The Burglars (1971)

Director: Henri Vernuil
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif, Dyan Cannon, Robert Hossein, Renato Salvatori, Nicole Calfan
Music: Ennio Morricone – conducted by Bruno Nicolai
Based on the novel by David Goodis

This Euro-heist caper, set in Greece and directed by Henri Verneuil, is a bit different to most. Rather than building up to the perfect robbery, the film starts with the heist, then spends the rest of it’s running time, seeing if the criminals can get away with the loot.

Three men and a woman; Azad (Belmondo), Ralph (Robert Hossein), Renzi (Renato Salvatori) and Helene (Nicole Calfan), drive up to a stately home in an un-named Greek city. Ralph and Renzi get out of the car and put stockings over their heads. They go to the front door of the caretakers quarters and ring the doorbell. When the caretaker answers, he is knocked to the ground then tied and gagged. They then signal for Azad to go to the main house. He does and makes quick work of the front door. Inside there are priceless works of art adorning the rooms. Azad ignores them and heads straight to the safe. He puts on his gloves and goes to work. Joined by Ralph (Renzi and Helene keep watch out side), a x-ray machine is used to work out the model number on the inside workings of the safe’s door. Azad looks up the details in a safe guide book (must be very handy for all safe crackers). He finds another series of numbers. At this point, Azad, opens a suitcase he has been toting along with him. Inside is like a little computer. He enters these numbers and he is directed to a key shape. He then selects the base key from a series he has pre-prepared. Then this computer, sort of becomes a key-cutting device, and shapes this key into one which will fit this particular make and model of safe. It’s all rather hi-tech and hard to put in words, but it is impressive. So now Azad has a key, but he still doesn’t have the combination to the four tumblers on the door.

Meanwhile, driving by is police detective Abel Zacharia (Omar Sharif). He notices Azad’s car parked out the front, and stops to investigate. As he snoops around, the bound and gagged caretaker tries to make as much noise as possible. Rocking his chair, he crashes into a fish bowl that smashes loudly on the floor. By now Zacharia’s suspicions are heightened. But before he can move in to the house, Azad scoots around the back to his car. Zacharia notices and comes across to question him, forgetting about the noise inside. Azad gives Zacharia a cock ’n’ bull story about his car breaking down. Zacharia trusts him for now, and goes about his business.

Azad returns to the safe, and using a listening device attached to his computer / cutter / suitcase, he cracks the tumblers and the safe. Inside there is a large amount of money and bonds, but Azad only takes one million dollars worth of emeralds. The heist is beautifully staged in its intricacy and precision. Azad and crew have made their score, now they have to get out of town. But this has been pre-arranged. They have made a deal with the captain of the ship, the Arax, to take them (and the emeralds) from the country, no questions asked. Unfortunately the ship has suffered hull damage as it came into port. It will be another five days before it leaves.

Azad and crew decide to wait it out and head their separate ways in the meantime. After Azad has dropped Helene off at the train station he notices he is being followed by somebody in a beaten up, dirty little car. In traffic, Azad tries to lose the unseen, gloved driver, but this driver is well up to the task and doggedly stays on Azad’s tail as the cars race around the streets, down steps, through tunnels, and basically on any surface a car can travel. It’s a great sequence.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, Zacharia isn’t quite as he seems. Actually he is, but he’s a little bit more too. He is a cop, but one who is looking to raise his lifestyle and willing to blackmail a few people on the way. Sharif appears to be having a great time, especially when eating, drinking and shooting.

Dyan Cannon’s role is little more than a cameo. She plays a glamorous photographic model that Azad picks up in a bar. Sure, there’s a twist, but there’s no real attempt by the film-makers to conceal it, so you won’t be guessing long.

This film has a series of amazing scenes that on their own are quite okay, but as a cohesive film they don’t link too well. The heist at the beginning is well staged, and carried out virtually without dialogue, but after Jules Dassin’s Riffifi, I guess all good heists have to be carried out that way. This is followed up by the fantastic car chase that I mentioned earlier in the review. When you review a car chase, it inevitably gets compared to the ones in Bullitt or The French Connection. Unlike many others, this is actually worthy of the comparison. It won’t surprise many people that it was put together by French driving legend, Rémy Julienne. Later in the film, there’s an interesting musical interlude at a strip club; some drunken target practice in a toy factory; and finally Belmondo shows us an interesting new technique for catching buses. All these sequences are good. But the film as a whole just doesn’t add up to quality of its disparate parts.

The Burglars isn’t a bad film, but it has dated. In the early seventies, the story may not have mattered so much. It was about style, and this film has early seventies jet-setting style to burn. But now with the world virtually at out fingertips, style isn’t so important. We want a story and characters that are engaging, and this film just falls short of the mark.

Belmondo catches the bus – from The Burglars – uploaded by sheriff85

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