Friday, April 29, 2016

Le Casse aka The Burglars (1971—France/Italy)

Euro-burglars Azad and Ralph make an unsanctioned emerald withdrawal from a swank Athens villa.

The Score
Undeservedly neglected by film critics (and unfairly scorned by the enfants terribles of the French New Wave), the French-Armenian director Henri Verneuil enjoyed a long and commercially successful career across a variety of genres. He demonstrated a special affinity for thrillers, working in collaboration with many of France’s top stars and screenwriters to fashion some of the most intelligent and entertaining crime films of the sixties and seventies. Among the jewels in his crown one must count Melodie en sous-sol (1963), Le Clan des Sicilians (1969) and this superb Jean-Paul Belmondo heist flick. 

An action auteur on par with his Gallic peers Jacques Deray and Georges Lautner, Verneuil had a knack for recycling traditional genre elements while making them feel fresh and vital. Le Casse is a case in point. Based on David Goodis’ novel The Burglar, the narrative ticks off such familiar crime film tropes as a jewel robbery, a car chase and a game of deadly cat and mouse between cop and criminal. Yet unlike the doom-laden book (or the eponymous 1957 film noir it inspired), Le Casse plays out in sun-soaked Athens with typical Verneuilian brio and a decidedly angst-free tone. It nobly represents an era of action-adventure cinema that no longer exists, replete with charismatic stars, exotic locations and brilliantly photographed excitement.

When Greek meets Greek. Criminal and cop size each other up.

Verneuil and screenwriter Vahé Katcha waste no time getting down to business. As the stylish opening titles unfold to Ennio Morricone's beguiling score, ace safecracker Azad (Belmondo) and his crime partners—Ralph (Robert Hossein), Renzi (Renato Salvatori) and Hélène (Nicole Calfan)—convene in Athens, break into a secluded villa, and with the aid of a high-tech electronic gizmo liberate a cool million dollars in emeralds from the owner’s safe. During the lengthy but not overlong sequence (an homage to similar scenes in The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi), their parked car captures the attention of police inspector Zacharia (Omar Sharif), who just happens to be tired of living on a policeman’s salary. As Zacharia surveils the house, Azad sneaks around to the car and feigns engine trouble. Zacharia knows a criminal when he sees one, but sensing a lucrative opportunity, pretends to buy Azad’s fairy tale with an eye towards poaching the emeralds for himself. The sardonic confrontation is but the opening round in Zacharia’s campaign of intimidation and attrition.
Hoping to rattle Azad, Zacharia conspicuously tails him by car, a calculated ploy that precipitates a full-throttle chase through Athens' narrow, twisty streets. Verneuil and legendary stunt driver Remy Julienne unleash 10 minutes of pure adrenaline as Azad's Fiat 124 and Zacharia's Opel Rekord bounce down steep flights of stairs, smash repeatedly into each other and leave absurd amounts of rubber on the pavement. In keeping with the film’s overall tone, the chase is imbued with some clever visual touches: As Azad and Zacharia speed through the middle of a huge church-bound congregation, they miraculously miss all the people, but snuff out the processional candles via their cars’ slipstreams. And when they tear past an amphitheater where a bored audience is watching an exhibition of folk dancing, the patrons rush to the top tier and cheer the drivers on as if watching a Formula One race. The kicker comes when Zacharia finally traps Azad in a cul-de-sac, strolls over to his battered car, leans casually in the window and asks with impeccable irony, "Do you know there's a speed limit in this town?"

Zacharia gets greedy.

As incredible as this sequence is, there’s a subsequent pursuit that’s nearly as impressive involving police cars, taxis, passenger buses and, finally, a horse and a dump truck. In between these superb set pieces, Verneuil and Katcha indulge in some eccentric narrative digressions. Some are humorous, as when Zacharia introduces Azad to the Greek culinary delights dolma and moussaka while bartering for the emeralds. Or when Azad and Lena (Dyan Cannon), an erotic model who spies on him for Zacharia, play erotic games with dirty magazines and a sound-activated lighting system. But the tonal joie de vivre is periodically interrupted with darker moments, notably when Zacharia, having tracked Ralph and Renzi to their hideout in a toy factory, submits them at gunpoint to a game of bulls-eye while drinking several glasses of whiskey, killing one of them in cold blood just to let them know he means business. Azad and Zacharia’s final showdown in a grain silo is also played straight, but has its black-comic aspect, with one of these bad guys receiving a spectacular and much-deserved comeuppance. 

In addition to its other virtues, Le Casse boasts superb chemistry between Belmondo and Sharif in what regrettably was their only screen pairing. Both men were at the top of their game and the height of their charisma. Belmondo's penchant for performing his own, incredibly dangerous stunts is amply indulged. He leaps onto the sides of speeding buses, risks life and limb jumping from great heights and, most amazing, is dumped from a truck bed down a dizzyingly steep embankment to the bottom of a rock quarry, tumbling the entire length amidst flying boulders and debris before casually picking himself up, dusting himself off and walking away. But Belmondo doesn't rely solely on his trademark displays of athleticism; he also brings his A-level acting skills, never coasting on his natural charm and exuberance (as he would increasingly do later in his career), but seamlessly transitions Azad from happy go lucky thief to wily antagonist to no-nonsense son of a bitch as the occasion demands.

"It goes in here and comes out in back. Two nice clean holes as big as emeralds."

Sharif also gives one of the most compelling and nuanced performances of his career as the venal Zacharia, delivering his lines with impeccable flair in both the French and English versions of the film. By turns cynical, world-weary, amused, rapacious, ruthless and sadistic, he creates a completely believable and relatable character, one of the best bad cops the screen has given us. Both actors invest their dialog with ample between-the-lines resonance via subtleties of facial expression, body language and intonation. So much so that one can almost foretell their respective fates when early in the film they formally introduce themselves to one another:

"Azad. It means 'free' in a certain language."
"Abel Zacharia. Means nothing at all."

Pure poetry. 

Azad ungraciously declines a lift from Inspector Zacharia.

Mind the Language
Zacharia [after shooting one of Azad's gang in cold blood]: "You see, accidents do happen."

Azad: "What do you get in this country for killing a dirty bastard?"
Zacharia: "You get hanged. I get a medal, posthumously."

Zacharia: "It's very simple. I play both sides. If things go wrong, I start acting like a policeman again. So why don't you tell me where are the emeralds?"

Zacharia: "I came unarmed."
Azad: "That was your mistake."

Azad in mid-flight.

Director: Henry Verneuil / Producer: Henri Verneuil / Screenplay: Henri Verneuil, Vahe Katcha / Cinematography: Claude Renoir / Music: Ennio Morricone 
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Azad) / Omar Sharif (Abel Zacharia) / Robert Hossein (Ralph) / Nicole Calfan (Helene) Renato Salvatori (Renzi) / Dyan Cannon (Lena) / Jose Luis de Vilallonga (Tasco)

Renato Salvatori, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif and Robert Hossein turn the tables on director Henri Verneuil.