Monday, May 13, 2013

DVR Diary: HAVE I THE RIGHT TO KILL? (L'insoumis, 1964)

By 1964 Alain Delon was in his Hollywood period. His first English-language performance, in Rene Clement's Joy House, had just come out, and he would work primarily in English, or at least in English-language films, for the next two years. Hollywood showed its commitment to making Delon a star by dubbing Alain Cavalier's L'Insoumis into English. It appeared in some markets as The Unvanquished and in others with the cumbersome, irrelevant title under which Turner Classic Movies broadcast it last week. Have I the Right to Kill suggests a moral dilemma that never really arises, as Delon's character kills readily when he needs to. More often, the film seems to ask whether he has the right not to kill. He plays Thomas, a Foreign Legionnaire fighting to preserve French rule in Algeria in 1961. More than Vietnam itself, Algeria was France's Vietnam, and Delon's deserter stands in well for the troubled 'Nam vet of American movies from a decade later. After a brief bit of combat, with Thomas mainly concerned with rescuing a wounded buddy, he leaves the struggle against Algeria only to fall into the struggle of France against itself. The prospect of France giving up Algeria provoked a reactionary movement, the "Secret Army," that sought to overthrow the government of General de Gaulle. "Algerie Francaise!" was their rallying cry. Thomas witnesses one of their rallies indifferently, but soon falls in with another deserter involved in a plot to kidnap Dominique Servet, a French civil-liberties lawyer (Lea Massari) who defends Algerian nationalists. Thomas ends up feeling sorry for his pretty victim. He starts by sneaking her sips of soda through a straw stuck through a keyhole, and ends by shooting his partner and freeing Dominique and another prisoner, getting shot himself in the process. Thomas gets hastily patched up and sends Dominique on her way back to France.

Thomas returns to France on his way home to Luxembourg, but despite his need to get out of the country quickly, since the Secret Army carries a grudge, and complications from his mistreated wound he can't pass up an opportunity to look up Dominique. To no moviegoer's surprise they end up lovers. Few would be surprised to see Secret Army goons show up the next day, but Cavalier has set the scene so we know that Thomas has a gun nearby to shoot his way out. The shootings make him even more of a fugitive from the law, and now he's encumbered by an infatuated Dominique, but aided by her understanding husband. Too much has gone wrong, however, and the film winds down to a finish highly reminiscent of The Asphalt Jungle as Dominique and an increasingly feverish Thomas drive through the countryside to his family farm and an ultimate homecoming.

L'Insoumis feels like a mishmash of American noir and French crime motifs, and the English dubbing, however well-intended, underscores the generic nature of the proceedings. The Algerian context gives the story an initial immediacy that ebbs rapidly once the politics become irrelevant to the romance and the chase. Delon has some of the detachment that would be perfected in Le Samourai and subsequent films, but here it just seems like Thomas is in over his head. For Cavalier L'Insoumis is a follow-up to his first feature, the Algeria-oriented Le Combat dans L'Isle, and in neither case does he really animate the melodrama with political relevance as he clearly hoped to do. At most, these films may have had a relevant kick in their own time, but it's the kind of relevance that only dates an unsuccessful film.

Here's how M-G-M tried to sell it to American audiences. The trailer comes from


dfordoom said...

Delon might not have been the world's greatest actor but he was very closest to being the coolest.

A very underrated Alain Delon movie that isn't available on DVD is BORSALINO, a rollicking tongue-in-cheek tale of gangsters in the 30s. It co-stars Jean-Paul Belmondo - he and Delon make a perfect team.

Samuel Wilson said...

Haven't seen Borsalino or its sequel but I'm definitely overdue to do so.