Joseph Damiani, a.k.a José Giovanni, was born on June 22th, 1923, to a Corsican family. He did many little jobs when he was a teenager. Washing dishes in a train-restaurant, lumberjack, coal miner, waiter in a hotel restaurant of Chamonix. He was arrested for fraud and condemned to one year in jail in 1932. During WWII, in 1943, he was a high mountain junior guide but contrary to the official version he was never in the Resistance (Joseph Damiani a.k.a José Giovanni lied all this life about this). In 1944 he came to Paris and got closer to his uncles Ange Santolini, a gangster and Paul Damiani, a Militiaman. He joined himself the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), a fascist party. Joseph Damiani was a collaborationist and a Militiaman and participate to the arrestation of many people who refuse the STO (forced work for the nazi in Occupied France). In August 1944, he pretended he was a german police officer with an accomplice and stole two jewish merchants in Lyon, France. He will later be charged during his trial with facts of kidnapping, torture, robbering and assassination (Roger and Jules Peugeot, May 1945).
He and his accomplice Georges Accad were arrested in June 1945. An other accomplice, Jacques Ménassole, commited suicide to avoid arrest. Paul Damiani was arrested too but escaped during a reconstruction of the Peugeot case. He will be fatally shot in Nice by mobsters in 1946. Joseph Damiani was judged a first time in Marseille in July 1946 for treason and sentenced to 20 years of prison. He tried to escape in 1947 but failed. He was judged a second time in July 1948 for the murder of the Peugeot brothers and was sentenced to death with Georges Accad. After months spent in the death row, they were pardoned by french president Vincent Auriol in 1949 and the death sentence was commuted to life sentence.
In 1956, Joseph was freed. He spend a long time in jail writing, and one of the first things he did after being back to free life was to send his book to editors. They were immediately impressed by “Le trou” (“The hole”, slang for prison) and under his “nom de plume”, the talented “José Giovanni” was soon published and appreciated. Director Jacques Becker bought the rights of the book and directed it in 1959.
That’s how José Giovanni entered the cinema world. He became a well-known dialogue writer, scenarist too, working many times with Jacques Becker. Then he directed his first movie in 1966, “La loi des survivants”, while he was still writing novels about gangsters, cops, prison and manly friendship… Some of his films (many are based from his own novels) include Le Rapace (1968), La Scoumoune (1972), Le Gitan (1975) and Le Ruffian (1983). One of his favourite actors was Alain Delon, whom he directed many times. He directed some great French actors as Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura or Jean-Paul Belmondo.
His death row experiment marked him very much. He was, of course, for the abolition of the death penalty and he showed it in many movies. “Deux hommes dans la ville” (1973) ends with an execution, Claude Brasseur’s character in “Une robe noire pour un tueur” is supposed to be guillotined at the beginning of the movie… In 1995, he wrote “Il avait dans le coeur des jardins introuvables” (He had in his heart gardens which no one could find), which is the story of his life as a death condemned, and the struggle of his father against the son’s doom. Later, in 2001, he directed Bruno Cremer in “Mon père”, his own adaptation of his own novel. That was his last movie.
Living in Switzerland with his wife and children since 1969, Giovanni wrote 20 novels, 2 memories’ books, 33 scripts, and directed 15 movies and 5 TV movies. After four days spent in the hospital of Lausanne, José Giovanni died at 2 p.m, on April 24th, 2004 from a brain hemorrhage.