An Introduction to French Noir Cinema Through Lino Ventura

During the past two years, I’ve been obsessed with french noir films, a movie-style that comes from the classic American noir cinema but usually set in France with a cast formed by Jean Gabin, Alain Delon, Eddie Constantine, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and many others. I could have made an article talking about my favorite french noir films, like Le Trou, Le Samourai, Diabolique, Any Number Can Win, etc. But instead, I’ve decided to talk about some more obscure title featuring another key actor from this incredible strand of films: Lino Ventura.

I must admit that I haven’t watched all Lino Ventura films since his body of works consists of more than 60 movies, which many of them are not only considered noir films but they are also extremely hard to find. With that, I have gathered the best ones I’ve seen and that you should definitely check it out.

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Army of Shadows (1969) by Jean-Pierre Melville

Jean-Pierre Melville is french noir cinema, so if you haven’t watched anything related to this trend you should definitely check out Meville’s entire filmography, which consists of Le Samurai, Le Circle Rouge, Le Doulos, and Bob le flamer. Army of Shadows, however, is not only his best film but also one of my all-time favorites, which happens to feature Lino Ventura in its cast. Here he plays the head of a resistance network who is betrayed by one of his peers and arrested by the Gestapo. When he manages to escape, a pursuit to find the man who betrayed him starts. With outstanding cinematography and Jean-Pierre Melville’s mise en scene, Army of Shadows is a beautiful dark odyssey about secrets, Nazis, and spies.

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The Silent One (1973) by Claude Pinoteau

Being the first rare movie of the list (unless if you live in France, where you can buy the remastered Blu Ray edition by Gaumont), The Silent One is an incredible thriller about a French spy with many identities who is forced to uncover Russian double agents infiltrated in the M.I.5. It doesn’t take long for the KGB to connect the dots and send all its agents to kill the spy, who is played by Lino Ventura. With many powerful action scenes, The Silent One is a classy noir film about a spy identity and the ghosts that haunt him.

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The French Detective (1975) by Pierre Granier-Deferre

A french noir film with a good dosage of comedy is The French Detective, a movie about two police officers who can’t properly do their job because of the bureaucracies of politics. The film focuses on the murder of a man of a political party during election time. Suspecting that the murder is from the opposition, commissionaire Verjeat and inspector Lefévre start an investigation which is constantly compromised by foolish behaviors from both political parties. More than an extremely stylish film with a great script is Lino Ventura and Patrick Dewaere’s dynamic on-screen, resulting in a powerful film with an outstanding end.

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The Sicilian Clan (1969) by Henri Verneuil

If Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon are not reason enough for you to want to watch this film, The Sicilian Clan is another french noir masterpiece about a group of gangsters who free one of their colleagues out of prison to steal a large cache of jewels from an exhibit in Rome. Almost being like a french version of Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job, The Sicilian Clan is beautifully directed by Henri Verneuil with an original score composed by Ennio Morricone, resulting in an epic and extremely stylish french noir film with an A-team cast of stars.

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Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954) by Jacques Becker

Featuring Jean Gabin, the God of french nor film and Jacques Becker, one of my favorite French directors, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is a french noir classic that tells the story of an aging gangster who stages a bank robbery and everything ends up going south. Also starting Jeanne Moreau, the movie is the first stylish part of a trilogy formed by Le cave se rebiffe and Les tontons flingueures.

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The Inquisitor (1981) by Claude Miller

Probably being the most different noir film from this list, The Inquisitor distinguishes itself by being shot mostly inside of a room throughout its 84 minutes of duration. Here, Lino Ventura plays an inspector who questions a suspect for having raped and murdered two minors. As the night passes, everything indicates that the suspect is the actual killer, but the more time they spend together, the more they start to get into each other’s head, resulting in a brilliantly crafted film with outstanding performances by both Ventura and Michel Serrault. Not mentioning a special appearance by Romy Schneider.

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Elevator to the Gallows (1958) by Louis Malles

A movie that was also made by one of my favorite French directors, Elevator to the Gallows is another french noir classic featuring Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet with a soundtrack composed by no one less than Miles Davis himself. The film tells the story of the events that occur after a man gets trapped in an elevator after killing his lover’s husband, which leads the lover to think he has abandoned her. With that, Malle and Miles narrate a melancholic and obscure tale about murder, sex, and heart-break.

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Witness in the City (1959) by Édouard Molinari

I was very surprised to discover people don’t really talk about this film since it’s incredibly good. Lino Ventura plays a taxi driver who witnesses a murder take place after he drops off one of his passengers. The killer, who has just got revenge for his wife’s assassination, realizes the thread the taxi driver imposes and decides to eliminate him. The taxi driver, however, has the entire taxi fleet behind his back, resulting in a very fast-paced movie of car chases and moving trains. Not mentioning the film’s beautiful and realistic cinematography.

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The Big Risk (1960) by Claude Sudet

And last but not least, The Big Risk or Classes Tous Risques is another french noir classic. I personally don’t love this film but since it’s so famous within its genre and stars Lino Ventura, I’ve decided to talk about it. Also starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, the movie follows the story of a hunted criminal in Italy who is forced to flee back to France with his family. However, as the days pass by, the circle keeps closing in.

If you got interested in the french noir genre, make sure to check out these films.