Everybody needs one, right?
Well, as a kid growing up in suburbia, insight of the toxic smokestacks of the FIAT plants in Turin in the 1970s, I had three role models.
One was Robert Culp, as Kelly Robinson in I Spy.
One was Patrick Macnee, as John Steed in The Avengers.
And one was Georges Descrieres, as the eponymous character in Arsene Lupin.
I’ll talk about all three, just because, in three posts; and I’ll start with the latter, just because.
I was talking with a friend the other day, about the huge amount of pulpy entertainment we were exposed to, as kids, through the telly.
Arsène Lupin was a 26 episodes series produced between 1971 and 1974 by a joint venture of France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Netherlands and Canada.
I saw it in 1974-76.
Much later I would learn that France had the lead, and supplied the screenplays and the direction. The production used a small cast of regulars and then shot episodes in international locations, using local actors and technical staff. The series looked great and cost a fraction of what would have cost had it been produced by a single company, in a single nation.
Originally created by Maurice Leblanc1 in 1905, Arsène Lupin is a gentleman thief in the tradition of Raffles, and a forefather to Leslie Charteries’ The Saint.
His pulp credentials are sound, and the addition of weird and fantasy elements (the Count of Cagliostro, the Fountain of Youth, etc.) made Leblanc’s work very pulp: an international man of mystery, Lupin is (probably) an anarchic pretending to be an aristocrat, or (maybe) an aristocrat with anarchic sympathies. He is a criminal, but his heart is in the right place2, and he often works on the side of good… OK, good-ish.
And he is of course a master of disguises.
The TV series, while loosely based on the original novels and novellas, downplayed the criminal side of the gentleman thief, did away withthe fantasy elements, and Descrieres portrayed Lupin as a suave and charming rogue, more or less always on the side of good. His crimes were always at the expenses of unsavory characters, and he often took the role of the avenger working outside of the law. The disguises were there, on the other hand, and Descrieres, a great comic actor with a long stage experience with the Comedie Francaise, clearly had a ball playing with fake mustaches, wigs, silly costumes and unlikely accents.
The action was moved from the original Belle Epoque to the Roaring Twenties – and maybe my passion for the decade comes from here – girls with bobbed hair and short skirts, Charleston, luxury roadsters…
As already mentioned, the cast was excellent, including an international selection of first class co-stars, and the production values were incredibly high. While produced on the proverbial shoestring, the series looked like a million dollar – costumes and cars in particular are stunning.
I have it all on DVD – except for one two-episode disc that was stolen… quite fitting, if you will.
The title tune is still one of the most recognizable out there, and people from my generation will get that look in their eyes, and go “Ah! Lupin!”
Of course, this being a 1970s series, Descrieres and his co-stars were constantly smoking, and Lupin had a number of nubile attractive women acting as partners in each episode.
The series also took a rather cavalier attitude towards law and order, which was quite fitting and, realy, it was all right.
The 55 minutes episodes are, by today’s standards, incredibly slow at times. Characters are introduced and places explored and showed in long, lovingly detailed shots.
The build up, on the other hand, is part of the fun, and the final payback always gratifying.
Today you can find a selection of episodes on Youtube, but with two rather dire choices: you can get the original French dialogues, but with a Polish guy doing a very awkward voiceover, or you can get the Italian dialogues (just search for Arsenio Lupin).
For a few years, kids in my generation dreamed about becoming international men of mystery – travel the world, dress in spats and wear a (fake) monocle, don outrageous costumes, and generally be elegant, witty and impossibly clever.
There are worse role models, aren’t there?
- In case you’re interested, there’s a nice selection of Leblanc’s stories on Project Gutenberg. ↩
- Leblanc’s Lupin is also smarter than Sherlock Holmes, and the Conan Doyle estate was not amused – to avoid legal problems, Lupin confronted therefore Herlock Sholmes in a number of his adventures. In a nice bit of historical irony, Lupin himself was used without permission, sixty years on, by Japanese artist Monkey Punch, when he created Lupin III. The Leblanc estate was not amused. ↩