L’insoumis (1964) aka The Unvanquished is a relatively unknown but deeply compelling and haunting French film from director Alain Cavalier that aired several years ago on TCM in an English language version titled Have I the Right to Kill? (It was originally distributed by MGM in the U.S.) Shot in glorious black and white by master cinematographer Claude Renoir, the film plays like a politically-charged film noir and it could easily be the best of Alain Delon’s early performances. In the other key role, Lea Massari, the beautiful Italian actress who is best known as the warm, charismatic mother in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), has rarely been more appealing.
L’insoumis is also one of the few films of Cavalier to have received distribution in America along with his more famous 1986 feature Therese, about the life of Carmelite nun St. Therese of Lisieux, which won the prestigious Golden Palm at Cannes. It also won six Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscar. On the basis of these two films alone, I think the rest of Cavalier’s work deserves further investigation. Unfortunately, his filmography is rather lean compared to other French directors of his era due to….a possible lack of opportunities?
At the time L’insoumis was made, Alain Delon was probably the most popular male star in France, eclipsing even Jean-Paul Belmondo in terms of international fame. He had already appeared in such landmark critical successes as Rene Clement’s Plein soleil (1960, aka Purple Noon), Luchino Visconti’s two family-centric epics Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and Il Gattopardo (1963, The Leopard) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962) as well as French box-office hits such as Melodie en sous-sol (1963, aka Any Number Can Win).
Unfortunately, L’insoumis would prove to be a bitter disappointment to Delon because of its poor reception though the reason why seems fairly obvious in hindsight. The film takes place against the backdrop of the Algerian War, which had ended just two years before and was a painful memory for most French citizens. It some ways it was comparable to America’s devisive Vietnam campaign. Part of the film’s plot, especially the first half, involves the OAS (a group that fought against Algerian independence) and their kidnapping of two people who offered aid to the other side. This was not something French moviegoers wanted to relive. After all, they had been living with the Algerian War since 1954 and wanted escapism, preferring instead to see Alain Delon in some lightweight heist film with Jean Gabin like Melodie en sous-sol, 1963) or a swashbuckling period adventure-comedy like La Tulipe noire (The Black Tulip, 1964). Another reason Delon was disappointment by the failure of L’insoumis was due to cuts imposed by French government censors, which he felt damaged the film’s original intentions and impact.
This is a shame because Delon is better than you’d ever expect in L’Insoumis. He often appeared to be playing variations of the same character in his movies – a cool, calculating opportunist with sociopathic tendencies. He conveys a predatory quality that is sometimes disguised by his handsome features. In L’Insoumis, he plays the victim and displays a vulnerability mixed with toughness that humanizes him in a way that rarely occurs in his most iconic films such as Purple Noon (1960), Le Samourai (1967), La Piscine (1969, aka The Swimming Pool). The movie opens with Thomas (Delon) as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion whose outfit is stationed in Algeria. He soon deserts his post (during the 1961 uprising) and ends up being recruited by another deserter to assist the OAS (Secret Army Organization) in the abduction of two French professionals who are aiding the Algerian cause. In a tense sequence, Thomas helps ambush a car carrying the dignitaries and, at gunpoint, forces the two abductees into a van that carts them away to an isolated apartment where they are confined to separate cells, presumably to be tortured for information.
One of the hostages is Dominique Servet (Lea Massari), a lawyer who, along with her husband, are known for their liberal politics and humanitarian concerns. It is Delon’s job to guard the prisoners but not interact with them or offer them any comfort. The fate of these two people gnaws away at Delon and he finds himself succumbing to Dominique’s repeated pleas for something to drink or to talk through the keyhole. His fellow guard is another matter and would just as soon shoot the two hostages. The first half of the film, which sets up the captor/captive relationship between Thomas and Dominique, is chilling in its depiction of a hidden terrorist cell where deprivation and torture is the norm.
Then, in a split second, everything changes when the other jailer discovers Thomas offering aid to Dominique and guns are drawn, bullets are fired. One man lies dead and the other releases his two prisoners and escorts them to safety. L’insoumis then becomes a noir thriller with Thomas, seriously wounded and on the run, much like Sterling Hayden’s character in The Asphalt Jungle. He makes his way back to France, where Dominique and her husband are hiding out of harm’s way. Now the situation is reversed and it’s Dominique who holds the key to Thomas’s fate. Can he trust her?
The second half of the movie follows the conventions of the standard chase thriller but has a deeper resonance as a fatalistic love story, one obviously doomed from the start but utterly compelling regardless. Even in the English dubbed version, Delon and Massari project an undeniable sexual chemistry together that eventually culminates in a discreet lovemaking scene that was heavily promoted on the U.S. poster (and possibly edited for U.S. audiences). In true noir style, it’s a race to the bottom but as beautifully realized as such earlier precursors of the form such as Marcel Carne’s Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Le Jour se leve (1939). What does director Alain Cavalier think about L’Insoumis or other 60s-era work like Mise a sac (Pillaged, 1967) or La Chamade (Heartbeat, 1968)? In a 2011 interview with Spanish journalist Santiago Rubin de Celis, he stated: “For me, now, they are tiresome because, watching them, I always think that I’m going to find some new things and then, after four, five minutes of the film, the mechanism of my memory starts to work and then I know by heart which shot is following this one, and which one is the next one, and the next one. So there is not a single surprise! Now I’m making films coming out of my own daily life that are unpredictable, just as my life is, and I expect the audience to be able to feel this.”
Sometimes a director is not always the best judge of his own work. That is up to the viewer and L’Insoumis, in my opinion, is one of the most overlooked French films of its era but I could say the same thing about Mise a sac, a tense, meticulously plotted heist thriller (based on the novel The Score by American novelist/screenwriter Richard Sale aka Donald E. Westlake) that deserves to be accorded the same respect as other superior examples of that genre such as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). One thing is certainly true. There are relatively few films about the Algerian War, either as the main subject or narrative subplot, so L’Insoumis is a more than worthy addition to the canon. Gillo Pontecorvo’s impassioned and controversial The Battle of Algiers (1966) is, of course, the best known and most influential of them all. Equally important but much less accessible to non-French audiences is Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdist critique, Le Petit Soldat (1960). The Algerian conflict is an all-present ghost that haunts some of the interviewees in Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s documentary Le Joli Mai (1963) and the topic would also serve as background for Frank Wisbar’s exploitation actioner Commando (1962) with Stewart Granger and Lost Command (1966), a war drama from director Mark Robson with Anthony Quinn AND Alain Delon. Probably the most acclaimed film in recent times to deal with the Algerian War is Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975), which won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes.
Currently L’Insoumis is still unavailable in any format but perhaps Turner Classic Movies or their steaming co-partnership FilmStruck will program it again. You can currently view the French language version (no English subtitles) on YouTube. Meanwhile, the film lives on in the popular culture in unexpected ways. The cover of the Smith’s 1986 album, The Queen is Dead, features a still of Delon from L’Insoumis.