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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
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).
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.
was 36 by now, and his career so far had at best been moderately
successful ... but the film La
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.
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: Cet 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
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:
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.
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.
to Shame (1958) by Alvin Rakoff, a British production, that however
fails to exploit Eddie's inborn talent for self-irony.
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
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
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
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
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 
by Raoul André, Laissez Tirer les Tireurs  by Guy Lefranc
and Ces Dames s'en Melent  by Raoul André) and the Nick
Carter-series in two films (Nick Carter va tout Casser/License
to Kill  by Henri Decoin and Nick Carter et le Tréfle Rouge/Nick
Carter and Red Club  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.
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:
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).
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 ...
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 ...
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Also in Austria, he starred in 2 episodes of the
wie Du, both 1983) directed by Peter
Patzak and written by Helmut Zenker. Here he plays basically his old Lemmy
Caution-character brought in to help the local cops (Lukas Resetarits, Curt A.
Tichy, Walter Davy) - and paying hommage to/enoyingly spoofing himself ... 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.
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 (official) return of Eddie as the one and only
Caution as well, 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
However, not even that was the last we heard
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.
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.
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.
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 !!!