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Fresh takes revive gangster films

Criminals do time onscreen

PARIS — Few film types are as iconic in French cinema as the gangster. Throughout the genre’s heyday from the early ’50s through the late ’70s, Belmondo, Montand and Delon seemed to live with a gun in one hand and a Gitane in the other. But the organized-crime pic fell on hard times in the following years, save for the odd gem such as Luc Besson’s “Leon” with the occasional lower-budget gangster film making a reasonable profit.

But the genre’s real bigscreen revival was launched by Olivier Marchal’s gritty hit “36 Quai des Orfevres” in 2004.

Starring Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu as rival cops battling a ruthless gang of armored-car hijackers, it garnered eight Cesar nominations for its rare portrayal of the most decrepit quarters of Paris. Robert De Niro is attached to star in the Hollywood remake.

An ex-detective, Marchal heard repeatedly from industry insiders that the French policier was passe.

“Crime dramas were limited to television in France for a long time,” says Gaumont director general Franck Chorot. “But American shows like ’24’ made the French product look old-fashioned, and helped inspire a revival of general interest in the industry in re-exploring crime dramas, especially after the international success of ’36.’ ”

Gaumont, which produced “36,” is co-producing another bad-guy pic, “MR 73,” with Auteuil, set for a February release in France.

The actor also stars in Alain Corneau’s remake of “Second Breath” (Le Deuxieme souffle), the 1966 classic helmed by one of the French masters of the genre, Jean-Pierre Melville.

Corneau, a veteran crime director, has been friends with the author of the 1958 novel — former mobster, Resistance fighter, screenwriter and director Jose Giovanni — for more than 30 years.

According to Michele Petin, co-head of producers and distributors ARP Selection, Corneau had long despaired that the French gangster genre had become too realistic and documentarylike.

Petin and husband/colleague Laurent had tried to persuade Corneau to return to the genre for years, but he would only consider it if he could remake “Second Breath.”

Corneau was eager to be more faithful to the novel in the $28.6 million pic, set for an Oct. 24 release.

“The new version has a very operatic and colorful look. But it is a classical tragedy. There is a mythology of the gangster in France. There was a code of honor before. Once drugs arrived, all codes were soon gone.”

A pair of gangster pics is on deck from helmer Jean-Francois Richet (“Assault on Precinct 13”). “Public Enemy No. 1” and “Death Instinct,” with a combined budget of $50 million-plus, will recount the exploits of Jacques Mesrine, whose media-savvy instincts, charisma, literary ambitions and seven prison breaks made him something of an anti-hero in 1970s France. Played by top bad boy thesp Vincent Cassel with Depardieu as his early mentor, mistresses Cecile de France and Ludivine Sagnier, and supporting roles from Marion Cotillard and Samuel Le Bihan, the cast list is practically a who’s-who of the younger generation of French stars.

“(Before “36”) a lot of the interest before was in comedies. ’36’ helped focus the attention of a new generation,” says producer, director and actor Thomas Langmann.

With so many gangster projects in the pipeline, some critics in France have expressed concern that the new generation of screen mobsters may have none of the codes of honor, however warped, that gave them a certain nobility in the cinematic past.

Recent efforts, such as the hyper-violent “Crime Insiders” seem to point to a more amoral universe.

In terms of screen violence “there is always some sort of escalation,” says Chorot. “This reflects the reality of French society. There was a code of honor with the old Corsican gangsters. But it all became more violent in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s the whole of society that changed.”

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