Friday, February 08, 2013

David Goodis' The Burglar by Fred Blosser

by Fred BlosserColumbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III (The Mob / My Name is Julia Ross / The Burglar / Drive a Crooked Road / Tight Spot)

Ed, with David Goodis’ THE BURGLAR back in print from the Library of America, and the first (1957) movie version with Dan Duryea available again on DVD, maybe the Blog crew would indulge me in revisiting some thoughts that I posted here in 2007 about the second film adaptation.  That was Henri Verneuil’s 1971 LE CASSE, an international but mostly French production released in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures in 1972 as THE BURGLARS.

I got a minor fact wrong the first time around, and more seriously, I discussed Verneuil’s movie in a vacuum, not having read Goodis’ novel at the time.  Thanks for the chance to correct and amplify my earlier comments.

Here’s what I said in 2007:

“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 have 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.”

Flip the calendar to 2013.  I goofed in saying that Jess Hahn, an American actor who played character roles in many European crime movies and westerns in the 1960s and ‘70s, appeared in THE BURGLARS.  It was actually Italian actor Renato Salvatori.  Maybe I was thinking of Hahn’s similar role in another Nixon-era crime film based on a 1950s paperback novel, Hubert Cornfield’s THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY.

My comment about today’s overlong, overproduced movies still stands: Christopher Nolan’s excruciating Batman productions are a case in point.

Now that I’ve read THE BURGLAR, I see that I was correct in surmising that Verneuil used the novel as a jumping-off point, not a model.  More precisely, I might say that the book and the film are mirror reversals of each other.  Goodis’ glum protagonist, Nat Harbin, is stressed from holding his increasingly argumentative gang together and protecting his ward, a wan little orphan named Gladden who loves him.  (The girl’s name may be the cleverest touch in the novel: there is little in Harbin’s and Gladden’s doomed romance to make either of them glad.)  In Paul Wendkos’ 1957 film, scripted by Goodis, Dan Duryea nails Harbin’s hangdog desperation dead center.  Belmondo’s character, named Azad, is tailored to fit the French actor’s classic on-screen personality: outgoing and ebullient.

In the book, the corrupt cop Charley circles Harbin at a distance.  Sharif’s counterpart, Zacharias, hangs onto Azad like a lamprey, giving Belmondo and Sharif the opportunity to play off shrewdly against each other.  Verneuil keeps the subplot in which a mysterious woman who seduces the protagonist turns out to be something other than she appears, but he jettisons another subplot involving Gladden and Charley.  At the risk of revealing spoilers, the ending of Goodis’ novel could hardly be bleaker.  Verneuil’s version comes to a relatively happy resolution following the disposal of Zacharias, which occurs in a way that recalls the famous final scene in Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR.

Goodis fans may feel let down by THE BURGLARS in the same way that Ross Macdonald fans may feel pissed off by the 1986 movie version of BLUE CITY, or Donald Hamilton fans by the old Matt Helm films.  The BLUE CITY movie is hardly defensible on any basis, but Verneuil’s product is fun if you approach it as a cultural artifact of the early ‘70s.  From that perspective, we can appreciate Belmondo’s leather jacket and cocky personality, Sharif’s snappy white fedora and gourmet affectations, Cannon’s sunny blondeness, and Remy Julienne’s car chases as keys for understanding how filmmakers perceived and attempted to play to filmgoers’ expectations some 40 years ago.

It looks like a couple of different DVD editions of THE BURGLARS can be found on the web, with a little legwork; it’s unclear whether the Alfa Digital print is still on the market.  As Sony continues to release older titles from the Columbia vaults in Print-on-Demand editions, maybe a legitimate, well remastered version will finally surface someday.  Morricone’s soundtrack is available on CD, with nice liner reproductions of cast photos and posters, as GLI SCASSINATORI, the movie’s Italian title.

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Mathew Paust said...

Interesting background and analysis, Ed. I enjoyed the Verneuil version in a theater when it was released, unaware of Goodis's book or the Duryea version.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have never seen this one or read it. Actually I haven't heard Duryea's name in years.

Elliot James said...

An excellent wide screen print aired on TCM after their Noir night hosted by Eddie Mueller (they showed The Burglar at 10pm; interesting film). I was ready and copied it. It's one of my favorite Belmondo flicks as well as Sharif's. I never realized the connection since the films are total polar opposites and Goodis' name never clicked when I think of The Burglars. Verneuil could have made this film without reference to the source material. Nothing remains from the book or the Dan Duryea movie.