In 18th Century France, Dominique Cartouche (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a pickpocket with grand ideas. One day on the city streets, he crosses paths with the Chief of Police, Ferrussac (Philippe Lemaire), and is forced to bow to him; but Ferrussac's wife, Isabelle (Odile Versois), has caught Dominique's eye, and he notices how, at the public execution of a thief, she takes no pleasure in the killing. Later, Dominique goes to see Malichot (Marcel Dalio), the leader of the thieves, to hand over the money and valuables he has amassed that day, and attacks Malichot after he bullies another thief. Malichot demands revenge, so Dominique has to join the army to escape...
If there's one thing that French cinema does well, it's the historical drama: Cyrano de Bergerac, La Reine Margot or The Flashing Blade on TV are all top entertainment, and just the tip of the iceberg as far as this genre goes. This sweeping swashbuckler with a serious side, a co-production with Italy, was scripted by Daniel Boulanger, Charles Spaak and the director Philippe de Broca, and is blessed with a sumptuous look and has a dashing hero in Belmondo, a loveable rogue who we enjoy seeing getting into and out of various scrapes.
There's a strong anti-establishment tone to Cartouche that makes itself plain early on in Dominique's wartime adventures. Joined by two friends, the ironically named Gentle (Jess Hahn) and The Mole (Jean Rochefort), Dominique evades being killed in the battle by wandering around aimlessly and ducking bullets, and the three of them are regarded as heroes by the military for surviving. Their reward? A place on the front line the next day. Deciding against accepting this, the trio show their ingenuity by stealing the army gold in a daring plan, which they pull off and end up at a local tavern for the night.
As usual, Belmondo gives hope to ugly blokes everywhere by romancing a beautiful leading lady, in this case Claudia Cardinale, playing Venus, a feisty gypsy girl who he meets chained up by the police at the tavern and takes an instant attraction to. Dominique is a man of great charm and decent principles: in the first scene he steals from the rich to give to a poor beggar in the Robin Hood tradition, and later on he demands that no blood should be shed on his escapades. Venus is his perfect match, but once he's won her heart he's not satisfied.
Dominique still has his eye on Isabelle, and after he deposes Malichot, he and his men launch a campaign to relieve the decadent aristocracy of their riches. This makes him a wanted man, but Ferrussac putting a price on his head makes Dominique all the more determined to be with Isabelle, even though she's a ice queen compared to the adorable Venus (Cardinale rarely looked better). With ideas above his station, the film seems to say, Dominique loses his way and strays from the path of securing justice in the face of the authorities. After an electrifying first half, Cartouche drops some of that energy as the drama draws to a close, and by the tragic end all the earlier good humour is lost. Still, it's a rousing adventure with numerous highlights that should leave you filled with revolutionary fervour. Music by Georges Delerue.