A vicious maniac called Minos terrorizes Paris, brutally slaying women he considers ‘immoral’. The police assign daredevil detective Letellier (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to crack the case, but the two-fisted cop already has his hands full pursuing a notorious gangster. However, Minos draws Letellier into a deadly game of cat and mouse, raising the stakes via a breathless chase over the city’s rooftops. After Minos murders someone the detective holds dear and takes a family hostage, Letellier goes in, all-guns blazing.
This taut thriller has a distinctly giallo flavour, with its disfigured killer, Argento-esque P.O.V. shots, sly wit and surreal touches (a shootout inside a warehouse stocked with creepy mannequins). One perfect example of oddball inventiveness is the arresting opening, wherein Minos taunts a woman over the phone and, without laying a hand on her, claims his first victim. Nouvelle Vague icon Belmondo enjoyed a parallel career as France’s number one action star, famous for performing his own stunts. Peur sur la ville (Fear over the city) was the third of his five collaborations with Henri Verneuil, a veteran action, thriller and war film specialist whose bombastic western, Guns for San Sebastian (1968) failed to ignite a Hollywood career. Story-wise, the film is essentially a series of frantic chase scenes, expertly staged by Verneuil, with Belmondo performing some of his most celebrated feats. These include aforementioned, vertigo inducing, rooftop duel and a breathtaking set piece where he races across the top of a speeding train.
Verneuil borrows heavily from Hitchcock, leavening the tension with dollops of black comedy, but doesn’t explore the fraught relationship between psycho killer and maverick cop the way the master surely would. Minos’ true identity is obvious from the outset. Fortunately, Adalberto-Maria Merli gives a skin-crawling performance ensuring that, even though we see his face, Minos’ remains an utterly unfathomable madman. Letellier sometimes seems too flippant in his attitude towards the killings. He’d much rather pursue the runaway gangster who killed his partner. Belmondo’s superstar charisma goes a long way towards humanizing Letellier, delivering wry wisecracks courtesy of dialogue writer Francis Veber. Veber, one of the great French masters of observational comedy (Le Dîner de cons (1998)), contributes a nicely judged scene between Belmondo’s callous cop and a jittery nurse (Rosy Varte) targeted by Minos. It’s both tense and funny, and ensures the tragedy finally hits home for Letellier.
Yet Peur sur la ville is mainly a chance to see one of the world’s greatest action stars strut his stuff. Belmondo’s final assault, rappelling down a high-rise apartment block, is heart-pounding stuff, his bare-knuckle brawl with Minos, as crowd-pleasing as Dirty Harry’s face off with Scorpio. Peur sur la ville is the kind of cult thriller that really deserves to be better known.