Fresh out of jail Alexandre Dupré (Jean-Paul Belmondo), professional con artist and thief, is soon plotting his next caper. Disguised as an Indian prince he attempts to swindle a countess out of some valuable jewels only to discover that Sophie (Mirella D'Angelo) is herself a con artist. Instantly smitten the pair become partners, both romantically and criminally in an effort to scam wealthy Duke Helmut Von Nassau (Pierre Vernier). However when the Duke unexpectedly proposes marriage to Sophie, Alexandre winds up bereft of a fortune and his lover and in search of yet another scam. On a plane trip to Venice a stranger convinces Alexandre to carry a suitcase through customs. This same man is later shot dead outside the airport. Suddenly pursued by all manner of spies, violent criminals and femmes fatale, Alexandre tries to stay alive long enough to figure out what the hell is going on while at the same time pull off not one but two cons!
Whether it is gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, fairytale antihero Reynard the Fox or innumerable farces about cheating husbands, the rogue is a much celebrated archetype in French popular culture. With Le Guignolo (actually an Italian slang term for third-rate crook) superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo sought to establish himself as perhaps French cinema's definitive rogue, putting one over on clueless marks, rival crooks, foreign agents, and even the French government. Not to mention charming a panoply of glamorous women into bed. He even shags the Prime Minister's wife! Following their hit cop thriller Flic ou Voyou (1978) Belmondo and director Georges Lautner mounted an elaborate caper comedy showcasing spectacular locations (including ever-picturesque Venice), slick cinematography by the great Henri Decae and, of course, the star's trademark daredevil stunts. Here J.P.B. ploughs his speedboat through a hotel lobby, leaps off a balcony onto a passing barge, dangles from a helicopter and runs amuck in a bread factory. The latter is actually more remarkable than it sounds.
With its part-Venetian setting and emphasis on outrageous gags and action set-pieces over coherent plotting, Le Guignolo is strangely reminiscent of Moonraker (1979). Indeed the spy plot is straight out of a James Bond film only with a fast-talking criminal instead of debonair 007. Nonetheless Belmondo's Alexandre Dupré proves every bit as intrepid and unflappable as well as irresistible to the ladies, albeit with a manic sense of humour goofier even than Roger Moore's Bond (his signature move is to kick an enemy in the bollocks till they howl like a banshee). Elements of the later Pink Panther movies are evident in Lautner's staging of grandiose slapstick sequences while the film also evokes Francis Veber's mistaken identity comedies (e.g. The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe (1972)). The story does take a while to get going but once you wade through its laborious setup (the whole first act with Sophie could easily be removed) things kick into high gear and the results are fantastically entertaining. Arch and witty dialogue supplied by legendary comedy scribe Michel Audiard (co-writing the screenplay with Jean Herman) parodies a specific style of romantic melodrama. Lautner marries this with Belmondo's own very broad, very physical brand of slapstick comedy. While far from subtle his manic energy is infectious and draws big laughs. If the schizophrenic tone results in dramatic elements failing to match the impact of the comic scenes there remains real joy in watching Alexandre somehow talk his way out of one seemingly inescapable situation after another. Philippe Sarde supplies a sublime, elegant score spotlighting legendary harmonica player Toots Thielemans.