underworld. Gabin plays the aging gangster Max le Menteur who, after having stolen eight bars of gold in the heist of a lifetime, wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his days living the life of riley. Unfortunately, his best friend Riton accidentally tells a loose-lipped snitch, Josy, about the heist and Max gets pulled back into the world that he wanted to leave. Riton is kidnapped with the gold bars demanded as ransom. Now Max must decide between the material comforts that he has worked his entire life for and risking everything to save his friend. Don’t be fooled, this film is more about the gangsters themselves than their crimes. Famous French film critic and director Francois Truffaut once wrote, “The real subjects of ‘Grisbi’ are aging and friendship.” A calm, yet powerfully emotive film, Touchez Pas au Grisbi is a milestone in the development of French crime film tropes, such as the noble and sophisticated gangster and stories more concerned with characters than plots.
Directed by Jules Dassin
Released on April 13, 1955
Made in 1955, Rififi had all of the elements to become a cult classic: a low budget, an unknown cast, and highly stylized crime sequences. But the real magic of Rififi is Jules Dassin’s direction. Blacklisted form Hollywood, Dassin moved to France where he directed one of the world’s greatest crime thrillers/film noir. The film is about a band of thieves coming together under the leadership of Tony “le Stéphanois” in order to pull off one last impossible heist. Their score is a jewelry store full of precious gems. The film follows Tony as he assembles his crew, plans the heist, executes it, and deals with the cops after he is betrayed. The most famous scene is the heist scene that lasts for half an hour without any dialogue or music. It would go on to inspire other film heists and real world imitators. Rififi is both a technical and thematic milestone in its portrayal of Parisian criminals as immaculate professionals who follow a strict set of “rules” concerning their trade. It expanded on the ideas presented in Touchez Pas au Grisbi to create an image of French gangsters that would forever dominate the cinema. Rififi is literally a genuine original.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Released on August 24, 1956
The first film on this list from the master of French crime thrillers, Jean-Pierre Melville, Bob le Flambeur is one of the most important crime movies ever made. Both a film noir classic and a precursor to the French New Wave movement, it would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. Bob is a down and out gangster with a crippling gambling problem. When he loses a great amount of money at a casino, he decides to risk robbing it. All goes according to plan, at least until the cops are tipped off. Bob le Flambeur is landmark film in French cinema. Combining a great love of American culture and film with French society and etiquette, Melville created his own style that was first displayed in this film. Roger Ebert wrote that Melville “inhaled American gangster films, but when he made his own, they were not copies of Hollywood but were infused by understatement, a sense of cool; his characters need few words because so much goes without saying, especially when it comes to what must be done, and how it must be done, and why it must be done that way.” Bob le Flambeur was the establishment of a style, a look, and a feel that had never before been seen in a movie theater.
Directed by Robert Bresson
Released in December 1959
While the films on this list so far have all been gangster films, Pickpocket is a different kind of crime film. It is a cool, calculated film that meditates on the nature of good and evil. Its director, the infamous Robert Bresson, tells the story of Michel, a man who is drawn to a life of petty crime. Driven by a personal philosophy wherein he believes that some men are above the law (much like the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) he sees no reason why he shouldn’t pursue this new life. He falls in with a band of pickpockets who teach him the ropes of the trade. But it isn’t long before he gets in too deep and picks a detective’s pocket. With its calm, reflective pace, Pickpocket is not an edge of your seat thriller. Instead, it deals with serious issues in a mature and intellectual manner. Its impact can be felt in many different directors and screenwriters, most notably in the work of Paul Schrader. His classic screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver copies many stylistic techniques displayed in Pickpocket, such as the use of confessional narrative and a voyeuristic view of society.
5. À bout de souffle (Breathless)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Released on March 16, 1960
Not a gangster film in the strictest definition of the term, À bout de souffle is nevertheless more than qualified for entry in this list. The first film of cinematic iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard, it helped establish the French New Wave, arguably the most important film movement in history. The story concerns Michel (played by French New Wave poster child Jean-Paul Belmondo in his breakthrough role), a petty thief who spends time stealing cars and sleeping with his American girlfriend Patricia. He hides in her apartment when the heat gets on his trail, but she eventually betrays him. In his attempt to escape, he is gunned down in the Parisian streets. In this New Wave manifesto, Godard both pays homage to American film icons (particularly Humphrey Bogart) and literally revolutionizes the French film industry. A stylistic triumph, À bout de souffle plays and feels like no other movie before or since.
