A film that, for me, brings back all sorts of fond memories. I first saw it as a teenager during its initial American release in the 60's when I was just discovering that there were some really good films out there that weren't in English. I had loved That Man From Rio and here was the great Jean-Paul Belmondo re-united with director Philippe De Broca in a rollicking swashbuckler. And having the luscious Claudia Cardinale along for the ride didn't hurt either.
Cartouche (also known by the terrible title of Swords Of Blood) is a very French and very Sixties flick. De Broca's loose style of film making encompasses broad comedy, adventure, satire, romance and even tragedy. It is the same style that made The King Of Hearts so memorable and it works just as well here. The story of a charming and incorrigible petty thief who rises to be a sort of bandit chief - after a comic interlude in the army - is the perfect excuse for fist fights, sword fights, chases, and romance with lusty wenches with wonderfully heaving bosoms. The flavor of the 18th century is beautifully captured with a realism that extends to the smallest details. At times, the realistic visuals seem almost at odds with some of the film's more slapstick elements, but it actually contributes to the superb period feel. In this respect, Cartouche is somewhat reminiscent of some of the bawdier bits from that other great Sixties period romp Tom Jones.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is perfect in the title role, not only more than equal to all the physical demands of the part but also moving through all his character's moods effortlessly. Belmondo is a wonderfully natural actor and it is hard to imagine anyone from Hollywood doing this sort of part so well. Co-star Claudia Cardinale has seldom been better or more beautiful - her character is well-named as Venus. She is overflowing with earthy passion both as an outlaw and a lover - even more so as a jealous lover. Both as a teenager and now as an allegedly wiser fifty-something, I could never understand why Belmondo would prefer the icy aristocratic Odile Versois to the magnificently sexy Cardinale.
As usual with these films, Belmondo gets a couple of sidekicks. One is a gentle giant played by Jess Hahn, a sort of European Alan Hale who was forever popping up in films of various languages. The other is a young Jean Rocheforte, that wonderful French actor who would have such a long and impressive career. Here he is The Mole, a slightly more refined bandit with the soul of a poet. The villains are suitably hateful, if not quite in the Basil Rathbone league.
Cartouche is great fun and blessed with true star quality performances from Belmondo and Cardinale. It's one of those movies that is always a joy to take out and watch again. If you're seeing it for the first time, you're in for a real treat.