Sunday, May 19, 2024

Borsalino (1970)

Borsalino is a 1970 French gangster movie which was a major box-office hit. Which is hardly surprising, given that it stars Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo who were at that time the two most popular, most charismatic and sexiest male movie stars in France. When you add to this the fact that the period setting looks completely fabulous and there are lots of fistfights and gunfights this was about as close as you could ever get to a surefire commercial success.

The idea originated with Alain Delon (who produced the movie). He’d just had a hit with La piscine (The Swimming Pool) directed by Jacques Deray and he was keen to do another movie with Deray. Delon’s star power attracted international financing and Borsalino looks expensive because it was.

It’s the story of two small-time crooks in Marseille, Roch Siffredi (Delon) and François Capella (Belmondo). They meet when they beat the living daylights out of each other over a girl, Lola (Catherine Rouvel). Having beaten each other to a pulp they become firm friends, and criminal associates.

Roch and François are ambitious but at first they don’t really have a master plan. They just don’t like being pushed around by the crime lords of Marseille. They eliminate one of these crime lords and take over his operations, and they just keep eliminating rivals until they reach the top.

Roch and François are very different but both are charming and magnetic in their own ways. This is a gangster buddy movie and the differences between the two are (as always) a major factor in making it work as a buddy movie. Both Delon and Belmondo deploy their unquestioned star power and their established screen personas. Roch is super-cool and self-contained and rather moody and brooding, things Delon did extremely well. François is hyper-active and cheerful with a playful approach to life, things that Belmondo did extremely well.

There’s crime and corruption here but this movie takes no interest in the moral implications. Roch and François are bad guys but they’re super-cool and they’re very much the heroes of the story. They’re not rebels. They’re unabashed gangsters and they’re violent and ruthless. Nonetheless the movie is very much on their side, not for political reasons but because they’re super-cool.

The movie-going public loved this movie. Critics were less happy with it, seeing it as a case of style over substance. You can always rely on critics to miss the point. In Borsalino the style IS the substance. This is an exercise in cinematic style. This is pure cinema. Critics, being critics, love looking for political meanings and subtexts. There aren’t any here. This movie ostentatiously avoids such things.

The costumes are superb. The costumes for the two male leads reflect not just the differences between the two characters but the differences between the screen images of the two stars. Delon’s clothes are cool and ultra-sharp. That was Delon’s image. Roch wants to look like a gentleman. François wants to look like a big-shot gangster, which reflects Belmondo’s more flamboyant slightly neurotic image.

The production design is terrific and reflects these differences as well. Roch wants his living quarters to look like a gentleman’s apartment. François’ idea of interior decoration is to have paintings of naked women on the walls.

There’s a lot of fairly graphic violence but it’s done in a very operatic way, in fact in an almost Italian way. The murders (and there are lots of them) are reminiscent of the emerging Italian poliziotteschi genre. This was a Franco-Italian co-production. I have no idea how well it did in Italy but I imagine it did well. It manages to be in tune with the visually extravagant approach of Italian film-making of this era while still feeling very very French.

American gangster movies probably had some influence on this movie but the French had their own gangster movie tradition which this movie draws on heavily.

The two stars are absolutely at the top of their game and they play off each other superbly.

Borsalino looks gorgeous, has a reasonable story, it offers plenty of action and it has style to burn. Don’t overthink this movie. Just wallow in the style. Borsalino is highly recommended.

The Arrow Blu-Ray offers a very nice transfer. Extras include a worthless audio commentary that tries to impose 2020s ideologies onto the movie. In general audio commentaries are best avoided these days.


  1. I haven't seen this in over 30 years, but have never forgotten it - awesome movie. There's also a sequel, I think called Borsalino and Co, which is entertaining, but not in the same class.

    I'll definitely get the Blu Ray!

    1. Yes, that was my feeling about Borsalino and Co as well. It's OK but it doesn't quite recapture the magic.