One night, professional gambler Michel Gerfaut (Alain Delon) is on his way to a high-stakes poker game when he happens across a badly injured man in a wrecked car. He takes the man to the hospital and thinks no more about the incident. While on holiday with his girlfriend at sunny Trouville, Gerfaut is traumatised when several attempts are made on his life. He soon discovers that the man he saved died from multiple gunshot wounds and was actually a prominent political figure with ties to the arms industry. Two more men die in similar circumstances. Increasingly paranoid, Gerfaut reaches out to a friend in the police force only to see the latter shot dead in a case of mistaken identity. Realising he is the next target, the gambler goes on the run, risking his life against impossible odds.
Upon the death of thriller and action film specialist Jacques Deray in 2003, several British critics curiously labelled him the French Alfred Hitchcock, a title perhaps more fittingly bestowed upon his contemporaries Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol. Deray debuted as a director at the same time that the Nouvelle Vague became a distinctive force in world cinema but always saw himself as a purveyor of unpretentious entertainment. He was a great tailor of vehicles for some of the biggest stars in French cinema, working eight times with Alain Delon beginning with the sublime psychological thriller La Piscine (1969) and on several films starring the equally iconic Jean-Paul Belmondo, pairing both together to memorable effect in Borsalino (1970) which became one of the biggest box office hits of all time.
However, in the case of Trois hommes a abbatre (Three Men to Kill), “Hitchcockian” really is the perfect phrase to describe the profoundly unsettling manner in which Deray juxtaposes some shockingly brutal violence with the mundane ordinariness of everyday life. The first half of the film masterfully depicts Gerfaut’s mounting paranoia, as he realises someone, somewhere wants him dead for reasons that are initially unfathomable. Especially suspensful is the scene in which Gerfaut is almost drowned by two hitmen only metres away from a crowded beach. After barely escaping with his life, he crawls ashore to be greeted by laughing children. Life goes on, seemingly oblivious to the horrific forces lurking beneath our civilised world.
Adapted from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s celebrated novel “Le Petit Bleu de la Côte Ouest”, Trois hommes a abbatre was such a hit that the producer-star tackled more of the author’s works including his likeable directorial debut For a Cop’s Hide (1981) - where Delon played a down-at-heel ex-cop-turned private eye named Choucas who shares a name with a very similar character here - and Le Choc (1982) both of which proved equally popular with the French audience. Manchette was widely described as the finest French thriller writer of the Seventies and Eighties, though he also wrote comics, children’s books and translated works by Donald E. Westlake, Robert Bloch and, interestingly, Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen. Beginning with Claude Chabrol’s visceral political thriller Nada (1974), Manchette worked extensively as a screenwriter penning the likes of L'Aggression (1975) and The Probability Factor (1976) for director Gérard Pirès, La Guerre des polices (1979) by Robin Davis, Legitime Violence (1982) by Serge Leroy and La Crime (1983) by journalist turned auteur Philippe Labro.
In the case of the Alain Delon thrillers, the scripts were penned by the star himself along with regular collaborator Christopher Frank and in this instance, Deray as well. Critics routinely charged Delon with perverting the liberal politics inherent in Manchette’s work to reflect his own right-wing views. However, the film’s central conceit of an ordinary man victimised by an omniscient, oppressive establishment arguably plays to both sides of the political spectrum. By making the villains arms dealers and politicians, the plot draws a distinction between corporate and political evil and the more romanticised rogue represented by Gerfaut. His key character trait is that he is a gambler, something that plays to the French love of existentialist anti-heroes that struggle against fate. The iconic Delon does not deviate too far from the hard-boiled persona he established decades before through his work with Jean-Pierre Melville but delivers a quirky and engaging performance. Italian starlet Dalila Di Lazzaro, the beautiful “monster” from Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), supplies glamour and gratuitous nudity as Gerfaut’s girlfriend but also proves a smart and resourceful character in her own right.
After a restrained first act, the pace explodes once assassins slay Gerfaut’s buddy Inspector Liethard (Christian Barbier) in a scene foreshadowing Dario Argento’s bullet-through-the-keyhole gag in Opera (1987). Thereafter the villains realise they have messed with the wrong man as Delon reverts to type sparking off a breakneck car chase-cum-shootout and a host of satisfying scenes wherein he puts the fright in these smug, well-heeled murderers. Deray’s sedate style of shooting an action scene has not dated as well as that of his contemporaries but the film is still quite bloody and brutal. Interestingly, the English dubbed version removes the original nihilistic and frankly somewhat unlikely climax (In broad daylight with all those witnesses? Really?) ending the film on a far more quietly ambiguous note more in keeping with Manchette’s novel.