Tough Love

On Lino Ventura, the working-class hero who bridged low pulp and high art
by Richard Porton  posted January 18, 2011
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With his baggy eyes, protuberant nose, and poker face, Lino Ventura (1919-1987) was certainly not the most glamorous French star of his era. Yet this Italian-born actor was featured in some of the best-loved and most important films of post-World War II French cinema. Acknowledged by Anglo-American critics as an important character actor, he receives scant attention in English-language critical literature. (He doesn't rate an entry in David Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film.) As "Monsieur Gangster," a retrospective of some of Ventura's most seminal films at New York's French Institute Alliance Française demonstrates, he is a pivotal figure whose work coincides with a transitional period of French filmmaking, a working-class hero comfortable in both genre films and art cinema; in fact, the two major films he made for Jean-Pierre Melville—Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) and L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969)—both bridge and transcend these artificially airtight categories.

A former middleweight wrestling champion and wrestling promoter, Ventura himself described his acting career as "accidental." Responding to Jacques Becker's search for a menacing villain to play opposite Jean Gabin in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Ventura, chosen almost solely for his imposing physicality, began a 30-year stretch as a masterful interpreter of both vicious gangsters and their natural corollaries—imperious police inspectors. Although he also played bartenders, teachers, and priests, Ventura's crime films are certainly the most memorable of his career. His impersonations of cops as well as criminals also illuminate the basic contours of French film noir and the policier—a generic framework where the boundaries between the law and the criminal underworld are extremely porous. As both an outsider (the son of poor Italian immigrants) and an eventual insider within the film industry, Ventura was in a good position to understand—and traverse—rigid class boundaries. In a 1977 interview with the Daily News, Ventura, who retained his Italian citizenship, observed that "immigrants are strange people. To the French, we are not Italian and we are not French." Ventura's early years on the periphery of French society undoubtedly enabled him to portray characters on the wrong side of the law with marked empathy.

Ventura's hardboiled gangsters were neither suave nor flamboyant. He specialized in burnt-out, doomed men such as Abel Davos, the protagonist of Claude Sautet's Classe tous risques (The Big Risk, 1960), a man the director straightforwardly described as a "loser" in interviews. Fleeing Italy after a botched heist, Abel must find a way of caring for his two sons—motherless in the wake of a beachside shootout—while readjusting to French society despite the indifference of his so-called pals; the film is as much domestic melodrama as thriller. Released the same year as Breathless, Sautet's film, despite some nods to neorealism in early sequences featuring location shooting, cannot help seeming rather rigidly classical in comparison to Godard's reinvention of the gangster genre. On the level of performance, however, one of the most intriguing aspects of Classe tous risques is the intergenerational friction between Ventura's polished world-weariness and Jean-Paul Belmondo's characteristically ebullient appearance as a young ladies' man recruited by Abel's cronies to chaperone the aging thug from the Riviera to Paris.

For the film historian Ginette Vincendeau, the key to Ventura's "star persona" is a "self-contained, physical and silent masculinity that is sometimes disrupted by rare explosions of pent-up verbal and/or physical violence." His seemingly effortless oscillation between a stoic, phlegmatic veneer and climactic spasms of verbal and physical violence help to make him a superbly effective performer. In Classe tous risques, the laconic Abel only becomes truly animated toward the end of the film when he brutally attacks a hapless con man. Vincendeau believes that "as for Gabin, minimalism, silence and popular origins act as a guarantee of authenticity and integrity, channeling spectatorial sympathy towards a character who in Le Deuxième souffle as in Classe tous risques is a ruthless killer on the run." Of course, despite some obvious links between Gabin's legacy and Ventura's, the older actor embodied a romantic melancholy that was supplanted by his younger disciple's wary, frequently near-depressive countenance. In any case, there's little doubt that Ventura updated Gabin's synthesis of tough-guy machismo and vulnerability for a less sentimental era.

Jean-Pierre Melville's efforts to both derive inspiration from Hollywood genre cinema and keep sentimentality at bay inspired two of Ventura's most impressive turns. Like Classe tous risques, Melville's Le Deuxième souffle was based on a novel by José Giovanni, a former prison inmate whose work combines a gritty familiarity with the underworld milieu and a wily awareness of Série Noire (the imprint of a famous French series of crime novels) conventions. Even though there are definite affinities between Abel Davos and Gustave Minda, a.k.a Gu, Melville's antihero, Sautet's film comes off as a rather routine thriller when contrasted with Le Deuxième's epic, albeit austere, account of a heist gone terribly awry.

