Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Nice work if you can get it.

The Setup
Charles (Jean Gabin), an aging but still ambitious criminal just released from prison, returns to his home in a northern Paris suburb to find his neighborhood has been converted to government housing projects. His modest little house now stands alone amidst a profusion of anonymous concrete high-rises, a sobering reminder that the world is passing him by. His wife Ginette is there to greet him, but their perfunctory reunion does little to elevate his mood. Even more uninspiring is her desire to sell their house and buy a small hotel in the south of France. Charles envisions a somewhat grander retirement. One purchased with the proceeds from the job he’s been planning for years — knocking off a big casino at Cannes.

His ex-partner is past his prime, so Charles calls upon his ex-cellmate Francis (Alain Delon), a thief whose physical agility will complement Charles’ criminal ingenuity. Francis is a trustworthy, albeit erratic character whose impetuous nature is at odds with his partner’s old school professionalism. Charles also enlists Francis’ brother-in-law Louis, an unassuming mechanic who could use a million extra francs, to do the driving. After checking in at a five-star hotel, they spend considerable time casing the casino and going over Charles’ meticulous plans. Francis is tasked with posing as a rich playboy and becoming sufficiently intimate with one of the casino’s dancers so he can hang around backstage without arousing suspicion. From there he will have access to the casino roof and the air-conditioning vent that will take him to the elevator shaft and into the casino vault. Francis will rely on his nerve, the element of surprise and a machine gun to get the job done.

After five years in prison, Charles seems less than spellbound by his wife’s allure.

Despite some tense moments, everything goes like clockwork, and the group’s unlawful conduct is rewarded to the tune of a billion francs, cleverly hidden in the poolside changing room Francis has rented. Fate, however, which strikes unexpectedly and often in the crime film firmament of the 1960s, is lurking in the margins of this picture as well. Francis unknowingly has his picture taken by a society photographer working the casino on the night of the robbery. Said photo is plastered right below the next morning’s newspaper headline trumpeting the crime, forcing Charles to radically alter his plans. Instead of lying low for a week, they must attempt an immediate getaway. He instructs Francis to grab the money and meet him at the hotel’s pool, so that they might escape via their rented Rolls. Unfortunately, the swimming pool becomes the staging area for an ironically inspired denouement that’s as beautiful to watch unfold as it is bitter for the protagonists to swallow.

Francis applies his callous charm.

The Payoff
While its measured pace might put off modern viewers weaned on high-octane celluloid vacuity, crime cognoscenti will appreciate the confident deliberation with which Any Number Can Win plays out. Director Henri Vernuil and screenwriters Michel Audiard and Albert Simonin understand that fleshing out the events leading up to the heist only enhances its suspense quotient. It also allows time to exploit the slightly soiled glamour of the French Riviera, with its inveterate gamblers and sunburned sexual adventurers. There’s a notably frank and nonjudgmental attitude towards sex and the pecuniary motives behind its application. A very French attitude, naturellement. The filmmakers also indulge in a series of character-defining narrative detours:

• Francis arrives at the swank hotel while the advice Charles previously gave him is heard in voiceover: “You don’t tip the guy who shows you your room. Instead, say the bathroom smells bad, the room’s too small, you don’t like this or that color. The important thing is to fuss. It’s called ‘having class.’”
• The barman at the hotel swimming pool gives Francis the lowdown on how much it will cost to score with the hotel’s sexually amenable female guests. The Polish countess? “30,000, but it’s negotiable. With or without dinner, as you wish.”
• Francis is undone by his lack of experience when he fails to maintain the requisite emotional detachment during his seduction of the dancer. He becomes genuinely upset when she throws him over, and goes to the casino to cool off. His lack of concentration results in the candid camera moment that throws a kink into Charles’ carefully laid plans.

Pajamas and machine guns.

The heist sequence runs for nearly half an hour, most of it sans dialog in the manner of Jules Dassin’s classic caper Rififi (1955). It’s beautifully filmed, with each shot precisely framed and perfectly timed. The best moment occurs when Francis comes to an open-grille section of the air-conditioning vent. Verneuil films this with an overhead shot showing Francis’ black-clad body silhouetted against the brightly lit casino below him. Should any of the gamblers happen to glance up....Verneuil also creates suspense by cutting back and forth between Francis’ progress in the vent and the transportation of the money to the vault. And the entire sequence benefits enormously from the fact that Delon is plainly doing his own stuntwork — negotiating the castellated casino roof, crawling through the cramped ventilator duct, rappelling down the inside of the elevator shaft.

