Yves Montand is one of those rare individuals who looks more important than the limousine he arrives in. As he stepped out of an interminable Cadillac at Manhattan's Avery Fisher Hall—where on April 25 the Film Society of Lincoln Center staged a glittering tribute to the man and his astonishing career—a noisy mob of celebrities, journalists and movie freaks fell suddenly silent. A presence had entered the scene. For a long moment he stood there, calmly observing the crowd with large, intelligent eyes. And then suddenly he smiled—a wide, delighted, virile smile that blasted the assemblage with energy and charm. "My God!" said a woman reporter. "If I told you what just happened inside my body!"

Montand lights up like a chandelier whenever he faces an audience. He is France's most versatile and exciting entertainer and the only one now at work who ranks as a global superstar. For his countrymen he is Frank Sinatra and Jack Nicholson rolled into one. As a singer he reigned for two decades as king of the French music halls and lord of the chanson. As an actor he has risked a mind-reeling variety of roles (Latin lover in Let's Make Love, long-suffering husband in César et Rosalie, doomed libertarian in Z) and only last year created his masterpiece: the wily peasant who unwittingly contrives his own destruction in the two-part film Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Coming attraction: a movie musical, Trois Places pour le 26, based in part on events in his own life and scheduled to start shooting soon in Marseilles.

The 66-year-old man who made all this happen is a furnace of strong feelings. At work he is a demon: Perfection to him is slightly short of adequate. In politics he is a zealot who has ranged from far left to right of center and was recently the subject of a Montand-for-President boomlet. And with women he is hell on wheels: Simone Signoret, his wife of 34 years, was the great love of his life, but he conducted flamboyant affairs with Edith Piaf and Marilyn Monroe.

The man is a mare's nest of contradictions. A timid hothead. A shy exhibitionist. A hedonistic workaholic. An intellectual who quit school in the fifth grade. Yet first, last and always he is a poor boy who made it to the top, terrified that it's all too good to last, happiest when he's back where he feels he belongs: among plain working people in the South of France.

"Merde!" Montand yelps as he smashes his fist into his palm. He is playing boules in the dusty village square at St. Paul-de-Vence—a medieval hamlet in Haute Provence, his hideaway for more than 40 years—and he is pink with fury because he is playing badly. His opponent, a husky workman known as Gordon (pronounced Gordon), sniggers with delight. Montand's eyes blaze as he barrages the man with incomprehensible Mediterraneanese, sounding like a turkey with an Italian accent. Gordon meekly subsides. Montand is le roi du village, and lesser mortals bow before his royal wrath. Montand grins wickedly. "I just said something nasty," he explains. "Now he will play badly."

He does indeed. Time after time Gordon rolls heavy metal balls the size of a small grapefruit across 20 meters of lumpy terrain, and time after time the balls wind up far from the target, a tiny wooden ball called "the piglet." Montand wins four points in a row. A crowd gathers, and the larger the gallery the better Montand plays. "Banzai!" he yells when he wins, and when Gordon misplays he murmurs condescendingly, "Povero disgraziato!"

Montand trails by just one point, 9-8, but suddenly a black cloud covers the sun. Thunder booms. The cloud is about to burst. "Pas encore!" Montand hisses, shaking a fist at the sky. Four more points and he'll win the game. He bowls fast and loses two points in a row. Now he's behind, 11-8. If he loses one more point, he's finished.

Big cold drops of rain smack the dust. The crowd runs for shelter. The dogs duck indoors. But the bowlers wouldn't quit for all the gold in the Vatican. Montand hits another streak and ties the score at 11-11. Thunder roars. Lightning rips. Rain falls in truckloads. The village square is a mud pie. Montand and Gordon are soaked to the kidneys. But the game must go on!

Ball after ball lands with a splat! and sticks in the mud. Montand gets lucky. His last ball winds up six inches from the piglet. With a sly little shrug of triumph, he makes way for Gordon. Who steps up, sets his jaw—and with a magnificent spike-shot sends Montand's winner halfway to North Africa. Gordon releases a banshee yowl and leaps three feet in the air. Montand stands stupefied. Then he bows gracefully and offers his hand to the winner. "Gordon," he says sweetly as the rain fills up his shoes. "Merde, alors!"

