An efficient cop film, with touches of the spy thriller; not a masterpiece but a good and representative example of the genre in France, worth seeing today for the considerable pleasures it offers; and of historical interest because: it confirmed the stardom Lino Ventura had achieved the year previously in Le Gorille vous salue bien (Bernard Borderie, 1958); the screenplay is adapted and with dialogue by Frédéric Dard, one of the most famous and prolific crime writers of the last half of the twentieth century; the screenplay is also co-written by Claude Sautet who was also First Assistant Director on the film, and it is this meeting between Sautet and Ventura in Le fauve est lâché that would lead to Classe tous risques (1960) and L’arme à gauche (1966); and, on a more minor and perhaps personal note, it deploys Boris Vian’s great ‘Fais-moi mal Johnny’ in a scene where it evokes the associations you’d wish it to: rebellious youth in a slightly dangerous bohemian setting.
Le fauve est lâché begins excitingly with an assassination. Important papers touching on national security are stolen, and the French Secret Services (DTS) arrive on the scene. As this is happening, Paul Lamiani (Lino Ventura), a former forger turned resistance hero and secret agent, now retired, is shown busily running his own bistro and blissfully ensconced in family life. Secret Services try to reel him back into his old life, ‘For France’. But it involves betraying an old comrade and Lamiani will have none of it; with a touch of Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, he replies, ‘You keep your mind on France, I’ll take care of my bistro and nothing else’.
The DTS, Direction de la surveillance du territoire, the French National Police operating as a domestic intelligence agency, won’t take no for an answer. They play dirty, plant some fake money in his mattress, and threaten to revoke his license and his family’s livelihood until he co-operates. Thus the film sets up a tension between male friendship, the family and national security. It’s a tension that is missing from many contemporary cop flicks or action movies and whose value is worth underlining: the action is always underpinned, motivated, given emotional resonance by weightier and more complex consideration. What’s important in life? What is the value of friendship? What is one willing to sacrifice for family and children? What is it to be a man in France in 1959?
As a ‘polar’, a cop flick, Le fauve est lâché has plenty of fight scenes, well-filmed and interesting to us because of the divide between what was considered exciting in 1959 and now. Could a simple punch up between two men with little cutting be exciting? Well, yes. Moreover, Labro lets us see a completed action: thus, when the squat if not quite podgy Ventura jumps down a cliff, you see him do it, and understand what it’s cost the character physically. To say that action is imbued with feeling in the film is not to deny the pleasure of the set-pieces, particularly the spectacular one shot outside the cliffs of Etretat and also the one within the cliffs, where Lamiani is imprisoned by barriers, surrounded by enemies, and with the high tide threatening to drown him. It looks extraordinary (see below) and generates suspense.
In Lino Ventura (Editions First: Paris, 2014), Phillipe Durant claims that Ventura had no confidence in Labro’s handling of the action sequences and that Claude Sautet, 1st Assistant Director as well as screenwriter on the film, took over the filming of the ‘falaises d’Etreta’ sequences: ‘With the star’s support, the assistant becomes director…With him the scenes achieve an intensity that Labro would no doubt have been unable to achieve….Thanks to Sautet, Le fauve est lâché, acquires a new dimension. Not that of a great work but at least that of an honest action film’.
Ventura’s contract for the film had stipulated, amongst other things, not only a salary of 3 million francs, twice what he’d earned for Le Gorille vous salue bien, his first big hit in a starring role, but billing above the title: so he went into the film as it’s star. However, the success of the film confirmed that stardom. Le fauve est lâché was a box office hit. Budgeted at a modest 82 million francs, it did almost as well as Le Gorille vous salue bien with 2.1 million tickets sold and better than Le Valse du Gorille, the sequel to Le Gorille vous salue bien, which Ventura had turned down amidst fears of typecasting and in which he’d been replaced by Roger Hanin.
The trailer for Le fauve est lâché (see above)is most instructive on what Lino Ventura’s star persona represented in 1959. Trailers are so interesting for highlighting, revealing, explaining a star’s persona at any given point. The trailer offers a promise of certain characteristics on view or to be displayed by the star; a promise to the audience to explain the particular embodiment of a type with the associated pleasures audiences may expect from it. The voiceover tells us, ‘You know only him but look at him well. See how this time he’s calm, tranquil, a quiet father retired from business, at least a certain kind of business. He’s all placid behind his counter. But don’t believe it! It’s sleeping waters. Dynamite which covers…and here is the wildcat released, unchained…This man is dynamite, a sort of force of nature against which we’re helpless…This is the hero of Le fauve est lâché. There he is, more violent, more captivating than ever. This man is Lino Ventura’.
The film delivered on the promise of the trailer. Ventura has presence and he embodies the type well. But what the audience was allowed to discover for itself was just how good an actor Ventura had become. See the scene above: Gangsters have kidnapped his son in exchange for the secret papers and he’s calling Secret Services to inform them that this is where their dirty tricks have led to and that his son means more to him then his country. It’s all done in one shot which begins with him bouncing down the stairs, pushing his employees out of the way, dialing, getting his gun out of the drawer and into his pocket, and as the camera slowly moves into a close-up, unleashing his wildcat onto the authorities. See how his fists clench, how his voice rises to almost a scream, but how his eyes remain focussed, still. It’s this emotional unleashing from a place of relative emotional placidness that gives it the power that it has. And it’s also an example of how the film gains by building its action sequences on family melodrama.
The film was released on the 21st of January 1959; as we’ve seen, a considerable hit; and well-reviewed: Jean de Baroncelli in Le Monde wrote: Yesterday ‘gorilla’; today, wildcat; Ventura has in a few months become the no. 1 heavy-weight champ of French Cinema’. Watching Le fauve est lâché one understands why.
In A Personal Journey Through French Cinema, Bertrand Tavernier argues that this film was also the making of Claude Sautet, for reasons he explains below:
 Soutenu par l’acteur principal, l’assitant deviant réalisateur…Avec lui, les scenes atteignent une intensité que Labro n’aurait sans doute jamais pu susciter…Grâce a Sautet, Le fauve est lâché acquiert une nouvelle dimension. Pas celle d’une grande oeuvre mais au mons celle d’un honnête film d’action (loc 1783 on Kindle, translation my own)
 ‘Hier “gorille”, “fauve” aujourd’hui, Ventura est devenu en quelques mois le “pos lourd” no 1 du cinema francais. Translation my own, Phillip Durant’s Lino Ventura, loc 1783, Kindle.