4. Classe tous Risques (Consider All Risks)
Directed by Claude Sautet
Released in 1960
Classe tous Risques came at a pivotal point in the history of French cinema. The Fifties had seen film noir style French gangster movies that emulated Hollywood while inserting their own sensibilities. The Sixties would see the rise of a new kind of gangster film: the cool, meditative thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville. Classe tous Risques, bridged the gap between these two styles.
We follow two criminals, Abel Davos and Eric Stark, as they travel from Italy, where they have been hiding from the law for ten years, back to France. In order to get much needed funds for the trip, they commit a robbery which leaves many men dead. With the heat getting closer and closer, they dive into the Parisian underworld. Yet, their journey doesn’t end when they reach Paris- they must then traverse through the sludge of Paris’ crime-ridden streets in a journey of self-discovery. Featuring an iconic performance by Jean-Paul Belmondo, Classe tous Risques allowed French cinema to evolve from a clone of American thrillers into its own distinct idiom.
3. Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)
Directed by François Truffaut
Released on November 25, 1960
The second film on this list from the French New Wave, Tirez sur le Pianiste was one of directors François Truffaut’s earliest successes. We follow Charlie Saroyan, a down-on-his-luck classical pianist with old ties to gangsters. He plays at a Parisian bar where he works with a waitress named Lena who loves him. She soon learns his true identity, only for him to be swept back up into the criminal world which he escaped from when his brothers get in trouble. It features such trademarks of the French New Wave as extended voice-overs, out-of-sequence shots, and abrupt jump cuts (pioneered by Godard in À bout de souffle). It also dwells on one of Truffaut’s favorite reoccurring themes in his work, the relationship between art and commercialism. Like À bout de souffle, it is not a traditional gangster film; instead, Truffaut uses the genre to promote his own cinematic theories and advance the art of French film.
2. Le Samouraï (The Samurai)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Released on October 25, 1967 [US release]
Arguably Jean-Pierre Melville’s greatest masterpiece, Le Samouraï is a look into the life of a professional hitman. His name is Jef Costello, and he prides himself in being the perfect assassin who never gets caught or leaves any evidence. Played by Alain Delon in a performance as cool as the rain-soaked Parisian streets, Jef is hired to kill a night club owner. After he carries out the hit, he is accidentally seen by Valérie, the club’s piano player. Having been identified by a witness, Jef’s fellow assassins descend to eliminate him. But he manages to fight back until he is hired for one last hit: Valérie. Now, he must make an impossible choice, kill Valérie, the only person who he feels anything for, or maintain the perfect record that he has slaved his entire life to create. Featuring one of the greatest twist endings in French cinema, Le Samouraï is an immaculate film. It would inspire legions of filmmakers, such as John Woo and Jim Jarmusch. Every single frame is masterfully composed, making the entire film hypnotic in its mastery of form and content.
1. Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Released in 1970
Rounding off this list is one last entry from the French master of the crime genre, Jean-Pierre Melville. His second to last film, Le Cerle Rouge is a culmination of all the movies that came before it. Combining the polished sheen of films like Le Samouraï with a classic pulp storyline from the days of Rififi, Melville both looks towards his roots and the future with this great movie. The story circles around three thieves who decide to pull one last heist on a prominent jewelry store. They are Corey, an aristocrat fresh out of prison, Vogel, a murderer, and Jansen, an ex-police sharpshooter. But after they pull off the crime, they are hunted by men who want revenge on them. Just like Rififi, it features a tightly controlled and executed heist scene that lasts for half an hour. Shot with a beautiful color palette, Le Cerle Rouge is a joy to behold. It is a fitting conclusion to this list as it sums up everything that makes the genre great: intriguing characters, phenomenal heists, beautiful shot constructions, and a skewed sense of morals where the audience doesn’t quite know who to root for.
By Nathanael Hood
Read more about overlooked movies at the author’s blog: Forgotten Classics Of Yesteryear.