is a portmanteau term which refers to the crime-thriller genre
of French cinema, often in the context of trench coat wearing gangsters
and tough, ageing police inspectors. The polar
is a specific
kind of policier which involves a central mystery (although a polar
does not necessarily have to be a policier
The film policier developed in French
cinema from early attempts to emulate American film noir in the
1940s. The genre has passed through several phases (including polar,
neo-polar and, most recently, post-noir), but the
film noir origins
are almost nearly always recognisable.
The film policier invariably centres
around an outsider (a law-enforcer or a law-breaker) who assumes the moral
high ground and is engaged in a fight for survival against a mightier adversary.
If the central hero is not obviously indestructible (such as Inspector
Maigret, Lemmy Caution or virtually any character played by Jean-Paul Belmondo),
he will almost certainly perish in the last five minutes of the film.
It goes without saying that the hero is nearly always male, since
the world of the policier is inherently rough, bleak and male dominated.
Those directors who can be credited with
having mastered the film policier include: Henri-Georges Clouzot,
Jacques Becker, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri Verneuil, Jacques Deray and
Georges Lautner. To this
list of luminaries, we should add Claude Chabrol and Costa-Gavras, who
have distinguished themselves in the related genres of psychological and
Here is a selection of the finest examples of French film noir.
Arsène Lupin détective
Jules Berry takes on the mantle of Maurice Leblanc's celebrated gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, in this whimsical comedy thriller.
Pépé le Moko
Once banned by the French authorities for being too depressing, Pépé le Moko
is now regarded as a masterpiece, a perfect blend of poetic realism and film noir thriller, set in the Algerian Casbah.
Hôtel du Nord
The apotheosis of poetic realism, the film starts with a suicide attempt and ends with a revenge killing. Not much room for light relief in this sombre drama from the Carné-Prévert team, other than some sparkling repartee between Arletty and Jouvet.
Le Quai des brumes
Jean Gabin plays a deserter hoping to start a new life but it all goes wrong when he falls in love with the ward of a ruthless gangster. The pessimism of the time is reflected in this film, a haunting tale of ill-fated love from the masters of poetic realism.
Macao, l'enfer du jeu
A gun-runner plays for the highest stakes in this atmospheric film noir
set in the Far East. Delannoy's skilful direction is surpassed only by Erich Von Stroheim's unforgettable performance.
Robert Siodmak made this thriller-romance during his exile in Europe. The influence of American film noir
is very noticeable, and Maurice Chevalier gives a fine performance.
L'Assassinat du Père Noël
This intriguing murder mystery directed by Christian-Jaque was the first film to be made in France under the Nazi occupation, something which lends the film a grim double meaning.
L'Assassin habite au 21
Pierre Fresnay and Suzy Delair sparkle in this comedy thriller, Clouzot's first full-length film. Despite the comic situations, the plot, sets and atmosphere are pure film noir.
Entre onze heures et minuit
You could easily mistake Louis Jouvet for Humphrey Bogart in this very obvious pastiche of American film noir, the template for the French polars
of the 1950s.
Le Salaire de la peur
Clouzot's best film out-does Hitchcock at almost every level, making this one of the greatest suspense thrillers of all time. The film has a sustained dramatic intensity which makes it a truly exhausting and harrowing cinematic experience.
Touchez pas au grisbi
One of the earliest and best examples of the crime thrillers which would dominate French cinema in the following decades. Its origins in American film noir
are very apparent, particularly in the nocturnal photography, the haunting music and the inevitable bloody shoot-out.
Du rififi chez les hommes
An unashamed direct import of American film noir
, this film became a cult in it own time and is now regarded as one of the true masterpieces of its genre. It is best known for the meticulously filmed jewellery robbery, in which not a single word of dialogue is used.
An extraordinarily compelling suspense thriller which, with its chillingly macabre murder scene and nerve-shattering climax, remains a popular classic with a very wide audience.
Voici le temps des assassins
Julien Duvivier's most cynical portrait of human nature is most noted for its recreation of the Halles market in Paris and for Danèle Delorme's shocking portayal of an unscrupulous gold digger.
Maigret tend un piège
Obvious references to American film noir
make this a moody and claustrophobic crime thriller, with Jean Gabin playing Georges Simenon's famous detective, Inspector Maigret.
