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 to Forties crime dramas, usually released post World War II, that were often consigned to the bottom half of routine theatrical double bills.
The French were the first to recognize that these films in many ways represented the unique example of a wholly American film style, according to Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, coauthors of the indispensable Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.
Plots frequently turn on deadly violence or sexual obsession, the coauthors continue, whose catalogue of characters includes numbers of down-and-out private eyes, desperate women and petty criminals.
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.
The very term “film noir” originated in France, said to be the coinage of cineaste Nino Frank in 1946. Film noir lives on today in large part due to Eddie Muller, author of several books on the subject who currently hosts the must-see “Noir Alley” program on Turner Classic Movies (airing Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. Eastern Time).
American fim 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.
Europeans in general had nothing to match that when, in the Fifties, film noir experienced something of a revival vogue across the pond. French actor Alain Delon made a number of suspenseful crime thrillers but only one man seemed to exemplify a throw-back to the heroes of Forties procedurals originating in the U.S.
And he is the 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 the U.S. 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.”
In short, Constantine, who became a citizen of France and died in Germany in 1993, may be in the running as the biggest name actor American audiences have never heard of. Question to Eddie Muller: Is it time to correct this oversight on TCM and let Lemmy live?