Based on Patrick Alexander's novel Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal, the picture was a huge hit in Europe but either had an extremely limited release in the United States or perhaps no release at all. Like many, I suspect, my familiarity with the film was limited to Ennio Morricone's score, particularly his famous "Chi Mai" theme, which is repeated in the movie as frequently as "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'" is in High Noon. Kino's new Blu-ray, licensed from Canal Plus, looks even better than Lionsgate's great-looking DVD.
Following visually interesting main titles in the spirit of Maurice Binder (but stylistically different), the story opens in the kangaroo federal court of Malagawi, a fictional African country, and obviously also a former French colony. (Unlike most thrillers set in fictional African nations, this one is entirely believable.) French secret agent Josselin "Joss" Beaumont (Belmondo) is on trial after attempting to assassinate Idi Amin-esque President N'jala (Pierre Saintons). Doped up during the trial, Beaumont is quickly convicted and begins a life sentence of hard labor.
Beaumont eventually escapes and two years later returns to Paris - the very week N'jala is due for a state visit. But Beaumont's former colleagues aren't too happy to hear the news. After ordering him to Malagawi, the political winds abruptly shifted and the French government decided they needed the ruthless military dictator after all: Beaumont's own people helped facilitate his capture. "We sold him out," complains one colleague. "No," says another, "We gave him away." Later on, the reason is subtly revealed: Njala's in town to negotiate French access to Malagawi's oil reserves in exchange for nuclear technology. (Jean Desailly of The Soft Skin is very good throughout as a pragmatic minister.)
The at times ingenious script by Michel Audiard and director Georges Lautner carefully sets up parallel stories that come together for the exciting climax: Beaumont's determination to carry out the assassination of N'jala while avoiding his own agency's efforts to bring him in and, more likely, simply kill him. His pursuers include world-weary one-time friend Valeras (Michel Beaune), mistress Alice Ancelin (Cyrielle Clair), and ruthless Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who's like Tatsuya Nakadai's saucer-eyed psychopath up against Toshiro Mifune's yojimbo.
From beginning to end, The Professional infuses familiar situations in a genre all but dead by 1981 with great style and enormously satisfying inventiveness. More Harry Palmer and Jean le Carré than James Bond, the film is deeply cynical about the spy game, even more so than famous examples such as The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
When I reviewed the DVD version nearly ten years ago, I expressed an ambivalence toward Belmondo, whom I knew mainly as from his roles in French New Wave titles like Breathless (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), and the occasional international production. Since then dozens of Belmondo titles that were big commercial successes but barely known in the U.S. have become available, from his incredible homage to Buster Keaton in That Man from Rio (1964) to starring roles in previously inaccessible Jean-Pierre Melville films, making plain Belmondo's broad appeal as one of the great icons of French cinema.
In Le Professionnel he positively oozes with charisma and charm. Despite undergoing torture and harsh imprisonment, Beaumont retains a delicate balance of steely-eyed determination, a sardonic sense of humor, and a devilish charm that only Sean Connery and Patrick McGoohan ever pulled off so completely in such roles. Though nearly 50, he's likewise excellent in the film's many brutal fight scenes, and in a brief but harrowing Bullitt-style car chase (staged by Rémy Julienne) through the streets of Paris, Belmondo is clearly behind the wheel most of the time.
Slickly directed by Lautner (La maison assassinée), Le Professionnel is also extremely sexy. Elisabeth Margoni co-stars as Jeanne, Beaumont's devoted wife while Clair plays his ex-colleague and not-so-secret lover; Belmondo finds time to bed them both. Additionally, Marie-Christian Descourard is fetching as Njala's mistress. The sexual interactions in the film are refreshingly frank and adult, a contrast to the silly coyness of the concurrent Roger Moore Bonds. In one incredible scene, the ruthless Inspector Rosen threatens Beaumont's wife with a female lieutenant who threatens to rape her.
Ennio Morricone's great score may be repetitive, but it's nonetheless ingenious, its halting melody unpredictable much like the film's hero.
Video & Audio
? Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio Le Professionnel looks outstanding, showing off its slick cinematography (by Henri Decaë of The 400 Blows, Purple Noon, etc.) to excellent advantage. The image is very sharp with excellent color and strong blacks. The earlier DVD offered 2.0 Dolby Digital mono tracks in English and French, with optional English and Spanish subtitles. For the Blu-ray, only a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono French track with optional English subtitles is included. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include an audio commentary by film scholars Nathaniel Thompson, Howard S. Berger, and Steve Mitchell which provides a good overview of the cast and primary filmmakers, and the genre. A trailer in standard-def is also included.
If you're a fan of the current Daniel Craig wave of James Bond films, chances are you'll be as delightfully surprised by Le Professionnel as I first was. It shares many of the same qualities and is as outstanding as its star. A DVD Talk Collector Series Title.