When Fernand (Lino Ventura) is contacted by his old friend Louis (Jacques Dumesnil) for the first time in years, demanding to meet at once, he has no idea what it could be about, but it's unlikely that even his best guess would've been that Louis (more widely known as "The Mexican") is dying, and he hopes that Fernand (a former gangster himself) will take over his racket and look after his daughter, Patricia (Sabine Sinjen). Before Fernand has a chance to turn down the offer, Louis passes on, and Fernand is left with a group of underground businesses including gambling and liquor who owe Louis (and therefore, Patricia) several million francs, but -- surprise, surprise -- they'd rather take a shot at rubbing Fernand out and taking the throne for themselves than pay up.
Monsieur Gangster, or Les tontons flingueurs, is a funny but flawed French gangster comedy featuring a trio of lead actors (Ventura, Francis Blanche, and Bernard Blier) who would later team up with director Georges Lautner and dialogue writer Michel Audiard again on The Great Spy Chase a couple of years later. Sadly, "dialogue writer" seems to be pretty crucial to the appeal of this movie, with many IMDb users lamenting how much of the comedy is lost in translation. While many of the gags should make sense to anyone paying attention, there's lots of online chatter regarding the film's clever use of slang, both specific to the French language and culture, and specific to the 1960s. What's left is a slightly plodding picture with the occasional great moment, and several entertaining performances from the talented cast.
At least one part of the joke is the casting of Lino Ventura, a guy who, despite his sense of style, looks like he's probably a little more at home with the farm equipment he's been selling since he went straight. Ventura plays the challenges of being a mob boss with an amusingly casual frustration; he's more like a guy who wishes he hadn't been called into the office on a weekend than someone who's been thrust into gunfights for the first time in a decade, which might sit well with employees used to The Mexican's itchy trigger finger if they'd bother to give him a chance. Ventura's performance is accentuated by the equally casual performances by the men playing his three closest accomplices: Folace (Blanche), a lawyer who complains more about the cost of Patricia's school than whether or not The Mexican's business have paid up; Jean (Robert Dalban), The Mexican's droll butler, and Pascal (Venantino Venantini), an upbeat right-hand man who saves Fernand's life at least once the first day without the grin leaving his face.
From an American perspective, the film's at its best as Fernand tries to impress his competence at the job he's been given. When he starts trying to collect outstanding debts, he's primarily hounded by Raoul Volfoni (Blier), who is very angry about the amount of money he's losing to The Mexican and tries, very unsuccessfully, to pick Fernand off. These sequences have a slapstick tone to them, with Fernand returning to punch Volfoni in the face after each new attempt, with Volfoni's cousin Paul (Jean Lefebvre) playing the reluctant comic sidekick. The rivalry between Fernand and the Volfonis leads to the film's funniest scene, a confrontation at Fernand's house while Patricia is throwing a party. Blier pulls off the nice trick of making his character intimidating yet fun at the same time, and he and Ventura make for a good pairing.
However, the film feels burdened by the Patricia character and her romance with dopey composer Antoine Delafoy (Claude Rich), which Fernand hopes to end. Both Patricia and the angle from which Fernand approaches his relationship with her are not very well-defined, so the numerous scenes in which Fernand kicks Antoine out of the house don't have much motivation, other than Antoine being faintly insufferable. The viewer needs to have a side in the relationship for the scenes to be funny, but Patricia is too weak of a character to feel for her. The film's actual villain, Théo (Horst Frank), also never quite gets the threatening foothold he ought to have. Whatever crucial elements of style were lost in the trip from France to America probably would've covered for some of these shortcomings, but the bottom line is that Monsieur Gangster still ends up being a funny film that feels like it could've been much funnier.
Some basic "photo-collage" artwork has been prepared for Monsieur Gangster, which includes a few playing cards despite the gambling playing more of an implied part of the movie than anything. Although the design is sort of a riff on other key art produced for the movie, I think this poster would've been the most striking, although I guess Olive might've been more interested in making the art match their release of The Great Spy Chase. The disc comes in a boxy, old-style Blu-Ray case with a printed logo instead of the foil stamped logo, and there is a insert advertising other Olive Blu-Rays inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Olive's 1.66:1 AVC 1080p presentation of Monsieur Gangster is mostly impressive, save for a few minor details. Detail is absolutely excellent for such an old film, giving the picture a clarity and crispness that it likely hasn't displayed in decades. Grain, despite a faint blockiness when viewed up close, is unaltered or removed. However, despite strong overall contrast, black crush is visible throughout (Ventura's dark hair will show plenty of detail in areas facing the light, but the rest of his head will be a blob of solid darkness), and there were a couple of moments where the image doesn't appear completely black-and-white, becoming faintly green or blue. A couple of shots are softer than others, possibly indicating multiple sources used for the transfer, but both prints appear to be almost entirely free of scratches or specks. The audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track that features a touch more consistency. Dialogue generally sounds fine, with a faint bit of roughness around the edges that can increase slightly when the picture becomes soft. The thumping and tweeting of "silenced" gunshots is pronounced nicely (even if it's a style it might take modern audiences a little while to get used to). There are also two moments, at 36 and 91 minutes into the film, where the audio takes on a strange digital echo. More concerning is the fact that the French subtitles included, although they appear to be generated by the player rather than burned into the image, are non-removable.
An original theatrical trailer is the only extra.
There are probably plenty of people who are already familiar with Monsieur Gangster, or people living in the US who speak fluent French, who will get more out of this disc than an American could. However, even some of those audiences will have trouble with this disc, which doesn't allow the de-activation of the film's English-language subtitles. Rent it.
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