A band of crooks led by ace safecracker Azad (Jean-Paul Belmondo) break into a mansion on the outskirts of Athens to steal a near-priceless collection of emeralds. They pull off the robbery but miss the cargo ship by which they had planned to leave the country. Azad stashes the jewels somewhere safe and instructs his gang to lay low as they await the next ship. Unfortunately the thieves have already drawn the attention of crooked police chief Abel Zacharia (Omar Sharif) who proves less keen on cracking the case than grabbing the emeralds for himself.
Jean-Paul Belmondo had interesting dual careers as both an art-house darling feted for his work with respected auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Resnais and as France’s premier action hero, famous for performing his own daredevil stunts. He performed some of his most audacious feats in Le Casse, or The Burglars, a film that was widely perceived as the French response to the new breed of Hollywood action-thriller personified by Bullitt (1968) with its emphasis on breakneck car chases and spectacular stunt-work. Audiences lapped up the sight of Belmondo hanging off the side of a bus, leaping atop speeding cars and getting dumped off a lorry onto a rock quarry, turning the film into a huge box office smash. It was based on a novel previously adapted for the screen by Paul Wendkos as The Burglar (1957) from a script penned by source author David Goodis himself.
Goodis was a successful pulp writer whose screenwriting credits included the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall noir favourite Dark Passage (1947). Though his work went out of print in the United States following his untimely death in 1967 at the age of forty-nine, it remained very popular in France spawning offbeat adaptations such as François Truffaut’s playfully post-modern Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s stylised and divisive The Moon in the Gutter (1983). Compared to the reception accorded those arty outings, French critics were quick to label Le Casse a slick but shallow exercise in efficient genre filmmaking. Yet the film is undeniably taut and compelling while the sparse plot packs some effective twists and turns. The Seventies were the era of the antihero, born both from a loosening of morals during the previous decade and a general disillusionment with authority.
Le Casse has the viewer rooting for the outlaws by virtue of Azad’s bravado and charm. As Azad points out at one point, his name means “free”. Compared with the sadistic cop who use human beings for target practice, the thief proves caring, affable, armed with a distinct code of honour and remains sympathetic even when he breaks a policeman’s arm. Belmondo exudes louche cool while co-star Omar Sharif makes a surprisingly effective villain, both debonair and despicable. The scene wherein they size each other up over a sumptuous banquet at a crowded Greek restaurant is played to perfection, proving both suspenseful and liable to leave viewers craving some moussaka. At first Azad’s flirtation with a model played by imported Hollywood star Dyan Cannon seems to strike a false note, yet subverts expectations with a charming little flourish as Cannon’s character unexpectedly plays Cupid between the burglar and his cute cohort Hélène (Nicole Calfan). It also yields a surprisingly surreal detour with Azad’s visit to a striptease stage-show involving an appearance from Jess Franco sex starlets Alice Arno and Pamela Stanford in fetish outfits amidst floating bubbles and strange sets. Azad’s boyishly flustered reaction shots reveal Belmondo at his most engaging.
Of course it was the action foremost that drew the punters. In the fifth of eight collaborations with Belmondo, director Henri Verneuil masterfully deploys the eye-catching cinematography of Claude Renoir, a sublime score by the maestro Ennio Morricone and perhaps most crucially some astonishing car stunts executed by the great Remy Julienne who went on to work on everything from James Bond to Jackie Chan movies. Verneuil’s direction is as methodical and stylish as the film’s hero, from his dissection of the opening burglary in near-fetishistic detail to the frenzied car chase as the protagonists drive down a subway, almost plough through a procession of churchgoers and smash their vehicles to bits. It is pure nail-biting excitement.