Middle class student Bob Letellier enters a new world when he meets Alain, a free-thinking rebel who, along with his group of young Parisians, has opted for a life of instant gratification instead of work and commitment. At a party, Bob meets a young woman, Mic, who appears to be just as carefree and cynical as Alain. Mic's only dream is to own a luxury car, and with Bob's help, she manages to find the money to but it. Mic's friend Clo discovers she is pregnant and, not knowing who the father is, she asks Bob to marry her. When they next meet at a party, Bob and Mic deny that they have any feelings for one another - a declaration that soon leads to tragedy...
Marcel Carné is widely regarded as one of the standard bearers of French quality cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, responsible for such masterpieces as Quai des brumes (1938) and Les Enfants du Paradis (1945). How ironic then that, in 1958, towards the end of his film-making career, he should make a film which dared to portray the attitudes and behaviour of the 1950s youth, in a way that effectively captures the mood and sentiment of the time.
Les Tricheurs was a hugely controversial film, not least because of its blatant depiction of adolescent free-love, and was even banned in some regions of France. It also received some intensely unfavourable reviews, most notably from the young hotheads on the Cahiers du cinéma such as François Truffaut who cited this film as a prime example of the decline of French cinema into mediocrity. In spite of all this negative press, the film proved to be an astonishing commercial success, attracting five million cinema-goers, and was awarded the Grand Prix du Cinéma français in 1958.
Whilst Les Tricheurs is not as flawless as Carné's earlier masterpieces, it is nonetheless a significant work, having the power to both shock and move its audience, whilst having great entertainment value. It evokes the mood of its time in a way that few French films of this period did, depicting young people as pleasure-seeking rebels, rejecting the austerity and discipline of the previous generation whilst pursuing a life without cares, responsibilities or love. Similarities with James Dean's films of the 1950s (most notably Rebel without a Cause) are apparent, although Carné's treatment of young people is far more abstract - in his film they merely symbolise a world that has lost its way, more or less victims of post-war prosperity. Although the young people in Les Tricheurs lack the authenticity to be totally credible, the film does make an important, and indeed quite disturbing point, about where the permissive society may be heading.
Much of the pleasure of the film is in the performances from its four lead actors, Jacques Charrier, Pascale Petit, Laurent Terzieff and Andréa Parisy, although only Terzieff is really convincing in his role. Marcel Carné originally considered Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo for the parts of Bob and Alain respectively, before opting for Charrier and Terzieff. As a consolation, Carné offered Belmondo a smaller part in the film - alas too small for the actor to be noticed by the public. Belmondo's breakthrough had to wait until the following year when he starred in Jean-Luc Godard's revolutionary A bout de souffle, a film which offers a very different perspective of the youth generation.