As we all know when it comes to Christopher Lambert, there can be only one. However, writing about every movie in an actor's 30+ year filmography is a big job - too much for one man who's got tiny daughters to wrangle and Innerspace posters to get into bidding wars over on eBay. So once again John Cribbs passes the baton to Kevin Sturton, writing his third Lambertathon piece for The Pink Smoke.
We highly recommend you more than gander at Mr. Sturton's blog. He's our new favorite scunner & his taste is impeccable - just check out his recent Leeds Film Festival coverage (start with his smart analysis of Verhoeven's Elle.) But now: it's time for a new kind of magic. Nothing in the world has prepared you for this. Kevin Sturton is building a fortress for the ultimate takeover... of your mind!
This is his shared but still personal...
For this latest entry into the Lambertathon we’re going right back to 1980 for Christopher Lambert’s second movie The Telephone Bar. It’s a fairly routine crime thriller and you can see why despite Lambert’s success internationally the film remains largely forgotten. However, Lambert’s offbeat screen presence is already apparent as Paul “Bebe” Franchi, a young thug who leads a gang who specialize in smashing up cafes and robbing them at gunpoint. It’s a supporting role but an important one essentially functioning as a counterpoint to the film’s protagonist Toni Véronèse (Daniel Duval), who goes to war with a rival firm over an unpaid debt. Enigmatic and impeccably dressed in 1970s’ menswear, Toni is the kind of damned angel role the young Alain Delon played for Jean-Pierre Melville and essentially what we’re getting here is a film that owes far too much thematically to those crime movies.
Though a work of fiction the film takes its title from the name of a restaurant where a notorious massacre occurred a few years earlier in Marseille. A group of men armed with guns walked into Le Bar du Telephone restaurant one night and killed everybody inside. Ten people were murdered and the crime has never been solved. While there is speculation the attack was linked to the Marseille underworld none of the victims were involved in organized crime. These murders were one of the cases being investigated by Pierre Michel, the judge gunned down in the street in 1981 and the recent subject of the Jean Dujardin movie The Connection. Screenwriter Claude Néron and director Claude Barrois move the action to Paris and recreate the Bar du Telephone murders at a key point in the film but there’s nothing else linking this real life tragedy to the movie. Using the name seems like a particularly callous form of marketing not to mention being disrespectful to the families of the victims.
The opening scene introduces us to Toni, gives us a reason for the violence to come, and establishes a fatalistic mood. The credits play over a slow-motion sparring session as Jo (Philip Jacques), a promising young boxer trains for an upcoming title bout. The gym is owned by the Perez family, three brothers who conceal their criminal organisation behind legitimate business interests. Toni is there trying to collect money owed by Jo’s trainer but he refuses to pay instead threatening to go to his bosses. Later outside the gym Toni offers Jo a lift home and offers to cancel the debt if Jo throws the fight.
After this brief introduction the film focuses on Bebe setting him up as a possible antagonist for Toni. Bebe lives on one of the poorer suburbs on the outskirts of Paris with his mother and two sisters. There’s a waste-ground next to their house filled with abandoned cars, while the railway line nearby is overgrown and hopefully no longer in use because there’s a kid sitting on the tracks playing with a puppy. Bebe and his gang are barely out of their teens. Lambert sports the same haircut as the kid in The Shining while cuddly-looking Richard Ancanino (Lambert’s future co-star in Love Songs) is miscast as Boum Boum, the gang’s loose cannon. The first time we see Boum Boum he’s making a lot of noise and hassling a girl but he stops the moment Bebe appears so we know immediately who’s the leader. Bebe’s apartness from the others is emphasized at a nightclub where he sits alone at the bar watching Jo’s title fight on the television while the others hit the dancefloor. Toni attends the boxing in person and seems impressed when Jo decides to knock his opponent out, but he leaves as soon as the count is finished.
Next morning Commissioner Joinville (Francois Perier) inspects the burnt out shell of an upmarket hotel belonging to the Perez brothers. Realizing this is the first move in a gangland war he visits underworld kingpins Leopold Kretchzman (Georges Wilson) and Antione Bini (Julien Guiomar) to mediate between the warring parties before things get worse. Kretchzman and Bini are the flamboyantly dressed lords of the Parisian underworld. Bini wears a fetching camel coat, while Kretchzman rocks a full length fur coat with a silk scarf. They own a large country house and train race horses like Max Zorin, the Bond villain in A View to a Kill. I personally hope the Parisian underworld was run by such a fabulous couple in the 80s’, but I suspect their inclusion is meant to emphasise the machismo of Toni and to a lesser extent Bebe. Their mediation on the feud between Toni and the Perez brothers comes down firmly on the debt owed by the Perez Brothers being paid in full.
