Friday, February 16, 2007

The Burglars

dir. Henri Verneuil

Regrettably, the youtube version of the chase is not in the proper aspect ratio, limiting its monumental power, but... you get the picture.


February 8, 2007 - 35mm/Film Forum

The concept of cop and criminal being of the same mental geometry is a tired one, and something I would like nothing to do with. With a tired genre convention such as that, something easily grasped, comes the fruition of a new world amass in possibility. Utilizing a pre-existing, innately understood concept is freeing, letting one delve deeper into concepts both flighty and psychotically fearsome without the limitation of having to spend time establishing rules.

Abel and Azad are a crooked cop and a crooked criminal, respectively. They are quintessential foils, and the expediency with which they discover that they are pieces of the same puzzle (accepting their own social conventions) is in effect a safe-cracking, an unlocking of scenes that may otherwise make no sense. These scenes explode the senses, bringing joy, excitement and laughter at every turn, in the coherent, masterfully told motion picture event, Henri Verneuil’s The Burglars.

An extremely quiet, mostly dialogue free emerald heist kicks off the story with a whisper, harking back to that extremely serious, marvelously quiet heist in Rififi. The Burglars’ heist is detailed and systematically interesting, though the technological gadgetry is the stuff of a bad spy movie. Logically following a scene of dialogue-free quiet is a scene of dialogue-free loudness; without a doubt, one of the most riveting, wowing car chases in movie history. The hyperbole is well earned. Two crappy cars careen in every direction though the streets, sidewalks, back alleys and stairs of Athens, Greece. Yes, the cars chase one another down stairs, just like Jason Bourne. An utter lack of what today one would refer to as special effects or controlled locations load this pursuit with an air of refreshing reality, rendering each near miss of a pedestrian jaw-dropping, every impact eye-popping. This is a lengthy chase, worth dissecting, but what carries the heft of the never boring chase are the moments when one or both of the cars come to a halt. There is no blood thirst amongst these rivals, and the chase is not a murderous one. There are moments of quiet when the cars stop, often practically on top of one another. The struggle to then escape an automobilic chokehold, a duel even, is endless entertaining. There is an urge to scream at either of the drivers to get out of the car and pull the opponent out, but then the opponent would be able to jet away. Even a slow car is faster than a man.

The chase comes early on, and is long, but what follows is thrilling set piece after set piece matched with Abel and Azad’s delicious cat and mouse banter. The crazily cool Omar Sharif, playing the civilized super villain the utmost ease, plays Abel. Jean-Paul Belmondo (yes, the guy from Breathless), a physical man’s and ladies’ man hurdling and tumbling through the picture’s creative set pieces and colorful supporting characters, plays Azad. Both characters spill over with confidence and zero fear. In order to improvise escape, Belmondo runs up to a moving bus, jumps up, shoves his arms through a window and holds on while the bus continues down the highway, Sharif in tow, attempting to knock him off with his car door. There are showdowns at a seemingly abandoned toy warehouse and a stunning conclusion in a silo (pre-Witness, obviously). Again, as action-packed as this all seems, it is tempered with winning, witty, wordy power plays between the leads, and a constant grinning joy.

In the movie’s most amazing moment, a clear demonstration of exuberance and joy for cinema, Belmondo has evaded Sharif during a showdown at a carnival by hiding in the bed of a truck hauling salt. The truck takes him to the top of a mountain of salt and trash and he is dumped overboard. The vantage point is from the bottom of the mountain. Belmondo tumbles, and it is undoubtedly him, in a moment of sheer physical bravado, flipping recklessly down a mountain, enormous chucks of salt and rock chasing him down and down and down and down and right into your face. BAM! This is movies!

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