Thursday, January 07, 2016

Le Marginal (1983)

Dirty Harry clearly had a huge influence on the French policier genre in the seventies and eighties, with Paris suddenly finding itself policed by legions of maverick cops hell bent on bringing various psychos, serial killers and mobsters to justice, regardless of the fact that they have to break the law wholesale in order to achieve their aims.  For Jean-Paul Belmondo, in particular, Dirty Harry heralded a whole new direction for his career, as he found himself playing a Gallic Harry Callahan in a string of tough cop movies.  The name of the character he played in films like Peur Sur La Ville, Le Marginal and Le Solitaire might have changed from movie to movie, but in essence he was always the same: a leather jacketed loner with a disregard for rules and regulations and a penchant for dangerous driving.  Belmondo, one of France's biggest film stars, had already played his share of rogueish, but charismatic, mobsters by the early seventies and had always happily oscillated between art house pictures and popular action films.  Now he found himself firmly identified with the character of the rogue cop.

There are key differences between these French cop thrillers and their US inspiration.  Unlike Clint Eastwood, Belmondo's cops tend not to brandish outsize phallic substitutes, preferring their standard issue police revolvers.  Moreover, Belmondo is far more athletic than Eastwood, leaping around roof tops , crashing through plate glass windows and jumping from helicopters on to moving power boats.  And it really is Belmondo, who performed his own stunts in these films - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that by the eighties he was in his early fifties. None of the films could be described as high brow.  They are, however, hugely entertaining and extremely well made.  Le Marginal is probably my favourite and is pretty typical of the genre. This 1983 production used to be a staple of ITV's all night schedules, in a dubbed and slightly edited version under the title The Outsider.  Rather than chasing serial killers, this one sees Belmondo's cop trying to close down a drug kingpin played by American actor Henry Silva - who has friends in high places.  All of the expected plot developments are present: Belmondo is compromised with a dead informant in his apartment just as he's about to get the goods on Silva in Marseilles and is transferred back to Paris' Pigalle District in disgrace but, despite being ordered to spend his time dealing with prostitutes, starts a new investigation into his Nemesis.  Nevertheless, every time he thinks he is about to make a breakthrough, he finds himself frustrated by Silva's political influence.

The film is packed full of action sequences, including the aforementioned helicopter stunt, a car chase through Paris involving an armour-plated Ford Mustang, a shoot out in a railway station and Belmondo's one man raid on a drug den.  The latter is one of the film's many diversions from the main thrust of the plot - in this instance he agrees to rescue the daughter of a criminal he sent down in return for information about a former associate of Silva.  The other main diversion involves Belmondo tracking down and beating up a pair of pimps who had slashed his prostitute girlfriend as punishment for hooking up with a cop.  This culminates in Belmondo pretty much wrecking a restaurant in an extended fight sequence.  There's also a sun-plot involving Belmondo's former protégé - played by a young Tcheky Caryo - who gets mixed up with Silva's rackets.  All-in-all, a pretty heady mix, all accompanied by a typically distinctive Ennio Morricone score.  The film isn't without faults - there's plenty of casual racism and a couple of grossly homophobic sequences (although, to be fair, the latter are balanced by a couple of scenes treating homosexual characters rather more sympathetically), but I'm afraid that simply reflects the era the film was made in.  Throughout it all, Belmondo is as charismatic as ever, delivering a likeable performance even through the English-language dubbing.

French policiers are probably a genre I should tackle more often here - I've watched enough of them.  Unfortunately, as I recently discovered, it is next to impossible these days to find any on DVD with English sub-titles or English dubbing, (my French isn't up to following the dialogue in the original language).  I know that such versions exist as they used to regularly turn up on TV - sadly, this is something else which never seems to happen any more.  But if you do get the chance to see any of this type of film, I'd urge you to take it - the French take on a traditionally American genre is refreshingly different and often quite subversive.



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