When you love classic films, you get used to dealing with death. Tears are rare for me when learning about a star’s passing, but when I read the news of Belmondo’s death, I shed a couple. How could I not? In many ways, Belmondo was what cinema was. He was sometimes considered a 1960s version of Humphrey Bogart with his cool, noirish screen persona. Belmondo had tons of classics under his belt and he remained one of France’s most recognizable stars for decades. The French New Wave was Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Demy, Varda, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais, etc. but it was also a variety of film stars and perhaps none more tied in with the movement than Belmondo.
Belmondo started making films in the 1950s, but it was his starring role in 1960’s Godard classic Breathless that launched him to international stardom. In the movie, Belmondo plays Michel Poiccard (aka Laszlo Kovacs) who is a small-time criminal that gets involved in murder and reunites with Jean Seberg’s American journalist along the way. The movie was a hip, quirky take on Hollywood noirs and it ended up becoming one of the French New Wave’s most recognizable and praised features.
During this era, Belmondo made more hit films. He played a driver tasked with aiding criminal Lino Ventura in another great French neo-noir, Classe Tous Risques (1960). The film might have Belmondo at his most naturally appealing and it was his first starring vehicle with Ventura who he would reteam with again. Belmondo continued on a streak of New Wave films for some notable directors including in Peter Brook’s Seven Days… Seven Nights (1960) (opposite Jeanne Moreau). He also worked opposite Sophia Loren (in her Oscar-winning performance) in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) as the film’s French backers wanted a French star added to the film’s line-up thus Belmondo was recruited.
Belmondo then made The Love Makers (1961) with Claudia Cardinale who he would reteam with in the swashbuckling comedy Cartouche (1962). Belmondo is at his most charming in Godard’s spoofy A Woman Is a Woman (1961) alongside Anna Karina who he would reunite with in one of Godard’s best films, Pierrot le Fou (1965) which is filled with humor, action, romance, and even musical numbers. An enjoyable send-up and parody of Hollywood traditions. At this time, Belmondo also made his first film with director Jean-Pierre Melville as the title character in Léon Morin, Priest (1961) where he worked alongside Emmanuelle Riva. You’d think the hip, modern Belmondo would be miscast as a priest during WWII, but Belmondo turns in a believable, gripping performance proving that he could be a straight dramatic actor if given the opportunity.
Belmondo then teamed with French superstar Jean Gabin in the comedy/drama A Monkey in Winter (1962) where the two stars play alcoholics. Belmondo then worked for Jean-Pierre Melville again in his hard-hitting neo-noir Le Doulos (1962) which dealt with possibly the director’s favorite theme (honor among thieves). Belmondo also starred in Melville’s boxing movie Magnet of Doom (1963). Enjoyable action/adventure features with a comedic twist then took up a majority of Belmondo’s screen presence including in Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio (1964) as well as Up to His Ears (1965), Henry Verneuil’s Greed in the Sun (1964), and Édouard Molinaro’s The Gentle Art of Seduction (1964).
Then Belmondo played the leading role in the French all-star feature filled with both French and international names, Is Paris Burning? (1966). He also starred in Louis Malle’s crime drama The Thief of Paris (1967) as a thief at the turn of the century and complete with a long, stylish mustache. Belmondo made Gérard Oury’s crime comedy The Brain (1969) and François Truffaut’s romantic drama Mississippi Mermaid (1969) opposite Catherine Deneuve. Belmondo also starred in Borsalino (1970) which he made opposite his equally popular friend Alain Delon.
As the 1970s approached, Belmondo was still a top-ranking French star. During the decade his movies included the cult favorite Le Magnifique (1973) and the biopic Stavisky… (1974). While always known for comedies even in his later days, Belmondo’s screen persona also began turning more to serious action-oriented roles (a la Steve McQueen) which can be seen in movies like Peur sur la ville (1975) and The Professional (1981) which are two of Belmondo’s most notable movies of the 70s and 80s. It should also be mentioned that Belmondo always performed his own stunts thus adding a touch of realism to his action flicks.
As Belmondo was aging, he was still appearing in star vehicles such as both Claude Lelouch’s Itinéraire d’un enfant gâté (1988) and his variation of Les misérables (1995) where Belmondo plays a different version of the Jean Valjean role. As the 2000s approached, Belmondo started appearing in less films and the ones he was starring in weren’t as well-received as his classics. Before his death on September 6, 2021 (at 88 years old), Belmondo hadn’t appeared on-screen since 2009.
In Belmondo’s personal life, he was the son of an Italian-descended sculptor and was married twice in his life with both marriages ending in divorce. Outside of marriage, Belmondo was involved with both Ursula Andress and Laura Antonelli, each for a significant period of time. Andress even refers to Belmondo as the “love of her life.” In his spare time, Belmondo was a fan of football/soccer and liked boxing in his youth. Belmondo had four children (none of who decided to enter the acting field). Belmondo was also awarded the prestigious Legion of Honour.
As far as pop culture is concerned, Belmondo has had affects on the world over. Perhaps the most notable send-up to Jean-Paul Belmondo is the character Simon Belmont (called Simon Belmondo outside of English translations) in the Castlevania video game franchise who is named after Belmondo. He was also spoofed in an episode of Get Smart (by a KAOS agent clearly modeled after him) and is referenced in the Donovan song “Sunny South Kensington.” Belmondo’s impact on pop culture is clear and he has left an important mark on film history that will never be erased. Even though Belmondo is gone, his films and his legacy will live on and he will always be a favorite of French New Wave buffs out there. As long as there is a love for cinema, there will be a love for Jean-Paul Belmondo.