Curbside Cinema: The Cars Of Belmondo’s “The Burglars” (Le Casse)

By the mid 60’s filming technology had ‘freed up’ the camera and movie goers were to experience an endless supply of ‘behind the wheel’ high speed pursuits with awesome chair-grabbing qualities. Bullit, The French Connection, The Seven Ups, all have acclaimed chases renown in car aficionado circles. While Hollywood productions benefited from larger distribution networks, European films had more than their share of elaborate stunts, though harder to come by nowadays. Today’s subject, Le Casse (The Burglars), is such an example; a French box office hit back in 1971 that most haven’t heard of, unless you happen to be a fan for ‘pop’ European cinema.

On the image above, the film’s stars: Jean Paul Belmondo and Fiat’s 124. Belmondo doesn’t resound much with US audiences, but his star status was unquestioned in large swaths of the world. According to trivia, his casual-carefree-tough-guy persona served as inspiration for Indiana Jones, and in Japan he was quite the celebrity. In his native Europe his career spanned decades and a good number of his films are essential pop references. Meanwhile, in the American continent he’s mostly known around film circles, associated to auteur filmmakers Godard and Truffaut.

After his early auteur material, Belmondo moved towards comedy and action infused flicks, with his tough-macho persona punching, shoving and throwing people by the wayside. He could be at once affable, arrogant, menacing and goofy, in ways no modern celebrity seems to manage. His fame was well established by the time Le Casse opened, and in France the film had the highest box office debut up until that time. Before Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan, Belmondo was quite fond of performing his own stunts as the image above shows. Rather amazing he made it to 88, passing away recently in September of 2021.

Talking about tough acts, in the film’s stellar chase the Fiat 124 makes a compelling case for being a rugged little number. No idea how many were disposed of after the suffering they endured, but the small sedan is thrown and flogged in ways no modern CGI can recreate. Fiats may have mostly disappeared from our landscapes, but out of the factory they were tightly screwed and ready to perform under more than enthusiastic driving.

While no ‘Bullit’ in quality, the Le Casse chase is still rather memorable. Its main stunt driver, Rémy Julienne, had risen to fame on The Italian Job and would go on to have a long career as stunt coordinator in Bond films and other blockbusters. For casual viewers the chase plays a bit long as plot wise it becomes a rather pointless exercise, but I assume that’s not a problem for CC’s readership. If you wish to watch deep themes, human complexity, and/or social commentary, this is not the movie for you; but as a car aficionado the sequence works wonders. If you just literally wish to cut to the chase, the clip is on YouTube.

In the US the film wasn’t that well received by critics, calling it ‘glossy but empty,’ and arguing there wasn’t much of a plot. The film is the second adaptation from a novel by David Goodis, and the press preferred the original 1957 Jane Mansfield starred version. Criticisms that are valid, as the film took itself rather seriously with a somewhat dry approach and no funny Hollywood-style quips. In its time It played well with its intended audience though, and for our car-oriented interests it’s a rather intriguing proposal.

If the stunts themselves don’t impress you, the casual early 70’s Athens traffic should. The film’s piece de resistance was filmed around that city’s harbor area, and shows Athens roads filled with an eclectic array of machinery. Greece never being a major car making nation, its car landscape is varied in origin and serves as a wonderful time capsule.

At the time of filming Western Europe had ostracized the Hellenic nation after a military coup upended its constitutional order. That background probably explains the lengths local authorities went through to accommodate the international film crew; according to legend some of the motorway shots were filmed in regular traffic, even leaving transit control to the crew’s discretion.

The open motorway shots suggest there’s truth to the claim; at least in some brief instances, as most of the chase was obviously staged. On a personal note, old movies awaken a bit of envy on me when seeing how ’empty’ those roads looked back in the day. Our current clogged streets are evidence there’s been indeed increased material prosperity worldwide, too bad it means sitting an hour or two just to pick a gallon of milk.

There’s no way to cover in this post the diversity of Athens traffic, so we’ll do a quick glance-over. Much will be missed, but feel free to watch the clip and enjoy those long gone European movers. By the way, a close up on the motorway shows a Maserati Ghibli a bit lost in a sea of utilitarian vehicles. Was Mr. Onassis taking Jackie out to the seaside? Or rather, enjoying an outing with some mistress?

Back to the film, did I mention the plot was threadbare? For what it is, a bunch of professionals under Belmondo’s guidance commit a rather elaborate burglary at the film’s start. It establishes the flick’s mood from early on, being dry and serious, and showing a lost film language where audiences had to watch the action (Way before characters just babbled your ear off in each shot, as it became commonplace in later pop flicks).

During the heist a common film gimmick is used: Belmondo operates a ‘safe-cracking’ gadget to perform the heist. Last I checked such devices don’t seem to be sold anywhere. Where do criminals get these fancy tools? Not the Sears catalog, that’s for sure.

SPOILER alert: One of about two plot twists occurs early on. After a successful heist, Belmondo and company are blackmailed by a corrupt police officer that wants a ‘cut’ from the goods. With that, the ‘cat and mouse’ game that propels the rest of the film ensues. Omar Shariff plays the baddie, and while the charismatic Dr. Zhivago doesn’t get much to do with his character, I always welcome his presence, even with no snow around.

Shariff’s transport is none other than a ’65 Opel Rekord, which is as classy a vehicle as a European cop could aspire to. CC readers know Opels to be a favorite on this site, and on Le Casse the Rekord makes a good case of being more than a match to the 124. This even before Bob Lutz turned one on its head in search of better suspension. Both the Opel and the 124 do take quite a beating, and regarding the latter it must have something done on its mechanicals for it doesn’t drive like a lowly sample.

