Mandom #8 – The World According to Jean-Paul Belmondo
by Todd Wieneke
Ah, the French. No matter what is occurring in the world at large we can always count on making fun of them. Most of the bullying is jingoistic (Freedom Fries… really, Congress?) but inevitably the hate is directed toward Gallic culture, which honestly makes no sense to me. Take their cinema, for example. For all the razzing we give them over their praise of Jerry Lewis, there’s a laundry list of great directors and actors to more than balance out the apparent miscue. I mean, without Jean-Pierre Melville there would have been no John Woo, a fact backed up by Mr. Woo himself in his tribute to Melville in the Nov 1996 issue of Cahiers du Cinema. And there would be no Jackie Chan if not for Jean-Paul Belmondo.
“Wait, what?” you ask belligerently. “That big-lipped guy from that flipping black and white art movie I had to watch in college?”
Yes, that guy. And the reason I make such a statement is because his manliest of films never made it here to the States, so our impression of his career is entirely colored by the flicks he did for enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard – in particular Breathless and Pierrot le Fou — in which his characters are a rash comment/caricature of the 20th Century American male, at least the one perpetuated by the Hollywood machine.
Turns out that Mr. Belmondo was something of a stuntman, and a spate of crime films that he did in the late 60s through the 1970s for director Henri Verneuil sparked the fertile minds of such illuminati as Chow Yun Fat and Mr. Chan. Think of these films as the laidback French equivalent of the Italian poliziotteschi, only without the bitching mustaches and swanky Morricone or DeAngelis Brothers scores. They have a quiet streetwise charm to them, almost quaint in their matter-of-factness, in their documentary-like feel… which may explain why they didn’t make it to these shores. Not enough bowling-ball-to the-balls Umberto Lenzi-ness, I reckon.
Here’s an amazing scene from Le Casse (1971), and I beg you to watch it all the way through. Peppered throughout the clip are some great moving vehicle stunts by our French subject, but the centerpiece is at the end in the rock quarry where Mr. Belmondo performs perhaps the most impressive– and certainly most dangerous– stunt I’ve ever witnessed this side of classic Buster Keaton. And if you need immediate gratification, then skip to the 7:45 mark.
Wow, right? No wires, no doubles, no green screen or rear projection and certainly no computer enhancement. Just him falling from the payload of a dump-truck, all the way down to the bottom of the sand hill, deadly rock shards flying everywhere around him. Dusts himself off, adjusts his hair, carries on. Simply amazing.
Here’s our hero in a simultaneously picturesque and nail-biting foot chase along the Parisian rooftops in Peur sur la ville (1976):
And lastly, here’s a great driving sequence—featuring a badass matte black Mustang—from Le Marginal (1983). By all accounts Mr. Belmondo was a mack behind the wheel, too.
So the next time you feel like making fun of the French, pull yourself aside and remember the lengths to which Mr. Belmondo has gone to entertain you in a series of films that you never even knew existed. Just don’t picture him wearing a beret or he’ll knock your ass out, and he’ll do so just using his mind.