March Newsletter: Shadow City, Jacques Deray’s Polars and a Rogue Adventure as Life

Photos © Classiq Journal


“In the amnesiac city, other versions of the city shimmer
in the distance, below the surface, from the penumbra
between remembering and oblivion. […] Walking
was a way to encounter these cities within the city.
This book is the story of these walks.”

Tharan Khan, Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul


Photos © Classiq Journal



Jacques Deray’s crime thrillers – 4 polars de Jacques Deray

In his book, J’ai connu une belle époque, Deray confessed he liked thrillers, he liked “genre cinema, the most apt to capture the spirit of the times, to describe an environment and to analyse behaviour in a given context. Imperceptibly, I know that popular cinema, which touches a large audience, will be the business of my life, already in disagreement with the antagonism of principle established between commercial cinema and auteur cinema. Chaplin raised this question with The Gold Rush, or Renoir with The Great Illusion. ‘Commercial?’, asked Frank Capra. ‘How’s that commercial? You reproach me for wanting to seduce the spectators? What do you think we want to do in this damn job, if not intrigue, surprise and seduce?’”

Jacque Deray’s cinema does seduce you. It has a certain elegance and efficiency, and it is in total complicity with the spectators, in action, surprise, emotion. His crime thrillers are named “polars” – a sub-genre of the policier film – and they have something of their own, a specific sharpness and rigor, something unexpected, dark or tragic that always takes you by surprise.

Symphonie pour un massacre

Based on Alain Reynard Fourton’s noir novel Les Mystifiés, Symphonie pour un massacre (1963) is a brilliant study of a crime. With a script co-written by Deray, José Giovanni and Claude Sautet, Deray overcame “the difficult obstacle of a second detective film”. The story is this: five gangsters get together for a big narcotics deal. They seem to be long-run friends, but Jabeke (Jean Rochefort) plans to frame them up and keep all the money to himself. This will stir up hatred between them and trigger an unstoppable game of massacre. Deray wanted Jean Rochefort for the lead and fought for him, casting him against type – it was Rochefort’s first dramatic role. “I want the story to be treated like an English film, with suspense, twists and serial murders. I know that Rochefort could display a dazzling array of black humour.” He also cast Charles Vanel, Claude Dauphin and Michel Auclair. “What joy for a director to have in front of his camera such accomplices who know how to construct their characters with elegance and depth! I like their discretion and their kindness. I often think about this race, probably extinct, of actors happy to do their job, to play comedy and to join a troupe for the duration of the shooting of a film.”

Borsalino et Co

When Delon came to him with the idea of a sequel for Borsalino, Deray wasn’t very keen on it. But the desire to stage another great spectacle was much stronger. Borsalino had a light-fingered style to it, but Deray was also very keen on keeping and reconstituting the typical atmosphere of the town of Marseilles – 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. The town of Marseilles played 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 (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon), the two real gangsters on which the film characters were based.

Set during the period of the Popular Front, with the Nazism looming over, Borsalino et Co displays a realistic tone to the action and the same attention for details and historical reconstruction, yet it is different in pace, faster, more playful yet more violent, too. But the novelty for him, Deray revealed, was “the character played by Delon, who starts off as a loser, drunk on revenge. The film describes his ascent.”


“The cinema very quickly became the main element of my existence
and still is today. Even if at times my private life tries to refuse
to submit to it. It’s not a second life for me, it’s life.”


Le Gang

In the disorder that is post-World War II France, Robert “Le Dingue” (Alain Delon) leads a gang of small-time crooks to stage a chain of spectacular robberies. They start leading the high life, but the lure of gain leads Robert to take on more riskier heists. The team from Flic Story (1975) found themselves together again on the set of Le gang (1977). Alphonse Bouchard adapted a new Bornuche novel with Jean-Claude Carrière, who Deray had worked with on Un homme est mort, by his side. Deray wanted something different than Cop Story, a thoroughly stylised cinematic world, as he had already introduced us in Borsalino, and an accent put on humour and characters instead of violence.

Alain Delon was again a producer, with his company Adel Productions, and interprets the main character. About his relationship with Delon, Deray confessed that he felt an anguish in his presence, often asking himself questions about this mysterious friendship that bound them. Delon wanted to personalise his character, deciding to have curly hair. Deray, who placed great importance on details and on the image of the characters (he believed that the costume designer’s “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”), agreed to this point of view, but the producer, Julien Derode, initially protested. Delon would eventually have his way, “pushing the negation of his own mythology inside a film that respects the rules of the genre.”

Trois Hommes à abattre

This 1980 film was Deray’s sixteenth and the seventh with Delon, who also wanted a return to the thriller. Jean-Patrick Manchette’s book, Le petit bleu de la côte ouest, was the inspiration. Deray remembered how Delon told him that he believed that few directors had this talent and this obsession to capture and convey the atmosphere and the action of a thriller. It’s only natural that their complicity and previous successes brought them together again for a new collaboration.

