“Distrust is a stage of confidence.”
Omnibus films were all the rage in the 1960s, and many managed to bring together an assorted array of top-notch filmmaking talent to create exceptional shorts, often bound by a negligible or essential theme. Some of these collections are outstanding. Others are emphatically less successful. And this stands to reason: by its very nature, any compilation film has the potential to be something of a mixed bag. But when one of these projects achieves efficient unison, as is the case with 1964’s The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (Les plus belles escroqueries du monde), the sum proves to be roundly entertaining and thoroughly well-crafted. This film is a solid succession of stories centering around one con or another, taking shape and taking place in prominent global centers. The stories are real—so says an opening title at the start of the film anyway—and any resemblance to real incidents or figures is “not coincidental.” However true that may be (not very), The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers is a compelling chronicle with enough variance to make each segment distinct, yet unified by a confidence connection. A largely unseen anthology, this four-part assembly (it used to be five, but more on that later) is a generally light, jazzy, and stylish production, which looks pristine on a newly released, and most welcome, Olive Films Blu-ray.
The relatively obscure Japanese director Hiromichi Horikawa kicks off the picture with Les Cinq Bienfaiteurs de Fumiko, a Tokyo-set story about a waitress, played by Mie Hama, who ingratiates herself with a miserly older man (Ken Mitsuda) in order to attain the requisite funds needed to purchase a pearl necklace. Spurred on by his lauded platinum-backed dentures and a tantalizing satchel full of cash, she reckons Mr. Moneybags will be her meal ticket. What she doesn’t count on, much to her surprise, is his failing health and his own penchant for deception. Like Catherine Deneuve and Jean Seberg in the sections to come, Hama helps put the “beauty” in The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers. She was most famous at the time for her role in King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), though her appearance as Kissy in You Only Live Twice (1967) would become her most prominent achievement. At any rate, she gives a frenetic performance as the greedy-eager young woman, accelerating from cutely comic flirtatiousness to quirky panic, and frequently hovering somewhere in between.
Gabriella Georgelli, herself a former beauty pageant winner, stars in Ugo Gregoretti’s La Feuille du Route, a somewhat convoluted tale about a prostitute, fresh out of jail for solicitation, who tries to find a way to remain in Naples despite a ban imposed by authorities. The scheme fixes on a front of sham marriages, an amusing conceit hilariously executed. Although the film may have its broadly humorous moments, Gregoretti’s chapter doesn’t exude the easy lightness of its counterparts—there are, in fact, moments when the interactions prove rather mean-spirited. The tone may not be entirely pleasant, but at least La Feuille du Route looks fantastic. Each part of The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers exhibits superb cinematography, and the work of venerated DP Tonino Delli Colli is particularly good in this section, most notably as he covers the nighttime Neapolitan streets.
If the comedy is less pronounced in La Feuille du Route, in Claude Chabrol’s L’Homme qui vendit la Tour Eiffel, the scam is so riotously implausible that even some of the characters can barely contain their laughter. Here the set-up takes as its victim a German Francophile played by Francis Blanche. So enamored is he by the City of Light, that a team of con artists convince him he is able to purchase the Eiffel tower. Featuring Jean-Pierre Cassel and Francis Blanche as two of the swindlers, Chabrol’s contribution follows in line with the others in that it, too, benefits from a beautifully scenic depiction of its respective city. And in this case, that representation conforms to the story as well, given that the implementation of this plot hinges on the German’s touristic naiveté. Unlike the other films, L’Homme qui vendit la Tour Eiffel concludes rather soberly, for though Blanche’s performance is decidedly over-the-top, his character is tragically undone by a genuine, harmless passion. Another tragic aspect of this segment is the criminally underused Deneuve, who was, admittedly, not yet the international superstar she would become; The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was released just a few months earlier, Repulsion would follow in 1965, and her stunning turn in Belle de Jour (in which Blanche also appears) was still three years away.
Finally, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Grand Escroc stars his Breathless pixie Seberg as a journalist traveling in Marrakech, where she is first arrested for possessing forged currency then seeks out the man behind the counterfeit bills. Godard was especially productive when it came to these omnibus features (one of the best, Ro.Go.Pa.G., from the previous year, not only featured he and Gregoretti, but also Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini), and with this lively short, shot by stalwart cinematographer Raoul Coutard, he adopts a predictably alternating style, from a cinéma vérité documentation of the impoverished region (the filmic term is literally stated in the picture) to trademark fissures of formal self-consciousness. The story gets a little flimsy, but it’s mainly held together by the charming Seberg, who is introduced reading Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man” (it’s a Godard movie, so of course somebody is reading something) and later buzzes about with her 8mm camera. Also starring in the film is Godard regular László Szabó (My Life to Live, Le Petit Soldat, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Made in U.S.A., Weekend), who appears as a police inspector. And look for the director himself as “Man in fez.”
The most curious thing about The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers, at least as it exists today, has to do with what it doesn’t contain. Roman Polanski had contributed a fifth episode to the collection, coming second in line and set in Amsterdam, but for reasons that are unfortunately never clarified by the folks at Olive Films, he asked that it be omitted from the restoration; the sleeve simply states his chapter, La Rivière de Diamants, “has been removed from presentations of the film at the request of the director.” Clips from the installment appear in the film’s trailer, which is the sole supplement on the Blu-ray, but the short itself seems to be all but impossible to find. Written with his frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, and with cinematography by the great Jerzy Lipman, Polanski said he wanted his sketch to “be as much a portrait of the city as the story of a con game. … It told how a beautiful, slightly dotty French girl [played by Nicole Karen] pretended to fall for a gullible Dutch businessman and stole a diamond necklace by means of a neat and simple stratagem—hence the title, River of Diamonds.” Though he proclaimed his film “not that good” in a 1969 Positif interview, writing in his 1984 autobiography, he stated: “[E]veryone, including the critics, agreed that our River of Diamonds sketch was a little gem. Unfortunately the other directors’ contributions were so slipshod that Les plus belles escroqueries flopped all over Europe.” Though we will apparently never know just how good Polanski’s segment is (he’s a great filmmaker, so it probably is quite good), but if he considers the other shorts to be “slipshod,” his must surely be impressive.