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  • Ravi Swami

Belmondo, Belmondo, Belmondo !...3 films.

Updated: Mar 13

Following some curiosity about the French actor Jean Paul Belmondo's more commercial films that followed his breakout performance in Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 French New Wave classic, "À Bout De Souffle"/"Breathless", led me to check out Criterion Channel and other streamers to see what was on offer.

While Criterion didn't include some of his later films, it does include a trio of the films that appeared hard on the heels of Godard's film that established him as a hot property in French cinema.

The trio of films in a set that includes the 1960 "Le Doulos", (reviewed here in an earlier post), are very different, however, and highlight Belmondo's rarely-seen range outside of his tough guy persona from many later films.

All three films share the fact that they were either written by or directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, as frequent collaborations with the actor that continued into "Le Doulos".

"The Magnet of Doom" / "L'Aîné des Ferchaux" (Eng: "The Elder Ferchaux") (1963), and the first of three that I watched over 3 consecutive nights is notable for being Melville's first film shot in colour and was filmed in large part in America but opens in France where Belmondo plays an unsuccessful boxer who applies for a job as a secretary to a businessman, "Dieudonné Ferchaux", who is on the run from the French authorities for tax avoidance and possibly murder. He accompanies the businessman to America where his employer intends to avoid extradition, a journey that involves a road trip by car and on the way they pick up a hitchhiker played by the Italian actress Stefania Sandrelli in an early role and playing an American, dubbed. Having discovered Sandrelli in some of the classic "Commedia Al'Italiana" and Neo-Realist films of the 1960's, most notably in "Divorce Italian Style", it was a pleasant surprise to see her in the film even though her role in it might be considered small and inconsequential and no reflection of her talent as an actress.

The duo arrive in New Orleans where Belmondo's "Michel Maudet", beginning to tire of his employer's domineering attitude towards him, meets a cabaret dancer played by Michèle Mercier for a brief fling and to whom he admits that he had left his long-time girlfriend in the lurch in France in order to work for his new employer,"Ferchaux", played by the veteran French actor Charles Vanel. Ferchaux uses a ploy of failing health and heart problems in order to blackmail Maudet into staying with him throughout his journey from France to Venezuela, where he has deposited most of his wealth in a safe deposit, and safety from both the French and now American authorities who are in hot pursuit, but Maudet has seen through this and intends leaving him, taking his payment for the work in the process.

The film ends with Ferchaux's murder at the hands of the owner of a bar that Maudet frequents and his shady accomplice, who have deduced that Ferchaux must have money hidden in the safe house that he occupies with Maudet whilst lying low in New Orleans. As Ferchaux lies dying in Maudet's arms he offers him the key to the safe deposit full of dollars in Venezuela but Maudet's closing words to him are "You and your key can go to hell".

Despite the very film-noir/pulp ending the plot never really leans fully into film noir territory though it's clearly a genre that fascinated Jean-Pierre Melville, judging by many of his other films. The second film, "A Monkey In Winter" (1962 - Dir: Henri Verneuil), pairs Belmondo with the veteran French actor Jean Gabin in a riotous comedy set initially during the German occupation of France in a coastal town in Normandy where we are introduced to Gabin's "Albert Quentin", a hotel proprietor and bon-viveur who reminisces about his days in China and proclaims his undying loyalty to socialist values and hatred of the German invaders who have turned his hotel into a bordello. Shifting to the present of the 1950's and Gabin's "Quentin" has vowed to abstain from alcohol for the sake of his marriage, a rule quickly broken when Belmondo's "Gabriel Fouquet" enters the picture as a young man who checks into Quentin's hotel, and what follows is a series of spiralling escapades for the two men, fuelled by alcohol and their individual fantasies concerning escape from responsibility, first to rescue Fouquet's young daughter from a convent school where she is a boarder and then to buy all the fireworks they can find from a local shopkeeper to release them all on the beach in one go. Somehow managing to evade arrest from the local Gendarmerie, Fouquet plans to return to Paris with his daughter and Quentin to a nearby town to visit his father's grave inland by train, during which he tells Fouquet's daughter a story about how in China during winter the monkeys take refuge in the towns and when they are too numerous the people put them on trains to return them to their native habitats, hence the film's title.

The film closes on the solitary figure of Quentin on a train platform where he has to change trains, as the train on which Fouquet and his daughter are riding pulls slowly out to continue onwards to Paris. Thematically, it could be seen that both men are reliving a youth cut short by the war and national service in their adolescent escapades, with the hopes of the pre-war and post-war eras embodied by Quentin and Fouquet respectively either wiped away or put on hold during the German Occupation until liberation by the Allies and for audiences of the period must have underlined the freedoms enjoyed in the post-war period of the 1950's and 60's.

In "Léon Morin, Priest" (1961, Dir : Jean-Pierre Melville), the last of the trio, Belmondo is cast against type by Melville following the actor's career-defining role in Godard's "Breathless", released to great acclaim one year before, playing a young country priest of a small rural town during the German Occupation to whom a single mother, an avowed Communist and atheist whose Jewish husband was killed in the war, played by Emmanuele Riva, comes, initially to challenge his religious beliefs as their world seems to collapse around them and then eventually to rediscover her own lapsed Catholic faith whilst developing romantic feelings for him that are not reciprocated. Melville weaves a number of themes into the plot, which include lesbianism and the complex relationship of the townspeople with the German occupiers as their Jewish and foreign neighbours rush to convert to Catholicism or are split up to be taken in by various safe houses before their brutal removal to concentration camps as the German war effort began to crumble in the later stages of WWII.

Riva's "Barny" develops a crush for "Sabine", the attractive administrative secretary of the correspondence school where she works but it is unrequited and only serves to highlight her sexual frustration and a need to fill the void left by her husband, and so she redirects her feelings toward Belmondo's "Morin" through a series of private meetings with him to discuss religious matters and philosophy, where there is clearly a growing sexual frisson developing. This is really Emmanuele Riva's film - told from her character's perspective and featuring her narration throughout - in my view since she delivers a terrific and very affecting performance in the role of "Barny" that followed her role in Alain Resnais' iconic 1959, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" where she played a similar role in the films' early flashback sequences set in France, also during the occupation - there's a sense of romantic longing and vulnerability that she embodies so well in both films besides the sense that, being a notoriously choosy actress, it would have been great to see her in more films than the relatively brief canon of 24 films of which I have watched only 5, that includes Michael Haneke's "Amour".

However, this is not say that she outshines Belmondo's role as Morin at all, who surprises with an uncharacteristically sympathetic but steely performance of a man sure of his faith and who will not bow to any sort of temptation, whether it is from the local floozy who is determined to seduce him, or a long line of local women who have lost their partners to war and are attracted to his rugged good looks, and he delivers the perfect balance and dynamic to Emmanuella Riva's "Barny", as required by the plot The liberation of France by the allies brought its own problems for the townspeople, illustrated in a scene where Riva and her daughter are accosted by two American servicemen as they cross a field and who offer to help her carry her knapsack and daughter back to their apartment - an act of seeming goodwill that soon turns sour when one of the men propositions her at her front door and refuses to hand over her knapsack on condition that she allows him to sleep with her. The other serviceman intervenes and asks his companion to back off and leave her alone, which he does reluctantly and the scene ends when Riva's daughter implies that they are just like the Germans.

The film ends with a bitter and heartbreaking climax as Morin - who by now has established a close relationship with Riva's "Barny" and has developed a fatherly fondness for her daughter - announces that he is leaving the town to minister in neighbouring villages after making it clear in no uncertain terms that as far as he is concerned, their relationship is purely platonic, leaving the devastated Barny to continue her life of loneliness despite her best efforts to break through the armour of his faith.

Of the three films I would have to say that "Léon Morin, Priest" was my favourite as far as leaving an impression and also for being a discovery of one of Belmondo's less well-known films, besides the opportunity to see an actress of Emmanuele Riva's calibre delivering a terrific role. though they are all well worth checking out for different reasons.

"The Magnet of Doom" - 1963, Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville

"A Monkey In Winter" - 1962, Dir: Henri Verneuil

"Léon Morin, Priest" - 1961, Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville

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