The Sicilian Clan (1969) *****

Absolutely cracking, brilliantly structured, gangster thriller featuring two fabulous heists and three legendary French stars in Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura. Roger Sartet (Delon) is a trigger-happy robber whose prison escape is organized for a hefty fee by French-based Mafia chieftain Vittorio Manalese (Gabin). Le Goff (Ventura) is the rugged cop hunting down the escapee which brings him into the orbit of Manalese, about whose existence he is completely unaware, the gangster having kept an extremely low profile, never engaging in violence, hiding behind the legitimate front of a pinball machine business.  Veteran French director Henri Verneuil (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) dukes between the twin storylines with ease.

Jean Gabin was easily the most famous French actor of the time with a career spanning four decades from Pepe Le Moko (1937) and La Grande Illusion (1937) to Holy Year (1976) . To many he was the best Inspector Maigret (1958). Generally ignored by the French New Wave directors, this picture showed what they were missing.

Sartet brings Manalese the opportunity to pull off the most audacious jewel robbery in history, even though the older man despises Sartet’s penchant for violence and sex. We often see Manalese at family gatherings, head of the dinner table, the family watching television together, frowning at one son’s liking for alcohol, playing with his grandson. He is not just a calm and clever businessman, but very quick-thinking, his sharp mind in a couple of instances preventing disaster. Sartet, on the other hand, will happily endanger his life and freedom by consorting with prostitutes and breaking an unspoken code of honor in an affair with Manalese’s daughter-in-law (Irina Demick).

The result combines dogged detective work by Le Goff and the inspired planning and execution of the jewel robbery until the two worlds collide. The investigation alone would have made this an outstanding picture. Le Goff, always seen with an unlit cigarette in his mouth although he is trying to give up smoking, concentrating initially on Sartet, sets up surveillance on the thief’s innocent sister and begins an involved – and engrossing – process of tracking down every potential lead and when at last he has Sartet in his sights it brings him up close to Manalese.

Le Goff’s professionalism is matched by that of Manalese and the picture develops into an absorbing battle of wits and the latter’s family values and moral compass puts him at odds with loner Sartet. There is some brilliant invention, the sacrificial watch, for example, and the unexpected appearance of a faithful British wife, although you do guess just how long Le Goff will go before lighting his ever-tempting cigarette.  

The ultra-cool Delon excels in this kind of amoral part, but Gabin and Ventura as old-style gangster and cop, respectively, steal the show. Demick thrives as the bored wife of a dull gangster who is attracted by the violent Delon, at one point deliberately putting herself in the line of his potential fire for the thrill. Actually, it’s the jewel heist that steals the show. Unlike other heist pictures where you have fair idea in advance of the details of the theft, here the audience is kept completely in the dark. Just as important in any heist is that the thieves get away with their plunder and the plan in this instance is breath-taking.

Catch it on Amazon Prime.

Lost Command (1966) ****

Derring-do and heroism were the 1960s war movie default with enemies clearly signposted in black-and-white. This one doesn’t fall into that category, in fact doesn’t fall into any category, being more concerned with the military and political machinations pervasive on both sides in war. Movies about revolutions generally succeed if they are filmed from the perspective of the insurrectionists. When they take the side of the oppressor, almost automatically they lose the sympathy vote, The Green Berets (1968) in this decade being a typical example, although the sheer directorial skill of Francis Coppola turned that notion on its head with Apocalypse Now (1979) when slaughter was accompanied by majesty.  In the 1950s-1960s the French had come off worse in two uprisings, Vietnam and Algiers. This movie covers the tale end of the former and the middle of the latter and it’s a curious hybrid, part Dirty Dozen, part John Wayne, part dirty tricks on either side, with a few ounces of romance thrown in.

Scene from the Italian photobusta.

Anthony Quinn, in unlikely athletic mode (that’s him leaping in the poster) is the officer of a paratroop regiment who sees out the debacle of the final battle of the French war in Vietnam, loses his commission, and then, reprieved, is posted to Algeria, where the fight for independence is in full swing, with a ragbag of rejects plus some faithful comrades from his previous command. In any spare moment, Quinn can be seen keeping fit, doing handstands, swinging his arms, puffing out his chest, and a fair bit of running, presumably to avoid the contention that he was too old for this part. Alain Delon, a bit too moralistic for the dangerous business of war, plays his sidekick. Quinn is an ideal anti-hero for a hero, an officer who ignores, challenges or just plain overrides authority, adored by his men, hated by the enemy, ruthless when it matters.

