Henri Verneuil

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The Independent Online

Achod Malakian (Henri Verneuil), film director: born Rodosto, Turkey 15 October 1920; married (four children); died Paris 11 January 2002.

Henri Verneuil brought success to actors such as Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif, Claudia Cardinale and Michèle Morgan in his films, but he also gave them the friendship of a master. Verneuil learnt much from his actors, too, especially at the beginning of his career, with the support of the great comedian Fernandel.

An Armenian, he brought the proud traditional courage and the tenacity of purpose of his people, as well as their inborn artistry and their talents in all the arts, to his work as a film director. It was this unique heritage that drove him to keep on creating success after popular success from the Fifties to the Eighties, despite the upsurge of the nouvelle vague school of cinematic realism; and despite cruel attacks on his "Saturday-night cinema" or "le cinéma de papa". His well- constructed films attracted millions both at home and abroad, while the Young Turks of the nouvelle vague played at first to limited and often scandalised French audiences.

Verneuil's story is one of a foreigner's adaptability and successful integration into a far from welcoming society; of the ascent of Achod Malakian (as Verneuil was born) from the immigrant Armenian diaspora in Marseilles to a chair at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

In his autobiography, Mayrig ("Mother", 1991), Verneuil describes how his family, fleeing the Turkish assassinations of Armenians, arrived in December 1924, after five days of stormy seas, on a rotting old tub of a boat in the port of Marseilles. The craft was crammed with survivors of the genocide.

I was four years old, with what remained of my family, who had by good luck managed to survive the assassinations. Standing on tiptoe, I gazed over the bulwarks at a phantom city lost in the thick fog of a wintry dawn, and my father told me: "That is France, my son."

The family settled in the heart of the Armenian enclave, rue de Paradis. The boy was a good scholar, and graduated from the local Ecole des Arts et des Métiers, at the age of 23. He had developed a passion for the movies, both American and European, and started writing film reviews for Le Petit Marseillais but this job lasted only eight months. He turned to radio, "because it tells stories" with a weekly programme on Radio Marseille. He became editor of the magazine Horizons – a title picked up from Cyril Connolly's literary journal.

He made his first film, a documentary on Marseilles, in 1947. He persuaded Fernandel to appear in it and read the commentary. This decisive encounter convinced Verneuil of the need to move to Paris, where he made a score of documentary shorts. In 1951 Fernandel helped him make his first full-length feature, based on the Marcel Aymé novel La Table aux crevés ("The Dead Loss Table"). Fernandel was generous with professional advice. "He taught me all about how to direct actors," Verneuil wrote. "I realised that if I couldn't make a hit with Fernandel I'd never make a hit with anyone."

In 1955, Verneuil made Les Amants du Tage (The Lovers of Lisbon), with the radiant beauty Françoise Arnoul, accompanied by Trevor Howard playing an English lord and also starring the young heart-throb Daniel Gélin. Arnoul appeared again in Des Gens sans importance (People of No Importance, 1956), with the great Jean Gabin playing a truck driver hopelessly in love with a waitress.

Gabin, by then well over 50, was a monumental figure in every sense of the word, and Verneuil, at first despairing of such static grandeur, called him "Monsieur Immobile" and began to walk off the set. This unexpectedly made the ageing star spring to life and run after his director, forcing him to return to his cameras. Gabin was to become a great friend, and one of Verneuil's favourite actors, of whom he said: "I've never met an actor who delivers his lines so perfectly right from the start."

In 1962, Verneuil made one of his best films, Un Singe en hiver (It's Hot in Hell), from the fine novel by that extravagant tippler Antoine Blondin about two drunks of different generations: Jean-Paul Belmondo played an ecstatic alcoholic confronting a monolithic repentant old soak, Gabin, who is celebrating his farewell to the booze in one final orgiastic night's intoxicated fantasies – high comedy, but it leaves us feeling (such is Verneuil's art) that alcoholic indulgence is no laughing matter.

It was now time for the "young wolf" Alain Delon to make his début, playing against the "old lion" Gabin in Mélodie en sous-sol (The Big Snatch, 1963), one of the best thrillers of the French cinema, for which Verneuil was awarded the Prix Edgar Poe. The whole imbroglio was illuminated for me by the presence of a favourite actress from pre-war days, Viviane Romance, still sumptuous at 50.

But Verneuil is most often remembered for his exuberant action movies: 100,000 Dollars au soleil (Greed in the Sun, 1964) and Week-end à Zuydcoote (Weekend at Dunkirk, 1964), in an adaptation of Robert Merle's magnificent novel about the wartime landings in France, starring Belmondo in one of his finest roles. I . . . comme Icare (1979) is an inquest on the Kennedy assassination, with Yves Montand as the judge. Gabin and Delon starred in one of Verneuil's most best-known productions, Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan, 1969), supported by Lino Ventura. Le Casse (The Burglars, 1976) has Belmondo doing his own stunts in a sensational hold-up in Athens.

Mille milliard de dollars ("A Thousand Billion Dollars", 1981) starred Patrick Dewaere as a courageous journalist battling the multinationals – Dewaere inexplicably committed suicide a year later. In 1987, Stanley Kubrick chose Verneuil to direct the post- synchronisation of Full Metal Jacket.

Verneuil rounded off his long career with two moving and tender films based on his autobiography, Mayrig (1990) and 588 rue Paradis (1991), both starring Claudia Cardinale and Omar Sharif as his mother and father, and the latter with the excellent actor Richard Berry as Henri Verneuil.

The director retired to Geneva, where he amused himself with his favourite hobby, conjuring. In 1996, he was awarded a César for his life's work, but he was already considered a "back number". On the day of Verneuil's death, Alain Delon deplored that his friend had dropped out of sight in the movie world, "dying unjustly in solitude".

James Kirkup