Delon, Belmondo, Borsalino and the Myth of the Gangster Dandy

Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo in “Borsalino”, 1970. Adel Productions, Marianne Productions.

François Capella and Roch Siffredi are rarely seen without a hat on. Most of the times it is a Borsalino, the dressy felt hat created by the legendary Italian manufacturer in 1857 in northern Italy. Borsalino was the first luxury brand that lent its name to the title of a film, and the movie, its two leading stars and the brand all enjoyed wide success. It was Delon, who was the producer, who came up with the idea for the title, saying to Deray during lunch one day: “Borsalino! What do you think? The Borsalino hats! Génial, non?”The result was génial, the director concluded. The brand’s relationship with cinema was already decades old, Hollywood having adopted the Borsalino hat as a cult object since the 1930s, and it enjoyed the brightest spotlight on Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the last sequence of Casablanca. But it was in Jacques Deray’s film, on Alain Delon’s Roch Siffredi and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s François Capella that the Borsalino was best immortalised on screen, perfectly embodying the myth of the gangster dandy, affirming itself as part of the iconography of this cinematic figure, along with the three-piece suits and double-breasted long coats. More than a figurative object, the hat becomes the most easily recognizable character trait, it is integrated in the storytelling and punctuates the rhythm of the film. It is quite simply one of those film wardrobe pieces that have played a major role in the imagination of the public.

“When it comes to a film, we rarely talk about the costume designer,” Jacques Deray, whose birth anniversary is this week, would comment. “And yet his work is an integral part of the work and contributes to its success: it is he who brings the characters to life, creates the difference according to the personality and the sensitivity of the actors. The psychology of the role must be found in the way of dressing, in the will to appear or just to stick to the reality of an era”.

Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo in “Borsalino”, 1970. Adel Productions, Marianne Productions.

Jacques Deray and Alain Delon had worked together on La piscine, in 1969, also featuring Romy Schneider and Maurice Ronet, and they would make a total of nine films together. Deray would go on to make “a series of excellent, star-led crime thrillers”, remarks Charles Drazin in The Faber Book of French Cinema, in the 1970s and 1980s, including Un papillon sur l’épaule (A Butterfly on His Shoulder), from 1978, with Lino Ventura, “but they never achieved any reputation outside France because they were too similar to what Hollywood already produced itself.” It’s interesting though how the film seems to have influenced the Hollywood buddy-buddy caper movie The Sting (1973). Adapted from the novel Bandits à Marseille by Eugène Saccomano, the film, set in the 1930s, follows the fulminant rise of two petty crooks into Marseillais mobsters: François Capella and Roch Siffredi. In an interview with Robert Elbhar, for Séquences, La Revue de cinéma, from October, 1971, Deray noted that the film was very important to him, which he wanted to be more than a gangster film, he wanted it to be both a highly stylised work and a social fresque, a reflection of the times and of the friendship between the two heroes, or anti-heroes, described by the director as “amitié amoureuse”. “In my mind, love and friendship merge,” he would say.

The film has a light-fingered style to it and Deray likes to stage a spectacle, but he was very keen on keeping and reconstituting the typical atmosphere of the town – he gathered all the magazines, newspapers, journals, archival material available, and Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photographs as research, he set off to discover the vintage cars abandoned on the farms in the French countryside and find the mechanics, upholsterers, saddlers, electricians and painters to recondition them – and its underworld from the 1930s, and the town of Marseilles plays its own role in the film. Such big imprint were Marseilles and its underworld to have in the film that Alain Delon, the producer of the film, was forced to negotiate with the real Marseilles underworld so that they would not use the real names of Paul Carbone and François Spirito, the two real gangsters on which the film characters were based. They also had to remove the part about the two characters collaborating with the Nazi during the Occupation.

Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo in “Borsalino”, 1970. Adel Productions, Marianne Productions.

Jacques Deray, well known for his passionate and meticulous work, made “the cities in which he was filming characters in their own right,” as noted in the documentary Jacques Deray, J’ai connu une belle epoque (Jacques Deray, I Knew a Beautiful Era), directed by his wife, Agnès Vincent-Deray. “He was in love with the city, bistros, places of culture…” The mise-en-scène, the precision of the decor was paramount for Deray. So were the costumes. They had to reflect history, society, the era. “I am a lover of quality. I think audiences need to see films that are well made, with great photos, audible sound and a certain perfection in the directing work. I believe that cinema should be practiced by professionals who know their profession inside and out and who live for it,” Deray would confess in the aforementioned interview. “Cinema is not a second life for me, it is life.”

It is indeed this combination of a thoroughly stylised cinematic world and the authentic period detail, and the accent put on humour and characters (played by two actors both at their natural best) instead of violence per say that make the film special. Alain Delon easily finds his place in this world, with his refined features, classical beauty and inward-looking image, and yet naturally possessed with a subtle expression and unique affinity for revealing a dark side. Jacques Fonteray (The Moonraker, 1976, and Barbarella, 1969) was the costumiere for Borsalino and the subsequent Borsalino et Co (1974). The opening sequence has Alain Delon step out of the prison in a worn-out, two sizes too small suit. Two of his friends are waiting for him. They greet each other, but no words are used – the jazz score is always present when words aren’t. One of them is wearing a good-looking dark suit. Siffredi admiringly feels the suit with his hand, still uttering no word. They get into a car and when they later descend from the car, Siffredi is wearing his friend’s suit and the friend is wearing Siffredi’s clothes. Needless to say, the suit is very becoming of our leading man.

There is in fact a clear delineation between Siffredi and Capella. While the first one has a more classic, crisp look, usually sporting a clean-cut suit, the latter is more playful with his looks – more colourful clothes, favouring separates to suits and scarves instead of foulards, and a more flamboyant silhouette, reflecting a more exuberant, lively and jovial character – and only later on in the film, when they are no longer small-time con men, does Capella get to wear a Borsalino instead of his signature newsboy caps. Still, he usually prefers a light coloured hat displaying a patterned band or some sort of a playful detail. Siffredi has been wearing his very smart felt hat all along. When they kill a rival mobster, the proof presented to one of the two remaining leaders of the underworld is the white felt hat of the deceased. No questions asked.

Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo on the set of “Borsalino”, 1970. Adel Productions, Marianne Productions.



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