“You cannot grow up in France,” actor Omar Sy has remarked about his hit TV series “Lupin,” “and not know who is Arsène Lupin.”
For those who grew up elsewhere, Lupin is literature’s most renowned gentleman-thief, the kind of suave, good-hearted character played by Cary Grant in the Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief” and by Roger Moore in the British TV series “The Saint.” Lupin is a rogue, not a villain.
Sy told Variety that when he was asked what sort of character he would most like to play, he answered simply, “Lupin.” Unlike Benedict Cumberbatch in “Sherlock,” Sy does not present a contemporary take on a classic character.
He plays Assane Diop, the son of an emigrant from Senegal who settled in France. Inspired by the century-old stories of Lupin’s capers and disguises, Diop seeks revenge for the false imprisonment and suicide of his father. (In the world of television, this is not a laughable idea.)
To everyone’s surprise, this very French series, with its debut episode shot inside the Louvre, has become a top 10 hit on Netflix. Yet what better escape from pandemic and impeachment than lighthearted capers through the drawing rooms and across the rooftops of Paris? Sy is the kind of charismatic actor viewers would follow anywhere. His grin could charm the diamonds off a dowager – and does.
Bravado has always been Lupin’s trademark. The entire production is as stylish, choreographed and silly as the pre-credits teaser in a James Bond movie. And it’s beautiful. Cinematographers Christophe Nuyen and Martial Schmeltz fill every episode with rich color and texture: moody nighttime boulevards, sparkling jewels and noir shadows. Even a hoodie looks luxurious in this light.
The acting is as good as the design. You will recognize Diop’s disaffected wife as Ludivine Sagnier of “Swimming Pool” and “The New Pope.” She makes the most of her stereotypical role as a rogue’s long-suffering romantic interest.
In 1905, a magazine editor asked Maurice Leblanc to contribute a story of adventure along the lines of Sherlock Holmes. Leblanc later said that he sat down without an idea in his head and found Arsène Lupin on the page, a character who united the traditions of gentleman rogue and heroic adventurer.
The debut story proved instantly popular. The first collection appeared in 1906, and many more followed, along with antic novels that make Captain Nemo look lazy – outrageous adventures, melodramatic, literate, sparkling with amusing banter.
When Lupin explains that he is posing as an ex-Cabinet minister, he adds, “I had to select a rather overstocked profession so as not to attract attention.” In several stories, Leblanc borrowed Holmes for skirmishes with Lupin, who outwits the great detective at every turn – and even steals his watch.
His frequent laugh is the triumphant guffaw of Robin Hood once more defying the Sheriff of Nottingham. “By Jove, I wouldn’t sell this moment for a fortune!” he exclaims when anyone else might simply abandon the illicit (and difficult) task at hand. “Who dares pretend that life is monotonous?”
Lupin tales sold prodigiously and inspired plays and then movies, beginning with a silent one in 1917. The saga has never been out of print in France, where Lupin has even appeared on a stamp. Jean-Paul Sartre once confessed of his youthful reading, “I adored the Cyrano of the underworld, Arsène Lupin.”
Lupin remains popular enough to have been resurrected for a 20th century series written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of the novels behind films such as “Les Diaboliques” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” The Japanese anime series “Lupin III” features Lupin’s grandson.
To show us just how filthy rich the villain is, the new Netflix series houses him in Paris’s grand Musée Nissim de Camondo (a museum of decorative arts) – surfaces glittering with gold in the kind of insecure Sun King bluster that risks being renamed Trump Modern. Capitalists are filmdom’s new Russian spies, heartless and often sporting a bad haircut.
But this attitude was present in the Lupin stories a century ago. Pittsburgh moguls were building castles out of the lives of coal miners, and the latest London millionaire may have been cracking the whip a month before over diamond sifters in Kimberley, South Africa.
The turn of the century introduced glib rogues. Readers gradually discover that Grant Allen’s thief Col. Clay is waging a war against Gilded Age hubris as much as replenishing his own coffers.
Frederick Irving Anderson’s jewel thief Sophie Lang was so popular that she was incarnated in three 1930s movies before the Hays Office declared that no criminals would profit from their crimes on wholesome American screens.
Even Cary Grant’s thief from 1955 emerged from “retirement” only to clear his name. Five years later, the original Rat Pack “Ocean’s Eleven” dodged censors by depriving the crooks of their ill-gotten gains through a twist of fate. As late as 1968, Robert Wagner’s suave Alexander Mundy in the TV series “It Takes a Thief” could practice his illicit craft only for the U.S. government.
Time flies. By the era of “Ocean’s Eight,” in 2018, the all-female team of crooks make robbing the Metropolitan Museum of Art look as innocent and profitable as selling Girl Scout cookies. So, Sy’s new character is right on time.
Back in 1913, English critic Charles Henry Meltzer asked Leblanc, “Do you not think you have done some harm by making a hero of a man like Arsène Lupin?”
He replied, “No, I think my conscience is at least as nice as most.” Leblanc admitted that at first he didn’t want his son Claude to read his books. “Since then, however,” said the creator of the thief who picked the pocket of Sherlock Holmes, “I have changed my mind.”
Michael Sims is the author of “Arthur and Sherlock” and editor of “Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief.”
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