This heist picture made Charles Bronson a star, though, like Clint Eastwood a few years previously, he had to go to Europe, in this case France, to find an audience appreciable of his particular skill set. This was such a box office smash in France that it was the reason that Once upon a Time in the West (1968), a major flop virtually everywhere else, turned into a huge hit in Paris. After a decade as a supporting actor, albeit in some quality offerings like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bronson developed a big following, if only initially in Europe.
Farewell, Friend could also lay fair claim to stealing the title of “first buddy movie” from the following year’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) because, apart from the heist that is central to the story, it is essentially about the forging of a friendship. But it wasn’t released in the U.S. for another five years, in the wake of Bronson’s Hollywood breakthrough in The Valachi Papers (1972), and then under a different title, Honor Among Thieves.
And you can see why it was such a star-making vehicle. Bronson goes toe-to-toe with France’s number one male star Alain Delon (The Sicilian Clan, 1969). He had the walk and the stance and the look and he was given acres of screen time to allow audiences to fully appreciate for the first time what he had to offer. Like Butch Cassidy, the duo share a lot of screen time, and after initial dislike, they slowly turn, through circumstance and the same code of honor, into friends.
Dino Barran (Alain Delon) is the principled one, after a final stint as a doctor in the French Foreign Legion originally turning down overtures from Franz Propp (Charles Bronson) to become involved in a separate major robbery. Propp is an unsavory customer, making his living as a small-time thief who uses a stripper to dupe wealthy marks. Barran plans to rob a corporation’s safe during the three-day Xmas holiday of two million dollars as a favor to the slinky widow Isabelle (Olga Georges-Picot) of a former colleague, for whose death he retains guilt. Propp more or less barges his way into the caper.
It’s a clever heist. Isabelle gets Barran a job as a company doctor whose office is next door to the giant vault. But there’s a twist. Surveillance reveals only three of the seven numbers required to open the combination to the vault. But Barran reckons three days is sufficient to try out the 10,000 possible permurations.
Barran and Propp despise each other and pass the time playing juvenile tricks, locking each other into a room, stealing all the food from the one dispensing machine, winding each other up, while they take turns trying different combinations. But it opens after only 3,400 attempts and they face a shock. The vault is empty. They have been set up to take the fall for a previous robbery that must have been completed before the building closed for Xmas.
And there’s no way out. They are in lockdown, deep in a basement. The elevators can only be opened by a small squadron of guards upstairs. Food long gone, they are going to run out of water. If they use a lighter to see in the dark, or build a fire to get warm, the flames will eat up the oxygen they need to survive in the enclosed space. So the heist turns into a battle for survival and brute force attempts to escape before the building re-opens and they are discovered, exhausted and clearly guilty.
But that’s only the second act. There is a better one to follow, as their friendship is defined in an unusual manner. And there are any number of twists to maintain the suspense and tension. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were close friends when that western began. Here, we see the evolution of a friendship between two forceful characters who express their feelings with their fists.
Delon was a known quantity, but Bronson really comes to the fore, more than holding his own against a top star who oozed charisma. This is Bronson in chrysalis, the emergence of the tough guy leading man screen persona that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in the world. Surprisingly, given his later penchant for the monosyllabic, here he does a lot of talking, perhaps more actual acting than he ever did later when his roles tended to fall into a stereotype.
He has the two best scenes, both character-defining, but in different ways. He has a little scam, getting people to gamble on how many coins it would take for an already full-to-the-brim glass to overflow when a certain number of coins were dropped in. While this is a cute trick, it’s that of a small-time con artist, but watching it play out, as it does at critical moments, is surprisingly suspenseful. The second is the strip scene which shows him, as a potential leading man, in a very poor light, and although thievery is the ultimate aim, it is not far short of pimping, with Bronson standing back while the woman (Marianna Falk) is routinely humiliated. It’s the kind of scene that would be given to a supporting actor, for whom later redemption was not on the cards. It says something for Bronson’s command of the screen and the development of his character that by the end of the picture the audience has long forgotten that he could stoop so low.
It is a film of such twists I would not want to say much more for fear of giving away too much, suffice to say that Olga Georges-Picot (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, 1968) and her friend, mousy nurse Dominique (Brigitte Fossey, in her grown-up debut), are also stand-outs, and not just in the sense of their allure.
Director Jean Herman, in his sophomore outing, takes the bold step of dispensing with music virtually throughout, which means that during the critical heist sequence the audience is deprived of the usual musical beats that might indicate threat or suspense or change of mood, but which has the benefit of keeping the camera squarely on the two leading characters without favoring either. Most pictures focusing on character rely on slow-burn drama. In the bulk of heist pictures, characters appear fully-formed. Here, unusually, and almost uniquely in the movie canon, character development takes place during an action film.
Top French thriller writer Sebastian Japrisot (The Sleeping Car Murder, 1965) was responsible along with Herman for the screenplay. Japrisot was a key figure in the French movie thriller scene, churning out, either as original novels or original screenplays, A Trap for Cinderella (1965), Rider on the Rain (1970) and The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun (1970).
Even without Bronson, this would have been a terrific heist picture. With him, it takes on a new dimension.