Any Number Can Win [Melodie en Sous-Sol]

(France 1963)

I approach “heist” movies with hesitation—they tend to be silly, formulaic affairs. As a fan of midcentury Italian and French film, though, Any Number Can Win caught my eye. The promotional blurb I read persuaded me to give it a shot. I’m glad I did.

Charles (Jean Cabin) is a gruff career criminal who just got out of the joint. His wife (Viviane Romance) wants to retire and play it straight, but he insists on one last job: knocking off a casino in Cannes. He recruits Francis (Alain Delon), a petty thief he met in prison, and Francis’s brother-in-law, Louis (Maurice Biraud), a simple mechanic who really has no business participating in a scheme like this. The plan calls for Francis, posing as a high-rolling playboy, to stay at the casino for a week; his job is to scope out an entrance to the elevator shaft backstage that leads to the vault where the money is kept.

Once Francis arrives, he’s immediately smitten with Cannes: hanging out at the pool, driving a cool car, chatting up beautiful girls over cocktails, hitting night clubs, ordering room service. He hooks up with a dancer, Brigitte (Carla Marlier), as a means to an end—but he gets caught up in the melodrama of their fling and the glamorous life he’s gotten himself into. His dalliance threatens to derail the entire operation.

Any Number Can Win gets off to a shaky start—it’s so slow that I began to doze off. Director Henri Vernuil picks up the pace once Francis gets to Cannes and steadily builds momentum and suspense as the story progresses. I got more and more anxious watching the plan come to fruition, excited to see what happens next. A great jazz score orchestrated by Jean Gitton punctuates the action nicely. The early Sixties French Riviera setting—palm trees, lights, and nouveau-meets-modern architecture—is dazzling in black and white. Delon fits perfectly with his smoldering, polished looks. The ending is one of the most memorable I’ve ever seen: floating cash, that’s all I’ll say.

118 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B


(USA 1963)

Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra takes me back to high school Latin class, where I saw it the first time. One of the most expensive movies ever made—adjusted for inflation, its budget of $44 million amounts to roughly $336 million today (—Cleopatra is a straightforward albeit very glamorous and maybe not entirely accurate history lesson. Everything about it, like ancient Rome, is impressive, excessive, and just plain epic. The characters are practically real-life deities, and the actors who play them—Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra), Richard Burton (Mark Antony), Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar)—are legendary. The sets are huge and overwhelming. Watching Cleopatra is a luscious Technicolor orgy for the eyes.

Is it a good movie? It kept me engaged, at least what I stuck around for (see next paragraph). Taylor injects her wry wit into Cleopatra. It’s fun and weird to see Carroll O’Connor (i.e., Archie Bunker) as a Roman senator. All that said, though, Cleopatra is not exactly entertaining.

Speaking of Latin class, Cleopatra was parsed out over a week, so it didn’t seem as long as it is: over four hours—edited from its original plan of six hours! Even the trailer is long. Fuck. Sadly, it’s too much for a school night. I left during intermission after the first segment—Julius Caesar and Cleopatra—and that is still longer than most movies today. For the record, I’m not counting this in my official tally because I didn’t stay for the whole thing. Et tu?

(Music Box) C+

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

(USA 1963)

A colleague who saw my check-in on Facebook unwittingly but perfectly summed up It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with one innocent question: why would I bother to see “that old person movie”? He’s not off base: crammed with stars most of whom had seen better days even at the time—Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Jimmy Durante, Carl Reiner, Phil Silvers, the Three Stooges—it’s the Cannonball Run of the Great Generation. Silly and fun in a “pull my finger” way, it’s a straightforward slapstick comedy about greed from a director (Stanley Kramer) known for tackling serious subjects. As I watched this, I saw the face my grandfather made when he told a risqué joke—kind of like Three’s Company’s Mr. Roper (Norman Fell), who by the way is also in this.

The story isn’t complicated: on a California desert highway, a group of travelers encounters a dying criminal on the run (Durante) whose last words tip them off to a suitcase of money buried in a park “under a big W.” After a futile attempt to devise a plan to find the money together and share it, a madcap race to get to it erupts—and it’s every man (and woman) for himself.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is over the top in every way: the scenery is huge—perfect for the 70 millimeter restoration I saw—the story is elaborate and overlapping, the cast is immense, and the film is very, very long. It’s interesting to see television stars like Fell, Peter Falk, Jim Backus, Marvin Kaplan, Jonathan Winters, and Don Knotts in minor roles, most before they were famous. Nothing about this film is sophisticated, which is a large part of its corny charm. Overall, the plot and the humor are uneven, going from impressively witty to beyond stupid—particularly the denouement with the fire truck ladder. The dialogue degenerates into yelling and the action becomes monotonous as the film progresses. Despite its shortcomings, though, it kept me engaged almost to the end—no small feat for a film that runs over three hours and has an intermission.

(Music Box) B-

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival