French cinema has contributed some of the most audacious and groundbreaking submissions to the gangster film genre. In France, any discussion about gangster flicks starts with Jean-Pierre Melville. Obsessed with gangster movies from the golden age of Hollywood, Melville fetishized the belted trenchcoat, the fedora hat, and most importantly, the ever-present cigarette being puffed away by a laconic loner. Any film fanatic will readily tell you (even without prompting): pay attention to the details.
It's always been fascinating to me how artistic cultures look to each other for inspiration. Melville was obsessed with American culture going so far as having a custom Ford imported to France and never being seen without a Stetson hat and aviator sunglasses. His vision of American gangster movies from the '30s and '40s led him to the movingly haunting and brutally violent films he made in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. These films in turn would inspire scores of American filmmakers like Scorsese, De Palma, and Tarantino.
10. Le Doulos/The Finger Man (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1963
This labyrinthian thriller has more twists and turns than fusilli pasta. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Silien, whose ability to navigate the den of thieves that is the Paris underworld is only exceeded by his ability to look really cool smoking and talking to women. If you can follow the plot, you're better than I, but the story isn't really the point. It's the shot composition, the grimy details, and the sordid performances.
9. Le deuxième souffle/Second Wind or Second Breath (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1966
Lino Ventura stars as Gu, a legend in the French underworld known for his cunning and loyalty. When Gu escapes from prison and heads back to Paris, it sends his rival Jo Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin) and police commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse of Les Diaboliques fame) on a mission to hunt him down. The battle of wits is masterfully presented by Melville, who doesn't rush the story and lets the characters reveal themselves gradually.
8. Mesrine (Jean-François Richet), 2008
Vincent Cassel plays notorious gangster, Jacques Mesrine, who gained a modicum of celebrity in the 1970s despite being implicated in numerous violent crimes, including murder. Mesrine became a romantic figure due to his propensity to repeatedly elude capture, each time with a new glamorous woman by his side. Originally released in two parts, the film follows Mesrine's violent journey to being named France's Public Enemy No. 1. Cassel's self-possession and effortless sexuality makes him convincing as a man adored by beautiful women despite being a bank robber perpetually on the run from the law.
7. Le Samouraï/The Godson (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1967
Having this film this low on the list will raise eyebrows, as Le Samouraï is generally considered Melville's greatest film, and by extension, the definitive French gangster film. Alain Delon stars as the title character, Jef Costello, a taciturn hitman living by a strict ascetic code. The film opens with a long take of Delon lying on the bed of his minimalist single room Paris apartment with the following made-up quote overlaid on the screen: "There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle... Perhaps..."
A brilliant film that transcends the gangster genre and approaches something closer to Zen. The long takes for Delon's face, the howling wind, the bizarre twist ending—Melville is vibrating on another frequency here. However, on a pure enjoyment scale, it doesn't rate. Like Jef's extreme self-discipline, this is an exercise in self-neglecting. "Why Jef?" "I was paid to."
6. Dheepan (Jacques Audiard), 2015
This darkly exciting film tells the story of a Tamil Tiger, whose side just lost the Sri Lankan Civil War, escaping retribution by posing with two female refugees as his wife and daughter to secure asylum in France. Dheepan, the name of the dead man whose passport the Tamil Tiger assumed, becomes the caretaker of a rundown housing project beset by rival drug gangs. Dheepan gets drawn in to the conflict and bloody brilliance ensues. Winner of the 2015 Palme d'Or Prize at Cannes.
5. Tirez sur le pianiste /Shoot the Piano Player or Shoot the Pianist (François Truffaut), 1960
Charles Aznavour's sad eyes play perfectly for the melancholy title piano player punishing himself after his wife's suicide. As the film unfolds, it turns out the piano player isn't exactly who he says he is. Truffaut's follow-up to his seminal Les Quartes Cents Coup (The 400 Blows), this is his gift to hardcore cinephiles.
4. Pierrot le Fou/Pierrot the madman (Jean-Luc Godard), 1966
Jean-Luc Godard needs no introduction and this film is certainly one of the best from his golden period. Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina are a pair of lovers on the run from the law, from gangsters, from their boring lives. Pierrot is a nickname Anna gives Jean-Paul meaning "sad clown." Breaking the fourth wall, philosophical diversions, and absurdism reign supreme. Godard gives no quarter. Also, look for the Samuel Fuller(!) cameo in the first act.
3. Le Cercle Rouge/The Red Circle (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1970
Shit's getting serious now. Melville reaches new heights with this heist picture. A truly all-star cast includes Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volontè, and André Bourvil. The aforementioned heist is presented in a half hour sequence devoid of any dialogue. This one will have you on the edge of your seat with sweaty palms.
2. Touchez Pas au Grisbi/Grisbi or Honour Among Thieves (Jacques Becker), 1954
I really love this movie. The title translates literally to "Hands off the loot!" This film introduced me to the French gangster genre when I first saw it at Charles Theater in Baltimore with my brother in 2005. Director Jacques Becker manages to successfully pull off a touching and sweet violent gangster action movie.
Jean Gabin and René Dary star as Max and Riton, two Parisian gangsters with an honorable reputation, who hijack a cache of gold bars. The problem is how to fence it without getting caught by the cops or, worse, being exposed by rival dishonorable gangsters. Jeanne Moreau co-stars as a Riton's cheating moll. Dora Doll plays Max's girl. Lino Ventura stars as Max's scheming rival.
1. Bob le flambeur/Bob the Gambler or Bob the High Roller (Jean-Pierre Melville), 1955
I have a confession to make to you, my loyal readers. This entire post was really just an excuse to talk about this movie, which is most assuredly one of my all-time favourites. This movie is so easy it practically floats. Roger Duchesne plays the titular Bob, a sauve former bank robber who now supports himself as a high-stakes gambler. His joie de vivre is only matched by his dignity and compassion. When Bob hits a bad luck streak, he must come out of retirement for one last big score. I really shouldn't say anymore. You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't watch this as soon as you can. This movie will lift you up above the milieu, guaranteed. Like the trailer correctly claims, a great film with atmosphere, and the Montmarte lifestyle. It was remade in 2002 by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief starring Nick Nolte and Emir Kusturica.
Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution/ Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (Jean-Luc Godard), 1965
Another Godard classic but more of a science fiction film-noir. Godard is playing heavily with expectations and conventions here.
Le Professionnel / The Professional (Georges Lautner), 1981
Not really a gangster flick but still sort of lives in that world as Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a French secret government assassin who is betrayed by nefarious forces in his country. He ends imprisoned in a fictional African country. Upon escape, he returns to France lusting for revenge. Some really strange sexual scenes remind you this is a completely French production, as if you could forget. Ennio Morricone on the score.