Thursday, May 16, 2013

THE BRAIN (Le cerveau, 1969)

In the 1960s there were two superpowers of slapstick: the U.S. and France. The Americans boasted Jerry Lewis, Blake Edwards, and the collective phenomenon of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The French had Jacquest Tati, Pierre Etaix and, among possible others unknown to me, Gerard Oury. In 1966, Oury's World War 2 comedy La Grande Vadrouille became the most popular film in French history. Three years later came The Brain, an all-star caper comedy on a colossal scale. The international production (Dino de Laurentis and Paramount Pictures were involved) teamed Vadrouille's Andre Bourvil with superstar Jean-Paul Belmondo, David Niven in Pink Panther mode as a master thief, and Eli Wallach (huge in Europe after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as a Sicilian gangster. From the first notes of its would-be pop-hit theme song (sung in English), The Brain aspires to epic pop-art and quite nearly gets there.

Its early cartoonishness doesn't inspire confidence, however. We're introduced to Niven as he, with a crowd of Londoners, watches a TV in a store window announcing a clue to the identity of the mysterious master criminal, "The Brain." His brain is so big and heavy, we're told, that in moments of anxiety he can't hold it upright. Niven's distressed head promptly flops to one side -- but so do those of several other people. While he makes a quick escape to the continent, we discover Arthur (Belmondo) in prison setting up a guard to slip on a bar of soap. Naturally, the guard sails across the room and crashes into a wall. Arthur is sentenced to solitary, which is where he wanted to go. Sent there repeatedly, he's been working on a tunnel. Tonight, his accomplice Anatol (Bourvil) will dig under the prison to meet him halfway and make good his escape. In a cutaway shot, we see the two tunnelers approach each other as they dig with their absurd tools -- Belmondo's is a conveyor belt of metal coffee cups -- except that Belmondo's about three feet above Bourvil, who goes straight to someone else's cell while Belmondo emerges outside. Once they coordinate themselves, Arthur sacks out in a bedroom that's actually the back of Anatol truck. His bed careens back and forth as Anatol brakes or accelerates, climbs or descends. Finally, the bed bursts out the back door, leaving Arthur on the street to start a new day.

The Brain, aka Colonel Matthews, is in Europe to plan a major heist. In a reflection of current events, France's withdrawal from NATO (General de Gaulle wanted France to be a real superpower in its own right) compels the organization to relocate from Paris to Brussels, taking millions in funds along by train. Backed by the Mafia, Matthews draws up an elaborate plan to isolate the car carrying the money, disable the guards, and leave with the loot. Merely planning it is elaborate and expensive; Matthews has apparently sprung for a fully animated short subject illustrating what he intends to do. Meanwhile, Don Scannapieco (Wallach) plans to double-cross Matthews, resenting the Englishman's attraction to his sister (Silvia Monti). Arthur has managed to spy on some of the planning, escaping Matthews's pet tiger in the process, and convinces Anatol that they can horn in on the heist.

Some of the slapstick up to this point might seem stupid or merely silly, but the caper part of the picture actually plays out quite ingeniously. Matthews doesn't know about the two Frenchmen, and they don't know the full extent of his plan. They think they're taking the loot under the Brain's nose, but they end up actually facilitating his scheme, without his knowing it. The payoff is his moment of confusion when he triumphantly enters the captured car ("Now you'll see why they call me the Brain!") only to find it thoroughly looted. Arthur and Anatol feel the same when the sacks of money they thought they'd tossed to a safe place vanish. They've actually put them right into the hands of Matthews's assistants, who shock Matthews himself by informing him that they've got all the money he thought was gone. There are more twists to come, but all bets are off while the Frenchmen's ingenious stupidity makes them wild cards in the three-way game involving Matthews, Scannapieco and the police.

Oury is perhaps too obviously trying to top the scale of Mad Mad ... World in his big finale, which finds Belmondo trapped in a scale-model Statue of Liberty being hauled on board a ship bound for the U.S. as an American style marching band marks the occasion and a huge crowd sees the ship off. You can see symbolism in the Statue as both a womb of money (the bottom drops out with Arthur and the loot inside) and a force for destruction (the torch arm smashes its way into a store when the truck carrying the statue gets embroiled in a car chase), but the absurdity of the imagery transcends any potential political analysis. The Brain doesn't really have anything to say about NATO or international affairs. Oury and his game cast are simply out for laughs. To my ears, Niven performs his own French dialogue; I'm less sure about Wallach, but if it isn't him it's a plausible impersonation. Belmondo is in pure clown mode here, giving the sort of performance George Clooney gives in Coen Bros. movies. To my surprise, not even in the longer French version is there any hint that matinee-idol Belmondo might rival Niven, more than 20 years his senior, for the affections of the sultry Monti. It's all about the money for Arthur, as it is at the end for the mob scrambling for the bills falling from Lady Liberty's bottom. Once The Brain showed that it had a brain I found that I could tolerate its cruder comedy quite well. It may strike others as simply dumb, but it offers enough dumb fun and colorful spectacle for me to recommend it to international comedy fans and slapstick enthusiasts.

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