Marseilles, France, 1930. Fresh out of jail ambitious gangster Roch Siffredi (Alain Delon) goes looking for his beautiful moll Lola (Catherine Rouvel). He finds her shacked up with hotshot new mobster in town, Capella (Jean-Paul Belmondo). After a riotous punch-up they become fast friends and decide to team up. Starting with race-fixing and fights they move on to doing jobs for Rinaldi (Michel Bouquet), an aspiring mayoral candidate and associate of the top two mob bosses in town. Eventually Capella and Roch go into business for themselves whereupon their easygoing approach to crime turns deadly serious.
For European audiences the pairing of superstars Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, arguably the two most iconic men in French cinema, was a cinematic event. It ensured Borsalino became one of highest-grossing French films of all time. At the time France was in the midst of a retro-Thirties craze in fashion and music sparked by the Hollywood hit Bonnie & Clyde (1967) but Borsalino moved beyond imitation to achieve its own distinctively Gallic identity. The film also undoubtedly drew some inspiration from the original 'bromance' between Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Yet one would argue its unique mixture of Thirties nostalgia, boisterous action, wry humour and melancholy romantic undertones went on to influence not just Redford and Newman's reunion with The Sting (1973) but also several major Hollywood gangster epics that followed: e.g. The Godfather (1972), Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and The Untouchables (1987).
Produced by Delon himself, who wisely avoided an ego-trip and gave Belmondo equal chance to shine, Borsalino was adapted from Eugene Saccomano's true-crime account 'Bandits at Marseilles' with script input from the great Jean-Claude Carriere. Armed with a lavish budget director Jacques Deray, who through ensuing years re-teamed with both stars several more times to great success, recreates Thirties Marseilles on a truly opulent scale. The first half of the film more or less serves as a playground for overgrown kids Belmondo and Delon to carouse and womanize, smack each other then beat the hell out of their enemies and pose in impeccably tailored suits. Deray relies on the mega-wattage charisma of his stars to compensate for his own slippery grasp of the wayward first act. Even so things flow beautifully from one lively episode to another. A nightmarish shootout in a fiery meat locker is especially well staged. Once Cappella takes a shine to beautiful Ginette (achingly lovely Nicole Calfan), enraging her powerful mobster sugar-daddy Poli (André Bollet) and Roch tries to seize control of the meat markets away from arch rival Morello (Arnoldo Foà) things grow far darker, more serious and compelling. The story moves away from pastiching The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) and begins to evoke F. Scott Fitzgerald. Roch and Cappella become rich and powerful beyond their wildest dreams. Big dreamer Roch ends up with everything he always wanted but winds up increasingly paranoid and lonely. As Cappella tells him: "Luck doesn't exist, partner."
If Borsalino stands guilty of relegating women to glamorous victims, whores with hearts of gold or maternal figures, it is a problem that afflicts the gangster genre as a whole. To its credit the film draws its engaging if amoral protagonists not as invincible super-criminals but flawed and fallible. They see loved ones pay the price for their recklessness and are forced to grow increasingly ruthless to survive. When Morello mentions in passing he would retaliate against any threat to his best friend Rinaldi, just as Roch would for Cappella and vice-versa, we realize all the players are trapped in a cyclical game of violence and revenge. Belmondo plays the charming rogue to perfection while Delon continues to hone the unique combination of cool, calculating malevolence and sensitive angst that served him throughout the rest of his career. Claude Bolling's ragtime score is another of the film's memorable assets. The shock climax would seem to leave no room for a sequel but Delon and Deray delivered one anyway with Borsalino & Co. (1974). Remarkably it took almost thirty years before Delon reteamed with Belmondo again in Une chance sur deux (1998).