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Eddie Constantine - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2006

Films starring Eddie Constantine on (re)Search my Trash

 

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There was something about Eddie Constantine that always made him bigger than his roles, that made him an instant icon, and that let him master the step from light and trashy crime comedies and dramas to arthouse cinema rather effortlessly, where other, better actors would fail miserably. And that's even despite Eddie's well-publizised alcoholism, and despite him being typecast from his second film on.

And above all that, Eddie never wanted to be an actor in the first place ...

 

Born in Los Angeles 1917, Eddie actually wanted to become a singer, and he studied singing, but at first it seemed to no avail. Soon his first wife, Helinka Musilova (aka Helene Muselle), a ballet dancer, had the role of the breadwinner in the family while he got a few so-so nightclub engagements every now and again.

Luck, it seems, only struck when his wife got an engagement in Paris, and Eddie, once again out of a job, decided to accompany her. 

Eddie's career though still seemed to go nowhere ... until he made friends with none other than Edith Piaf, then (1950) the top chanson-singer of France. She not only gave him a part in her show, the two also became romantically involved, a relationship that only ended because Eddie refused to leave his wife (similar affairs with similar endings would pop up throughout his career, among others with chanson singer Juliette Greco, but I won't go into too much detail on that front).

By and by, people started to notice the American singer with the scarred face in Edith Piaf's show - and Eddie's star was on the rise ... eventually he would even start to have his own records put out, which were successful enough to eventually land him a part in a movie: The British film Egypt by Three by Victor Stoloff.

 

Egypt by Three was an anthology film, comprising of three crime stories, with Eddie having a small role in one of them. Eddie did not think much of the film, his part or his acting, and the film would not become a success and is nowadays largely forgotten, but legend has it that even before its official release, producer/director Bernard Borderie has seen parts of it, and Eddie immediately caught his eye.

 

Borderie was then casting a film based on Peter Cheyney's novel La Môme vert-de-gris and he was looking for the right man to play the lead role of FBI-agent Lemmy Caution, a hard-boiled, hard-hitting, hard-drinking womanizing American who spoke fluent French ... and Eddie fitted that bill perfectly.

Eddie was 36 by now, and his career so far had at best been moderately successful ... but the film La Môme vert-de-gris/Poison Ivy (1953) would change all that. As the lead character Lemmy Caution, Eddie became an immediate icon, became the biggest action star of France ... but Eddie also became immediately typecast.

As a French action star, Eddie was a rather unlikely choice: His face showed scars, he spoke with an accent, he would drink quite a lot (both on- and off-screen), and even his career so far as a singer of chansons would suggest anything but a guy roughing up opponents as they come. And atop of all that, he wasn't too good an actor. However, on the plus side Eddie had a natural charisma that money can't buy, and he played his part tongue-in-cheek, he was not Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (and he knew it), but then again Bernard Borderie was no John Huston either and La Môme vert-de-gris was never supposed to be a serious crime drama but more of a comedy with Eddie parodying the American hard-boiled detective to the hilt.

 

The film became a tremendous success throughout Europe, and only months later, the first of several sequels (in all, there are 11 [official] Lemmy Caution-films) followed: C'est Homme est Dangereux/Dangerous Agent, directed by Jean Sacha. In 1954, it would be succeeded by Les Femmes s'en Balancent/Dames get Along by Bernard Borderie, and in 1955 by Vous Pigez?/Diamond Machine by Pierre Chevalier, then the series, for one reaosn or another, went on a five-year hiatus ... not that it mattered at that time to Eddie.

 

With the Lemmy Caution-films under his belt, Eddie Constantine had himself carved out a place as the leading French action star, and roles that would both nurture and feed from his image as hardboiled hard-hitting and hard-drinking but self-ironic womanizer/macho were in no short supply. In fact some of the films he was in seemed to be  Lemmy Caution-films in all but name.

 

Some of the more interesting Eddie Constantine-films of the mid- to late 1950's: 

  • Folies Bergère (1956) by Henri Decoin, a musical that Eddie reportedly persuaded his producer to do since he still saw himself first and foremost as a singer.
  • Ces Dames preferent le Mambo/Dishonourable Discharge (1957) by Bernard Borderie, with a then young and unknown Lino Ventura - who entered the movie-world coming straight from wrestling - in a supporting role. Charles Aznavour did the music for this one.
  • Hoppla, jetzt kommt Eddie/Hoopla, Now Comes Eddie (1958) by Werner Klingler, Eddie's first German film. From the 1970's on, Eddie would find much interesting work in Germany. This film however fails to impress.
  • Passport to Shame (1958) by Alvin Rakoff, a British production, that however fails to exploit Eddie's inborn talent for self-irony.