Meanwhile Bebe’s gang are out making a name for themselves and we’re treated to a rock montage of them trashing bars and collecting protection money at gunpoint. Lambert shows Bebe’s menace in a quieter scene though by orchestrating the intimidation of a middle- aged couple in their cafe. The gang are the last customers in a small backstreet café called Chez Georges. However, the owner of the establishment is not called Georges, which Bebe finds funny resulting in an early outing for Lambert’s famous “heh heh heh” chuckle. Six bottles of champagne are ordered, which they refuse to pay for despite flashing the cash all evening. Eventually they begin to smash the place up.
Barrios went on to work mostly in television making police procedurals and you can see why. Claude Néron’s screenplay offers a few opportunities to craft some decent set-pieces, such as the cash handover between the Perez brothers and Toni which goes badly wrong and ends in a shoot-out with two policemen who inadvertently stumble into the meeting, but Barrios brings no real tension to scenes like this. The meeting ends with one less Perez brother and Toni with a price on his head after Kretchzman puts out a hit on him. After one failed attempt by a known hitman they decide to look for somebody outside their criminal network and that’s where Bebe and his gang come in. Though Bebe can clearly handle himself there are little moments throughout that remind the audience he’s still quite young, like his mother ironing his shirt for him before he goes out, or him sitting in his bedroom playing with his gun like it’s a children’s toy. Bullying café owners is one thing but he’s clearly out of his depth this time.
French audiences at the time would have known what was coming as soon as they saw the Bar du Telephone sign outside the hotel Toni is hiding out in. Investigators reckon the Marseille killers were methodical, killing everybody inside and escaping on foot down one of the city’s back-alleys in around five minutes. Barrois turns the massacre into a chaotic accident which is quite frankly absurd given the ruthlessness involved. Yet this is a fictionalized version of events and Bebe’s gang are presented as bungling amateurs who accidentally kill the clientele during an evening meal. Their youthfulness is emphasized by the Darth Vadar masks they wear as disguises, making them look more like cos-players than assassins. When they approach the hotel they walk past the window with their guns drawn and everybody eating inside can see them. Their intended target is already outside and hiding in the car park by the time his would-be assassins burst into the restaurant. Boum Boum’s mask falls off during an exchange of gunfire with Toni’s bodyguard and one of the diners recognizes him which tips him over the edge. What should have been a shocking moment as the massacre begins becomes ridiculous because it looks like the gun is in control of Boum Boum not the other way round. He seems powerless to prevent himself spraying the room with bullets, while Bebe and the others scream at him to stop.
They’re still screaming at each other when they leave the hotel and are too busy fighting in the car to notice Toni is following them. Boum Boum weeps and wails and tries to throw himself into the road but is prevented by the others. In terms of the narrative he might as well because the screenplay has no further need for the gang and we never see them again. I’m not sure if there’s a scene with Toni hunting the others down which has been cut from the film or if my limited use of French means I missed some vital piece of information because Toni only confronts Bebe. Oddly enough despite Bebe attempting to assassinate him and killing his bodyguard, Toni is willing to let things slide, though only after bonding with a good old-fashioned punch-up in a scrap-yard complete with badly timed karate kicks and Bebe launching a car tire at his opponent’s head like it’s a Frisbee. Whether it’s because Toni sees something of himself in the younger man or is just using him to get close to his rivals it’s never made clear, but they are now allies.
Bebe arrives at Kretzchman’s during dinner, clearly a major faux-pas, and this coupled with the massacre at the restaurant means his life now hangs in the balance. Though Bebe claims to have killed Toni, he’s acting as a distraction so the latter can sneak unnoticed into the building. Lambert remains still as he listens to Kretchzman and the Perez brothers talk about how they should best get rid of him, impassive except for the occasional slight movement of his facial muscles to indicate Bebe is nervous despite his outwardly calm appearance. Toni arrives at the last moment, only to be badly wounded in the ensuing gun-fight. Though they escape the building there’s nowhere left for them to go and Bebe drives off towards an uncertain future while a gut-shot Toni bleeds to death in the passenger seat.
Lambert’s performance in The Telephone Bar led to a similar role in another crime thriller, Legitimate Violence a couple of years later. Neither are great films but gave him the exposure needed to progress up the ladder and are interesting examples of a star developing their screen persona in the early days of their career. You can see from these movies why producers started courting Lambert for action roles which tend to require this minimalistic and responsive style of acting from their leading men. As for the film it’s one for Lambert completists only. The Bar du Telephone massacre is more deserving of a serious drama investigating the possibilities which might have led to such an event rather than a film that can only offer familiar gangster tropes.
~ NOVEMBER 4, 2016 ~