Dieudonné Ferchaux (Charles Vanel, excellent as usual) is a Parisian banker an imminent investigation of whose corrupt dealings has him taking off for the U.S., accompanied by a newly hired secretary, an ex-boxer beautifully played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. The boy’s voiceover has him introducing himself as Michel Maudet, but adding, “At least you can call me that.” “Call me Michel”: a fitting start for a film by Jean-Pierre Grumbach, whose nom-de-caméra, Melville, derives from the American author whose most celebrated novel begins, “Call me Ishmael.” However, this loose adaptation of Simenon’s novel includes elements of Belmondo’s biography, too. Belmondo also was a boxer, his family also came from Italy, and he played Michel in Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1959).
Richly scored by Georges Delerue, this is a solitudinous “road movie”—by flight from Paris to New York, by car down South, with an extended, fatal pause in Louisianan woods outside New Orleans. In particular, this is J.F.K.’s America, with a roadside motel flashing this message on its sign: “Pray for peace.” Melville takes in the disparity between rich and poor, which, ironically, Dieudonné and “Michel” themselves reflect. It should be noted that Ferchaux is a racist who hates “niggers” and even has two slave children back in Paris—one black, one white, because bankers aren’t racially discriminatory when it comes to exploiting and oppressing common humanity. Feisty “Michel” makes plain that he won’t roll over and submit to any flick of his employer’s metaphorical whip.
The relationship between old Dieudonné and young “Michel” grows complex; they are a contentious father and son. According to the banker, there exist three kinds of men, sheep, leopards and jackals. He wonders which kind “Michel” is. We alone discover that the boy is not a jackal.
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