Cocky and adventurous David Ladislas (Jean-Paul Belmondo) accepts a job from 'the Organization' to transport a sports car across Europe. As part of his cover David is accompanied by glamorous photographer Olga Celan (Jean Seberg). Throughout the long sea voyage, David works his charms on a seemingly indifferent Olga who initially resists until they inevitably wind up in bed. When David eventually discovers the car hides a fortune in gold, he impulsively decides to steal it and set himself up comfortably with Olga at his side. However not only is the Organization's chief enforcer Fehrman (Gert Fröbe) hot on David's trail but he finds selling the gold far harder than he thought. On top of that Olga proves somewhat less than trustworthy.
Échappement Libre or Backfire to use its international title reunited iconic French film star Jean-Paul Belmondo and Hollywood actress Jean Seberg to less groundbreaking effect than Breathless (1959). By comparison to that Jean-Luc Godard classic this was a much more mainstream and conventional adventure yarn. More along the lines of those international caper films popular in Europe throughout the Sixties, particularly in the wake of Jules Dassin's Oscar-winning Topkapi (1964). Such films typically assemble an international cast (here alongside two big name leads we have Goldfinger himself Gert Frobe, Fernando Rey, Euro-horror star Diana Lorys, and Wolfgang Preiss star of the Doctor Mabuse franchise) as cool characters pulling off improbable feats in high style at glamorous locations (here Paris, Beirut, Naples and Cologne). Only here director Jacques Becker, in his third film with Belmondo, stirs in some of the romantic fatalism found in unconventional French thrillers like Les Aventuriers (1967).
Belmondo and Seberg play variations on the archetypes they embodied in Breathless. He is the impulsive antihero who bucks the odds living by his wits. She is the ice cool, pragmatic femme fatale. Unlike David, Olga's cynicism clues her in to the fact they have no chance to get rich quick when the mob control every angle. Only in this instance the ice queen thaws in the face of David's almost boyish naivety. Based on a novel by Clet Coroner, the film has a rather sweet romantic theme ("a man can accomplish nothing without a woman by his side") and proves more invested in the playfully shifting relationship between its two leads than maintaining suspense. Becker went on to direct some outstanding dramas, including One Deadly Summer (1983) and Elisa (1995), that greatly benefit from his casual, character-driven style. Backfire however proves plodding and methodical, coasting along on the charm of its iconic leads. The film spends a great deal of screen time watching David try his utmost to charm the pants off Olga while she keeps him at arm's length (for a while, at least) and viewers wonder when the plot will kick in. When it finally does things remain stubbornly pedestrian.
While the legendary Belmondo breezes through the film with his trademark combo of hard-boiled toughness and debonair cool, Seberg impresses as the chic and ambiguous femme fatale who wears sunglasses while making love and only hesitantly reveals her tender side. As with Seberg's other European roles, Backfire proves she was capable of more besides the vulnerable characters she often essayed in Hollywood. The film does grow more compelling in its livelier third act where Becker ramps up the suspense and Belmondo shifts into action mode, capped off with a nicely ironic ending. It also benefits from a delightful be-bop jazz score by Gregorio Garcia Segura and Martial Solal. Interestingly the assistant director on the film was Costa-Gavras who went on to a long and illustrious career making far more substantial political thrillers.