French novelist Auguste Le Breton became acquainted with suffering in the early stages of his life. His father fell victim to WWI before the future author turned two, whereas his mother vanished without a trace, leading to Le Breton being raised in state institutions as a ward of the nation. The trouble he would often get himself into turned him into a frequenter of remand homes and prisons. He then lived in Paris, spending his days in gambling joints and bars, as well as associating with street gangs that introduced him to the Parisian criminal underbelly. It is no doubt that these lived experiences shaped the what and how of his writing, with the ‘what’ being the world of organized crime, and the ‘how’ referring to his remarkable mastery of French slang that imbued his novels with authenticity. So, even though he penned a touching autobiography entitled Les Hauts Murs (1954) after the birth of his daughter, the seventy-seven crime novels he wrote in his lifetime were the works that brought him both money and popularity. And some of them were even turned into successful and significant feature films.
The very first adaptation of a Le Breton novel was director Henri Decoin’s 1955 film version of Razzia sur la chnouf (French slang for “raid on drugs”), released under the title Razzia in the United States. Starring famous French actor and singer Jean Gabin (and with Le Breton himself appearing in the role of a gangster), the often underrated and overlooked gangster film follows criminal Henri Ferre who, upon returning to Paris from the US, is tasked with reorganizing the entire drug ring led by Paul Liski (Marcel Dalio). Razzia sur la chnouf should well be considered a trailblazer, due to its realistic and violent depiction of the criminal milieu, making the film significantly more brutal than the majority of French film policiers of the 1950s.
The week after Decoin’s film premiered, American filmmaker Jules Dassin’s adaptation of Le Breton’s Du rififi chez les hommes was released. With actors Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel and Dassin himself portraying gangsters who team up to pull off a complicated heist, the noir (released as Rififi in the US) went on to become a seminal movie in French cinema, paving the way for the film policier to become an important and popular genre that would reign supreme in France for more than twenty years. The film’s most notable and impressive scene, one that has been imitated time and time again, not only on screen, but also in real life by actual robbers, is the heist sequence itself. Shot sans music and dialogue, the twenty-four-minute scene is practically an incredibly detailed step-by-step manual on how to perform a robbery (and fail to get away with it). Filmed on a low budget and lacking famous actors, Dassin’s critically acclaimed film earned him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955, while the movie itself was nominated for Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review.
Capitalizing on the huge success of Dassin’s movie, French filmmakers made three more Rififi films based on Le Breton’s works. Alex Joffé directed Du rififi chez les femmes (The Riff Raff Girls) in 1959, Jacques Deray adapted Rififi à Tokyo (Rififi in Tokyo) in 1963, a film that includes a terrifically executed robbery scene, and Denys de La Patellière helmed the stylish Du rififi à Paname (The Upper Hand) starring Jean Gabin.
Le Breton’s novel La loi des rues (Law of the Streets) got not one, but two adaptations: the first was a 1956 French drama film of the same name directed by Ralph Habib, with Raymond Pellegrin and Louis de Funès in the main roles. The second was Turkish filmmaker Aram Gülyüz’s 1964 take entitled Sokaklarin kanunu. In 1957, Gilles Grangier adapted Le rouge est mis into a movie (its English title: Speaking of Murder), marking the fourth time actors Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura performed side by side (with Ventura appearing in both Razzia sur la chnouf and La loi des rues). Then in 1958, Pierre Chenal made a film based on Rafles sur la ville, with Charles Vanel and Michel Piccoli playing a gangster on the run and a cop who will stop at nothing to bring him to justice. Although not as popular as other Breton adaptations (such as Rififi), Rafles sur la ville is nonetheless a standout piece of cinema that seamlessly conveys the tone and gist of the dark and gloomy world Le Breton so uncompromisingly wrote about.
The novel Brigade Anti-Gangs got its cinematic version in the form of Bernard Borderie’s 1966 French-Italian film Brigade antigangs, but the real hit, as far as the adaptations of Le Breton’s novels go, was released three years later. The box office success in question was Henri Verneuil’s Le clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan), a gangster film that enabled three eminent acting legends of that period to star opposite one another—Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon. Centering around a jeweler thief and a mafia boss who intend to perform a robbery while evading the Chief Inspector who is after them, Le clan des Siciliens has been said to have “reinvented the classic gangster genre, elevating it to a higher level with its hard-boiled acting, deep character studies, and attractive photography.” (Rémi Fournier Lanzoni: French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present). And if we add Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal score to the already impressive mix, it is no wonder that Verneuil’s cinematic gem was not only the third most popular film in France during the year of its release, but that it also remains a classic to this day.
Apart from providing juicy source material for many a French classic, Le Breton also worked with director Jean-Pierre Melville on the script for the filmmaker’s project entitled Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler). Le Breton wrote the dialogue for the 1956 noir that follows a former criminal and avid gambler (played by Roger Duchesne) who has fallen on hard times, thus deciding to pull off one last big heist. Even though the film was not a commercial success, it impacted French filmmakers of the following decade in a profound way, paving the way for the French New Wave thanks to Melville’s filmmaking that included the usage of a handheld camera. The movie was even remade by Neil Jordan in 2002 under the title The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte in the lead role.
With life experiences as fascinating as Auguste Le Breton’s, it should come as no surprise that filmmakers lined up to transfer the realistic contents of his many pages to the screen, thereby creating some of the most important movies in French cinema. But the author’s crime stories were not the only ones that were given cinematic counterparts—Le Breton’s previously mentioned autobiography Les Hauts Murs got an adaptation in 2008, courtesy of director Christian Faure. A deeply heart-breaking portrayal of the novelist’s infinitely traumatic childhood and adolescence, Les Hauts Murs forces the viewers to come to terms with the reality of abuse that all children orphaned in WWI had to endure at the hands of those who should have helped them, which in turn gave rise to the many delinquent behaviors and criminal activities that Le Breton would go on to describe in his fictional works with such accuracy and poignancy.