Le Désordre et la nuit
Although the policier
genre had by this stage become formulaic, this film stands out by virtue of its attempts to embrace modernity, using jazz heavily to portray a sleazy criminal underworld.
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
This stylish variation on the popular policier genre gave an early glimpse of the determination of fresh young directors to break away from the traditional film form.
Signé Arsène Lupin
Arsène Lupin returns to cinema, this time in the guise of Robert Lamoureux, in a film which comes closest to capturing the style of Maurice Leblanc's original Lupin novels.
Deux hommes dans Manhattan
This film is less a traditional policier and more a homage to American film noir. Melville himself plays both detective and director, leaving no cliché unturned but somehow managing to create a work of art from the familiar trappings of the genre.
Les Yeux sans visage
The most celebrated French fantasy horror film, and rightly so with its graphic depiction of mad scientist surgery set in the creepiest house to make it onto celluloid. Guaranted to give you nightmares.
Tirez sur le pianiste
The first and best of Truffaut's homages to the American crime thriller features a sublime performance from Charles Aznavour.
Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in this stylish mélange of French film policier
and American film noir
, which, in true Melvillesque style, contrasts the morality of criminals and law-enforcers.
Chair de poule
Possibly the best example of French film noir
in the 1960s, this chilling adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel is guaranteed to bring on the goose pimples.
Bande à part
Jean-Luc Godard clearly had tongue firmly in cheek when he made this homage to the low budget American thriller. Brilliantly subversive, daringly funny, it is one of Godard's more accessible works.
Costa-Gavras' first film is this magnificently constructed crime thriller, the director's tribute to American film noir
. The film stars Yves Montand, who would work with Costa-Gavras on several subsequent films.
Le Deuxième souffle
This is arguably the best of Jean-Pierre Melville's distinctive crime thrillers, both mesmerising and shocking its audience with its hard-edged neo-realist depiction of gangland violence.
Le Cercle rouge
This stylish mix of film noir and western became one of the definitive policiers of the 1970s, crafted by perhaps the only French film director to truly master the genre.
Beginning as what looks like the most outrageous spoof of the spy/thriller genre ever
, this film develops into a poignant, but hugely entertaining, portrait of a failing writer, played by the ever charming Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Peur sur la ville
One of the best examples of the kind of high budget, action- packed crime-thriller which proved to be so popular in France in the mid- 1970s. The film includes some of Jean-Paul Belmondo's most daring stunts.
Le Juge Fayard dit le shérif
Patrick Dewaere gives an impressive performance in this hard-edged crime thriller, one of the earliest "neo-polars", in which the State is shown to be a bigger villain than any individual group of criminals.
Le Dossier 51
A disturbing political thriller which uses an unconventional narrative form to emphasise the film's central premise: the extent to which technology dehumanises society, reducing individuals to nameless commodities.
With its sylish photography, awesome sets and adrenaline-pumping action scenes, Diva
was the most highly rated French thriller of the 1980s, showing impressionist and existentialist influences.
Garde à vue
A brilliantly taut psychological, minimalist thriller, which features a remarkable confrontation between two stalwarts of French cinema, Lino Ventura and Michel Serrault.
Coup de torchon
A disturbing black comedy set in a French African colonial town. The superb Philippe Noiret plays a police chief who, after years of humiliation, decides to clean up crime - by shooting people.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. That's the moral of this comedy thriller which satirises corruption in the police force with a vengeance. The film stars Philippe Noiret and Thierry Lhermitte.
Fanny Ardant dazzles in this off-the-wall comedy thriller from one of France's greatest directors. For his final film, Truffaut manages to unite his passion for film noir, Hitchcockian suspense and comedy romance.
By merging psychological thriller and comedy romance, Patrice Leconte creates one of his best films, a dark yet tender study in loneliness and desire.
Regarde les hommes tomber
Typical of the post-noir
breed of thriller to emerge in the 1990s, this film offers a dark study in obsession and survival. The film features chilling performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean Yanne and Mathieu Kassovitz.
A masterful film adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with a truly terrifying climax. Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Bonnaire star in one of Claude Chabrol's best thrillers.
Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien
This superlative black comedy, winner of four Césars in 2001, consists of an extraordinary sequence of comic situations. Sergi López is both enchanting and disturbing as the friend who just can't help doing a good turn.