'When you come out of a Max Linder film and then you see 'Les Tontons Flingueurs', you realise how much the comedy film has deteriorated', wrote Le Monde in November 1963, the release date of the film directed by Georges Lautner, despite it being a success with the public with 3 million ticket sales. It has to be said that in a French Cinema in the middle of the Nouvelle Vague, the arrival of a parody of the detective film, commissioned and produced by Gaumont, featuring a collection of faces from the 'old style' cinema, such as Lino Ventura, Bernard Blier, Jean Lefebvre, and Francis Blanche, did not thrill the critic. More than 50 years later, 65 million French people – or very nearly – know 'Les Tontons'. Some Americans, and important ones at that, do as well. Quentin Tarantino revealed that he had been inspired by the long dialogue scenes written by Michel Audiard when writing his own dialogues in 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction'. As for Max Linder, he is still stuck in the limbo of burlesque cinephilia.
More than any other film in the history of the French cinema, 'Les Tontons Flingueurs' crystallises the essence of popular cinema at the same time as the idea of the cult film. There are the noises made by old guns, which are totally out of all proportion but so fixed in the cinematographic subconscious that we should be disappointed to experience the 'real' sound of a silencer. There is this banjo refrain, which is played with each of Ventura's punches, that gets into your head so much that it becomes a Pavlovian reflex. And then there are Audiard's dialogues, which are packed with slang, lyricism, and outdatedness. This forbidden love of the French language, which nevertheless established the screen writer as the best prompter of the French cinema, brought certain expressions into common use in our dear language: 'Les cons, ça ose tout. C'est même à ça qu'on les reconnaît' (Bloody idiots dare to do anything. That's how you recognise them.), 'Touche pas au grisbi ! (Hands off the loot!), 'Faut reconnaître... C'est du brutal ! (You've got to admit... It's rough!), and 'Aux quatre coins d'Paris qu'on va l'retrouver, éparpillé par petits bouts façon puzzle !' (He'll be found in the four corners of Paris, scattered about in little bits like a jigsaw puzzle) - just to quote a few of the best known. 'Les Tontons Flingueurs' is quite simply part of our heritage – almost worth being listed as part of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
However, behind the scenes, certain features of 'Les Tontons Flingueurs', which today appear to be integral parts of Lautner's film, could have ended up completely forgotten about. First of all, the film's title, which could have been called 'Le Terminus des Prétentieux' if Lautner had not considered that this title, which had been suggested by Audiard, sounded too grand. Next, the main character, Fernand Naudin. Indissociable from the deadpan face of Lino Ventura – who at that time did not believe in his comic potential! – this character could have come to life with the features of ... Jean Gabin, if he who was nicknamed 'Le Patron' (the Boss) had not lived up to his nickname just a bit too much with Lautner. Finally, the famous scene where the group, who have 'not come to butter sandwiches', nevertheless make a truce by tasting this 'man's drink' that a certain 'Polish woman has for her breakfast'. Audiard thought that the scene was too static, but it was kept in at the last minute by Lautner, who saw in it a way of building up the character of Raoul Volfoni, played by Bernard Blier, as well as it being his way of paying tribute to John Huston's film noir, 'Key Largo'. From then on, this scene set in a country kitchen – as well as Lefebvre's very real tears because Blanche had poured some pepper-seasoned drink into his glass – is the one that immediately comes back to you when thinking of 'Les Tontons'. It goes to show that it does not take much to go from a small commission by Gaumont to the French cinema's most iconic film.
And as 'Les Tontons' are nothing without their nephews, great-nephews, great-great nephews... it is high time to get mobilised, with, in our sights, a 4K family screening at Gaumont - just to make them relive a period when 'apple juice-based drinks' were drunk less in lines of shots than sitting down at a kitchen table!
Matthieu ROSTAC for SO FILMS