The French Connection
Known in France as le sacre monster (the sacred monster), in Italy as il brutto (the ugly man), and in America as Charles Bronson, Charles Buchinsky began his career playing villains and like his co-star in The Dirty Dozen, Lee Marvin, rode the late ‘60s anti-hero wave to become a leading man in tough crime thrillers that would culminate in his career-defining role as Paul Kersey, the architect/ vigilante in Michael Winner’s Death Wish.
In 1968, fresh off of the Robert Aldrich 12 star smash hit, Bronson found himself plying his craft in Europe where crime films and westerns starring tough guy Americans like Clint Eastwood and Jack Palance were in vogue. Like Eastwood, Bronson was an unusual type for the Hollywood standard of handsome men Rock Hudson and Charlton Heston. By 1971, the European adventure paid off: Bronson was awarded a special Golden Globe as the most popular actor in the world.
Back in ‘68, however, Bronson was still looking for opportunities. French superstar Alain Delon pushed to cast him in his latest crime caper, Adieu, l’Ami (“Farewell, Friend”), and the pairing proved to be very successful. Adieu, l’Ami was released in America as Honor Among Thieves and became the first of several collaborations between Delon and Bronson. Once a staple of late night TV and the Charles Bronson section of your neighborhood video store, Honor Among Thieves has now been released to DVD in a very barebones edition by StudioCanal/ Lionsgate home entertainment. The release comes with the announcement from StudioCanal that none other than John Woo is working on a remake of it. However, outside of the central situation, I have no idea what Woo is going to make of its wild plot and cryptic characters.
The screenplay by famed French mystery writer Sebastien Japrisot does not suffer fools, nor a fool’s gold. “Sebastien Japrisot” is an anamgram of the author’s real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi, a nom de plume as pointlessly complex as his script. Honor Among Thieves has a plot that moves as though it were carefully thought out, and yet it also appears to be desperately improvised on the spot. It has all the beats of a crime caper but with twists and turns that seem to emerge randomly. Maybe something got lost in the translation.
Try and make sense of the following: Franz Propp (Bronson) and Dino Barron (Delon) are soldiers returning from the Algerian war and looking for new prospects. It’s hard to tell whether or not they know each other, since Franz seems so familiar with Dino and yet Dino acts as though he’s never seen Franz before. After refusing to join Propp in a large scale caper somewhere in Africa and engaging in some vaguely homosexual business involving a gun, Dino
bids him adieu.
Somehow, Dino gets involved in bizarre caper proposed to him by a strange woman named Isabelle Moreau (Olga Georges-Picot), looking for a soldier named “Mozart”. This is clearly not Delon although it seems he may have known the man in the army. Since Dino is also a doctor, it’s arranged to have him conduct physicals in a room right next to a vault containing bearer bonds. Since everything in this movie is a non sequitur, it does not immediately follow that Isabelle wants Dino to steal the bonds. Rather, she wants him to put $50,000 worth of bonds back into the safe. We’re never really sure why, although it may have something to do with her husband whom we later learn is the owner of the building.
The plan is this: Dino is to perform the company’s medical check-ups for its personnel over a three day period, right before the Christmas holiday. While in his office, a camera will be set up to view the vault room in the hopes of catching the safe’s combination when it’s opened and closed by company personnel (which happens every 15 minutes, it seems.) The company building, loaded with state-of-the-art (for 1968) alarms and sensors, will be vacant over the holiday so once Dino has the combination, he can load the bearer bonds back into the safe. There’s just one problem: there are only three numbers visible from the photos for the seven-dial safe. Dino has no choice but to try out various combinations until he cracks the safe.
Meanwhile, Franz is seen pimping out some very willing blond who just wants to be a doll. At least she keeps saying she wants to be a doll for these rich degenerates. Franz encourages it all, creating a stripper stage for her on a parking garage turntable. She gets her wish soon after as a Christmas garland is placed around her neck and she‘s pulled about like a doll. While this goes on, Franz rips off the joint.
He soon finds out that Dino has a job as a company doctor. How Franz knows anything about this company or why Dino might be there is not explained. He just knows. In fact, Bronson wears this Chesire grin throughout that seems like he knows everything about everyone. Which is why it’s not explained just how Franz happens to show up at Dino’s office just as it’s closing for the all important Christmas holiday. He seems to know what Dino is up to and wants a piece of the action. Soon, both Franz and Dino are alternating spots at the safe, randomly trying to crack it, going through the literally thousands of possible combinations. But when a mistake causes them to become imprisoned within the vault, they strip off their shirts and get greased up by the makeup team to help set their minds on escaping.
They are somehow able to escape and when they do, they discover that a guard has been murdered and that a large sum of money has been stolen. Dino seems to be the mark. He is to take the fall for the robbery and the murder. So, he and Franz go their separate ways with a paper thin plan to meet up in Marseilles sometime. Franz is caught when he suspiciously starts to run at the first sight of a French policeman. He becomes the work of police inspector Antoine Meloutis (Bernard Fresson), who wants him to name Dino as his partner in crime. But since it’s 1968, there’s still some honor left among thieves and Franz is not about to rat anyone out. Dino, meanwhile, has taken up house with the daughter of the company’s owner, a girl whose nickname is Waterloo and whose birthday may have something to do with the combination.
This sounds like I gave away the whole movie, but it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. There are all kinds of random, stream of consciousness crazy thing happening in this film. The story goes into all directions at once without any hint at its purpose. In truth, I don’t really know if it’s badly written, badly directed, or badly acted because it all could really be some kind of art film parody on the American crime film. There’s no doubt that Japrisot intended on creating an intentionally mad story. This one is made up of so many spare parts that it could only be meant to play games with the viewer’s expectations.
Thrillers are made up of twists and turns that are supposed to be surprising. But not by conjuring events that come out of left field. Bronson shows up at the company out of nowhere and invites himself in on the robbery. Sure, this happens in many caper films as rival characters join forces, but Bronson has no reason to be there and no idea of the robbery plan; a robbery that’s not actually a robbery at all by a doctor taking the place of another missing doctor named Mozart by the mother of a girl named Waterloo.
The director is Jean Herman and all I can say is that he shot the picture competently enough. About 30 minutes in, I just pretended I was watching Bunuel and laughed like a madman ‘til the last shot, which puts the whole movie in perspective. Dino waits to be grilled by Inspector Meloutis in the hallway of the police station as Franz is led past him, still smiling like only he knows what this whole film is really about. Franz stops by him and pulls out a cigarette which, like many a Howard Hawks hero, Dino studiously lights.
Now Delon has a very stone face and in this film he may have smiled once, but here as Franz is led away, all of the sudden, the camera does a chilling zoom in and the actor explodes with a huge smile and says, “YEAHHH!” in some kind of triumph. With this, the film and this review ends. That kind of thing is really beyond any criticism. You’ll either get it or not. I thought it was hilarious, but I left the story behind a long time earlier.