“Dark movie. Black as night, black as fear. This is not an ordinary police investigation, but a story in the first degree, straight, clear, precise, a continual tension with a situation that remains simple. Because he picks up an injured person on the road, a man becomes a troublesome witness. By doing so, he becomes prey to killers. He must defend his skin. I have the impression I am returning to my early career loves, Rififi à Tokyo, Symphonie pour un massacre, Un Homme est mort, with the theme of the Un papillon sur l’épaule. The fate that takes hold of a normal man.”

It is true that, just like Lino Ventura in the marvelous Un papillon sur l’épaule, Delon is an ordinary man, who simply finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, thrown on a fateful path by circumstance. One evening, Michel Gerfaut, a professional poker player, rescues a injured man who has had an accident on a country road and takes him to the hospital. In reality, the man was murdered, and so Gerfaut becomes the target of killers. Employing a Hitchcockian element, an innocent hunted man, a loner trying to survive, caught up in a machination he does not understand, Deray produces a hard-hitting thriller that projects fear, anguish and suspense at all times. “We recognise in him the adventurer who reveals himself, even at the risk of his own life,” Deray says. Delon is all that. The car chase scene, after his friend is mistakenly taken for him and shot – a thrilling, beautifully staged and carried out sequence, with no words, no music (Deray preferred his images without music, especially the action scenes) – is a great moment to reveal this side of this solitary and seemingly incorruptible vigilante, magnificently inhabited by Delon.

Left: Akiko Stehrenberger poster for “Tár”, 2022 | Right: Vanni Tealdi poster for “Symphonie pour un massacre”, 1963



One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Kabul was never to walk...

It’s the opening line of Taran Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul. She first arrived in Kabul from India in 2006, and over the next seven years, she would come back on extended visits to work as a journalist and explore the city… So she walked. The Kabul she discovered is different than the simplified version we’ve seen and read in the media, the Kabul she walked is different than the one the expats and foreigners who came to Kabul usually experienced, a “blur of streets glimpsed from their moving vehicles”. She saw the stories behind the walls, behind the history, behind the people, the stories behind the many versions of the same city. And she makes us see, too, and not just see, but listen to these stories. It is an incredibly powerful and urgent book. Her powerful descriptions of interior worlds, of the world’s she inhabited through books, the Kabul she describes through recounting her grandfather and the way “Baba inhabited Kabul more fully than I could hope to, though he had never been there”, the way her walks open up her memories and the memories of the city she walked… “Walking showed me a way to read the city, just as reading guided my walks through the city.“ The Kabul Taran Khan writes to life is heard in a very poignant and personal voice.


Akiko Stehrenberger’s brilliant poster for Tár is simply a work of art. I love how she explores this whole new idea for the film – a storybook illustration to emphasise the Gulliver’s Travels-like concept – which just shows that a movie is different for each one of us. Posteritati carried a limited series of the poster signed by both director Todd Field and Cate Blanchett, but unfortunately it is sold out. But the Posteritati archive is a wonderful place to get lost in.

The Vanni Tealdi poster for Jacques Deray’s Symphonie pour un massacre posted below is not among their archive, but it is a beautiful piece of art worth including here, especially that this newsletter is dedicated to the films of Jacques Deray.


The album: Scarecrow, John Mellencamp


Somira Sao‘s story. Somira is a photographer, writer, wife and mother of six. She has circumnavigated the world by sailboat, given birth in four different countries, bike-packed, horse-packed and descended rivers with her family. Travelling for the last 16 years, they have lived in tents, vans and sailboats. A rogue adventure as life.

I love people who do things differently, who raise their children playing with jewels of ice, “learning the names of the birds, trees and plants, visiting the tiny local library and the anthropological museum, searching for information in field guides and books, seeing first hand the impact of commercial fishing on the community and the ocean, grasping the size of the natural world by playing with gigantic vertebrae at the anthropological museum, being in polluted ports where the ocean feels dead, and learning to value clean water and clean air, and ample access to open spaces and nature”.

And, amidst of it all, adults being immersed in nature, at the pace of a child’s unrushed play and harmonious and natural discovery of the world.

“In nature, my kids evolved into naturalists. […] I often think back to the events around the dismasting that brought us to such a special island. Never had a landfall been so emotional. We went from being isolated in the wilderness, racing across the ocean, to finding ourselves on land with a broken boat surrounded by people, sounds and smells. It all felt so surreal and so sickening. James and I were mentally shattered on so many levels but extremely relieved that we were all safe in port. And, in the midst of all our boat and work dramas, the kids thrived.”


The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Gone to Timbuktu, Sophy Robert’s podcast on the art of travel. Sirene and Racquet magazines, in print.

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