France and the United States have always had an interesting history and relationship with each other, not only as countries, but also with film. There has always been kind of a fascinating back and forth between the two basically since the beginning of cinema (which, as a reminder, was actually created in France).
If it weren’t for the First World War, there is a strong indication that Paris could have easily been the center of the film universe rather than Hollywood holding that title today. Even one of Georges Méliès’ very first films was a seven minute long little silent movie called, “A Desperate Crime” (1906).
When Hollywood introduced the dark, cool, cynicism of Humphrey Bogart and film noir after WWII, French cinema soon responded with great crime films of their own (along with an entire new wave of film that in turn heavily influenced the American golden age of cinema later in the 1970’s) that took that “Bogie” essence and darkness (even by commonly often using that exact same signature Bogie overcoat, hat, and dangling cigarette on their own movie stars like Alain Delon, for example) and then upped the ante with a heavy dose of cool that could almost make James Dean look goofy by comparison.
To be fair, in the more modern incarnations of French crime films, this cool has sometimes been replaced by a brutal grittiness when appropriate. One way or the other, they’re nearly always well done.
France and America seem like to criticize each other and to make fun of each other while they simultaneously often seem to almost have an inferiority complex about each other in various ways, all while subtly imitating and reflecting each other through their films throughout the years.
Most cinephiles (ironically a French word) are probably very familiar with French crime films, as they have had a particularly strong lock on that genre since the 1950’s, but it’s probably pretty common for your American average Joe to instantly picture a black and white film featuring a sad mime flipping pancakes while smoking a cigarette when the words, “French “ and “film” are used in the same sentence.
If you’re honest with yourself, and you feel like you might find yourself in that later category, and you love a good crime flick… I truly hope that you’ll check these movies out. I think that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I have taken care to include a list of all different directors. I’d like to make this note clear, since some directors like Jean-Pierre Melville for example, have made a number of well known and masterful crime films, I have chosen to represent him and others with a selection of one of his lesser known movies as well as with some of the other directors mentioned here in many cases. I will cite some of them along the way, and I encourage you to seek them out and watch them all.
This list will almost be more of a list of the best French crime film directors in some ways and cases, but obviously not all. That said, I think that every one of these individual films can easily hold their own on their own merit, and they all belong here on this list for their own reasons.
Although French crime films came on strong in the 1950’s, they seem to be making resurgence in recent years. Let’s all hope so. Crime and gangster films are some of the best things to come out of France besides wine and cheese. Santé! Enjoy!
1. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi – Jacques Becker (1954)
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (Hands off the Loot) stars Jean Gabin (voted the “actor of the century” by a French poll and was perhaps more famously the star of Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) as Max, a wise, aging, very well dressed and polite professional criminal who has a way with the ladies and who lives by his own code who is planning on doing just one last gold bar heist job before retiring. His weak point is his soft spot for his sidekick and partner,Riton (played by Rene Dary) who unwittingly puts his entire plan into jeopardy.
Max is one of the first classy and complex film gangsters with a morality of his own. As the critic Terence Rafferty writes, “real men eat pate,” and this is “among the very few French movies about the criminal class in which neither the characters nor the filmmakers are afflicted by the delusion that they are Americans.” As Francois Truffaut wrote, “The real subjects of ‘Grisbi’ are aging and friendship.”
2. Rififi – Jules Dassin (1955)
I hate to make this point to the French, but one of the greatest French crime films ever made was actually directed by an American. France seems to have a tradition that goes long before Roman Polanski for taking in foreign film directors as refuges. In this case, they welcomed another genius in Jules Dassin, who was one of the many victims of the blacklisting craze in Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
After making American noir classics like Brute Force and Naked City, Dassin moved to France and went on to continue his brilliance with his heist movie masterpiece in the city of lights. In Rififi, four ex cons plans one big last job in Paris. Dassin ended up winning the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival as a result. This is a must see on this list.
3. Diabolique – Henri-Georges Clouzot (1955)
This film really still holds up some sixty years later, and the ending will leave you blown away and with a solid case of the goose bumps. In some ways, one could even call this Europe’s version of Psycho, as it shocked audiences around the continent and came several years before Hitchcock did the same with Psycho in the states. Some sources say that Alfred Hitchcock missed out on purchasing the rights to the Boileau and Narcejac novel by just a few hours.
There is no need to revisit the massive failed attempt at a remake of this film in the Sharon Stone 1996 version. The original will leave you on the edge of your seat. Diabolique is sort of a hybrid of a suspense, revenge, thriller, horror, and crime film all wrapped up into one cinematic masterpiece. As far as crime films go, this technically fits the bill, but doesn’t fall into the typical French gangster film that one might think of in this genre.
4. Pickpocket – Robert Bresson (1959)
Long before Michael Mann explored the precision and the detailed and purposeful anonymity of professional thieves and criminals in such films as Thief (1981), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004), we had Robert Bresson doing similar things in Pickpocket. In some ways, I can’t help but wonder if this film had any influence on Mann. (As a side note, I badly wanted to include Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), but decided that it was more of a prison break movie than an actual crime film. Both films are worth your time.)
Michel (Martin Lasselle) is intentionally common and pedestrian, because it’s his profession to be exactly that. On the inside, he’s a self-loathing narcissist who is a professional pickpocket in large part just because he feels if he can do it, it’s because he’s better than you, and you deserve it. He’s totally capable of another career, but other internal needs drive him simultaneously both to do it, and also to eventually get caught by the detective (played by Jean Pelegri) who is equally driven to catch him in the act.
5. Classe Tous Risques – Claude Sautet (1960)
Loosely translated as “The Big Risk” or “Consider all Risks”, Classe Tous Risques is a gritty as hell blend of Italian neo-realism and American film noir that paired up a couple of French tough guy film icons in Lino Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmodo in a way that might be comparable to have Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in the same crime flick today.
The problem was the timing. This film came out right when the French new wave was hitting the scene, and in some ways was overshadowed by it until it was rediscovered later, and has since been widely thought of as the best French gangster film ever made. Personally, I think there’s a good argument for that claim. I encourage you all to check it out to see and decide for yourselves.