CINEMA / France's most wanted: From Gabin to Depardieu, French cinema has produced some great baddies. Robin Buss, author of a new book on French 'film noir', picks his 10 best

ONE OF the first films ever made - in France or anywhere else, and two years before the American Great Train Robbery - was Fernand Zecca's Histoire d'un crime (1901). Although French critics invented the term film noir for a Hollywood genre of the Forties, crime has been one of the great subjects of French cinema, and there has never been any shortage of actors to play the villains. Only, when you look at their films, with very few exceptions these villains turn out to be a remarkably likeable bunch.

JEAN-PAUL BELMONDO (b 1933)

Belmondo's criminal career began in earnest when he muttered 'je fonce, Alphonse' out of the corner of his mouth not attached to a smouldering Gauloise, and casually shot a traffic policeman in Godard's A bout de souffle (1959). At the start of the Sixties, he seemed to typify a particular brand of modern youth, which the weekly L'Express defined as 'a bit of a tearaway, a bit of an anarchist, mauvais garcon, but tender-hearted . . .' He was to spend the next few years in an attempt to escape from the image, going straight as everything from the priest in Leon Morin, pretre (1961) to the swashbuckling hero Cartouche (1962). It was no use. After playing a rather nasty gangster in Le Doulos (1962), he resumed his earlier persona for Godard in Pierrot le Fou (1965), and was then persuaded to go professional, as a housebreaker in Louis Malle's Le Voleur (1967). At the start of the next decade, he was back in type, paired with Alain Delon in the happy-go- lucky period gangster-movie Borsalino (1970), being shown on BBC2 on Saturday at 12.25am. By the mid-1970s he was the highest-paid star in French cinema, though his unwillingness to accept parts in English-language films led to his virtual disappearance from the international scene. He continues to appear in mainly uninteresting films for the home market - in case you wondered where he'd gone.

EDDIE CONSTANTINE (b 1917)

Strictly speaking, Constantine's most famous role, as Lemmy Caution, cast him as a roving agent for the FBI and so on the right side of the law. But this never seemed to bother him much and he must surely qualify as criminal, if only for his treatment of women. Lemmy suffered from a serious drinking problem and used to break off every few minutes for another shot of 'my medicine'. He had a rather less affectionate relationship with his female co-stars, whom he addressed as 'mon sucre', 'ma p'tite soeur' or 'mon tresor' - when not engaged in hitting their boyfriends. His other interest was gambling. The films rarely escaped the French fleapit circuit, except for Ca va barder (1954). (Literally this means 'things are hotting up', but allegedly it was retitled There Goes Barder for the American market - was the rest of the subtitling as imaginative?) Constantine continued his brilliant career in another series, as Nick Carter; then disaster nearly struck. Jean-Luc Godard asked him to play Lemmy in Alphaville (1964, shortly to be re-released) - Constantine was on the way to becoming intellectually respectable. Luckily he returned to German and French B- pictures, where he had always done his best work.

ALAIN DELON (b 1935)

One of the few truly disagreeable villains in French cinema, Delon, unlike most of the rest, had a distinctly right- wing image. As a teenager, he served with the paras in Indo-China, then hung around the Marseilles underworld, before being spotted at the 1958 Cannes film festival by Rene Clement, who cast him as Ripley in a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, Plein Soleil (1959). He only fully realised his criminal persona in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967): a professional killer, a loner, something of a dandy, with an ambivalent sexual appeal. A couple of years later, when his bodyguard was shot dead, there were rumours of continued connections with the underworld; Delon was cleared of any involvement in the killing, but the incident did his image no harm at all. He was jollier than usual in Borsalino (though Time magazine felt he acted like 'a still-warm stiff'). From time to time, he did play characters on the right side of the law, but only succeeded in reinforcing the cliche that the cops are not much different from the crooks.

CATHERINE DENEUVE (b 1943)

At first, Deneuve seemed headed for a career as a sugary blonde; then, in 1965, Roman Polanski brought her to London, stuck her in a bedsit and discovered the raving lunatic in Repulsion. Her criminal career never reached these heights again: she tried prostitution in Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour (1967) and bankrobbery in A nous deux (1979), but on the whole, one feels

that here is an opportunity lost. With her ice-cold beauty, Catherine Deneuve could have been a female Delon.

