It is the sort of dark tale that the French adore. They translate them into the popular Serie Noire imprint and then film them, transposed to the not terribly mean streets of Paris. At the crossroads, a fine drizzle is doing its bit towards the required note of moodiness; the streets have an ugly slick to them, and the film crew is getting grumpy.
Suddenly, the actor Christopher Lambert erupts from a doorway. He hurtles across the pavement and ducks behind a car as a fusillade of bullets ricochets off the car's roof. This is rather less dramatic than it might be, because the gunshots and that familiar whine of the ricochet will be added later on the soundtrack. So what is threatening Lambert is a series of little fizzing splutters, like a row of indoor fireworks.
Never mind. Lambert being Lambert, he makes a meal of it, sprinting off into the night doubled over to make a hard target. He is pursued by a speeding Range Rover with a camera on it. A few days ago, he suffered severe burns on his feet after he ran too close to an explosion. It doesn't seem to have slowed him up, however. After four more takes, he is still dashing into the night, being terribly physical.
Inside the foyer of a nearby hotel, Philippe Noiret, who plays Max, the older hit-man, is doing what he does best. Puffing contentedly on a huge cigar, he reclines in an armchair, loosens his cardigan and generally exudes an air of benign inactivity. 'So, tell me,' he begins, 'How is my old friend Peter O'Toole?' I report that the man has recently finished a successful run in the West End as the dedicated piss-artist Jeffrey Bernard. It seems an unusual friendship.
'We met 20 years ago, somewhere up the Orinoco, making a film called Murphy's War. It was not a great success,' he says with a mournful air of resignation. 'In fact it completely flopped worldwide. Except for Dublin. I suppose any film with Murphy in the title will do well in Dublin.' Has he kept in touch with O'Toole since? 'Yes, the way we do it is by interview. Whenever he is interviewed by a French journalist he asks after me, and I do the same whenever I am interviewed by an Englishman. Thus we keep reading about each other over the years.'
There is a marvellous note of lugubriousness about Noiret. It is a quality he adjusts for films of different mood, but which never completely leaves him. Apparently detached, even calm, Noiret has a consistency about him which enables him to find something of himself in every role without histrionic striving. He was a great popular success as the corrupt flic in Le Cop, happily bashing suspects over the head with a telephone directory and urging his partner to shoot a bullet through the ample roll of flesh around his middle in order to fake an alibi. And he pulled in even larger audiences playing the blind projectionist in Giuseppe Tornatore's syrupy Cinema Paradiso.
'It is good to play characters who are blind or deaf or dying. Never fails. It was a very sentimental film, but . . . (massive Gallic shrug) people do like that.'
His greatest recent role was in Life and Nothing But. He played a grizzled colonel who had survived the horrors of the First World War trenches, and was now saddled with the grotesque task of finding a suitable corpse to be buried in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The character is also disconcerted to find himself falling love in love with a very much younger woman (Sabine Azema) who is searching for the remains of her fiance. It was a performance that was massive, abrupt and incredibly gentle.
The film was directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and was the sixth that Noiret has made with him. The partnership began in 1973 with The Watchmaker of Saint Paul, and has prospered over the years through such films as Coup de Torchon (taken from Jim Thompson's thriller Pop 1280 and transposed to Africa) to the point where Noiret could be said to be Tavernier's alter ego, or acteur autobiographique.
'Yes, I love him,' Noiret says, 'He is tres agreable. I have made a lot of first films with directors. But not many second films with the same director. He is the exception. He is full of curiosity, and an encyclopaedic knowledge. He is an expert on modern Japanese poetry, for example, and also on ancient Mexican sculpture . . . although to tell the truth, all that can be a bit tiring.'
Certainly, they have much in common. They each have a large frame, with some evidence around the middle of a taste for good cooking. The looks of a contented bloodhound. A black coffee world-weariness. And a taste for the bleak comedy that life always throws up. 'He gives me confidence,' Noiret says, 'and so I give him the truth.' He stretches his legs in the armchair. Outside in the rain, the crew are thrashing around among tangled cables, Lambert is still sprinting off down the wet streets, and the director, Claire Devers, is bouncing off the walls. Noiret puffs happily on his cigar.
A young woman wanders into the foyer. She is all teeth and hot-pants; her halter-top, in defiance of the weather, leaves a good 12 inches of exposed flesh above her waistline. She rushes up to Noiret and they wrap their arms around each other and go through the usual French business of kiss, kiss, kiss, hug hug, eh alors, turn all the way around and let me look at you. The actress Beatrice Dalle (for it is she) is not actually in the film, but was passing by and could not resist saying hello. There has been some local scandal recently about her being arrested for shop-lifting some jewellery. Noiret seems very fond of her in an avuncular sort of way.
Finally Lambert returns from the set and comes into the foyer to dry off. 'Shaddup,' he says in passing to Noiret. 'Fugoff,' says Noiret in reply. 'It is how we communicate,' Noiret adds by way of explanation. In fact they both speak very good English, but use the cod American as a nod to the book's origins. Indeed, Noiret has a large knowledge of American thrillers, citing Elmore Leonard, and Charles Willeford as two favourites. He recently had dinner with the insanely cynical crime novelist James Ellroy, who came to Paris in order to meet Noiret, his favourite actor.
Born in Lille in 1931, to a father in the rag trade, Noiret spent his school days being good at absolutely nothing. Fortunately he had a kind teacher who suggested that he might try acting. Soon he was in the Theatre Nationale Populaire alongside Gerard Phillipe, playing such roles as Sir Toby Belch. 'I never played my own age until I was about 40.' From the actor Jean Gabin he learnt not disguise his awkward shape, but to use his bulk to advantage. With Gabin he also shared a love of horses, and, to this day, Noiret likes nothing better than a long, slow ride deep into the countryside.
'But mainly, I like to sit and do nothing,' he says, radiating the sublime laziness of a large Buddha, 'Surtout, ne pas bouger is my motto.' He stretches his legs straight out from the armchair, engulfed in a pleasant blue haze of cigar smoke, and smiles at the scene outside the window. Exit Christopher Lambert pursued by Range Rover.
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