Jose Giovanni, 80; French Writer, Filmmaker and Onetime Condemned Prisoner in Paris

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Jose Giovanni, a former Parisian death-row inmate who became an author of classic French crime novels, a screenwriter and a director of hit films featuring such stars as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, has died. He was 80.

Giovanni died Saturday of a brain hemorrhage in a clinic in Lausanne, Switzerland. He had been hospitalized since Wednesday.

A member of the French Resistance during World War II, Giovanni amassed experiences seemingly designed to be turned into novels and screenplays. He worked as a diver, lumberjack, coal miner and mountain guide.

More significantly, at age 22 he was convicted, along with an older brother, in an extortion and murder plot masterminded by an uncle who was a leader in the Corsican underworld.

The brother escaped from prison only to be killed in a fight, and Giovanni was sentenced to death. Because of his father’s extensive, but discreet, help on Giovanni’s behalf, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was freed after serving eight years.


In 2001, the popular novelist and filmmaker capped his 20-film career by describing his father’s efforts to free him with “Mon Pere” (“My Father”). The film was later titled “Mon Pere, Il M’A Sauve la Vie” (“My Father Saved My Life”). He directed the film and helped write the screenplay from his 1995 book “The Secret Gardens in My Father’s Heart.”

Giovanni personally attended the premiere of the film, starring Bruno Cremer as his father, at Virginia Commonwealth University’s French Film Festival in Richmond, Va.

He movingly told the Virginia audience that he had never known, until well after his release, that his colorful father was behind the effort to save him from the guillotine.

Once freed in the mid-1950s, Giovanni turned to writing novels, and a few years later began his film career with a screenplay for “Du Rififi Chez les Femmes” (“The Riff Raff Girls).”

Next he turned to his novel about his own 1947 attempted prison escape through Paris sewers to provide the basis of the 1960 movie “Le Trou” (“The Hole”).

In 1969, he wrote Henri Verneuil’s “Le Clan des Siciliens” (“The Sicilian Clan”), which starred Delon, Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura.

Giovanni continued writing screenplays until 2001, but also enjoyed a directing career that took off in the early 1970s. He turned his novel “La Scoumoune” (“The Hitman”) into a 1972 melodrama starring Belmondo as a 1930s gangster.

The next year, Giovanni brought Gabin and Delon back together in “Deux Hommes Dans la Ville” (“Two Men in Town”), a bleak movie about an ex-bank robber whose past catches up with him when he is freed after a decade in prison.

Giovanni also acted in a handful of movies, including Laetitia Masson’s 2002 “La Repentie” (“The Repentant”). He won several awards in France for his crime novels and his 1995 autobiography.

In 1998, he charmed Los Angeles audiences when he appeared at the American Cinematheque’s five-weekend series titled “Jean-Pierre Melville and the French Crime Film.” The series showcased the 1959 film “Classe Tout Risque” (“Consider All Risks”), adapted from a Giovanni novel.

Born in Paris of a family from the Mediterranean island of Corsica, Giovanni moved to the Swiss Alpine village of Marecottes in the late 1960s and later was naturalized as a Swiss citizen.

Giovanni is survived by his wife, daughter and son.