Remember Eddie Constantine? We suspect not, for reasons we will get to.
First and foremost, a huge tip of the hat to French movie critics who were perhaps the first to fully appreciate what official studio Hollywood considered, for the most part, useful dreck. We are referring, of course, to Forties crime dramas, usually released post World War II, that were often consigned to the bottom half of routine theatrical double bills.
As explained in recent blogs, a “film noir” (black film) is not only full of dark images, but reflected the equally dark mood in American society. The psychic legacy of a catastrophic world war still gripped many filmgoers of the time despite the glossy output from, say, of MGM.
American film noirs star a range of fine actors — Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Fred MacMurray, Robert Mitchum, Edmund O’Brien, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Lizabeth Scott, Charles McGraw, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, to name just a select few.
Initialldy, film noir was strictly an American phenomenon.
Europeans in general had nothing to match. Then from the Fifties on, film noir seeped into European cinema. French actor Alain Delon,who appeared in a widely diverse portfolio of pictures, made one of his film noir-inspired best, 1967’s Le Samouri, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Noir fans should track this one down.
But Delon was much preceded by our man of the moment — Eddie Constantine.
It fits that he was American born — in 1913 in Los Angeles, of Russian immigrant parents. He had originally aspired to be a singer. But after getting nowhere in Hollywood as a film extra, Constantine hied to Paris where he came to the attention of famed chanteuse Edith Piaf, who undoubtedly was drawn to our man’s hard-bitten, seen-it-all look and manner.
So when a series of faux American noirs from French producers was hunting for a lead, Constantine was in the right place at the right time.
The result, beginning in the early Fifties, was what became a 12-film odyssey as private detective Lemmy Caution based on the main character developed by British crime fiction writer Peter Cheyney.
The “Lemmy” pictures became big hits in Europe, although they were (and still are) largely unknown in America. A range of internationally known European directors (Jean Luc-Godard (in 1965’s Alphaville), Agnes Varda, Lars von Trier and Rainer Werner Fassbinder subsequently cast Constantine in bigger pictures, usually playing himself as “Lemmy.”
But try and track down some typical Lemmy pictures as 1953’s This Man is Dangerous, 1955’s The Diamond Machine. In the Sixties came Your Turn Darling and, of course, Alphaville, a must see. Again the Lemmy series of titles began in 1952 and lasted until the early 1990’s. Pick a movie from the lot.
Constantine, who became a citizen of France and died in Germany in 1993, may be in the running as the biggest name film noir actor American audiences have never heard of.