Jacques Mesrine – it’s pronounced Meh-reen; you called him Mez-reen at your peril – was the French equivalent of Martin Cahill, aka The General. A Robin Hood-style folk-hero, Mesrine was essentially a bank robber during a career that lasted from the early ’60s until 1979, when he was allegedly executed in the Paris streets by a shadowy police unit.
Being French, of course, Mesrine was considerably more flamboyant than Cahill. A master of disguise known alternatively as ‘the Man of a Hundred Faces’ and ‘Jacques Du Monde’ (Jacques Everyman), he actively courted the media. His ability to escape from maximum security prisons, in France and Canada, struck a chord with a nation that was struggling to escape from its perception of itself as it came to terms with the emerging truth of the dirty war in Algeria. (Mesrine himself served in Algeria in 1956, where it’s alleged that he was a member of a torture squad.)
By pitching himself as an anti-establishment rebel in a series of high-profile media interviews with outlets such as Paris Match, Mesrine captured the French imagination at a time when France itself was experiencing the social and cultural unrest that would culminate in the protests and riots of the student revolution of Paris ’68.
His signature trademark was the double-whammy stick-up: after robbing a bank, Mesrine would run to the next street and rob another, while the police floundered at the scene of the first.
In thumbing his nose at the authorities in such a fashion, Mesrine garnered potent enemies among the police, the judiciary and the political establishment. Yet it was this flagrant contempt for the powers-that-be that secured him a cult hero status in France on a par with Che Guevara. All of which has contributed hugely to the critical and commercial success, in France, of the movies Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1.
Directed by Jean-François Richet, the movies are superb thrillers that capture Mesrine’s charisma, devil-may-care attitude and cavalier spirit. Captured in Canada after a failed kidnapping, for example, Mesrine is asked on TV for a quote, and responds with “Long live Free Quebec!” In a microcosm, the moment sums up Mesrine’s appeal: media savvy, cheerfully defiant in the face of apparent defeat, a man of the people, a rebel with a cause for each of his hundred faces. With their free-wheeling style and irrepressible kinetic energy, not to mention their uncomplicated and largely uncritical celebration of his lifestyle, the films are garnering favourable comparisons with Mean Streets and Goodfellas, due in no small part to a terrific performance from Vincent Cassel in the role of the eponymous anti-hero.
And yet the subtitle of Richet’s first movie, Killer Instinct, is an uncompromising one and should give pause for thought to those who would champion Mesrine’s freebooting adventures. Mesrine was a killer who boasted of 39 murders in total. That may well be a wildly exaggerated number, given that Mesrine makes the claim in an autobiography he published from prison in 1977, also titled Killer Instinct, and which he subsequently asserted he wrote to confuse the authorities in the lead-up to his latest trial, and because his public expected any book from Mesrine to contain a high body-count. And yet there’s no getting away from the fact that, his reputation for glamour, high living and wooing beautiful women notwithstanding, Mesrine’s capacity for murder remained undiminished during the course of his career.
Richet’s movies are not the first time Mesrine’s exploits have been committed to celluloid, although André Génovès’s film from 1984, Mesrine, confines itself to the 18 months the outlaw spent on the run – after escaping in 1978 from the maximum security prison specially designed to keep him behind bars – with his then girlfriend, Sylvia Jeanjacquot, who was by his side when his car was riddled with bullets in Paris. The fact that Richet devotes two films to Mesrine’s exploits may seem excessive, but there are strong arguments in favour of his approach.
The first is that Mesrine packed a hell of a lot of incident into his relatively short life. Bank robbery was only one string to the bow of a man who was equally happy robbing casinos and kidnapping for profit. He was also unusually loyal, given that he operated in a milieu in which the notion of ‘honour amongst thieves’ is virtually always revealed to be a myth. After escaping from a Canadian prison, for instance, Mesrine later returned with an accomplice, both heavily armed, in a failed bid to break out some of his old comrades. Later, on the loose after yet another escape, Mesrine telephoned his then girlfriend, who was still incarcerated. She had to plead with him not to come and rescue her, on the basis that she had only a short time left to serve on her sentence.
Moreover, Mesrine had an incorrigible sense of theatre, and it’s impossible to fully dislike a man who can unlock his handcuffs in court and throw them in the face of a judge, and later bound from the dock to kidnap the judge whilst his trial is ongoing, escaping to the street with his hostage in tow and from there to freedom, yet again.
All of which fits very neatly with the Mesrine mythology, in which Robin Hood meets John Dillinger and provides a very satisfying movie for fans of gritty, violent and entertaining thrillers.
The second movie, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, is a different affair. Slower in pace, more thoughtful in its appraisal of Mesrine’s public persona, it covers a period in which the criminal becomes ever more politicised, until such time as he is stating that his robberies are actually politically motivated. He claims fraternity with international causes such as the Palestinian struggle and the Red Brigades, and seems to be trying to pass himself off as a French Carlos the Jackal. While it is entirely probably that Mesrine did business with a wide range of individuals and organisations, not least when it came to trading information and / or purchasing weaponry, the grandstanding comes across as poignantly quixotic attempt by a common criminal to give his prosaic actions some socio-political ballast.
It’s as if Mesrine, acutely aware of the power of the media, eventually came to believe his own press, despite the fact that he was the one responsible for creating much of the mythology. What is particularly poignant, however, is that he seems to have come to believe that he had transcended the law and its minions, and that he would be judged, when the time came for final reckonings, by the court of public appeal.
Of course, the success of Richet’s films suggests that the court of public appeal has come down very much in favour of Mesrine and his self-aggrandizing rhetoric. Meanwhile, that a career criminal and self-confessed killer is the cause celebre du jour with both the disenfranchised youth and the intellectual elite in France suggests that a new work-out routine is the least of Nicolas Sarkozy’s problems this summer.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct is released on August 7th. Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 is released on August 28th. This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.
Meanwhile, friend of CAP and aspiring crime writer Darragh McManus has posted the first chapter of his magnum opus crime spoof COLD! STEEL! JUSTICE!!! to the web, suggesting that, if enough people are interested, he’ll post Chapter Two. Make it so, people …
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.