Immortalised by Godard and Melville, the actor specialised in seductive tough guys – and blazed a trail through movie history
On the streets of Paris, car thief and fugitive cop killer Michel Poiccard has just been gunned down by the police, having shown an insolent, fatalistic attitude to the idea of getting caught, and indeed to the revelation that his American girlfriend Patricia, wannabe journalist and street vendor of the New York Herald Tribune, has ratted him out. She leans over Michel as he lies dying in a puddle of blood. Will Michel come up with some resonant last words? Not exactly. Defying agony from his bullet wounds, he just clownishly stretches his face into the two silly expressions he’d earlier used to explain the phrase “faire la tête”: a goofy silent scream, then a panto grin. Isn’t this what acting is, what life is: tragedy, comedy, faces, speeches? Who cares?
This unforgettably bizarre, throwaway gesture – the equal of “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Michel’s beloved Bogart – set the seal on Jean-Paul Belmondo’s sensational breakthrough in 1960 in Jean-Luc Godard’s equally legendary debut, À Bout de Souffle (AKA Breathless), from a treatment by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, and co-starring Jean Seberg as the American mesmerised by his erotic, existential bravado.