Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Continental Diversion

Did I mention that my Christmas Day movie this year was Borsalino, the 1970 French gangster classic that finally teamed Alain Delon with Jean Paul Belmondo?  Well, I hadn't seen it in years and had forgotten the way it deftly moves from the light hearted capers of the first half, when the two are establishing themselves in the Marseilles underworld, to the somewhat darker and hard edged second half, when the realise that maintaining their position is going to involve a lot of violence, before hurtling to a tragic conclusion.  The first half definitely belongs to Belmondo, with his natural apptitude for comedy and roguish charm, his character hustles his way through the fringes of the underworld, preferring con tricks to guns in order to achieve his and Delon's ends.  The latter, with his icy charm and imperturbable coolness, comes into his own in the second half, easily adapting to the new world of ruthless gunplay and assassinations.  The whole thing is hugely entertaining and just so, well, stylish.

Having reacquainted myself with this old friend of a movie, I finall y got around to watching the 1974 sequel, Borsalino and Co.  Despite the fact that the film has, if anything, even better production values than the first, it simply isn't anywhere near as much fun.  In fact, itis pretty downbeat and dour.  In a way, this was only to be expected, as the first film had climaxed with Belmondo being gunned down by an unseen assailant, just as he and Delon had reached the pinnacle of their success in Marseille.  The sequel even opens with Belmondo's funeral and continues with Delon's attempts to identify the killer.  Said killer turns out to be an Italian mobster and fascist called Volpone, who buys the police department and eventually drives Delon out of town, having destroyed both his businesses and reputation.  Needless to say, Delon returns and  wreaks the expected bloody vengeance upon Volpone.  All of this plays out in a pretty grim manner, even Claude Bolling's jaunty theme from the first film is only heard once, when Delon returns to Marseilles, with the composer providing instead a foreboding, downbeat score for the rest of the film.

Which isn't to say that Borsalino and Co isn't a perfectly decent period gangster film in its own right - it is only when you compare it to its predecessor that it seems lacking.  And what it is lacking, of course, is Belmondo and his rougish charisma.  The sequel is very much Delon's film, produced, like the original, by his own production company, one gets the impression that he saw this as an opportunity to make a gangster film entirely his way, without having to share the screen with Belmondo and accommodate his rival's screen persona.  Indeed, the two stars had a major falling out after the release of Borsalino, with Belmondo believing that Delon had used his pre-title producer's credit to circumvent their contractual agreement to have equal billing in the credits, and didn't work together again for more than a quarter of a century.

The thing that intrigued me most, though, about the sequel was its political sub-text, which pits Delon's gangster against fascists.  The plot makes very clear that fascists are far worse than gangsters who, according to the mythology of the crime movie, keep their disputes 'in-house', only killing each other, only ripping off those who can afford to be robbed and generally benifitting Joe Public by using their ill-gotten wealth to fund things like brothels, theatres and orphanages.  The fascists, by contrast, break strikes, denounce socialism, peddle drugs to all and sundry and supply guns to Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  That Delon's character is opposed to fascism's main tenents is clear and, with Delon also acting as producer, it is implicit that he, himself, is also opposed to fascism.  Yet, in reality, throughout his career, Delon has been dogged by allegations of links not just to organised crime, but also far right political groups.  Indeed, only a few years ago he endorsed the French National Front, (from the safety of his Swiss home).  All of which leaves one feeling somewhat confused as to the film's political message. In an interesting sidelight, the characters portrayed by Delon and Belmondo in the original were loosely based on two real Marseilles gangsters who, during the German occupation, happily collaborated with the Nazis, something not addressed in the film.  Perhaps Borsalino and Co represented an attempt by Delon to draw a clear distiinction between his character and his historical counterpart: he might have sympathy with home grown right wingers, but he'd never collaborate with foreign fascists, (not only is Volpone Italian, but his chief henchman is German and he is seen taking orders from a high ranking German)!



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