José Giovanni

Film-maker with a felonious past
Click to follow

José Giovanni, writer and film director: born Paris 22 June 1923; married (one son, one daughter); died Lausanne, Switzerland 24 April 2004.

Not many young men enjoy the distinction of having been condemned to death by the French courts and then, at almost the last moment, reprieved from the guillotine by the President. José Giovanni was such a courtroom phenomenon. He had fallen foul of the law for his part in a 1945 hold-up in Pigalle, Montmartre, that went badly wrong. It caused the deaths of his elder brother and his uncle, and three other accomplices. He was sentenced instead to a term in prison.

Giovanni was born in Paris, but his parents were Corsicans - a promising start for the life of a romantic modern brigand. He loved all kinds of sports: he was an excellent mountaineer and worked as a guide, a deep-sea diver, a lumberjack and a coal-miner. During the Second World War, he joined the Resistance in France, and all these manly activities were later to provide ample themes for the many fascinating thrillers he wrote, and for the masterly film-scripts he based on them.

His petty criminal activities and experience of gangland life were to lend many an authentic touch to the films he directed, to great popular acclaim. However, a Swiss press agency, BRRI, revealed in 1993 another, more serious aspect of his murky past during and just after the war. He had joined forces for a while with a former Nazi collaborator who was being tracked down by secret police for the assassinations of resistants, and was eventually condemned to death. The affair was hushed up by the French press, and Giovanni declared: "I've paid in full. I have the right to be pardoned and forgotten in that affair."

Giovanni's jail sentence of 11 years was reduced to eight, although hardly because of good behaviour, as he made attempts to escape. To keep him out of more mischief, his lawyer persuaded him to write his first book, in the form of souvenirs of his life in clink. The result was Le Trou ("The Hole"), a tough tale of his own attempted escape through the Paris sewers, and a surprisingly professional piece of literary composition.

The script was sent to Albert Camus and Roger Nimier, the readers for Gallimard publishers, who snapped it up at once, and published it in 1957. It became a best-seller, praised by many authors including Jean Genet, the renowned author of works in both prose and poetry on prison themes. Le Trou was made into a fine film by Jacques Becker in 1959. Giovanni's new career was off to a flying start.

Giovanni had hated with true Corsican passion both his father and his mother. Paradoxically, he held the latter responsible for his own ingrained detestation of his father: "She stole my father away from me. She was jealous, bigoted, possessive, megalomaniac . . ." His father had emigrated to the United States, where he gained a reputation in criminal circles as an unscrupulous dandy, a Romeo and a virtuoso poker fiend. It was only late in life, at the age of 78, that Giovanni found that his much-reviled father had ironically been the one who had worked so hard for the repeal of his errant son's death sentence, and for his early release from jail.

He now started to write a series of fascinating thrillers based largely on his own felonious activities and his acquaintance with gangland big shots. These popular novels were natural movie material and he learnt to script them himself. Some of the best were Claude Sautet's Classe tous risques (The Big Risk, 1960), a starring vehicle for one of his favourite actors, Lino Ventura, co-starring another favourite, Jean-Paul Belmondo; in 1962 he scripted Jacques Deray's Du rififi à Tokyo (Rififi in Tokyo) which was also a big hit in Japan; and in 1969 Henri Verneuil's Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan).

Giovanni was not always satisfied with the results of other men's direction, so he started making his own films, usually on his own scripts. The most notable were La Scoumoune (The Hit Man, 1972) from his own novel and starring Belmondo, in one of his best parts as a 1930s gangster, alongside Claudia Cardinale. The following year produced Deux hommes dans la ville (Two Men in Town), a memorable star duo of Jean Gabin and Alain Delon.

In all, Giovanni made 20 films. But, as his close friend Delon said on his death:

José Giovanni was a great writer, but he was never a great director. What I loved in him was the man himself, rather than the director.

In the end, Giovanni had become reconciled to the memory of his dead father and in 1995 made him the hero of Mon père, il m'a sauvé la vie (My Father Saved My Life), which became a moving film in which Bruno Cremer played his father with touching authenticity.

Giovanni left one unpublished novel: Le Pardon du Grand Nord, a story about young delinquents. It will appear this month.

James Kirkup