  • SOS Pacific (1959) by Guy Green, another British film that actually proved to be a pretty cool adventure thriller, even if (or actually because) Eddie's talents for self irony are rather subdued.
  • Bomben auf Monte Carlo/Eddie lässt die Bombe platzen/Bombs on Monte Carlo (1960) by Georg Jacoby, another German film and a remake of the 1931 film of the same name starring Hans Albers in Eddie's role [click here]. Marion Michael of Liane, Jungle Goddess-fame also stars in the remake - which is light-weight even by the standards of Eddie Constantine-movies from that era.

1960 at last marked the return of Eddie as Lemmy Caution. Between 1960 and 1963, four more films about the hard-drinking hard-hitting lawman were produced, Comment qu'elle est/Women are Like That (1960) by Bernard Borderie, En Pleine Bagarre/Mani in Alto/Destination Fury (1961) by Girogio Bianchi - this one was not based on a book by Peter Cheyney, and is therefore ommitted from some Lemmy Caution filmographies -, Lemmy pour les Dames/Ladies' Man (1962), again by Bernard Borderie, and À Toi de Faire ... Mignonne/Your Turn Darling (1963), yet again by Bernard Borderie.

If anything, this second batch of Lemmy Caution was taking itself even less seriously than the first one and was parodying not only the crime genre as such but also showed an increasing amount of self irony. Maybe that's best shown in Lemmy pour les Dames or À Toi de Faire ... Mignonne, when Lemmy/Eddie asks for a whisky in every other scene, to a point where one could think heavy drinking is much more on his mind than the case he has to solve.

 

Slowly though, the Lemmy Caution was running out of steam, somehow Eddie Constantine was not the box office magnet he was in the 1950's any more, maybe the audience also grew tired of the same old formula - even though around that time the formula was applied only slightly modified, with the irony toned down and the budgets increased, for the then immensely successful James Bond-series of movies.-, and maybe the series' light comedy tone just did not fit in with the times no more.

 


Attempts to have Eddie carry other series on his back - the agent Jeff Gordon-series in three films (Des Frissons partout/Jeff Gordon, Secret Agent [1963] by Raoul André, Laissez Tirer les Tireurs [1964] by Guy Lefranc and Ces Dames s'en Melent [1964] by Raoul André) and the Nick Carter-series in two films (Nick Carter va tout Casser/License to Kill [1964] by Henri Decoin and Nick Carter et le Tréfle Rouge/Nick Carter and Red Club [1965] by Jean-Paul Savignac) - likewise led to little, these films were too close to the by now lagging Lemmy Caution-series without even being the real deal, and they were too low budget to really compete with the James Bond-series.

By the early 1960's though, Eddie must have sensed that the times were changing, since he did try to steer his career into a new, different direction, and started taking on roles in arthouse movies on the side:

Une Grosse Tète/A Swelled Head (1961) by Claude de Givray, a story about a love triangle somewhat reminiscent of Jules et Jim, was co-written by Francois Truffaut.

In Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo from 5 to 7 (1961) by Agnès Varda he plays alongside Jean-Luc Godard, and Jean-Luc Godard would also direct his episode in the anthology movie Les Sept Péchés Capitaux/The Seven Deadly Sins (1962).

In Bonne Chance, Charlie (1962) by Jean-Louis Richard, a film that Eddie even helped to produce, he also turned over a more serious leaf in his acting career when he plays a former resistance fighter bound on hunting down (former) Nazis ...

 


Flix.com


Flix.com

In 1965, Eddie Constantine's two careers - that of the action star and that of the arthouse cinema actor - seemed to merge for a film that is nowadays probably considered Eddie's most important heritage to film history: Alphaville, une étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution by Jean-Luc Godard, a sort of blend of nouvelle vague and crime-and-espionage pulp, intended to take the Lemmy Caution-series into a new, exciting direction. The film was a rave with the critics, and it won the Golden Bear at the 1965 Berlin Film Festivals, however, it seemed rather irritating to the traditional Lemmy Caution-fans, who did not flock into the cinemas in large numbers ... and to noone's real surprise, the Lemmy Caution-series was discontinued after this ... at least for a while.