GERARD DEPARDIEU (b 1948)

Depardieu epitomises the French view of their national character: anarchistic, tough, soft-centred. His working-class background and an adolescence that allegedly involved pilfering, black marketeering and possibly gang-rape, account for his being cast as a petty- criminal voyou from the start. Since then every character he has played has been, one feels, capable of crime, if not actually involved in it. For a long time, it is said, he refused to accept a role as a policeman, either because it might damage this image, or because he really does have a profound hatred of les flics. Then Maurice Pialat offered him Mangin, the lead in Police (1985), a character vicious, violent and openly corrupt enough to overcome his objections. All in all, Depardieu is more likeable as an honest crook.

PATRICK DEWAERE (1946-1982)

Dewaere co-starred with Depardieu in Les Valseuses (1974), cast somewhat against type as the more aggressive of the two petty thieves, the one who gets wounded in the groin early in the film. They met again in the sex comedy Preparez vos mouchoirs (1978). The two were good friends off-screen: they came from similar backgrounds, and liked to raise hell on the set and between pictures. Depardieu has suggested that it was partly Dewaere's inability to escape from his irresponsible screen persona that may have led to the problems which resulted in his suicide. Before then, he played a pathetic would- be tough in Alain Corneau's Serie noire (1979), brilliantly scripted by the novelist Georges Perec.

JEAN GABIN (1904-1976)

Gabin played everything from sex murderer (in Renoir's La Bete humaine, 1938) to Mafia godfather. But there were constants: he was almost always a loner, usually less engaged in crime for its own sake than as a means to get away from it all and retire to a quiet place in the country. The early Gabin was an ordinary bloke who commits murder for love, while dreaming about getting away from the townscape that Alexandre Trauner meticulously recreated for him in the studios at Joinville. In his middle period, he turned to robbery - typically, in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), to finance his retirement. Fate refuses to co-operate in these plans. A job as a librarian served as cover for more nefarious activities in Leur derniere nuit (1953); but which side of the law was he really on? By the late Fifties he had a parallel career as Simenon's Inspector Maigret, and could play equally the ageing Baron de l'Ecluse (1960) or the head of The Sicilian Clan (1970). When, in real life, he bought his country estate and stud farm, fate denied him a peaceful retirement by embroiling him in a protracted and acrimonious dispute with the local farmers' union.

JEANNE MOREAU (b 1928)

Starting with prostitution (in lots of Fifties bit-parts), she got her first decent role as a femme fatale in Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (1957), plotting with Maurice Ronet to kill her husband in a film with the deep structure (as we buffs say) of The Postman Always Rings Twice. She went straight for several years as a leading lady of the New Wave, but became a vampish call-girl in Joseph Losey's Eva (1962), a revenge killer in Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1967) and a lesbian killer in Le Corps de Diane (1969), only occasionally returning to crime. Pity: in the American cinema of the Forties, as a contemporary of (say) Barbara Stanwyck, she would have been one of cinema's great female killers.

SIMONE SIGNORET (1921-1985)

Signoret's first great starring role was as a gangster's moll in turn-of-the-century Paris, in Jacques Becker's Casque d'Or (1952); she lives, but sees her man guillotined for a murder committed on her behalf. Again in costume, she did the killing herself in Therese Raquin (1953), and revealed her deadliest side as the cooler of the two killers in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1954). She was the wife in Sidney Lumet's adaptation of John Le Carre's The Deadly Affair (1967), and once more proved deadlier than the male. Again, bourgeois respectability created a facade behind which she could work towards her own ends, in this case political. Her ability to suggest that she had something to hide made a good Resistance heroine in L'Armee des ombres (1969) and she hid Alain Delon, on the run as usual, in La Veuve Couderc (1973). By now she and her husband, Yves Montand, were leading figures in left-wing politics, and the femme fatale was well on the way to becoming a sort of Socialist grande dame.

LINO VENTURA (1919-1987)

Discovered wrestling at the Salle Wagram around 1952 by directors Jacques Becker and Jean-Pierre Melville, Ventura was one of the most perfectly typecast of all French screen toughs, whether in his usual role as a gangster (in Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi), or as a policeman, when asked to switch sides. He played 'Le Gorille', in Bernard Borderie's Le Gorille vous salue bien (1957), and seemed on the brink of taking over from Eddie Constantine as the B-movie rent-a-tough. But he avoided that fate by turning down his next 'Gorilla' part and opting to work for classier directors. He found himself opposite Belmondo in Classe tous risques (1959) and in Becker's prison escape movie, Le Trou - which Melville called 'a masterpiece, a film which I consider - and I am weighing my words - the greatest French film of all time'. In the world of French crime films, even the directors can be nice to each other.

Robin Buss's book, 'French Film Noir' (Marion Boyars, pounds 19.95), is out now.

(Photograph omitted)

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