Montand grew up in the South of France, but he was born in 1921 in a tiny mountain town near Florence, Italy. His real name is Ivo Livi. His father, Giovanni Livi, who started a small broom factory, made no secret of his Marxist sympathies. One night Fascist hooligans burned his factory down. Fearing still worse, Giovanni fled to France on foot, found work on the docks in Marseilles and later sent for his family.

Ivo grew up in brutal poverty. "Often all we had for lunch," says Montand, "was one egg for all three kids." To make ends meet, Ivo quit school at 11 and took one dreary job after another: food-packer, stevedore, spaghetti-cutter, hairdresser, riveter. American movies were his drug. Watching them, he dreamed he was a Hollywood star who walked "with the winged ease of Fred Astaire." He shaped up passable imitations of Gable, Bogie and Donald Duck, and one day on a dare he performed in an amateur contest.

He was awful. Sang off key, lost the beat, swallowed words. But when he saw all those eager faces looking up at him, Ivo was hooked. He took singing and ballet lessons, bought a cowboy hat and a loud checked vest, even paid a songwriter to knock off a Texoid tune entitled Dans les Plaines du Far West. For his stage name he settled with gung ho symbolism on Yves Montand because it sounded like "Ivo! Monta!" (Ivo! Climb!), the words his mother had shouted when she wanted him to run upstairs for dinner.

At 17, Yves Montand was off and climbing. Patriotic townsfolk cheered his new song to the rafters because it boldly played the American card while France lay crushed under Hitler's heel. So Montand eagerly augmented his act with a number called II Vendait des Hot Dogs à Times Square. "It was crazy," says a Montand copain. "Like spitting in Himmler's eye." The risk edged up when he switched to a workers-of-the-world wardrobe—the plain brown shirt and pants he has worn onstage ever since—and went through the roof when he dodged the forced-labor draft, fled to Paris and kept right on crooning nostalgia for America. Incredibly, the Gestapo never nabbed him. Luckily, Edith Piaf did.

They met 10 days before D-Day. She was the gutter queen of Gallic song, a tiny "broken sparrow" of a woman with huge wounded eyes and a voice like a sobbing cello. He was the new boy in the boites, a lean, sexy prole with magic to burn—and plenty to learn. Piaf taught him everything she knew. As a woman, she taught him how to love. "She was formidable," he recalls. "She only knew how to give—everything." As a performer, she taught him to define and refine his art. Out went his garlicky Southern gestures. In came a subtle Parisian irony. Out went the crude "cowboyeries." In came vivid numbers (Battling Joe, Luna Park) custom tailored to his talent for scissoring characters out of the air and wearing them like fascinating costumes. "Choose your songs for always," Piaf admonished, "not just for today."

When they met, Montand was just a big, raw talent who rode to success on a tide of populism. "I incarnated to perfection," he once wryly remarked, "the reassuring worker with dirty hands and a clean heart." In 1946, when Piaf dumped him after two years of frenzied passion and creation, Montand was a complex and powerful artist. But emotionally he was shattered. It took a remarkable woman to put him together again. He saw her for the first time in 1949, in St.-Paul-de-Vence. "Formidably blond," she was standing, he recalls lyrically, in "a sun-drenched courtyard... surrounded by hovering doves." He approached softly, "trying not to disturb the doves." But that day more than doves were disturbed.

Simone Signoret was married to movie director Yves Allegret and had a 3-year-old daughter, Catherine, but the impact of Montand's passion leveled her defenses. "In those four days," she wrote later, "we had been struck by lightning, and something indiscreet and irreversible had happened." Montand gave her an ultimatum: "Come live with me, or else." She went, and her daughter went too. All three moved into a charming but absurdly inadequate two-room flat on the Place Dauphine, and there Simone and Yves conducted a fiercely intimate private life that endured through heaven and hell on earth and ended only when Simone died of cancer in 1985.

