Although hardly anybody knows it, Colonel Matthews (David Niven) is actually international criminal The Brain, and as the British news broadcast tells it, the only way he can be identified is by an unusual physical quirk: his brain is so large that it weighs more than a normal human's, therefore causes his whole head to tip over on one side or the other. Once this information is revealed, he has to flee the country, but he has plans of his own to rob a train in France, where a NATO fortune is being transported from fourteen countries. But he's not the only one with plans...
For his follow-up to Don't Look Now - We're Being Shot At, which had already been the most successful French comedy ever, director Gérard Oury moved away from the war to stage a crime caper, that old standby of many an all-star Continental romp. He had continued with much the same broad, slightly sharp but mostly goodnatured humour and the big name cast, of whom the biggest actor on the international scene would have been Niven, but Oury ensured it would go over well in his native land by casting Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bourvil, who may have been fairly famous outside France but inside were hugely popular.
And this type of story was exactly what their fans wished to see them in; joining this trio was American import Eli Wallach, evidently fancying a pleasant holiday in La Belle France and going way over the top as the Italian mobster who not only teams up with Matthews to rob the train but is insanely aggressive when it comes to defending the virginity of his sister Sofia (Silvia Monti) who is just as aggressive in her endeavours to lose it - with Matthews, who is surely old enough to be her grandfather. Anyway, this is all to establish an antagonism between the two crooks which will be paid off in the last half hour, but they have rivals in Bourvil and Belmondo as the decidedly smaller time thieves looking to steal their thunder.
Well, they're mainly wanting to steal the NATO cash, but piggyback on Matthews' scheme, which is related to a group of ne'erdowells at a swanky apartment in Paris via a neato animated sequence (the Colonel must have money to burn if he can afford to present his plans in this manner), but Belmondo's Arthur is eavesdropping having broken in, except that he has to negotiate Matthews' pet leopard. It's that sort of film, where nobody does anything the easy way if it means it can garner a solid laugh and to a certain extent succeeds, even if what you're watching comes across as incredibly, needlessly in fact, complicated for the characters to attempt to pull off, but such was the comic landscape it presented.
Beginning with a groovy theme tune singing the praises of the Brain, complete with daft lyrics that make him sound like a Bond villain - or hero, for that matter, when in actual fact this was far less a spy spoof and more in the vein of After the Fox, if not quite as accomplished. The main centrepiece is that great train robbery where Matthews sees his methods applied to nicking those bags of cash in an elaborate manner, but unknowingly foiled by Arthur who demonstrates that a simpler plan can work just as well, except of course his ideas are no more straightforward to implement from what we see. Then there's the late on twist which has both sides of this thwarted, and includes a huge trunk which you can fit a David Niven in, an image which stays with those who saw this a while back for some reason. There's enough energy here to justify the time it takes - nearly two hours, but what offers the most pleasure is just seeing a bunch of professionals capably going about their careers; easy to watch, and easy to enjoy. Music by Georges Delerue.