Les Tontons Flingueurs aka Crooks in Clover

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There’s something about 1963’s Les Tontons Flingueurs as a title that sounds wackier, funnier, just better than the usual English translation – Crooks in Clover. The film also goes by the name Monsieur Gangster but the original French literally translates as Gunslinging Uncles.

Tontons Flingueurs is better because it sounds a bit ridiculous, and that’s really what’s going on in this amusing French drama from 1963, often described as a comedy but only properly funny if you speak French. Michel Audiard’s screenplays deal heavily in slang and wordplay and neither of those quite survive the translation into English. The film has a real cachet in France; elsewhere barely any.

If like me you’re watching with a subtitle assist, this is still a piece of light-hearted fun, a racy charmer full of good character actors (including Bernard Blier, Robert Dalban, Jean Lefebvre, Francis Blanche). It’s directed at pace by Georges Lautner, who was well known for this sort of thing and is one of many collaborations between Lautner and Audiard (incidentally the father of film-maker Jacques Audiard).

It’s also lightly satirising the gangster genre, hence the casting of Lino Ventura, a man with the face of a boxer, the body of a wardrobe and a CV full of gangster roles. Ventura plays Fernand, the onetime gangster and now tractor dealer who is called up out of the blue one day by a former partner in crime, Louis the Mexican.

I’m dying, says Louis, and I want you to take over the running of my crime syndicate and also become the guardian of my daughter, Patricia (Sabine Sinjen). Fernand reluctantly agrees, and is soon the boss of a gang whose noses have been put right out of joint by the Mexican’s deathbed decision. Fernand is also nominally in charge of a teenager keen to taste the fruits of early 1960s pop culture, and boys.

Both turn out to be a struggle. There are a couple of loyal lieutenants but for the most part the crooks immediately start planning how to get rid of Fernand. He responds by fighting fire with fire, or more often fists – many comedic punches are thrown in this movie. But Fernand is less adept with teenage young women, especially this one.

Sinjen looks like a young Carey Mulligan and plays Patricia as a sweetheart whose impish exterior hides a steely core. As Patricia’s boyfriend, Antoine, Claude Rich is convincing as the sort of fey, artistically inclined aesthete Fernand also has no real idea how to handle.

The famous drinking scene
The famous drinking scene

It looks great, thanks to the deep-focus black-and-white cinematography of Maurice Fellous, and Michel Magne’s score situates it exactly where it is – a bit gangster here, but mostly at the cocktail-jazz rinky-dink end of the spectrum.

To an extent the deadly intrigue is at war with the comedy. But in two separate scenes they mesh beautifully. In one Fernand and his rivals, marooned at one of Patricia’s teenage parties full of youngsters dancing earnestly, sit down in a kitchen and – there being no whisky – get drunk on some godawful home-made hooch. Lovely comedic interplay here, and the “drunk acting” is convincing too.

In another, a climactic gun battle plays out, but instead of bang, bang, biaow, it’s peep, peep, poop, since everyone involved is using a silencer. In among all the flying bullets is loverboy Antoine’s father, who has turned up to ask Fernand if Patricia may marry his son. Being almost deaf, the father has no idea he’s in the middle of a gun battle.

It’s a tightly conceived and brilliantly played comedy scene summarising the film’s gradual shift from verbal to physical comedy. For English speakers very welcome.

If you are going to watch this cult item first released four days after the assassination of JFK, do yourself a favour and go with the 4K 2017 restoration (linked to below). It really brings out the best in Maurice Fellous’s sparkling cinematography.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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