Sunday, December 02, 2007

From Fred Blosser THE BURGLARS

Ed, for possible interest by the gang,

I wonder how many besides me remember THE BURGLARS, from 1971, based on David Goodis’ THE BURGLAR. I found it recently on a DVD from Alfa Digital, and on watching it again for the first time in 30+ years, I found myself liking it a lot more than I remember liking it when I saw it in the theater in 1972, when it had a brief U.S. release.

Then: I think I was disappointed in large part because I was expecting a violent noir-ish crime movie along the lines of other late ‘60s and early ‘70s films like POINT BLANK, GET CARTER, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and DIRTY HARRY. I didn’t find much noir in THE BURGLARS, which was mounted as one of those shiny, big-name international productions that enjoyed a vogue at the time. (In this case, Jean-Paul Belmondo and director Henri Verneuil for the French market, Ennio Morricone’s jazzy soundtrack for the Italian theaters, Dyan Cannon and Omar Sharif for U.S. marquees, and a solid supporting cast of Euro-movie types like Robert Hossein and Jess -- not to be confused with Jessica -- Hahn.) I was also familiar with Verneuil's 1969 THE SICILIAN CLAN, which was almost as glitzy but nevertheless more noir-ish and more tightly knit.

Now: I would give Verneuil more noir credit than I did at the time. I haven’t read Goodis’ novel or seen the earlier movie version from the late ‘50s, but from other reviews, I infer that Goodis was just a point of departure for Verneuil, not a template for mood or style. Still, Omar Sharif’s sleazy police detective, who discovers that Belmondo and his gang has burglared a fortune in emeralds from a millionaire’s villa, and decides to grab the stolen goods for himself rather than arrest the culprits, is a dependable noir type. And Sharif, wearing a cool white fedora and white trench coat, turns in a pitch-perfect performance, just the right mix of charm and nastiness.

And three decades on, I seem to find the movie’s meandering style – constructed around the lengthy burglary that opens the movie, followed over the course of the story by four big action set pieces – more tolerable than I did then. Maybe because so many of today’s action flicks are even more meandering, to the point of frustration, as the viewer checks his watch at the two-hour point, and realizes that the film has at least another half hour to run – PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and LORD OF THE RINGS, anyone? At least Verneuil kept his running time under two hours.

Dyan Cannon, playing a magazine centerfold whom Belmondo picks up in a swank bar with a mellow Morricone lounge tune playing in the background, seems to randomly move in and out of the storyline – but pay attention, because as it turns out, her character serves a venerable noir function as well, including the classic bit (probably now verboten for fear of offending audiences) where the leading lady gets slapped around by the leading man. Verneuil compounds the sin by giving the scene a would-be comic edge. Cannon has an electronic "clapper" in her apartment (probably cutting edge high-tech in those days). Slap, the lights in the apartment go out. Slap, on again. Slap, off again.

Belmondo apparently did his own stunts in scenes where he eludes Sharif by jumping onto the sides of buses in moving traffic, sprints across the roofs of cars when the traffic stalls, and gets ejected over a hillside by a dump truck. I’m sure the stunts were set up with great care to minimize any risk of the star getting hurt, but still, it’s nice to see the old movie style where the stunts interact with real props, not with a phony CGI green screen, and the action hero’s movements are limited by the physical laws of the real world. I wish the Alfa Digital DVD were better than it is (it appears to have been struck from an aging print with less than optimal DVD technology), but it’s the only one on the market.

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