Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

SIMON KENT (MAX CATTO) – The Lions at the Kill. Hutchinson, hardcover, 1959. No US edition.

SEVEN THIEVES. Fox, 1960. Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger, Joan Collins, Eli Wallach, Alexander Scourby, Michael Dante and Berry Kroeger (that’s seven, isn’t it?), plus Sebastian Cabot and Marcel Hilaire. Screenplay by Sydney Boehm, based on the novel The Lions at the Kill, by Simon Kent. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

   This is the first Max Catto I’ve read, and I’m asking myself what I was doing with the rest of my life.

   Lions opens with Philippe, co-owner of a moribund Paris night club, reluctantly meeting with a Police Inspector who casually informs him that some of the money stolen a year or so ago in a daring Casino burglary has been passed in his club. (The serial numbers of the hot money were recorded before the theft, meaning it will be necessary to sit on the loot for years before trying to pass it.) Two of Philippe’s employees, Manuel and Melanie, match descriptions of two of the suspects, and the Inspector thinks he can use them and the money to flush out the rest of the gang by the simple expedient of publicizing his news…. the theory being that:

      1.) Manuel and Melanie have been holding the lucre for the rest of the gang, and

      2.) When the others find out they’re spending it, they’ll converge on the club like Lions at the … kill.

   The trap is sprung in a scene of enjoyably terse violence, leaving a few loose ends to dangle intriguingly, whereupon we cut to a flashback about the robbery itself.

   This takes up the bulk of the book, and does it very well as Catto details the roles and relationships of the people involved: the planner, the organizer, the technician, the extra hands, the weak-link (unreliable but necessary to the scheme) and the woman who has seduced him into compliance. The characters are not developed so much as they are gradually revealed to us with each turn in the plot, so that the complications (and they are many and well-turned) vie for attention with what we are learning about the people involved, and our curiosity about how they will interact.

   Suffice it to say that the caper ends ironically but with edgy realism, whereupon we cut back to the aftermath of the police trap for yet another suspenseful and oddly moving twist to wrap up a tale I will remember.

   All of which was too much to put in a movie, and the ending would never have passed the censors in those days, so when they filmed this as Seven Thieves they cut out the beginning and end and just filmed the middle. And I must say they did a fine job of it, too. Writer/producer Sydney Boehm kept the best lines from Catto’s book, threw in a few effective wrinkles of his own, and got the story across quite capably indeed. For his part, that old pro Henry Hathaway filmed it with his usual expertise: effective (but never showy) camera angles, a good sense of pace, and a knowing sensitivity for the actors and the characters they portray.

   Barry Kroeger, normally cast as a slimy schemer, plays the Muscle here, and he looks convincing, Michael Dante makes a smooth safe-cracker (especially effective showing a fear of heights at the crucial moment on a high ledge) and Alexander Scourby, normally the tough old Celt, does a surprising turn as a French weakling, visibly crumbling under the pressure of the job.

   Eli Wallach is fine as usual but doesn’t have much to do except for a cool Sax solo to highlight Joan Collins’ lusty strip-tease. (She was coached for this by Candy Barr.) Edward G. Robinson displays his usual cold aplomb as the brains of the gang, cool in emergencies and unruffled by rebellion in his ranks.

   But most of the attention is focused on Rod Steiger as Robinson’s chosen organizer: the one who keeps the gang in line for him and moves things along, and if the chubby guy seems a bit unlikely as the romantic interest, he carries the tough-guy business just fine. There’s some interesting ambiguity about his relationship with Robinson, too patly resolved near the end, but for most of the picture he remains a complex and intriguing protagonist, and one who keeps us guessing.

   Ultimately, Seven Thieves betrays the tough premise of Lions at the Kill, but I have to say it does it so enjoyably that I can’t carp — and I don’t think you will either.