Any Number Can Win (Mélodie en sous-sol, 1963)
Directed by Henri Verneuil
Produced by Jacques Bar
Screenplay by Michel Audiard, Albert Simonin, Henri Verneuil
Based on The Big Grab by John Trinian (Zekial Marko)
Cinematography by Louis Page
Edited by Françoise Bonnot
Music by Michel Magne
Compagnia Cinematografica Mondale
Distributed by MGM
(1:58) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
What happens when you put together an actor who’s arguably the greatest icon of French cinema and a young man often referred to as the most beautiful male in all of film? Before you answer, throw in the fact that they’re starring in a superb heist picture. Of course, you have Any Number Can Win (or Mélodie en sous-sol, which literally translates “Melody in the Basement”).
Legendary Jean Gabin stars as Charles, a man just paroled from five years in prison. He hasn’t been gone that long, but after the train ride home, Charles discovers that things have changed so much he can’t locate his own street. Eventually finding his way home, (a simple house surrounded by high-rise buildings) Charles discovers his wife (Viviane Romance) has bought a television (horrors!) and made other changes, yet Charles himself remains a creature of habit, wanting nothing more than to immediately plan another heist.
“You and your contradictions,” his wife says, “You always rebelled against crummy wages and you spend five years making slippers for free. You wanted silk shirts and hand-stitched shoes, and you ended up in coarse wool and clogs.” She wants him to buy a business and enjoy his leisure years, telling him, “Adventure is for the young and healthy. I don’t feel up to nights in custody and interrogations anymore.” All their years together with Charles in and out of prison have led to this conversation, which never descends to yelling or violence, just a quiet (and sometime humorous) resignation. I could’ve watched an entire film with these two characters.
But Charles is determined. When Charles’s former right-hand man Mario (Henri Virlojeux) bows out due to ill health, Charles makes a few calls and recruits young Francis Verlot (Delon), a young, overconfident petty thief who still lives with his mother, who constantly nags him about not having a legitimate job. When Charles meets Francis, a clash of philosophies doesn’t even come close to describing their differences. Charles knows exactly what he wants and knows how to get the job - robbing the casino at Cannes - done.
Francis is undisciplined, can’t take his eyes off the girls, and is literally all over the place. Although director Henri Verneuil doesn’t beat us over the head with this “odd couple” pairing, we know something’s not going to go well, either with Francis screwing something up or his brother-in-law Louis (Maurice Biraud), acting as the driver, or maybe both.
Any Number Can Win is a well-constructed heist with tension, laughs, and a great jazz score by Michel Magne. The ending (which I won’t reveal) is one of the most memorable heist endings in cinema, and you won’t soon forget it. The story, direction, and atmosphere are all wonderful, but the real pay-off is in watching the King of French Cinema Jean Gabin working with Alain Delon. It’s a joy to see two actors at different points in their careers working so well together to produce a film that does just about everything right. A delightful experience!
Next time: Stay tuned!
Photos: IMDb, Sixties Crime Films