Marseille’s Crime Connection: A French Chicago

Marseille Gangster movies: Borsalino & Co

Borsalino & Co

It’s in the early ’70s that thrillers directly or indirectly associated with Marseille started to emerge, slowly revealing the city’s hidden face to the world.  Only a few works had brushed with this theme before including Maurice Tourneur’s Justin de Marseille which showed two gangs squaring off on the Canebiere avenue and on the port. Other examples included Gilles Grangier’s L’inspecteur Sergil (1947) and its sequels starring Paul Meurisse, Edmond T. Gréville’s  Le Port du Désir (1954) with Jean Gabin, Pierre Foucaud’s Mémoire d’un flic (1955), Jacques Séverac’s Le Couteau sous la Gorge (1955), Raoul Levy’s Je vous salue Mafia (1965) and Frank Shannon’s Requiem pour une canaille (1967). Two classics also made a stop in Marseille : Jean-Luc Godard’s new wave masterpiece Breathless (1959) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a petty criminal who goes from Marseille to Paris as well as Jean-Pierre Melville’s film noir Le Cercle Rouge (1970 ) which starred Alain Delon & Bourvil.

Jean Herman’s Farewell Friend (1967) starring Charles Bronson and Alain Delon marked the arrival of a weird subgenre, criminals from the foreign legion, a military troop which is based in the nearby town of Aubagne. Followers in that subgenre included Francis Girod’s Grand Frère (1982) with Gérard Depardieu & Jean Rochefort and Peter MacDonald’s Légionnaire (1998) with Jean-Claude Van-Damme. Most of these movies usually include an unavoidable stop in Marseille, whether the characters are entering the legion to escape the law or getting out of it to find trouble. Talking about the military, there is always Mark Robson’s Lost Command (1966) with Anthony Quinn and Alain Delon which also includes a stop in Marseille, between the Indochina & Algeria colonial wars.

It’s in 1970 that the Marseille crime movie genre was “truly born with Jacques Deray’s Borsalino. Starring the two most popular French actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, the movie follows the rise of local gangsters Capella François and Roch Siffredi. Based on Eugene Soccomare’s book Gangsters of Marseille which chronicles the career of the gangsters Carbone and Spirito, Borsalino and its sequel Borsalino & Co addressed the world of crime, like a saga – and foreshadowing The Godfather to a lesser degree – describing the involvement of the mafia in the city’s life, from the Roaring twenties to the Nazi occupation and after the war. In terms of film locations, these movies can be credited for using areas rarely seen on screen, most particularly the Port-Pin, Madrague and Callelongue calanques (creeks). Borsalino & Co was released in 1974, along Robert Parrish’s Marseille Contrat which starred Michael Caine & Anthony Quinn and portrayed the fight against drugs. Surprisingly a comedy also flirted with the genre, Jacques Besnard’s La Belle case (1970) with comedians Michel Serrault, Rosy Varte & Michel Galabru.

If a movie can be considered responsible for the international image of Marseille as a crime capital, it is undoubtedly The French Connection and its sequel. The success of this Oscar-winning US production starring the Hollywood star Gene Hackman, spread this unflattering conception around the world. Opening with a murder in the Panier neighborhood and following with a shady meeting on the Château d’If which looks like a nod to the Count of Monte Cristo, William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) is part of a 70’s nihilist thriller wave which also included Serpico. Foreshadowing Mr. Friedkin’s cult To Live and Die in LA, this was one of the first movies built on the ambivalence of two words – gangsters and cops – highlighted by the Marseille – New York connection. William Friedkin’s movie introduced Marseille to the world with a hint of mystery as an antechamber of the crime, in the shadow of the Big Apple.

The representation of the city is very photogenic, officiating as a tourist tour taking spectators to highlights such as the popular Fonfon restaurant, the vallon des Auffes port with the Notre Dame de la Garde church in the background.

Released four years later, John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II deepened the city’s criminal reputation once for all. After arriving in Marseille for an investigation, our hero Popeye (Gene Hackman) is this time abducted and drugged in some shitty hotel – a premise strangely reminiscent of Borsalino & co.

The representation of Marseille here is vicious and dark, as repulsive as the syringe that planted in the hero’s arm. The visual tour of the city is this times miles away from touristic clichés, except for the ending, which breathe some fresh air in an otherwise-claustrophobic picture. At the beginning, we see the Thiers high school converted as a police station and the Catalans beach but, after that, we are mostly locked with Popeye’s in a gloomy hotel room. Other locations we see include the industrial port, the narrow Belsunce streets, everything looking sinister and dirty. The escape and ending provide a stark contrast with earlier sequences, showing the sun and larger avenues before a climax that brings our protagonists on the iconic Vieux Port.

Quite a few movies followed in the 80’s, this time focusing fully on the mafia starting in 1980 with Claude Barrois’s Le Bar du téléphone (with Daniel Duval & Georges Wilson) based on a real-life massacre in a bar and  Robert Kramer’s Guns (Patrick Bauchau, Juliette Berto) aiming at the connivance between gun trafficking and politics. In 1983, Philippe Lefébre‘s Le Juge (Jacques Perrin, Richard Bohringer) followed real-life Judge Michel’s short-lived career which incidentally ended by the house where I grew up. That same year, Jacques Deray’s Le Marginal probably provided the biggest spotlight on the city thanks its wide commercial success and its star, Jean-Paul Belmondo.

More recently, social filmmaker Robert Guédiguian tackled the subject in The Town Is Quiet (2000) while Alain Bévérini adapted local writer Jean-Claude Izzo’s novels in Total Khéops (2001; with Richard Bohringer, Marie Trintignant). From there TV took over with the Alain Delon-starring miniseries Fabio Montale also based on Jean-Claude Izzo’s works, while real-life – and quite megalomaniac – local cop Van Loc played himself in a series about his adventures. Another series, Zodiaque, followed In 2004 with Francis Huster. In 2014, Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection revisited the Judge Michel story without convincing, most particularly because it cast against type popular comedians Jean Dujardin (The Artist) and Gilles Lelouche. The streaming channel Netflix launched a new original series called Marseille in 2016, portraying city hall’s shenanigans and starring Gerard Depardieu, Benoit Magimel and local actress Geraldine Pelhas.

back to Provence Movies featureThis succession of gangster films and TV series set in Marseille created such a reputation that a simple allusion to Marseille is now synonym with fear. For example in Lucio Fulci’s Contraband (1980 with Fabio Testi), Marcel Bozzuffi plays a gangster called Le Marseillais known for his extreme cruelty.


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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.
Fred Thom

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