Actors: Breathless Man

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The Tricolor, a snifter of cognac, a flaring hem, a tilted skylight—these have been demoted to secondary symbols of France. The primary symbol is an image of a young man slouching in a cafe chair, his socks sagging over broken shoelaces, his shirt open to the waist, his arms dangling to the floor, where his knuckles drag. A Gauloise rests in his gibbon lips, and its smoke meanders from his attractively broken, Z-shaped nose. Out of the Left Bank by the New Wave, he is Jean-Paul Bel-mondo—the natural son of the Existentialist conception, standing for everything and nothing at 738 m.p.h.

All this may suggest why the film that first established him was called Breathless. Since then he has played all kinds of roles—an inspiring priest in Leon Morin, Pretre, an introverted teacher in Two Women—but he has become the No. 1 box office draw in France be cause the indelible Breathless image lingers on. He feels that he does not resemble that public image of himself—or so he says over cognac and smoke, slouching in a cafe chair, his socks sagging over broken shoelaces, his shirt open to the waist, arms dangling to the floor, where his knuckles drag.

Never Doubled. All France calls him Bebel (pronounced Ray-bell), and the French press has recorded that his nose was broken in the prize ring. "I let this story go through because it has added to my legend," he confesses. His nose was actually disassembled in a fight in high school. But if such embellishments exist here and there, the private Belmondo still rides point to the legend. He does box, but only as an amateur. He is indeed a fearless, reckless fellow.

He loved making his new picture, That Man from Rio, a protracted comic strip in motion that rams into two hours every cliche of the classic cinema chase pictures. On location in Brazil, he never used a double. He walked along a ten-story ledge and hung from a wire 70 ft. high. Once he was warned that a stream was too dangerous to swim in, being chock full of poisonous serpents, carnivorous disease-carrying insects and razor-teethed fish. Belmondo tossed a chunk of corned beef into the water. When nothing happened to it, he dove in, saying: "What the hell, if they're not going to chew on that they're certainly not going to eat me."

His charm with scaly creatures did not confine itself to working hours. In a steamy Amazon town, Jean-Paul went out into the jungle one night and came back to the hotel with a dozen baby crocodiles, crept into rooms late at night and put a baby croc into everyone's bidet. Soon he had two baby leopards, four macaws, several adolescent crocodiles, a parrot and three snakes in his own room. Remembers the film's producer: "The crocodiles ate the birds. The leopards ate the crocodiles. The snakes died of starvation. The room stank like the bottom of some Amazonian cesspool."

Much Experience. Bebel was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a fairly expensive Paris suburb, but he grew up on the Left Bank, and his colloquial language could have been swept up off the cobblestones of St.-Germain-des-Pres and Montparnasse. His father was a sculptor who taught at the Academic des Beaux-Arts.

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