With the chase on, European offerings of all sorts appear. On this parking lot a site favorite, the Peugeot 404; as well as a Mini, a Taunus, a Daf in the back? a Fiat 1100 (I think), and a couple of Fulvias. I have a soft spot for both the Peugeot and especially the Fulvia, even if its advanced engineering at accessible prices made the model a dubious proposal outside of Europe. To purchase one was to put you at odds with your local gas station; any work would require metric tools, and Bob was never that much into centimeters, you know?

Here’s one of those clips au naturel that brings credibility to the “shot in real conditions” story. If staged, the cement truck and the mini bulldozer are the work of a production designer genius; or an irresponsible one.

Here the Opel gives good chase to the 124, and the tossable nature of the latter is put to the test while going ‘downstairs.’ Good thing this is Greece, for any damage those stairs suffered could be justified under the logic ‘in keeping with the 4th century BC look tourists love!’

There, the Special T moniker explains the Fiat’s sprightly performance. It’s the hot 80 bhp twin cam model that could safely run above 6,000 rpm and sound lovely while doing so. Stunt driver Julienne apparently fell in love with Fiats and kept using them in stunt work all the way to the late 80’s. That someone would put his life in the hands of a certain model, time and time again, says something about that vehicle’s driving abilities.

Here both cars show the suffering they’ve been subjected to… and there’s more to come. During the chase the Fiat’s tires look occasionally a bit deflated; is that a stunt driving trick? Better not try at home. Or the road, as it’s the case.

Here the Fiat passes a sixties Toyota Corona, which in spite of its ordinary mechanicals would soon replace the Italian in low end markets around the world. On the left a rare Skoda Octavia appears, which even then must have felt somewhat primitive, but probably worked fine enough in Athens’ roads.

In many a film chase I like to ‘guess’ the moments where a car ‘died’ while performing for the cameras. Here are three shots where I think there was a 124 ‘kill,’ the aquaplaning bit probably doesn’t quite fit that criteria, but I’m pretty sure the rear axle smashing does. Can’t imagine that little baby ever running straight again. According to Rémy Julienne only two 124s were used, but I have my doubts on that claim.

After ten minutes of pointless tire screeching fun, the chase comes to an end. Some slow proceedings ensue and a brief disco scene proves the 60’s were not entirely gone yet. How did these sets got passed by the Greek Colonels is anyone’s guess. Not even the Beatles were allowed in the radio during their rule. Austin Powers, where are you? 30 years in the future if I recall correctly.

Not all in Greece were European cars, and Americans make brief appearances; here’s a Ford and a Buick barely peeking into frame. Maybe one of this is Jackie’s car? Would she settle for an LTD? And that bus is an Alfa Romeo 140 AF. Don’t tax your mind into making much sense of Alfa’s marketing decisions, as by this point it was a government owned entity. Also, outside the US consumers were more accepting of brands occupying multiple market brackets.

A second chase ensues with Belmondo performing some acrobatics, something he seemed to truly relish. More Athens traffic suggests a good chunk was comprised of American-owned German offerings; Rekords and Taunuses appear more often than not, with the latter appearing in all its changing faces after the poorly received 17M led to constant updates. Nice Escort on the left.

A Vauxhall Viva also appears (on the right, if I’m to trust Imdb), which according to period literature was a decent performer. The kind of information that’s maddening in retrospect, as GM and Ford had quite the ‘know-how’ to create fun small cars under their corporate umbrellas; if built anywhere but Detroit. Why did US consumers had to put up with Vegas and Pintos? They seemed specifically made to punish buyers for their choices.

As the chase becomes ever more perilous, Shariff is wise to board a Volvo instead. Even back then, Volvo’s safety credentials were becoming known. What better way to go after a reckless Belmondo? Another American appears briefly, on the left behind the tiny Fiat. This time a Willys wagon.

More Belmondo jumping around (blurred in the image). The lady in the Datsun 1200 seems very interested in the French daredevil, and there are lots of gawking by the locals on this sequence (on Youtube). The Leyland bus is another interesting vehicle, as it was a stalwart in public transport for decades. Rather odd to think the Leyland name would come under Indian ownership. Another Alfa appears too, but this time the sporty family hauler Giulia. Incidentally, it was that model’s launch that sent Fiat into creating the 124.

The outlier in this shot is the Auto Union 1000, on the left behind the Peugeot 303. That little runt was the successor to the oddly named 3=6, a not well remembered precursor of the transverse FWD layout, and with a name that could pass for some kind of App start up nowadays. Man, have you installed the three equals six on your Iphone?

A later fight occurs around a ‘fallen in disgrace’ classic era Mercedes. The clownish hippie colors show, once again, the psychedelic 60’s still lingered around. Belmondo, of course, throws a good punch, and the goon’s shirt looks just like one my father had. Not that he would have ever been caught in a brawl.

All movies -and this post- come to a close, and Le Casse ends in a solo face off common to action movies, this time in a silo. The sequence must have served as inspiration for the finale in Peter Weir’s 1985 Witness, for some rough similarities exist. Belmondo would go on to further successes, Shariff would somehow ‘hang in there,’ and Rémy Julienne would keep trashing Fiats for some time to come. As for Athens, I hear it’s lovely to visit, even if Fiats are no longer as common.

And the film’s star:

Cohort Classic: 1972 Seat (Fiat) 124 – One Of The Most Significant Cars Of The 20th Century

Vintage R & T Road Test: Fiat 124

Curbside Classic: 1968 Fiat 124 – Ain’t Seen A Lada Those Round Here