"It was a great love," Montand says dreamily. "In the early days it was I'amour fou. Crazy! Wonderful!" And sometimes scary. "Simone is frank, passionate and combative," wrote Richard Cannavo and Henri Quiqueré in Le Chant d'un Homme. "Much more harsh, more violent than he. He regards, a little astonished, this woman who seems to seize life by the throat." A vigorous intellectual, she moved in high cultural circles, and Montand moved with her. Picasso, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Mitterrand were all friends or acquaintances, and so were dozens of showbiz luminaries like Marcel Pagnol and Gérard Philipe. The flat on the Place Dauphine was a teeming depot of ideas and personalities, a salon in spite of itself.

Fast company for a kid from Marseilles. But an ego that demanded the adoration of millions rose to the occasion. Montand was emphatically the head of the house—"Once in a while," he says, "a man has to tell his wife to wash his socks"—and Simone liked it that way. "I consider my private life before my profession," she said in 1959, when she won an Oscar for Room at the Top. "If Yves cannot live without singing, I cannot live without him." She attended his concerts like a groupie, helped him pick songs, cheered him in success, consoled him in failure. "There was such tenderness between us," Montand remembers, "such deep understanding." Yet in time passion dimmed, and Montand began to seek it elsewhere. "Simone," he says, "was very wise. I will not say she closed her eyes, but at least she lowered her lids."

There was no way Simone could ignore what happened between Montand and Marilyn Monroe. By 1960, when he detonated the blond bombshell of the century, Montand had come to a career crisis. All through his 20s, eager to exceed his success as a singer, he pursued his boyhood ambition to become a movie actor. Flop followed flop, but he worked with gritty intensity on technique until at last, in a harrowing thriller called The Wages of Fear (1952), he rode a cargo of nitroglycerin to glory and became a superstar in Europe overnight. But Hollywood ignored him, and it rankled.

So in 1959, when his solo show was a hot ticket on Broadway, Montand stepped firmly on the charm pedal when Marilyn and her husband, Arthur Miller, visited backstage. Marilyn forthwith informed her studio that she wanted Montand to co-star in her new movie, Let's Make Love. "Right after my husband and alongside Marlon Brando," she plonked in her blondiloquent way, "Yves Montand is the most seductive man I have ever known."

The two couples settled into adjoining bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Production languished. Day after day, Marilyn showed up late. "Where is she?" Montand fumed. "Capricious little girls have never amused me." Marilyn meekly promised to be good, but soon after Miller and Simone left town to pursue other projects, she did something very naughty. She turned up one night at Montand's door wearing a gorgeous mink coat—and nothing else.

"What am I to do?" Montand demands in retrospect with a large Latin shrug. "I cannot alienate her because I depend on her good will and I wish to work with her. I am truly in a trap." Not that he didn't enjoy what happened next. From that night forward, Marilyn was Montand's adoring slave. "If I tell her to be somewhere on time," he bragged, "she will be there....On the set she does everything I tell her to do."

What was the secret of Montand's mastery? "I understood her. Our backgrounds were very much alike. We had both grown up poor. I knew what she wanted—to be at the top, to be a great actress. I knew what she was afraid of—that she couldn't make it. She couldn't fool me. When she understood that, she trusted me."

She trusted him too much. When the picture was finished, Montand dropped her cold. Told that she was heartbroken, he said carefully, "She has been very nice with me, but then she is a pure being and without perfidy. I have shown myself too tender, and I was wrong to believe that she was as sophisticated as certain other ladies I have known. I am desolated, but nothing will break my marriage." Whereupon he went back to Simone.

Had the flame been worth the candle? Probably not. The picture died, and Montand's memories of Marilyn are mostly bleak. "Marilyn," he said later, "is the most tortured woman on earth.... She lives in a hell, surrounded by doctors, nurses, dressers, between a pot of cream and a mirror. One blackhead and she faints.... She creates a vacuum around herself. No other human can approach without being seized by a sort of illness."

