Possibly the biggest influence on cinema in France of the 1960s (as in most other western
countries at the time) was the emergence of television as a competitive threat.
To try and stem the gradual decline in cinema audiences, film producers had to fight back
in the only way they knew how - by spending more money. Le Corniaud
of the first in a series of enormously successful big budget comedy extravaganzas to be
made in France. Although it now appears modest in comparison with what was to follow,
this film was in a different league to previous French film comedies - which tended to
be studio-bound, low budget and almost exclusively targeted at a home market.
The success of Le Corniaud
came as a total surprise to its production team.
With an audience of 9 million spectators in France alone, it became the most popular film
in French cinema history at that time - and by a wide margin. This monumental success
catapulted a relatively unknown comic actor, Louis de Funès to the zenith of stardom
and gave a much-needed boost to the career of its director, Gérard Oury.
French cinema - of the popular variety - would never be the same again.
Although the outcome could hardly have been bettered, the film had an auspicious start
and gave its producer (Robert Dorfmann) a few sleepless nights. Gérard Oury,
a former actor, had yet to make his mark as a director, and none of his previous films
had been a particularly great success. Likewise, De Funès was an unknown
quantity and it was uncertain whether he could work well with the film's other star, the
established popular comic performer, Bourvil. Should a film with such a large budget
(3 and half million francs) be gambled in this way?
If Robert Dorfmann had a few niggling doubts when the contracts were signed, he must certainly
have had second thoughts when production got underway. Because of Bourvil's insistence
to spend the month of August 1964 on holiday with his family, filming in Italy was postponed
until September - when the weather proved to be far from ideal. Then, at the start
of filming, the green Jaguar which De Funès was to drive in the film was smashed
up in a road accident when the assistant director's son “borrowed” the car one evening.
This meant that De Funès' scenes could not be filmed until two weeks later, when
a replacement car had been obtained and fitted up for the film. Consequently, when
the first set of rushes of the film were presented to the cast and production team, there
was a noticeable imbalance between the contributions from the film's two stars.
To placate an understandably upset De Funès, Oury was compelled to write a new
scene especially for the actor - the famous shower scene. Further production
delays - caused mainly by bad weather in Italy - saw the film's budget increase by almost
two million francs.
Despite an ominous beginning, De Funès and Bourvil's working relationship improved
and the two actors developed a close friendship - something which the ever-punctilious
De Funès generally found hard to achieve with his co-stars. Unlike
many subsequent pairings of De Funès with other prominent actors and comedians,
the De Funès-Bourvil partnership works perfectly because the two actors complement
each other so well - Bourvil the easy-going, good natured innocent, De Funès the
temperamental, near-paranoid perfectionist. Part of the reason for the success
of Le Corniaud
, why it is still such a pleasure to watch, is down to the unique
synergy of its two lead actors. In their own individual way, both are masters of
comedy - yet neither impinges on the other's ground. It is the perfect double act.
builds on the success of a series of previous gangster thriller parodies,
not least of which was Georges' Lautner's 1963 hit, Les
. The film not only satisfies the French nation's appetite
for film policier
(the most popular genre of the 1950s) but also maintains a tradition
of high calibre burlesque comedy. With its hapless gun-totting villains, scantily
dressed female heroines and obvious morally impeccable hero, Le Corniaud
no more than an unashamed send-up of the American gangster film - but it is done with
such charm and apparent spontaneity that it appears fresh and original.
What perhaps sets Le Corniaud
apart from similar thriller parodies is the near-surreal
comedy of Louis de Funès. Despite his own personal doubts, De Funès
emerges as the star of the film, just out-shining Bourvil by virtue of the fact that his
brand of comedy is so new and unexpected. The film features some of De Funès
finest comic turns - which include the scene where he simultaneously dances and repairs
the damaged Cadillac to music from Rossini's La Danza
, and, of course, the legendary
shower scene. By far the film's funniest moment is the car crash at the start of
the film, in which De Funès smashes his car into Bourvil's 2CV. Magnificently
downplayed, the scene sees a speechless Bourvil clutching his steering wheel whilst the
rest of his vehicle is scattered around him. De Funès then delivers that
immortal line: "Qu'est-ce qui y a?"
The plot of Le Corniaud
was inspired by the real-life case of a French television
presenter, Jacques Angelvin, who was arrested in America whilst in possession of a Cadillac
on which was concealed fifty kilograms of pure heroine. Angelvin protested his innocence,
claiming to have been duped - in a similar way to the hero of Le Corniaud
Bizarrely, Angelvin had previously appeared alongside Bourvil in a film entitled Le
Chanteur de Mexico
It was through the intervention of Louis de Funès that two actors whom he had just
worked with on Le
Gendarme de Saint-Tropez
made a brief appearance - Michel Modo and Guy Grosso
- this time in the uniforms of two customs officials. The two actors would work
many times with De Funès in the remainder of his career, with Michel Modo becoming
a close friend and confidante of the comic star.
One scene which was cut from Le Corniaud
features Louis de Funès being interviewed
by Italian television (the actor's responses being hilariously unintelligible), before
shamelessly grovelling before an aloof film star - Michèle Morgan (who happened
to be Gérard Oury's partner at the time).
The success of Le Corniaud
almost necessitated a sequel. Oury resisted the
pressure to make a Corniaud II
and instead opted for a wartime comedy, La
. That film would re-unite Bourvil and Louis de Funès
in what was destined to be the most popular film in French cinema history, achieving more
than double the audience of Le Corniaud
. But that, as they say, is another
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Antoine Maréchal is about to set off for a holiday in Italy when his 2CV is smashed
to pieces by a Rolls-Royce, driven by the wealthy business man Léopold Saroyan...