The actor Michel Bouquet, who has died aged 96, was already middle-aged by the time he found fame playing baleful, corrupt or complacent figures in films by the New Wave provocateur Claude Chabrol. He was a cuckolded husband who kills his wife’s lover in La Femme Infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife, 1969) and an advertising executive who accidentally kills his own lover in Juste Avant La Nuit (Just Before Nightfall, 1971). In between, he did some of his wickedest work as a wealthy tyrant besmirching his daughter-in-law’s name as he plots to gain custody of his grandson in La Rupture (The Breach, 1970). Each of these films paired him with the director’s wife, Stéphane Audran, and portrayed “the petit bourgeois household as unsparingly as Thérèse Raquin or Madame Bovary”, as the critic Nigel Andrews put it.
Bouquet lent the most unsavoury characters a compelling inner life, even when they lingered only briefly on screen. In François Truffaut’s Hitchcockian thriller The Bride Wore Black (1968), he was one of the men murdered by a widow (Jeanne Moreau) seeking revenge for her husband’s death. His demise is especially grisly – he expires on the floor of his seedy hotel room after being poisoned – but the actor conveyed hidden dimensions which made the victim a plausibly pitiful figure, rather than merely cannon fodder. (“I can count on one, no, two hands how many women I’ve had,” he says.) He was equally fine, though scarcely more likable, as a detective in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969).
Though many audiences first saw Bouquet in his New Wave films, he had decades of stage and screen work behind him by that point. Even viewers who did not know the face may have recognised the voice: his controlled, emotionless tones were heard in Alain Resnais’s sobering Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955). His narration was written by Jean Cayrol, who survived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp; Truffaut called the 32-minute short “the most noble and necessary film ever made”.
Bouquet was born in Paris, to Georges, an officer in the French army, and Marie (nee Monot), a milliner. He worked as a baker and a bank clerk to help support his family, then took acting lessons at the age of 17 from the stage actor Maurice Escande. He enrolled at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris; a role in the 1946 production of Jean Anouilh’s Le Rendez-vous de Senlis began an enduring association with that playwright which continued with Roméo et Jeanette in 1953.
Bouquet also helped to popularise the work of Harold Pinter among French audiences, and was a tireless interpreter of Molière, Beckett and Ionesco; he played the lead role in Ionesco’s play Exit the King more than 800 times.
It was Anouilh who co-wrote the screenplay for Monsieur Vincent, which in 1947 provided Bouquet with one of his first screen roles, and won the Oscar for best foreign film; he played a consumptive opposite Pierre Fresnay as the 17th-century saint Vincent de Paul. In the same year, he was seen as a killer in the drama Criminal Brigade.
He played Louis X in Abel Gance’s La Tour de Nesle (1954) and a priest at a Catholic boarding school in Jean Delannoy’s Les Amitiés Particulières (Special Friends, 1964). His initial films with Chabrol — the knowingly absurd spy thrillers Le Tigre se Parfume à la Dynamite (Our Agent Tiger, 1965) and La Route de Corinthe (The Road to Corinth, 1968), which co-starred Jean Seberg – were hardly characteristic of either of them, and gave little hint of the rich collaboration ahead.
In Borsalino, he was third-billed as a lawyer on the trail of gangsters played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, though he got a bigger bite of the cherry as the title character in The Cop (also 1970), which showed a disillusioned police officer taking the law into his own hands a full year before Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry did the same. The unsparing depiction of police brutality and corruption led the French minister of the interior, Raymond Marcellin, to call for the film to be banned.
In the dreamlike horror Malpertuis (1971), Bouquet was a mysterious Uriah Heep-style figure who quivers with delight while being abused and insulted; Orson Welles and Susan Hampshire co-starred. He was another cop in the murky policier Deux Hommes Dans la Ville (Two Men in Town, 1973), this time remorselessly hounding an ex-convict (Delon) in the manner of Inspector Javert from Les Misèrables – whom he later played in Robert Hossein’s handsome 1982 film version, with Lino Ventura as his quarry Jean Valjean.
Theatre provided him with many of his most prestigious roles – he was presented with the best actor award by the French Critics’ Circle in 1976 for his performance in René de Obaldia’s Monsieur Klebs et Rosalie, and played Pozzo in Waiting for Godot two years later.
On screen, there was a delicious reunion with Chabrol in the thriller Cop au Vin (1985), with Bouquet as a dastardly lawyer. Just as he had been “discovered” by the New Wave directors at the end of the 1960s, so he was now introduced to a new generation of cinemagoers via the imaginative and original Belgian comedy Toto the Hero (1991). Bouquet was the ageing, bitter narrator, who looks back enviously on the life he would have enjoyed had he not (as he believes) been swapped with another infant at birth.
More plum parts followed. The director Anne Fontaine had him in mind when she wrote How I Killed My Father (2001), in which she cast him as an estranged patriarch returning to France to complicate the life of his son, played by Charles Berling. Bouquet won the best actor César for his performance in that film, and another for playing France’s former president in The Last Mitterrand (2005).
He and Philippe Noiret reprised their stage roles as dyspeptic pensioners in Bertrand Blier’s film of his own play Les Côtelletes (2003). In Renoir (2012), Bouquet was agreeably spry as the elderly artist opposite Vincent Rottiers as his film-maker son, Jean, and Christa Théret as their muse. At 91, he was back on stage in Paris as Orgon in Molière’s Tartuffe.
He is survived by his wife, the actor Juliette Carré, whom he married in 1970. His first marriage, to the actor Ariane Borg, ended in divorce.
• Michel François Pierre Bouquet, actor, born 6 November 1925; died 13 April 2022