 

After Alphaville, Eddie's career was on the decline, he only made a few more films in the 1960's, among them 2 with Jess Franco in 1966, Residencia para Espías/Residence for Spies/Golden Horn and Cartes sur Table/Attack of the Robots (in which Eddie played Jess Franco's own series' character Al Pereira). Franco was then a few years away from being the erotic film maker as which he later became known and liked (and somteimes disliked for all the wrong reasons), and his two films with Eddie Constantine turned out to be flashy, creative action comedies.

Of interest might also be the underrated crime/road movie Je vous salue, Mafia !/Hail, Mafia (1965) by Raoul Lévy, in which 2 contract killers (Henry Silva, Jack Klugman) drive through France to their next hit, Eddie, while he tries to stay ahead of the game. The film throws a refreshingly new light on the genre(s) that seems to be way ahead of its time.

Eddie also played in another film for Agnès Varda in 1969, Lion's Love, in which he tries to seduce Andy Warhol-star Viva! - without success -, but his appearance is only very brief.

None of Eddies late 60's movies were real successes, and personal problems and increasing alcoholism did not help either. By 1970, one could say he has become a has-been ...

 

But just when you thought it was over and Eddie was definitely a thing, an entity from the past, he would pop up again where one would least expect it: In New German Cinema.

In the late 1960's/early 1970's, a new generation of directors had made their debuts and wanted to leave a mark on the German film history, mainly by breaking with the traditions of Opas Kino (= grandpa's cinema). The most famous, and also most talented of the new German filmmakers was without a doubt Rainer Werner Fassbinder, though interestingly enough, he was never too keen on breaking with the traditions of Opas Kino and was rather interested in telling a good story (which is quite probably while he is remembered even today while many of his contemporaries are forgotten.

And somehow, New German Cinema rediscovered Eddie Constantine, himself primarily an action cinema icon of the 1950's or of Opas Kino, for their own ends.

 

The first of Eddie Constantine's New German films was Malatesta (1970) by Peter Lilienthal, where he played an anarchist leader in London 1910, preaching non-violence - quite a departure from his former shoot first ask questions later-image - who is more portrayed though as a sad clown than an actual hero.

The tv-movie Eine Rose für Jane (1970) by Hans W.Geissendörfer was a return to the crime and gangster genre, but through the means of conceptual art: Geissendörfer used mainly wide range shots and scarcely dialogue for this one - but failed to turn the movie into a success with either the audience or the critics.

 


Flix.com



1971 saw the first collaboration between Eddie and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in Warnung vor der Heiligen Nutte/Beware of a Holy Whore, in which Eddie basically plays himself, a rundown filmstar. 2 more collaborations with Fassbinder should follow, the TV 2-parter Welt am Draht/World on a Wire (1973) and Die Dritte Generation/The Third Generation (1979). In both though, Eddie's roles were rather small.

 


Eddie had the lead role in Haytabo (1971) by Ulli Lommel, a protegé of Fassbinder, but somehow the film, a time travel tale also starring anti-establishment icons Uschi Obermaier and RAiner Langhans, as well as Fassbinder himself, was never properly released - and it's not a very good movie, either.

In Der Zweite Frühling/Second Spring (1975), also by Ulli Lommel, Eddie was reduced to supporting status again.

 


Other films with Eddie from the mid-70's included Souvenir of Gibraltar (1974) by Henri Xhonneux, Le Couple Témoin/The Model Couple (1975) by William Klein, Raid on Entebbe (1977) by Irvin Kershner, the first American film of the American Eddie Constantine, and the Dutch project Bloedverwanten/Blood Relations (1977) by Wim Lindner, in which he plays a priest.

 


1978 saw a rare excursion of Eddie into the horror genre, in Larry Cohen's It Lives Again, the sequel to Cohen's 1974 success It's Alive [Larry Cohen bio - click here]. In it, Eddie plays one of the doctors slaughtered by the notorious killer babies. Through Cohen, Eddie also met his second wife Dorothea Gibson, who was acutally Cohen's sister-in-law ... but the marriage lasted scarcely over three months. Reportedly, Eddie stayed friends with her though.

 

In 1979, Eddie met his third wife Maya Faber-Jansen on the set of the TV-movie Victor by Walter Bockmayer and Rolf Bührmann, another film without dialogue, this time set in the circus business. Udo Kier and Barbara Valentin are also in this one.

 

By and large though, Eddie's roles in the 1970's were character roles rather than star vehicles, and eventually Eddie got bored with acting and dedicated more and more time to his other passion: horse racing. But he was not one to bet on horses, but he bred and raised them, since at least the late 1950's. Eventually, he wrote also a book, The Godplayer, about - you guessed it - a rundown moviestar who becomes involved in horse racing. The book became a phenomenal success, especially in the USA - which is rather surprising, since while Eddie was a household name in Europe, he was virtually unknown in America.

