The Forgotten: The Belmondo Identity

In this dopey French thriller, a secret agent betrayed by his bosses seeks to carry out his last mission, even though it was cancelled.
David Cairns

Le professionnel is essentially a 1981 version of The Bourne Identity, oddly enough, with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead role.

Robert Ludlum's novel was brand new at the tune, but Le prof is based on a 1976 book by Patrick Alexander that Ludlum, I'm guessing, may have read.

Sent to assassinate an African despot, JPB is betrayed by his own people, brainwashed, and jailed in a hellish prison camp, but escapes after two years, returns to Paris and announces his determination to finish the mission (with the secret service no longer want carried out) when the despot is on a state visit to the French capital.

So, it's called The Professional and it's about a crazy but ruthless state killer gone rogue, and it's shot by Melville's cameraman, Henri Decae. But at some point, somebody decided it needed some yucks also, so Belmondo gets to grin a lot and make quips in a Roger Moore style. Belmondo evidently needed some opportunity to do his crinkly twinkling. Nice to see all that torture and brainwashing hasn't made him lose his sense of humor.

This movie is demented and not very well made. If you're going to make a point of graphically showing a man with a pick-axe embedded in his back, maybe don't show the pick wobbling about loosely, an obvious strap-on. There are some nice shots, though. The director is Georges Lautner, and Michel Audiard, his highly-regarded collaborator (their most-celebrated work is Les tiontons flingeurs), did the dialogue, but the tonal wavering is appalling. True, Belmondo gets to do some nice tumbling, but doesn't risk his neck the way he did regularly in the sixties and seventies. I can't say I blame him for that, though, his decision to eschew the staggering Keatonesque risk-taking of L'homme de Rio and Peur sur la ville is probably the reason we still have him today.

On to the maddest bit. The best performance is probably Robert Hossein as the ruthless detective trying to bring Belmondo to "justice." To show us how ruthless and twisted he is, his first act is interrogating Belmondo's wife, which he does by bringing along a vicious attack lesbian, practically on a leash, and threatening to turn her loose on the terrified heterosexual bourgeoisie. The demented dyke is the film's most pleasingly absurd fantasy, though also queasily nasty, bigoted, and profoundly stupid. But then Belmondo descends from the rafters and karate chops her in short order and she falls in the bath tub, where her decision to go bra-less that morning rebounds upon her—dubbed-on groans later try to pretend that she has survived the chop, but the scene was clearly shot with her dead. Was there a whole reshoot to soften the nastiness and add quips? Or was this movie always a mess?

It's also a bit racist.

The idea of a super-spy turning on his spymasters is fun, but to make it work you have to not let the spymasters be total idiots. When their secretary, who is known to be JPB's former mistress, calls in sick, shouldn't that have caused a raised eyebrow or two (especially if we've been studying Roger Moore)?

The soundtrack is by Ennio Morricone, which might have helped when Lautner stages a faux-Leone duel, but it consists of one track, the lovely "Chi Mai," swiped purchased from the soundtrack of Maddalena (1971), also re-purposed by the BBC the same year for The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, an odd choice which resulted in the track hitting the U.K. charts. The way the same tune keeps stopping and starting gets a bit preposterous. Buying in the whole score of the earlier film might at least allowed for some variety, although even then it would be cheap and bizarre.

Georges Lautner kept at it after this one, averaging more than a movie a year until 1992. Are any of them any good? I don't know. What I've seen of his earlier work has robust virtues: spectacle, star quality, and dynamic framing and movement. Those are still present here, but are joined by a quality that trumps them all: glaring dumbness.

I'm very glad I saw it, mainly for the grindhouse attack lesbian.


The Forgotten is a regular fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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