Born Ashot Malakyan, Henri Verneuil was born in the small Turkish town of Rodosto (modern Tekirdağ) on October 15, 1920. When he was four years old, the Malakyan family moved to Marseilles, where it settled at 109 Rue Paradis.
In France, Malakyan graduated from college and managed to work as a journalist for a while. Only at the age of 28, by his own admission, he finally quite clearly understood that all he wanted to do in his life was to shoot films.
In the same year, Malakyan became an assistant of the director Robert Vernay, who had become famous for the adaptation of the “Count of Monte Cristo” with Jean Marais in the main role. Malakyan based his pseudonym on Vernay’s surname.
Verneuil began his career with filming short movies: “La Légende de Terre-Blanche”, “Maldonne”, and “Pipe chien.” All three were filmed in 1950. A year later, he filmed his first feature film “La Table-aux-Crevés” based on the novel of Marcel Aymé.
In 1954, Verneuil’s film “Le Mouton à cinq pattes” was nominated for an Oscar for the best story. In 1963, the criminal drama “Mélodie en sous-sol” was released, which became a real classic of the genre and later would become incredibly popular in France.
For the main roles, Verneuil chose Jean Gabin and young Alain Delon. Delon repeatedly considered his character of Francis Verlot one of the best roles in his career and admitted that it had become possible thanks to the great merit of the director as well: Verneuil was able to squeeze everything out of the actors, and even more.
The same goes for Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose collaboration with Verneuil began with the thriller “Cent mille dollars au soleil” (1964). This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship: later, Verneuil would film Belmondo in “Peur sur la ville”, “Le Corps de mon ennemi”, and “Les Morfalous.”
Each next film of Verneuil increased his popularity. Today, it is impossible to imagine the classics of French cinema without such masterpieces as “La Vingt-cinquième Heure”, “Le clan des siciliens” with Gabin, Delon, and Lino Ventura, “I comme Icare” with Yves Montand.
Being already old-aged, Henri Verneuil mentioned his Armenian roots in his works. In 1985, he wrote a book of memories of his mother, which was laconically titled “Mayrig” (Armenian: մայրիկ, English: mother).
After 6-year work on a script, he released the film “Mayrig” in 1992. It is about the difficult life and fate of the family of Armenian immigrants who fled to France from the Ottoman Empire after the 1915 Armenian Genocide.
In the main roles, Verneuil filmed Omar Sharif and Claudia Cardinale. For the role of Hagob Malakian, Sharif was banned by Turkish authorities from entering Turkey. The film became the favorite movie of Cardinale’s mother.
“Mayrig” was often shown on Italian television, and every time Cardinale’s mother saw it, she cheerfully called the actress: “Claudia, Claudia, “Mayrig” is on TV!”. As it is commonly believed, the French people first learned about the Armenian Genocide from “Mayrig”, which later would play a significant role in the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the French government.
Henri Verneuil has lived in seclusion for the last years of his life. Most of that time he spent in Switzerland in a small house on the shores of Lake Geneva. The director died in 2002 and was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Pierre in Marseilles. About himself, he said, “My core is Armenian, but if there is an individual more of a Frenchman than me, let him throw a stone at me first.”