FRENCH CONNECTIONS: VERNEUIL, GABIN, DELON by Fred Blosser
FRENCH CONNECTIONS: VERNEUIL, GABIN, DELON
by Fred Blosser
I recently noted that 2013 is the 45th anniversary of Don Siegel’s MADIGAN. The Don Siegel of France was Henri Verneuil, whose ANY NUMBER CAN WIN (French title: MELODIE EN SOUS-SOL) observes the 50th anniversary of its U.S. release this year. It was the first of two crime films that Verneuil made with two French superstars of different generations, Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. In American casting during the same era, think Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, or Charles Boyer as the older man, Paul Newman as the younger one.
Charles, an aging and incorrigible ex-con (Gabin), walks out of prison one day and into his latest job the next. With a set of architectural plans and an impulsive younger accomplice, Francis (Delon), he meticulously sets up a scheme to rob a glitzy Cannes casino. In vintage tradition, the heist comes off smoothly, despite rising tensions between the focused older man and the undisciplined younger one, but subsequent events spin awry.
The movie was based on John Trinian’s novel THE BIG GRAB. The first few scenes are faithful to the source in documenting Charles’ restlessness with domestic life after his reunion with his wife, and his itch to plan the next big score. Trinian could write about small-time career crooks better than almost anyone else. The movie then takes different turns than the novel, doing away with a major Mafia subplot from the book, ratcheting up the growing tension between the partners, and adding an ironic ending that, I’ll bet, was inspired by Kubrick’s THE KILLING.
The movie’s glistening black-and-white, widescreen Dyaliscope cinematography credited to Louis Page is striking, Gabin and Delon are an accomplished team, and today’s audiences who equate crime movies with, say, the bullet-riddled likes of GANGSTER SQUAD will probably be surprised by the fact that few gunshots are fired in the film. Image Entertainment released a nice letterboxed DVD edition several years ago.
In 1969, Verneuil teamed again with Gabin and Delon for THE SICILIAN CLAN (LE CLAN DES SICILIENS), based on a novel by Auguste le Breton, the author of RIFIFI. Ennio Morricone composed the soundtrack. Again, Gabin is a methodical, seasoned professional (this time, as Sicilian patriarch Vittorio Manalese, more successful than his character in the earlier film), and Delon is an edgy younger hood named Roger Sartet, whom Manalese springs from police custody in return for a stash of valuable stamps that Sartet had stolen.
Inspector Le Goff (Lino Ventura, the Roy Scheider of 1960s French gangster movies) has thrown out a dragnet for Sartet, a cop killer. Manalese enlists Sartet in an international scheme to hijack a fortune in diamonds on a jet from Paris to New York. Do they nab the jewels? Do the cracks in Sartet’s partnership with the Sicilians, his imprudent fling with Manalese’s restless French daughter-in-law (Irina Demick), and Le Goff’s relentless manhunt for Sartet bring down the whole enterprise? What do you think?
THE SICILIAN CLAN had a U.S. release in 1970, riding on the popularity of THE GODFATHER on the best-seller lists and the fact that a movie version of the Puzo novel (ultimately the Francis Ford Coppola mega-hit) was still two years in the future. Vincent Canby’s New York Times review was lukewarm (and more luke than warm) but Richard Schickel gave it a favorable notice in Life magazine. I saw the movie in a theater in Charleston, W.Va., when I was 19 years old, and as a newbie, hungry for any fix in hardboiled fiction or cinema in those lean years for gangster movies, I loved it.
Today, when we worry about hijackings but not so much about the likelihood of jewel thieves being the perpetrators, the scenes of stealing the jet seem, well, quaint. Another problem for modern viewers: some of the production techniques don’t hold up well. In particular, the FX in the hijack scenes look primitive. But then, so do comparable shots in the ‘60s James Bond films. Gabin is dead and Delon is too old to play a young hood, but I could see somebody like Luc Besson remaking the movie with modern CGI. They’d probably cast Jean Reno or Nick Nolte in the Gabin role, and Ryan Gosling or Jason Statham as Sartet.
Fox has released a DVD edition abroad, but not in the U.S. Fox Movie Channel carries the film on rare occasions (just this past week, as it happens), which will probably becomes rarer as the channel increasingly moves away from its original format of older, mostly commercial-free movies in favor of edited, commercial-infested newer films.