If Jean-Paul Belmondo had gotten his way, he would have been a stage actor. He applied to the Conservatoire de Paris three times before the illustrious drama school accepted him and spent the 1950s trying to launch a theater career.
Lucky for world cinema, Belmondo had greater success on screen, thanks to his role in 1960’s “Breathless,” the movie that launched the French New Wave — and instantly rendered everything Hollywood had been doing old-fashioned. In “Breathless,” Belmondo wasn’t playing a gangster so much as someone who had seen too many gangster movies, a self-styled tough guy who took Humphrey Bogart as his model. His crime spree feels more improvised than scripted, while his doesn’t-care, screw-society attitude effectively thumbed its nose at all the good reasons on-screen criminals had used to justify their actions before.
Godard’s film made Belmondo the face of the New Wave — a handsome mug that had clearly seen its share of punches, and one that French critics short-sightedly dismissed as too ugly to succeed early in Belmondo’s career. Boy, were they wrong. As Quentin Tarantino told a Lumiere Film Fest audience at a 2013 tribute to Belmondo, “Even his name, Belmondo, it’s not just the name of a movie star, it’s not just the name of a man, it’s a verb — it’s a verb which represents vitality, charisma, a force of will. It represents super-coolness.”
Belmondo’s image — which others would try to copy: you can see Warren Beatty working to re-create that seemingly effortless cool in “Bonnie & Clyde,” or practically imagine Belmondo’s face staring back during De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” scene from “Taxi Driver” — owes largely to the seven-year period between “Breathless” and “The Thief of Paris.” He may be forever associated with the New Wave, but he made just three features with Jean-Luc Godard (the last, “Pierrot le Fou,” amplifying the anti-establishment attitude he’d embodied as Michel in “Breathless”). During that same time, he shot a couple films with Claudia Cardinale and one with Sophia Loren (“Two Women”), which played well around the world.
Belmondo got along royally with French director Jean-Pierre Melville, who gave Belmondo his best off-brand role, as a devout priest tested by an attractive young skeptic (Emmanuelle Riva) in “Leon Morin, Priest.” Belmondo reunited with the director on “Le Doulos,” a tense, fatalistic crime film that Tarantino has called “my favorite screenplay of all time” (and a major inspiration for “Reservoir Dogs”).
But something soured on their third collaboration, “L’aîné des Ferchaux.” Melville was notoriously tough on his actors, and one day, when French screen legend Charles Vanel argued with Melville over some detail, the director insulted him, calling Vanel “un vieux salopard” (an old bastard). Belmondo took his co-star’s side, telling Melville, “You don’t have the right to speak to him like that!” and taking a swing at the director, who stepped back to avoid the blow, while his hat hit the floor. After that, Belmondo refused to speak to Melville — though, oddly enough, he remade “L’aîné des Ferchaux” nearly 40 years later, this time playing Vanel’s role.
That boycott opened the door for Melville to find another muse: Alain Delon, a contemporary of Belmondo’s, became Melville’s go-to criminal — though Melville still tried to convince Belmondo to play the fugitive in “Le Cercle Rouge.” The two stars represent a unique dichotomy, actually: Delon was more of a pretty-boy, masking his emotions behind a blank stare, whereas Belmondo was quick to crack a smile, transforming the thug into a seducer.
Belmondo and Delon actually co-starred together a few times in their careers — most notably on small-time gangster lark “Borsalino” — and seem to have gotten along well enough, though the press tried to play them against each other, dubbing the two actors “les meilleurs énemis du monde” (the best enemies in the world). In any case, the tabloids were paying more attention to his relationship with Ursula Andress at the time.
Belmondo had such a massively successful run in the early ’60s that he took a pause near the decade’s end and decided to rethink his career, turning down nearly any auteur project that came his way. He’d had a blast making “That Man From Rio” with director Philippe de Broca — a slick, globe-trotting adventure comedy that Steven Spielberg has cited as a major influence on “Indiana Jones” — and was content to be a star.
Belmondo breaks the fourth wall at the end of “Rio,” shooting audiences a knowing look that transcends the scene. From then on, he traded on that dynamic, gravitating toward more conventional roles — B-movies, mostly — sometimes several a year. Brandishing his signature sideways grin, he played secret agents (“The Professional”) and war heroes (“Ace of Aces”), swashbucklers and swindlers, often making it a point of doing his own stunts, much to the insurance companies’ chagrin. Some of these went on to become classics (Claude Lelouch’s “Itinéraire d’un enfant gâté” reminded audiences what a gifted actor he was).
Even when Belmondo was phoning it in, he could be irresistible. And sometimes, a director managed to get a real performance, the way Alain Resnais did in 1974’s “Stavisky.” By that time, he was such a big star that the larger-than-life role seemed custom-tailored for him — an irresistible figure whose true identity remained enigmatic, but whose charm was such that you’d believe almost anything he was selling.
But most were cases where the key art was more fun that the film itself, promising the idea of Belmondo — which for some audiences, was plenty. In “Breathless,” Belmondo had been the one looking at a Humphrey Bogart poster, but as Tarantino pointed out, “for the next 20 years, whenever college kids or [film fans] put up the poster of a movie star on their wall, the poster was of Jean-Paul Belmondo. Like he did in ‘Breathless,’ we all stare at the poster and wish we were him.”