At the height of prohibition in the Roaring Twenties so-called rum-runners sneak shipments of illegal rum from Jamaica to the American coast. Such a man is Cornelius von Zeelinga (Lino Ventura) whose tenacity, stamina and boorish nature earn him the nickname of 'King Kong.' Nevertheless the resourceful Cornelius survives multiple brushes with the law and near-certain death in New Mexico to become captain of his own ship. Whereupon Cornelius' bootlegging partner Gerry (Bill Travers) assigns him to transport a new lucrative stock of rum from the Caribbean. However Cornelius is immediately distracted from the mission when he falls for glamorous movie star Linda Larue (Brigitte Bardot). Their tempestuous romance leads a thrill-seeking Linda to accompany Cornelius on his next adventure where her sensual presence and increasingly skimpy outfits drive his crew to distraction. Linda eventually draws a rival for her affections in buffoonish but mercenary British naval officer Lord William Percival Hammond (Clive Revill). Even so Cornelius stakes the future of the whole enterprise on the certainty Linda’s heart belongs to him.
Paying back an influence drawn from the French New Wave breakthrough Hollywood gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had a tremendous cultural impact in late Sixties-early Seventies France. Its influence was felt in fashion, pop music (notably Brigitte Bardot's own iconic single with Serge Gainsbourg: "Bonnie and Clyde") and of course cinema; albeit on a superficial level. Many star vehicles from this period were romanticized retro crime capers laden with nostalgia for Twenties-Thirties style along with a certain outlaw ethos celebrated in classic gangster films with James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Paul Muni, etc. Much like Borsalino (1970), which brought together mega-stars Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, Boulevard du Rhum a.k.a. Rum Runners pairs celebrated Euro-crime tough guy Lino Ventura with luminous screen goddess Brigitte Bardot for a rollicking romp celebrating the outlaw spirit of old France. Back in 1971 it offered French filmgoers a chance to simply wax nostalgic about lovable rogues and glamorous molls and just soak in the danger, excitement and romanticism of it all.
As cinematic experiences go it is skin deep yet what luminous skin! Just take in that lush scenery, extravagant sets, lavish costumes (Bardot dons a stunning new outfit in every scene) and frankly scorching screen presence of the legendary French star. Well cast as a screen goddess, Bardot does not make her entrance until almost the fifty minute mark but does so via a charming pastiche of a jungle queen silent serial, lounging on a throne in a leopardskin bikini. So hot the projector catches fire and burns down the theatre! She vamps it up delightfully as the mercurial Linda who shifts from flirty and slightly mercenary to proving her worth in a tight spot when she steers the ship out of danger. In her presence Cornelius softens into a warmer, more vulnerable and sympathetic hero. Despite a supposedly less cordial relationship behind the scenes, Bardot and Lina Ventura prove an engaging duo straight out of a comic strip.
Amiable but unfocused, Rum Runners certainly pales by comparison with Les Aventuriers (1967), the more nuanced and substantial of director Robert Enrico's outings with star Lino Ventura, and at two hours plus outstays its welcome. The first third rambles from one macho misadventure after another with no discernible point. Stick with it though as while the plot never rises above ramshackle the action grows increasingly boisterous and entertaining and gradually implies an intriguing subtext. It is a film that both frustrates and fascinates in equal measure as there is a more interesting story lurking under a deceptively inconsequential surface. Cornelius' emotional journey is bookended by images of Linda seemingly descending from then returning to the silver screen; a goddess once more after a brief dalliance with mortals on earth. The viewer is left to ponder was it all a dream? Did Linda ever really belong to our oafish antihero? While the sexual politics are very early 1970s and, shall we say, very French (the entire third act hinges on the male characters placing bets on Linda's fidelity) the film is redeemed by its dreamlike allusions and subtle subversion of macho male fantasies.