Eventually, Carlo Ponti bought the film rights to the book, but for some reason the movie never got made.

 



With the 1980's, a new interest in Eddie's old Lemmy Caution-character set in, and suddenly Eddie found himself in numerous films at least paying hommage to the character or his tough-guy image as such.

So he plays either secret agents or gangsters in films like Panische Zeiten/Panic Time (1980) by and starring German rockstar Udo Lindenberg, The Long Good Friday (1980) by John MacKenzie starring Bob Hoskins, Der Schnüffler/Non Stop Trouble with Spies (1982) by Ottokar Runze, essentially a starring vehicle for German comedian Dieter Hallervorden, in which Eddie plays a killer, Das Mikado Projekt/The Mikado Project (1983) by Torsten Emrich, an espionage comedy that tries way too hard to be wacky to actually work, the Norwegian film Makaroni Blues (1986) by Bela Csepcsanyi and Fred Sassebo, in which his character was even called Lemmy Caution, and Rambo Zambo (1983) by Reinhard Donga and J'ai bien l'Honneur (1984) by Jacques Rouffio, in both of which he again plays a gangster. He does likewise in Exit ... Nur Keine Panik/Exit but don't Panic (1980) by Fritz Novotny, which became a cultfilm in Austria but remained virtually unknown everywhere else. Another Austrian production, the macabre TV-movie Die Hinrichtung (1981) directed by Wolfgang Henschel and based on an idea by Helmut Qualtinger, has Eddie playing a studioboss looking for someone who agrees to be executed life on TV.

 



Also in Austria, he starred in 2 episodes of the spoof-cop-show Kottan Ermittelt (1982) directed by Peter Patzak and written by Helmut Zenker. Here he plays an American investigator brought in to help the local cops (Lukas Resetarits, C.A.Tichy, Walter Davy) ... and somehow he blends in perfectly with the anachic team of regulars. In 1984, he starred in another Patzak/Zenker collaboration, the showbiz-spoof feature film Tiger - Frühling in Wien, where he plays a rundown actor incidently called Lemmy Caution ... but this time, the anarchic humour of the script didn't work quite as well.

 


The most interesting of Eddie's hommage-films though might be the Finnish film Helsinki Napoli - All Night Long (1987) by Mika Kaurismäki, where he makes a guest appearance alongside legendary filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Samuel Fuller and Wim Wenders. Actually, Eddie and Kaurismäki also planned to make another Lemmy Caution-film, but that project came to naught after Eddie got mad at Kaurismäki because of cutting his (improvised) big scene out of Helsinki Napoli - All Night Long ...

 

The 1980's did however see the return of Eddie as the one and only Lemmy Caution, in the TV-film Le Retour du Lemmy Caution (1989) by Josée Dayan. It was supposed to be the pilot for a whole series of Lemmy Caution-adventures, but that did never happen - and the reasons are rather obvious: Eddie was 72 at the time the film was made, and not really in shape to do the action the role would have demanded anymore. Then for some reason Eddie sings three songs in the film - which doesn't sit too well with his tough guy-image. And then the humour of the classic Lemmy Cautions of the 50's did not translate too well into the 1980's, when definitely unfunnny series like Miami Vice reigned supreme.

 

However, not even that was the last we heard of Lemmy Caution, he did return once again in another film by Jean-Luc Godard, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro/Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991), Godard's commentary on the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, disguised as an arthouse espionage thriller. But while Alphaville was a milestone in both Constantine's and Godard's careers and an important piece of film history, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro is nothing more than a footnote in both men's filmographies.

 


Flix.com

In the 1990's, Eddie Constantine went out quietly, and not with a bang, as you qould have expected from his screen persona. He made a few more films, the most important might be Europa (1991) by Lars Von Trier (in which he only had a supporting role though), and died from a heart attack in 1993 ... and according to all reports, he died a happy man.

 

In his private life, Eddie was a heavy drinker, and he never denied it. However, his performances, while sometimes wooden, were never short of solid, and when he could be seen on tv-shows and the like, he would usually be more interesting drunk than most other stars sober.

And apart from all that, only few other actors can look back on such a colourful filmography as he can, that includes pulp and arthouse, high and low comedy, drama and musical alike.

Unfortunately nowadays, they just don't make actors like Eddie Constantine anymore !!!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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