"The Sicilian Clan" stands out as a quality, first-rate, heist thriller from veteran French helmer Henri Verneuil. No stranger to urban big-time crime sagas, Verneuil directed exciting, memorable films such as "Any Number Can Play" (1963), "The Burglars" (1971), and "Fear Over The City" (1975). This polished melodrama about the underworld and the plotting of a major heist caper stars three heavyweight dramatic Gallic thespians; namely, Jean Gabin of "Grand Illusion" (1937), Alain Delon of "Red Sun" (1971), and Lino Ventura of "Three Tough Guys" (1974). Verneuil deployed these icons of French cinema previously in "Any Number Can Play" and "Greed in the Sun" (1964). What sets this superbly lensed movie apart from earlier crime thrillers is its exploration of the traditional 'crime doesn't pay' theme. Aside from an opening escape from a police van, most of the action in this complicated thriller is fairly realistic and incredibly suspenseful.
A notorious cop killer, Roger Sartet (Alain Delon of "Le Samourai"), convinces a Sicilian crime syndicate chieftain, Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin of "Action Man"), to mastermind his escape from police custody in exchange for the plans to an international jewelry show that could net millions of dollars worth of ice for the clan. Vittorio's sons slip Sartet a compact-sized drill as he is about to be turned over to prison authorities. During the loud, noisy bus ride through congested Parisian streets to the lock-up, Sartet not only unlocks his handcuffs but he also cuts a hole large enough in the metal floor of the van to slip through it. He can do this because each prisoner in the van is locked up individually in a phone booth sized compartment. Vittorio's sons orchestrate a traffic jam, and Sartet crawls from the prison bus to their van. Immediately, a hard-nosed cop, L'inspecteur Le Goff (Lino Ventura of "The Valachi Papers"), warns Sartet's sister Monique Sartet (Danielle Volle) to contact him if Sartet calls her. He reveals to her that all of her phones are being tapped and that she is under constant surveillance. Nevertheless, Vittorio arranges for Sartet to inconspicuously meet his sister despite the police surveillance. Sartet explains that he shared a cell with a disgruntled husband who killed his wife's lover after he returned from installing a complex alarm system at a jewelry show. Although Vittorio has carefully run his syndicate for years and is planning to retire to Sicily with his wife, he cannot resist this enticing job. He calls up an old friend in New York City, Tony Nicosia (Amedeo Nazzari of "Spy Today, Die Tomorrow"), a Mafioso with connections, to meet him in Rome. Together, they case the jewelry display and verify everything that appeared in Sartet's plans. Moreover, they discover a new alarm that prevents them from stealing the jewels. They tear up a $100 dollar bill, part company, and tell each other if they can figure out a way to pull off the crime that a man will show up with the other half of the C-note.
Meanwhile, a confined Sartet causes no end of trouble for Vittorio because Sartet wants desperately to get laid after two years of going without sex in prison. Le Goff and his men nearly catch Sartet with his pants down in a brothel, but the cop killer stages a miraculous escape. Eventually, Nicosia sends the man with the other half of the C-note, and Vittorio and his sons set up the plan to steal the priceless jewels. At the same time, unbeknownst to either Vittorio or his sons, Sartet has a sexual liaison with Aldo Manalese's sexy wife Jeanne (Irina Demick of "The Longest Day"), one day when she is bathing and Sartet is bashing an eel to death on the rocks. Vittorio's grandson catches them in the act, but Jeanne swears the child to silence. Later, this infidelity comes back to haunt both of them, but not before Sartet accompanies Vittorio on the daring heist, scheduled to occur after the syndicate skyjacks the jetliner transporting the ice. The entire NYPD crowds Kennedy Airport and awaits the villains when the plane touches down in the Big Apple. However, the mobsters have an ace up their collective sleeves.
Director Henri Verneuil quietly builds up atmosphere and momentum in this old-fashioned heist caper and pays off all the narrative set-ups without pulling out anything that he had not foreshadowed from the outset of the story. The gifted cast is top-notch, and the photography, apart from the hijacked jet landing, is terrific. You have to be patient and wait for the inevitable to happen in "The Sicilian Clan," but it is well worth the wait for all the revelations that occur in the end. Ennio Morricone, who scored all of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, provides an interesting but inconspicuous score that beautifully and economically underlines the twists in the plot.
In "The Sicilian Clan," the villains successfully pull of their caper, but they have an 'honor among thieves' falling out that results in their dying or getting sent to prison. Generally, speaking before the 1966 James Coburn caper "Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round," the criminals never got away with the loot. Here, the French and American criminals fool the cops entirely and get away with the booty. However, the French criminals pay with their lives after the crime because of Jeanne's marital infidelity.
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