Cardinale’s seductive wiles can’t fool Quinn.

The brutal realism, which sometimes makes you quail, is nonetheless the best thing about the picture, no holds barred here when it comes to portraying the ugly side of conflict. The training in The Dirty Dozen is a doddle compared to here, soldiers who don’t move fast enough are actually shot, rather than just threatened with live ammunition, and there’s no second chance for the incompetent – at the passing out ceremony several are summarily dismissed. The only kind of Dirty Dozen-type humor is a soldier who fills his canteen with wine. Otherwise, this is a full-on war. Battles are fought guerilla style, the enemy as smart as the Vietnamese, catching out the French in ambushes, using infiltrators sympathetic to the cause and terrorism. Unlike Apocalypse Now where the infantry appeared as dumb as they come, relying on strength in numbers and superior weaponry, Lost Command at least has an officer who understands strategy and most of what ensues involves clever thinking. The battles, played out in the mountains, usually see the French having to escape tricky situations rather than blasting through the enemy like cavalry, although having sneakily pinched a mayor’s helicopter (though minus Wagnerian overtones) gives Quinn’s team the opportunity to strafe the enemy on the rare occasions when they can actually be found, their camouflage professionally done.

George Segal, unrecognizable under a slab of make-up apart from his flashing white teeth, plays the Arab rebel chief. In terms of tactics and brutality, they are evenly matched, Segal shooting one of his own men for disobeying orders. Claudia Cardinale appears briefly at the start as Segal’s sister and when she turns up halfway through giving Delon the come-on it’s a bit too obvious where this plotline is going.  With both sides determined to win at all costs, atrocities are merely viewed as collateral damage, so in that respect it’s an unflinching take on war. The picture could have done with another 15 minutes or so to allow characters to breathe and develop some of the supporting cast. The movie did well in France but sank in the States where my guess is few of the audience would even know where Algeria was. Gilles Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, out the same year, gave the revolutionaries the leading role. For the most part Quinn is in bull-in-a-china-shop form but his character is more rounded in a romantic interlude with a countess (Michele Morgan), his ability to outsmart his superior officers, his camaraderie with his own soldiers and, perhaps more surprisingly, the ongoing exercise routines which reveal, rather than a keep-fit fanatic, an ageing soldier worried about running out of steam.

Is Paris Burning? (1966) ****

Paris endured a four-year “lockdown” during the Second World War, under a brutal Nazi regime, and this is the story of the battle to lift it.

Politics didn’t usually play a part in war films in the 1960s but it’s an essential ingredient of Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris had no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings the Allies intended to bypass the French capital and head  straight for Berlin. Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after the attempt on his life, ordered the city destroyed.

Resistance groups were splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, wanted to wait until the Allies sent in the troops, the Communists planned to seize control before British and American soldiers could arrive.  When the Communists begin the fight, seizing public buildings, the Germans plant explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, other famous buildings and the bridges across the River Seine. 

The German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost. The Gaullists despatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Sorry for the plot-spoiler but as everyone knows the Germans did not destroy the city and the liberation of Paris provided famous newsreel and photographic footage.

Line-drawings from the extended poster – the all-star cast included Orson Welles, Glenn Ford, George Chakiris, Yves Montand, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon. At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made. It had a six-month shooting schedule and was shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. It was a big hit in France but flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

Director Clement was also aware he could not extract much tension from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button, so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry. The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes.

Like The Longest Day (1962), the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking a herd through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street, enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank. And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Anthony Perkins, as an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see – before he is abruptly killed.  Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones. Gore Vidal and Francis Coppola fashioned the screenplay with a little help from French writers whom the Writers Guild excluded from the credits.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika. Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, Glenn Ford (as Bradley), Kirk Douglas (General Patton) and Robert Stack (General Sibert) making fleeting glimpses. But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965) , Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Orson Welles, in subdued form, appears as the Swedish ambassador. Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon.

The score by Maurice Jarre is one of his best. The overture at the start is dominated by a martial beat, but snuck in there is the glorious traditional theme that is given greater and greater emphasis the closer the Parisians come to victory.