Professor James Anders (Edward G. Robinson), a school teacher in Rio de Janeiro has retired after 30 years. Upon leaving he flies to New York City to visit his old childhood friend Mark (Adolfo Celi) a man with suspected ties to the underworld. The reunion isn’t for sentimental purposes, Anders is there because he needs some help finding a group of specialists who can pull off a heist during the Carnivale. During his time working in Rio, Anders secretly spied on the building across the street from his school where the transactions of priceless jewels took place. Now there is $10,000,000 worth that are secured in the vault. The men he picks (with the help of Mark’s neat criminal employee card catalog) all have specific talents: Jean Paul Aubry (Robert Hoffman) is a playboy who has a way with women, Augustino Rossi (Riccardo Cucciola) is a brilliant technician, dapper Englishman Gregg (George Rigaud) is an expert in safecracking and Erich Weiss (Klaus Kinski) is a contract killer. They will all be paid $1,000,000 if they pull the job off successfully.
Before they leave for Rio each of the men are given identical lighters by Anders which have matching symbols so when they meet they will know who the other is. After arriving, Aubry jumps right into action trying to seduce Ms. Mary Ann Davies (Janet Leigh) the uber snobby secretary who holds the main key to the case inside the vault while the others begin planning out the heist and making the necessary adjustments. Their main obstacle is the high tech sound sensitive security system called the “Grand Slam 70″ which they must try to work around without being caught. What begins as a straight forward operation soon becomes complicated as the group come up against various unforseen troubles. The suspense and tension increases the moment the actual heist begins and will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The cast are all excellent in their roles but the performances by Klaus Kinski and Janet Leigh were the ones that stood out most for me. Kinski is known for playing eccentric, ruthless characters yet in this film he seems to be at his nastiest. He is practically an emotionless robot and when he’s not sneering up a storm he’s spitting insults or beating people up. He makes his time onscreen completely memorable and does so with his unique style. Janet Leigh who was usually cast as attractive, sexy roles instead turns off the charm becoming a rather unlikable person with no desire for romance…at first. When she does finally come around and transforms into her sultry vixen persona it actually is a wonderful payoff.
One thing you’ll notice while watching Grand Slam is how beautiful it looks visually. The cinematography by Antonio Macasoli is vibrant and lush which compliments Director Montalvo’s excellent camera setups. Of course having Rio as a backdrop for the story didn’t hurt at all with its exotic locales and bright atmosphere. There’s even some exciting additional footage of the Rio Carnivale with all the scantily clad dancers and celebratory music playing. This is a smaller detail, but I really loved the rear projection shots in this, which gave the scenes a kind of heightened effect.
An interesting bit of trivia on the film is that Sergio Leone was originally going to direct, but dropped out leaving his regular collaborators Editor Nino Baragli and Composer Ennio Morricone to stay on with the production. I think that really helped give the movie those special touches it needed to match up with the dynamic of the caper story. The main title theme by Morricone has been one of my favorites for years now, and I always wanted to see how it fit into the credits. I’m happy to say I wasn’t dissapointed. GRAND SLAM was one of the main movies that would usher in the 70s poliziotteschi (Italian crime film) era. It has become one of my favorite classic caper films and a great discovery with a title that says it all.