Corsican born novelist-turned-filmmaker José Giovanni was a former criminal who at one time was sentenced to death and wrote his first novel, “Le Trou” (The Hole), about his own attempted escape from prison. His crime thrillers were adapted by such high-calibre French filmmakers as Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Becker, and after working as a screenwriter he made his directorial debut with La Loi du survivant (1967). Giovanni’s movies range from star-driven action vehicles (La Scoumoune (1972)) to substantial polemics (Une robe noire pour un tueur (1981)), and The Gypsy (La Gitan) attempts a combination of the two.
Police raid a gypsy camp in search of notorious criminal Hugo Sennart (Alain Delon), whom the press have, somewhat unimaginatively, dubbed “The Gypsy.” Eluding the cops, the Gypsy soon takes to his old tricks, staging daring robberies alongside criminal cronies Jo Amila (Renato Salvatori, reuniting with Delon after Rocco and His Brothers (1960)) and Gene Newman (Maurice Barrier). Meanwhile, another underworld figure, aging safecracker Yann Cuq (Paul Meurisse) returns home to find his wife talking on the phone with her lover. After a violent argument, she takes a fatal leap from his apartment. Her lover turns out to be a policeman, Mareuil (Bernard Giraudeau), whose superior officer Blot (Marcel Bozzuffi from The French Connection (1971), on the right side of the law for a change) thinks he’s found a way to lure Yann into custody. On the run, Yann finds his quest for a quiet life disrupted at every turn, solely because the Gypsy commits crimes nearby and has the police on his tail. But fate somehow brings these two, not dissimilar, honourable thieves together…
Giovanni’s movies regularly empathise with outlaws and uphold a rather romanticised view that the underworld more accurately embodies the spirit and values of French society than the bourgeois surface. In dealing with the injustice and persecution visited upon the gypsies, who detail instances where they have been “hounded like dogs”, “chased with cattle prods” and had their children spat upon, this strives to be a socially-conscious crime thriller. Giovanni deftly illustrates his point with a striking opening aerial shot that pans away from a typically idyllic French seaside to the gypsy camp being invaded by police.
Hugo Sennart is less your typical criminal than a hot-blooded revolutionary, using stolen money to fight his people’s cause. Giovanni draws parallels between Hugo and old school romantics like Yann Cuq, who upon observing callous police methods remarks: “Watching the way you bastards work would give anyone the urge to throw a Molotov cocktail” and his fiery restaurateur friend Ninie (Annie Girardot - Renato Salvatori’s real-life spouse and co-star in Rocco and His Brothers, who steals all her scenes despite having little connection to the story). However, the meandering plot does no favours and there is a little too much heroic posturing from Delon.
An outsider even within the criminal fraternity, who risks life just to repay a debt or an insult to his people, Hugo Sennart plays very much to the hardboiled, indestructible image Delon cultivated in the wake of Le Samurai (1967) throughout most of his films during the Seventies and Eighties. Unlike many novelist-turned-directors, Giovanni isn’t over-reliant on prose and has a vibrant cinematic style, bringing a matter-of-fact realism to the robberies, shoot-outs and car chases. His treatment of the downtrodden gypsies still feels like a worthy issue tacked onto an otherwise average thriller and sentimental compared to the more offbeat studies of gypsy life made by Tony Gatliff.