The Burglars. It's plural this time!
Working with a small crew of thieves, a master crook named Azad (Jean-Paul Belmondo) pulls off an impossible job, robbing a wealthy Greek businessman (Jose Luis de Vilallonga) of a million dollar's worth of rare emeralds. The plan goes off without a hitch, or so Azad and the crew think. A suspicious police officer, Abel Zacharia (Omar Sharif), is onto them and knows what they're trying. His only issue becomes proving their guilt, finding them while they're carrying the emeralds. Azad is ready to make his getaway out of a Greek port, but the ship is undergoing maintenance and can't leave for five more days. Now, he must improvise, getting the persistent -- and dirty -- cop off his trail. Can the crew stay quiet and hidden away until they're ready to escape?
Okay, get the basic plot from Goodis' novel and then go with it. That's all this 1971 version really has to do with its source novel or its 1957 predecessor. Now that said, it isn't a bad thing. Director Henri Verneuil has a good film somewhere in his 120-minute movie, but it's finding that movie that proves difficult. Reading a plot description, I thought I was getting a hard boiled heist flick, and in doses, that's what it is. Without much of a transition, one scene will be brutally dark, the next oddly off the wall. Then, we get some weird aside at an "erotic club" followed by one of the craziest, best car chases I've ever seen in a film. While I liked 'Burglars,' I also thought it was far too schizophrenic to be a movie that received a straight-up positive review. When it works though, it really works. It's getting to that point.
The positives are pretty obvious, starting with Belmondo and Sharif as the two leads, the cat-and-mouse rivals. I've yet to be impressed with Belmondo -- I still don't get the appeal of Breathless -- in the films I've seen, but this performance is a gem. He sounds dubbed but apparently that's him (go figure). Most surprisingly though, he proves himself as an action star, handling his own stunts for the most part including a couple ridiculous stunts. He literally rides the side of a handful of buses on busy streets and later takes a rolling fall down the side of a hill with an almost sheer face. His character itself is pretty cool, a confident, slightly showy thief who thinks he has no rivals, always believing he can outsmart Sharif's cop if it comes down to it. That smartass smile/smirk plays well though, and I really liked what he did with the character.
Doing a 180 from most of his hero performances, Sharif looks to be having a ball as the sinister, truly brutal cop, Abel Zacharia, looking to line his own pockets in "catching" Azad. At first glance, he appears to be a pretty normal cop but with each passing scene we learn the true depths of how far he'll go for a payday. Dyan Cannon plays Lena, a nude model and quasi-Playmate of sorts who catches Azad's eye and may be letting on more than she knows. Robert Hossein, Nicole Calfan and Renato Salvatori round out Azad's crew, none really given much to do with the spotlight on Belmondo and Sharif.
Coupled with the tough guy leads, 'Burglars' manages to stand free of the crowd because of the action. A 13-minute car chase about 30 minutes into the movie is ridiculous to the point of being overindulgent. We're talking two cars that should have blown up miles and crashes ago still running and doing so smoothly. It gives us some solid new additions to the car chase sequence too, never a bad thing. Watch it HERE. When there is action, it's handled expertly, including another slightly lower key chase with Belmondo jumping from moving bus to moving bus (again, doing all his own stunts seemingly). Watch a really solid stunt montage HERE. There is a simple professionalism to these scenes that just works well. Not flashy, just efficiently effective. Oh, and composer Ennio Morricone turns in a quiet, understated gem of a soundtrack. Didn't see that coming, did you?
So anyhoo.....the movie does have some flaws. The opening heist sequence is so interested in the gory, boring and downright dull details of how they're pulling the job that any tension gets thrown out the window. What should be a great opening, building momentum is actually a hindrance to a story that ends up being pretty good. A later departure to Cannon's "erotic club" goes on far too long, and in general, too much time is spent with Cannon for a disappointing payoff late in the movie. It is a movie that could have been tightened up at several different points along the way. It's also trying to be funny, action-packed, slightly romantic, full of drama, and it just doesn't always work. In the end, it could have been a near classic, but as is, it's a very watchable heist movie with some pretty severe flaws. Give the movie a watch HERE at Youtube.
The Burglars (1971): ** 1/2 /****