Furious Belmondo: Peur sur la ville
Today many fans think this is one of Jean-Paul Belmondo‘s finest action vehicles, but it wasn’t particularly popular when first released; it did well at the box-office but wasn’t the expected smash hit, and critics thought it was too crude and violent. In 1974 Belmondo, Bebel to fans & friends, was still a name linked to directors like Godard and Melville, and Peur sur la Ville seemed no more than an tailor-made genre movie, well-crafted, but a step down for the golden boy of French cinema. With a rough cop and a psychic killer the similarities to Dirty Harry were undeniable. Bebel got dirty.
Belmondo is Captain Letellier, a policeman known for his unorthodox methods; things don’t look good for him when a bystander is killed by a stray bullet and he’s accused of having fired it. While Letellier is still looking for the gangster who escaped him during the pursuit, a mad killer starts terrorizing the city. Referring to Dante’s Divina Comedia, he calls himself Minos (1) and performs a habit of psychologically tormenting his victims with obscene phone calls before killing them. Letellier should be suspended while his case is being investigated, but his superiors know he’s probably the only person within the force who’s capable of tracking down the madman.
It cannot be denied that those critics whose comments were on the negative side, scored a few points. Believability is defied on various occasions, and the way the two storylines about the runaway gangster and the mad killer are linked, feels artificial. The script, signed by three, but basically the work of Charles Veber – the future director of a series of successful comedies (2) – is a bit too whimsical for its own good; those hard-boiled thriller featuring a tough cob need tongue-in-cheek humor, but slapstick easily make them look ridiculous. It’s not too bad (it would be far worse in the years to come) and overall Belmondo is still is still Belmondo, that is: crusty, badass Bebel.
Belmondo had worked before with director Henri Verneuil and the two men seemed to get along very well (both on and off the set). Verneuil is no Meville, but he was very capable action director and wise enough to give Belmondo all the headroom he needed. The star was famous for doing his own stunts and in that aspect Peur sur la Ville really is his finest hour. The movie’s highlight is a twenty minute chase sequence starting on the rooftops of the famous Galleries LaFayette and also including cars, motorbikes and a cat and mouse game through the Parisian metro system, Belmondo trying to keep his balance on the top off a moving train.
The stuntwork delivered here by the star is nothing short of jaw dropping, even by today’s standards. The subway sequence is breathtaking and the scenes on the rooftops almost unbelievable. The French CanalPlus DVD has short making off in which some of the stunts are discussed by Belmondo and Verneuil. The subway sequence proofed to be very difficult and extremely dangerous: the action was meticulously prepared, and the various sequences first filmed at ten km/hour, then a twenty, thirty, etcetera and finally at sixty km/hour. In one scene it noticeable how difficult it was for Belmondo to keep his balance. The scene was as suspenseful for those who shot it and for those who later watched it in the theatres, Verneuil explains.
Although most other actors are more than adequate, this is a true Belmondo show. In a small role (as the escaped gangster) we recognize Italian actor Giovanni Cianfriglia, best known for a series of supporting roles in spaghetti westerns; beautiful Lea Massari is thrown out of the window after a couple of minutes – poor, poor Lea. As an actor, Belmondo probably had his finest hours early on in his career, in movies like A bout de souffle or Le Doulos; in the later stages of his career he squandered his talents too often in inferior would-be funny action movies. Peur sur la Ville shows him at the parting of the ways and should therefore please most of his fans. It’s an absolute must for action fans and fans of European genre cinema.
(1) In Greek mythology, Monos (Μίνως) was a king of Crete; every nine years, he had seven young boys and seven young girls picked to be sent the Daedalus’ creation the labyrrinth, to be eaten bu the Minotaur. In Dante Divina Comedia, he appears in the part of the Inferno, at the entrance of the second circle, the true beginning of Hell itself.
(2) Veber is best known for comedies like La Chèvre and Les Compères, both starring Gérard Depardieu and Pierre Richard.