Sunday, April 7, 2019

DVR Diary: THE BURGLARS (Le Casse, 1971)

There's no point to judging Henri Verneuil's free adaptation of David Goodis' noir novel The Burglar by its fidelity to the source material. Goodis himself wrote a previous film adaptation which by definition must stand as definitive, so we may as well accept Le Casse for what it is: a vehicle for Jean-Paul Belmondo designed for the international-cast market. Goodis provides the bare bones of the story in which a slick safecracking gang goes to pieces while waiting to sell their plunder, but from there it's all Verneuil and co-writer Vahe Katcha. The action has been moved to Greece, where a crafty, somewhat corrupt police detective (Omar Sharif) picks the gang apart. The Belmondo character obviously proves the toughest nut to crack, so a local entertainer (Dyan Cannon) is called on to seduce and keep tabs on him. All of this is a framework on which to hang the action set pieces that audiences by now expected from Belmondo, who arguably qualifies as the missing link between Buster Keaton and Tom Cruise through his commitment to crazy stunt work. Keaton himself no doubt would have been proud of a then-unfakeable moment -- possibly inspired by Buster's own Seven Chances -- when Belmondo is dropped from a close-up position in the back of a truck down a steep gravel pit, with plenty of rocks following him down. Elsewhere, he clings from the outside to the window of a moving bus to avoid pursuers, only to transfer to another bus in the middle of a busy street. Beyond Belmondo's antics there's plenty here to suggest that Verneuil was a student of silent film. The picture opens with a fascinating, almost wordless sequence that shows how sophisticated a safecracker Belmondo is. The man basically carries a portable computer with him that allows him to program product specs and grind out a master key to order. If a film set around 1970 can qualify as steampunk, this scene should make La Casse eligible for that label. At the other end of the movie, the final fate of Sharif's character hearkens all the way back to D. W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat or maybe Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr. Of course, a caper or crime film from this period wouldn't be complete without a proper car chase, and this one definitely delivers, even if it comes too early to be climactic. So much goes on in this picture that the car chase could almost be forgotten in the mix. Euro-stalwarts Robert Hossein and Renato Salvatori are along for the ride but this is clearly Belmondo's show, which means he doesn't have to do much with his character but live up to his pop persona. Some of his exploits wouldn't fly today -- it's meant as a gag when he slaps Cannon so hard and repeatedly that he sets off a room's light controls -- but for a good part of the world in his heyday he was the fantasy ideal of a man's man, and nothing about La Casse would change that. It's pretty much the opposite of the sort of noir one might expect from a Goodis adaptation, but on its own terms it's an often very entertaining action picture sure to appeal to Euro-Seventies fans.

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