Melville gutted much of Giovanni's novel and transformed a rudimentary crime narrative into a richly textured tale of a despondent career criminal whose tragic fall from grace constitutes, however unwittingly, a pop culture recycling of themes shared by the modernist fiction of Camus and Beckett. Fleeing jail with two buddies at the film's outset, Gu, whose every move is monitored by the resourceful Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse), is forced by circumstances to plan an intricate heist that seems preordained to fail. Although various commentators ponder whether Ventura's Gu belongs to a long tradition of gangsters redeemed as "tragic heroes," there is nothing even slightly redemptive or cathartic about his inevitable demise.

According to many accounts, Ventura's exasperation with Melville's directorial approach, which often verged on sadism, may have actually enhanced his performance. Melville himself frequently gloated about his manipulative ruses in interviews. For example, in recounting Gu's leap onto a moving train at the beginning of the film, Melville explained that while "Lino normally gets a stuntman for this kind of scene...during rehearsals I played his understudy myself and leapt into the train which was going at 18 km/h." Melville, clearly relishing the anecdote, evinces little embarrassment in recounting the fact that, when Ventura insisted on performing the stunt himself, he "increased the train's speed to 32 km/h." Although Melville admits that Ventura was "furious," the director boasts that "the scene was a success."

By the time Ventura agreed to star in Melville's adaptation of Joseph Kessel's novel Army of Shadows, the star and his director were not on speaking terms—a fact confirmed both by Melville in the book-length interview he granted to Rui Nogueira and by Ventura's co-star Simone Signoret in her memoir, Nostalgia Isn't What It Used to Be. This palpable friction may have assisted Ventura in reaching new heights—his low-key portrayal of Philippe Gerbier, a haggard Resistance fighter, is one of his most indelible achievements. Cavalierly (and wrongly) condemned by Cahiers du cinéma as "Gaullist" propaganda upon its release in 1969, Army is a downbeat melodrama that explores the impossibility of true heroism within a milieu that circumscribes the inevitability of betrayal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same motifs that suffuse Melville's triumphantly unsentimental celebration of the Resistance are also evident in his crime movies. That the same moral quandaries facing cold-blooded killers in Le Deuxième souffle also confront Army's altruistic freedom fighters makes this meditation on history much more moving than boilerplate tributes to glory-laden partisans. Whether conveying the solitude of an ambushed criminal in Deuxième or the quasi-monastic existence of a Resistant in hiding, Ventura is impressively restrained. Gerbier's gradual realization that he must murder Mathilde (Signoret), the comrade that saved his life, is a departure point for one of the subtlest moments of anguish in Ventura's cinematic career.

Ventura managed to shine in even relatively minor roles. Despite making a belated appearance in the last third of Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1957), his turn as a police captain who deciphers the complicity of a passionate woman (played to the hilt by a young Jeanne Moreau) in the murder of her husband is a brilliant dry run for meatier roles as cops in subsequent films such as Henri Verneuil's The Sicilian Clan (1969) and Claude Miller's Garde à vue (The Grilling, 1981). Ventura is considerably more garrulous as a cop than as a gangster: verbal dexterity as well as a gift for lightning-quick inductive reasoning provides the key to his success as a master of ratiocination. In this respect, Miller's chamber drama is particularly noteworthy. Ventura delivers a superbly modulated performance. As an inspector investigating a man suspected of raping and murdering two young girls, he moves seamlessly from calm interrogation to fiery aggression.

If Ventura looked backward to the legacy of his hero Jean Gabin, his ability to alternate self-effacement with controlled fury anticipated the style of a younger generation of tough guy actors such as Robert De Niro. Like De Niro, Ventura was also not reluctant to lampoon his macho image and FIAF is screening one of his comic forays, Les Tontons flingueurs (Monsieur Gangster, 1963), a cult film in France. While there are traces of Ventura's acting style in contemporary French character actors such as Vincent Cassel and Gérard Depardieu, none have a comparable ability to make considerable preparation and artistry seem effortless. Ventura's stripped-down portrayals of haunted men belong to a bygone postwar era that often succeeded in transforming pulpy scenarios into high art. 


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The Criterion Collection
Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième souffle
Photo Gallery: Tough Love


January 11–25, 2011 Lino Ventura, Monsieur Gangster
January 12–February 20, 2011 The Samurai: Jean-Pierre Melville


Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste in New York. He is the author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination (Verso) and the editor of two forthcoming anthologies, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press) and Arena 1: Cinema and Anarchism (PM Press).

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