A few weeks ago the local Barnes & Noble was holding a sale on "art house cinema," including 40% discounts on a bunch of recent Lionsgate box sets. What to choose? I went with the Alain Delon set mainly on the strength of my interest in this film, which was written and directed by Jose Giovanni, the ex-con and crime author behind such French faves of mine as Classes Tous Risques and Le Deuxieme Souffle. Delon himself is an icon of the French crime genre thanks to Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge and much more besides. I had no idea whether Giovanni was any good as a director, but I liked the dispassionate yet empathetic sensibility he brought to other films. This also figured to be a genuine piece of French pop culture rather than the more artistic stuff the country has always tended to export to America.
A scruffy looking Delon is Hugo Senart, the titular "gypsy" and one of the Senart clan. Giovanni opens his film with a long, vast helicopter shot panning from a beach across an industrial landscape to the local gypsy camp. Right away there's an odd detail for American viewers. The gypsies are playing the music of legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, a gypsy himself. To my ears, Reinhardt says "France," but it may be that to French ears he says "gitan" and thus sounds fundamentally alien in a way outsiders can't appreciate.
The flics are looking for Hugo, who's broken out of prison and is running amok with two accomplices. But before we see what he's up to, we look in on a safecracking job perpetrated by an old hand, Yann Kuq. Things go sour for him when he comes home to hear his young wife confiding in her lover -- a flic. He beats her with his belt, driving her out to the balcony, where she threatens to jump, only to lose her balance and fall accidentally to her death. Now he has to go on the run as a murder suspect, though the police, led by Inspector Blot (either a recurring character or a recurring name in Giovanni's stories) aren't sure how to handle the hunt, since they don't want the public to learn about a flic having an affair with a criminal's wife.
Meanwhile, Hugo and his pals are doing pretty well, knocking over an armored car and bikejacking one of the guards so Hugo can get away. Now Blot is hunting for both Hugo's gang and Yann. While Hugo seems oblivious of the coincidence, Yann is well aware that Hugo's unwitting proximity is putting him in danger. Worse, the whole criminal element is annoyed with Hugo because the flics are raiding their clubs in search of him. It seems like an M-style criminal vs criminal showdown is looming, but Hugo pre-empts this by setting up the Rinaldi Brothers with a false tip on his whereabouts and later slaughtering them. It only confirms Hugo's chauvinist attitude that only gypsies have honor. They'd never rat anyone out to the flics, at least.
Hugo sees himself as some sort of gitano partisan, using his ill-gotten gains to further the gypsy cause. At the same time, he's basically a loner, an outsider playing hooky from conventional life, as he confides in a kid he finds fishing one afternoon. In yet another coincidence, the kid is fishing with gear that Yann left him shortly before. Hugo's ready to break up the gang, which only means that his two partners will soon be caught, and one of them killed, but not before they can warn Hugo of what's coming. The cops close in across the street from the inn where Yann's hiding out. Reassured that they're not after him, he strolls out through the back gate, and practically into Inspector Blot's arms. Meanwhile, Hugo sets up a peculiar escape mechanism by which revving up his motorcycle will fling open a courtyard gate and slingshot him through the police. Perhaps because this is an Alain Delon production, this actually works, though he takes a couple of bullets getting away.
After recuperating with help from a saintly veterinarian who refuses to take any pay, Hugo heads back to the gypsy camp while Blot holds Yann Kuq beyond the legal limit in order to make him confess something. "Watching the way you work would give anyone the urge to throw you bastards a well-aimed Molotov cocktail," Yann remarks. Eventually Blot has no choice but to let Yann go. By now Hugo has caught up with the newspapers and learned about Yann's predicament. He blames himself for Yann getting caught and decides to meet him and apologize. Yann in turn is surprisingly congenial, inviting Hugo to stay overnight. Perhaps it's the mutual respect of professionals, and perhaps Jose Giovanni needs them to be in the same location when the police finally get the evidence they need to nab Yann for that safecracking job....
That almost hard-boiled attitude I identify with Giovanni definitely pervades Le Gitan, but it also has some of the reek of an Alain Delon vanity production. You might call Giovanni's sensibility fatalistic, but there's no fatality in the cards for Hugo Senart. In fact, sometimes the character seems to get away from his pursuers much too easily, as if the flics aren't even making a real effort to catch him. At least it seemed to me that there'd be more dramatic car chases had this been an American or Italian film from the same period. But the only proper chase in the picture (and it's short but halfway-decent) is the one where Hugo's buddies get caught.
I also had a problem with the plot. It's just underwhelming that the interweaving of Hugo and Yann's paths was more or less purely coincidental. I had assumed that Hugo was keeping close to Yann for some reason, and I was expecting that Yann would take action against Hugo to take the heat off himself, but it's probably not inconsistent with Giovanni's matter-of-fact approach to the crime genre that their interconnection was pretty much accidental. I might appreciate this more on a second viewing, but this time around I felt disappointed by a build-up in my own imagination to a rather anticlimactic finale. There's more neatness in other Giovanni-scripted films in which the main criminal dies, and a moment here when Delon says, "It isn't in the cards for me to live long" makes me wonder whether the novel Le Gitan has a different finish. I don't know enough about Delon to guess whether he'd demand to be left alive Fred Williamson style or otherwise influenced the direction of the film, but something seems wrong here in a way that makes it not unreasonable to blame the star.
Overall, I found Le Gitan modestly entertaining. Delon does the badass act pretty well and he seems ably supported by some faces who've become familiar to me as I've watched more French crime films. Paul Meurisse as Yann and Marcel Bozzuffi as Blot (a role played by Meurisse in Le Duexieme Souffle) are especially good just as a matter of presence, since I can't judge their delivery of dialogue. It's probably unfair to say that Jean-Pierre Melville could probably have made a better film of this story since Melville is the king of the French crime genre, but when the first such films you see are probably the very best of their kind, you can't help but judge everything else by that standard. If you see this one without memories of Melville, or from the perspective of Alain Delon fandom, you may think more of it.
Here's how the film tried to sell itself to the native audience in a trailer that is not included in the no-frills Lionsgate collection. I don't know if there's such a thing as an English-language trailer for Le Gitan, since I'm not sure if it ever got an American theatrical release. But you should get the essence, if not the idea, from this footage.