What's more, he was not welcomed home with open arms. The affair had released a Niagara of ink, and for two months Simone had been playing the face-freezing role of understanding wife. "You know many men, do you," she had asked one reporter cheerily, "who would have stayed indifferent while having Marilyn Monroe in their arms?" In fact, as Montand later confessed, "she was very sad. I pay a lot after that, but mostly it was de bonne guerre—in good sport. It's okay. I bend my back. Then one day I say, 'Enough! Do you want me to write down everything that happened?' And it was over. Finito."

But was it finite? After Marilyn, the Montand ménage was never quite the same. He began to stray more often, she began to drink more heavily. In 1977, Simone ballooned to play a bloated old whore in Madame Rosa, and she never quite deflated. Montand was hurt and indignant. "To destroy herself like that was a terrible thing. I told her it's not fair for her and it's not fair for me. What can I say? For the last eight years of her life we had no sex. But we stayed together because between us there was a very great love, a very great tenderness." His face twists with pain. "Did you know," he asks softly, "that she died blind?"

Montand is pacing the balcony of a tiny apartment he keeps in St.-Paul-de-Vence. Evening is coming on. In the distance a blue swatch of the Mediterranean ripples, and doves like those that hovered about Simone are promenading on a terrace just below. Montand's eyes are sparkling. His arms are waving. He is expounding his political ideas. "People say I want to be president of France, the French Reagan. Not true! The press has said this, not I. I am not sure my shoulders can carry that burden. All I want is to tell my countrymen that truth is not a one-way street. Some socialist ideas are good, some capitalist ideas are good. But no ideas are good that violate the rights of the individual. You want to criticize America? Bien. America is not perfect. But be careful when you criticize America's political institutions. They are the safeguard of freedom on this planet. In our world, without America there would be no France!"

When Montand appears on interview shows, huge audiences tune in. The "napalm right" zaps him as a bleeding heart. His old friends in the Communist Party brand him a "werewolf" and jeer: "The higher a monkey climbs on a tree, the more his bottom shows." But millions of Frenchmen welcome the grand old entertainer as an effective political lie detector, an ex-officio Minister of Common Sense. In one poll, 36 percent of the people interviewed said they would definitely vote for Montand if he ran for president.

No doubt the idea was tempting. Crowds exhilarate him and so does political struggle. Until he was 35, Montand was a Stalinist, though he never actually joined the Party. But in 1956, when Russian tanks rolled over the Hungarian Revolution, he smelled a very large rat. Later that year he smelled another when he and Simone had a heated three-hour clash with Khrushchev, who spouted barefaced lies about what happened in Budapest. "We have been stupid, stupid and dangerous!" Montand said bitterly. From that day he began to evolve his own political views. They are still evolving. "Every day," he says, "I reinvent myself. One must take risks—or die."

These days Montand is taking a very special and intimate risk. Her name is Carole Amiel. She is dark-haired, clear-eyed, slender, quietly attractive—and 28. Smiling shyly, she brings tea and biscuits, then tactfully retreats to the kitchen. Her step is quick and light.

"I met Carole when she was 13," Montand explains. "I knew her family. When she was 22, I arranged a world tour. Simone could not go. I needed someone to trim my hair. To bring food at 4:30, not at 6 p.m. So I took Carole along. And that is how we came together. Simone knew about us, but she didn't want to know, vous comprenez? She didn't like it, but she understood. You cannot leave a man like me for eight years without—certain things.

"Carole and I live together now," he goes on. "She is a strong person. Very discreet, very clear. Her modesty is deeply touching to me. I do all I can to make the life we share agreeable for her. I'm not sure I always succeed. When one has loved a woman for almost 40 years, especially someone like Simone, one thinks of her often. Speaks of her often. I'm afraid it isn't always easy for Carole to listen, but she listens, and I'm grateful."

He smiles a little sadly. "You see, I'm not building a new life. I'm just continuing my life. And Simone is still very much a part of it. Oh, the courage of that woman! What she suffered in the last months! I need all Simone's strength now to keep me swimming, swimming to the end. 'Come on, Montand!' she is telling me. 'Come on! Swim!' "