In Quentin Tarantino’s debut novel released earlier this year, he segued in typical Tarantino style into an impassioned eulogy to the Vorsprung Durch Technik engineered levels of uber-cool that the new wave king of charisma, Jean-Paul Belmondo, extolled throughout his career. While the novel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a work of fiction, it is quite clear that when lines such as, “The other foreign actor Cliff dug was Jean-Paul Belmondo,” crop up, the auteur director has simply poured his own thoughts onto the page. As Cliff goes on to ruminate: “Like Paul Newman, who Cliff liked, Belmondo had movie star charm.”
Neither Tarantino nor his protagonist are alone in this assessment of Belmondo’s effortless grace, but as many actors will tell you, being effortless on camera is a very tough slog. On-screen, Belmondo’s blasé charms were ever-present, but they were often undercut to twisted effect, as ‘Cliff’ goes on to muse: “When Paul Newman played a bastard, like in Hud, he was still an enjoyable bastard. But the guy in Breathless wasn’t just a sexy stud prick. He was a little creep, petty thief, piece of shit. And unlike in a Hollywood movie, they didn’t over sentimentalise him… That’s why Cliff appreciated not doing that with his little shitheel in Breathless.”
Thus, essentially what is established in his characterised appraisal of Belmondo is that he is not only as cool as a Polar Bear’s toenail, but he also has the depth and adaptability to go with it. In short, he embodied the style and substance of the French New Wave explosion. For Tarantino, this was particularly wrung out on a screenplay that he has called his favourite of all time – Le Doulos, starring your friend and mine, the late, great Jean-Paul Belmondo.
In an interview with Becker on Films, the iconic director likened his trailblazing debut, Reservoir Dogs, to the works of a French master. “It’s like the films of Jean-Pierre Melville,” Tarantino remarked, “Bob the Gambler, Le Doulos, which is my favourite screenplay of all time, with Jean-Paul Belmondo, it’s fantastic.”
Tarantino, renowned for his collage-like approach of tessellating the cinema he loves into something new, even seemingly has a similar style to Melville, as he adds: “His films were like he took the [Humphrey] Bogart, [James] Cagney, the Warner Brothers gangster films, all right, he loved those, and a lot of times he just took the stories from them and did them with Belmondo or [Alain] Delon or Jean Gabin and just gave them a different style, a different coolness, you know, they had this French Gallic thing going through it, yet they were still trying to be like their American counterparts, but they had a different rhythm all their own.”
For Le Doulos, Melville adapted the Pierre Lesou novel of the same name to depict the story of a recently paroled burglar embarking on a big heist, with a partner who potentially renders our protagonist only the second slipperiest man in the Parisian underworld. With a story wrought with atmosphere, it unspools on screen in a visceral splurge of zeitgeist, capturing verve and captivating character drama making it one of the most unheralded masterpieces in the entirety of film noir.
While Tarantino might have dubbed it his favourite screenplay, he is not alone in eulogising the under-acknowledged study in layered storytelling and the often slow equanimity of upheavals rumbling beginnings. Martin Scorsese even labelled the film his favourite gangster movie of all time, and he is certainly a man who knows a thing or two about the genre.
Scorsese informed Spike Lee that it was hugely influential when making The Irishman. “The tone of The Irishman had to be contemplative and an epic, but it had to be an intimate epic,” he said. “I showed a couple of Jean-Pierre Melville films, Le Doulos and Le Deuxième Souffle with Jean-Paul Belmondo in both of those pictures. It’s a very different world, but I liked the understatement of it.” At the heart of this understatement is the cooly calculated performance of one of the sixties star men, the bravura-breezing Belmondo and his ‘story-of-his-own’ acting ways.