But the real climax of the film occurs after the robbery. Verneuil’s mise-en-scene is impeccable during the last 15 nail-biting minutes, as Charles and Francis, sitting on opposite sides of the pool, sweat it out while dozens of police search the area, armed with precise descriptions of the cases used in the holdup — cases that are resting on either side of Francis’ chair, in plain sight for the first sharp-eyed cop to notice. Francis and Charles conspicuously pretend the other doesn’t exist, yet one can almost hear them mentally shouting at each other in the electric silence. Verneuil’s tracking shots define the inexorable movements of the police as they unknowingly close in — the camera literally anticipating the moment of discovery — as Francis takes the only course open to him. What happens next leads to one of the greatest twist endings in any crime film of the era.

Director Verneuil (who was born Achod Malakian to Armenian parents in Turkey) was a criminally undervalued French director whose large and diverse body of work includes some of the most memorable thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s, including the super-cool The Sicilian Clan (1969), which also paired Gabin and Delon; and the gritty Fear Over the City (1975), which starred Jean-Paul Belmondo. Although he never got the props accorded to the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville (or Jacques Deray, for that matter), Verneuil made popular and intelligent crime thrillers with a consistency rivaled by few of his peers.

Francis about to make a surprise appearance.

The Lawless
Despite his arrogance and impulsiveness, Francis does have the potential for stepping up into Charles’ class. He exhibits plenty of energy and nerve during the heist, and unimpeachable style immediately afterwards. Having safely stashed the money, he slips into his tux, saunters onto the street as if he hadn’t a care in the world, and casually lights up a cigarette as a convoy of police cars speeds past him towards the casino. The barest hint of a sardonic smile plays on his lips. The moment recalls the opening of Goldfinger, when Bond coolly ignites his cigarette just as the explosive charges he’d set in a drug factory go off. Delon’s effortless sangfroid clearly points to his imminent superstardom.

Gabin is even more compelling as the sixtyish, cynical Charles, especially when he dons his Ray-Bans and stalks the casino floor like a hungry shark. He seems able to actually smell the money that’s being won and lost all around him. The sunglasses effectively symbolize the way Charles has shut himself off from the rest of the world. His emotional aridity is established early on through his relationship with his wife, and continues unabated until the end. The only thing that excites him is the thought of the big score. He seems most fully alive when he’s in the vault, stuffing banknotes into a valise, but Gabin lets us see that Charles is already dead, he just doesn’t realize it.

Charles intimidates his fellow gamblers.

The Lawful
The character of Louis (Maurice Biraud) is accorded an unusual measure of depth for the relatively minor role he plays in the film. Working-class through and through, he’s initially seduced by the cut of one million francs Charles offers him, but his conscience eventually gets the better of him. He tells Charles that he’ll still hold up his end, but he wants no part of the money, fearing it will corrupt him and tempt him into doing further extralegal jobs. Maurice has no wish to step up into a life of crime, even if it means substantially improving his lifestyle. Wanker.

• The violence in this film is primarily emotional, as when Francis employs deliberately cruel tactics on the girl he’s trying to seduce. Having played nice guy for several dates, he suddenly erupts when she refuses to sleep with him and leaves her stranded at a remote restaurant. The look on her face manifests infinitely more pain than if he’d physically struck her.

• Francis can dole out physical abuse when necessary, although he’s certainly no thug. But when a casino employee doesn’t open an access door fast enough to suit him, Francis brutally knocks him to the floor, even though the man appears to be in his sixties. Bastard.

Countus interruptus.

The Vernacular
Francis: “Listen, Charles. You’re putting me on a job, right?”
Charles: “You got any objections?”
Francis: “You’re not afraid you might be traveling a little light? We were cellmates for a year, but you’re still taking a risk. You could be making a mistake with me. I’m not even sure I can pull my weight.”
Charles: “I’m sure. A bum would have said yes right away. A bum always says yes to anyone at any price.”

Francis [to a Polish ‘countess’ trying to hustle him]: “Don’t waste your breath, sweetheart. We’re in the same line of work.”
Countess [to bartender]: “I must be getting old. I can no longer tell a gentleman from a pimp.”

The End Credits
Director: Henri Verneuil; screenplay: Michel Audiard, Albert Simonin; producer: Jacques Bar; music: Michel Magne; cinematography: Louis Page; editing: Francoise Bonnot

Jean Gabin (Charles); Alain Delon (Francis Verlot); Viviane Romance (Ginette); Carla Marlier (Brigitte); Maurice Biraud (Louis); Claude Cerval (police commissaire); Henri Virlojeux (Mario); Jean Carmet (swimming pool barman); José Luis de Villalonga (Grimp); Germaine Montero (Mme Verlot); Rita Cadillac (Liliane); Ann-Marie Coffinet (Marcelle); Dominque Davray (Léone); Dora Doll (Polish countess); Georges Wilson (Walther)

Charles in charge.


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