The French have been making wonderful movies about crime for over 100 years. Long before Dr. Mabuse haunted the German underworld and long before James Cagney swaggered onto American screens, French director Louis Feuillade was crafting epic film serials about master thieves and the detectives who hunted them: Fantômas (1913-14), Les Vampires (1915-16), and Judex (1916). Ever since Feuillade released them upon the public, French gangster films have been captivating movie-goers the world over. Here are five of the best of them, all currently available to stream online.
Title: Pépé le Moko (1937).
Plot: On the run from French police, career criminal Pépé le Moko (“Moko” is slang for someone from Marseilles) has fled to the Casbah quarter of Algiers. A “casbah,” for those of us who only know it from the Clash song, is the fortress section of a North African city. For le Moko (Jean Gabin), it is a sanctuary, as the police can never hope to penetrate its labyrinth of narrow streets, secret passages, and easily traversable rooftops. In fact, if Inspector Slimane has any hope of bagging our hero, he’ll have to find a way to draw him out of the Casbah. But what could entice a hunted man into leaving his citadel? Love, perhaps?
Let’s meet our star: Noble, charismatic, and possessed of an enormous head of the sort that French audiences seem to love (see Jean Marais and Gérard Depardieu), Jean Gabin was a towering figure in the French cinema of the 1930’s. Perhaps best known in the U.S. for his collaborations with director Jean Renoir (in such films as Grand Illusion and La bête humaine), Gabin was an inescapable presence on the French screen. At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, he went into exile in America, where he had an affair with Marlene Dietrich (which we have every reason to believe was torrid), and launched an unsuccessful Hollywood career before joining Free French forces and participating in the liberation of his homeland. His initial attempts to restart his French film career were hit-or-miss, but by the mid-50s he was back on top and remained there for the rest of his life.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: Casque d’or (1952).
Plot: In Paris of the late Belle Époque, the city is at the mercy of gangs of "apaches" (named after Apaches, which is what the Parisian street criminal on the make called himself in the days before political correctness). Based on a lurid true story, Casque d’or presents the fatal love triangle between young apaches Georges and Félix and the object of their affections, the haughty and aloof Marie (Simone Signoret, whose striking blonde hairdo is the casque d’or, a.k.a. golden helmet, of the title). French cinema is rich with tragic love stories, but Casque d’or, with its combination of gangster swagger and doomed romantic pathos, is one of the best.
Let’s meet our star: Simone Signoret was the go-to actress for the pre-New Wave French cinema. With the glamour and beauty of an old-school Hollywood icon, she gained fame for star turns in such films as La Ronde (1950) and Diabolique (1955) before embarking on a successful parallel career in Anglophone cinema; she became the first French actor win an Oscar for her performance in Room at the Top (1959). She was also politically engaged and was one of the signatories, alongside the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, of the Manifesto of the 121, condemning the French colonial war in Algeria. Although her star faded in the '60s, her classic performances have secured her a permanent place in world cinema (and the Criterion Collection, where she pops up frequently).
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: Shoot the Piano Player (1962).
Plot: Pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), who used to play sold-out shows under his birth name, Edouard Saroyan, has seen better days. His career is in shambles, his wife has committed suicide, and he now finds himself playing background music in dive bars to make ends meet. Things start to look up when Charlie catches the eye of a spirited waitress. But, wouldn’t you know it, his brothers, who have always straddled the narrow border between the law and criminality, have fallen afoul of some gangsters, and it looks like Charlie will have to intervene to save them. It figures.
Let’s meet our star: Ask your average French person on the street about Charles Aznavour and the first thing they’ll tell you about is the music. Born into an Armenian immigrant family in Paris in 1924, Aznavour (né Aznavourian) is one of France’s most beloved pop stars. Catching his first break singing in the French chanson tradition in the 1940’s, an early association with Édith Piaf lifted him to the heights of pop stardom, a position he occupies to this day. With such a long musical résumé, his film work comes almost as an afterthought; his biggest role was in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, one of the key films of the French New Wave. But he’s also distinguished himself in movies like And Then There Were None (1974) and Ararat (2002). The latter film can be seen as part of his lifelong engagement with Armenian issues, including campaigns for earthquake relief in 1988 and a continued effort to secure international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: Un flic (1972).
Plot: Following a bank robbery gone wrong (and in the movies, do these things ever go right?), four gangsters, one bleeding to death after being shot by a plucky bank teller, must put as much distance between them and the debacle as possible. But amoral police detective Edouard Coleman (the "flic," or cop, of the title) is on their trail, and when they attempt a second robbery to fund their escape (a methodical train robbery that plays out in real time), a leak in their organization might destroy everything. But matters are only complicated by the ambiguous presence of Coleman’s lover (Catherine Deneuve), whose inscrutable loyalties endanger everyone.
Let’s meet our star: If you look at the Criterion release for Purple Moon, the blurb on the box describes Alain Delon as “impossibly beautiful,” which sums it up nicely. An undemonstrative actor hiding behind an angel’s face, Delon was ideal for the understated gangster films of Jean-Pierre Melville. In classics like Le Samouraï (1967) and Un flic, Delon plays his cards close to his chest, but this dead-pan actor embraced a variety of roles throughout his 60s hey-day. Some of his most memorable turns came in Italian classics like L’Eclisse (1962) and The Leopard (1963), explorations of modern ennui and late-aristocratic decline (respectively) that took Delon far beyond the confines of the gangster film and testified to his range as an actor.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008).
Plot: Billed as the French answer to Scarface, these blood-soaked companion films stars Vincent Cassel as ‘70s outlaw Jacques Mesrine, a globetrotting psychopath whose daring escapes from the forces of law and order and ability to manipulate the news media turned him into an unlikely folk hero. Now, like Scarface before it, the Mesrine films occasionally betray pretensions to social relevance, but the heart and soul of these movies is in Vincent Cassel’s relentlessly energetic portrayal of the titular public enemy and the carnage he leaves in his wake.
Let’s meet our star: Like Simone Signoret before him, Vincent Cassel has pursued parallel careers in French and English-language cinema. In English movies, he’s usually a creepy European (Black Swan) or a sinister European (Eastern Promises). One could perhaps get the impression that he had been typecast by Anglophone filmmakers, but then one turns to his European movies and realizes, “Oh, this is just what he does.” And he does it very well. Whether terrorizing young people in Sheitan (2006) or committing some of the unspeakable atrocities that make Irreversible (2002) so hard to watch, Cassel makes an excellent monster. How appropriate then that one of his latest roles is in a French live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (2014). Guess which part he plays!
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.