By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 12, 2008)
Looking at recent theater schedules, it appears that the “heist caper” is back (not that it ever went away). As of this writing, there is a Michael Caine and Demi Moore diamond heist flick, Flawless, running in theaters. Kevin Spacey stars in 21, which concerns an attempt to fleece a Vegas casino. IFC Films has an offering called How to Rob a Bank, which is in limited release and on PPV.
I haven’t had a chance to screen any of the aforementioned, but there is yet another new heist caper I have seen. I’ll admit, I didn’t rush right out to see The Bank Job, for several reasons: 1) The generic title, 2) I usually associate star Jason Statham with mindless action flicks, and 3) I had never forgiven director Roger Donaldson for spilling Cocktail onto theater floors (he had shown such promise in his early New Zealand days with the astounding Smash Palace).
But I must say, Donaldson has redeemed himself with his new film, based on a high-profile robbery that took place in England in the 1970s. Statham plays a low-level London criminal who is approached by an acquaintance (the lovely Saffron Burrows) with a plan to rob some safe-deposit boxes in a prestigious London bank. Unbeknownst to Statham and his gang, some of the boxes contain sex blackmail material that could potentially unseat several highly-placed members of the British government. To tell you much more would risk spoilers, so we’ll just say many twists and turns ensue.
Regardless as to how much artistic license may have been taken here, Donaldson has fashioned a terrific and surprisingly multi-layered entertainment. In fact, it not only works as a heist caper, it’s an involving political potboiler and espionage thriller as well. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have crafted a script that is pleasingly complex without being needlessly complicated (not an easy balance to strike). The movie is fast paced, but not in the headache-inducing flash cut/jerky cam manner that seems requisite these days; in this respect it hearkens back to a more classic era of movie making.
With all these heist capers in the multiplexes, I thought I’d share my top 10 favorites. As I always emphasize, these are my personal favorites, not the “greatest of all time” or the “most influential” (your outrage at my “failure” to include The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, etc. has been duly noted in advance, thank you).
So, in no particular order of preference, here ’tis…
Bob le Flambeur – This is the premier “casino heist” movie, a highly stylized homage to American film noir from writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville. “Bob” (Roger Duchesne) is a suave, old-school gangster who plans “one last score” to pay off his gambling debts.
The film is more character study than action caper; in fact its slow pace is the antithesis to what contemporary audiences expect from a heist movie. Still, patience has its rewards. The film belies its low-budget, thanks to the atmospheric location shooting in the Montmartre and Rue Pigalle districts of Paris.
The surprise is 15 year-old Isabel Corey, an earthy, wise-beyond-her-years nymphet who had never acted before (Melville literally spotted her walking down the street and thought she would be perfect for his film). The deliciously ironic twist of the denouement makes a great kicker.
Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – This (very) loose remake of Bob le Flambeur is the ultimate Rat Pack extravaganza. Frank Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a WW2 vet who enlists 11 of his old Army buddies for an ambitious take down of five big Vegas casinos in one night. Yes, they are all here: Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva and the original “Joker” himself-Cesar Romero. Lewis Milestone directed, and supposedly Billy Wilder had a non-credited hand in the script.
To be sure, it’s basically an in-jokey vanity project, and may not hold up well to close scrutiny; but every time Sammy warbles “Eee-ohhh, eee-leaven…” I somehow feel that all is right with the world. Steven Soderbergh’s contemporary franchise is slicker, but nowhere near as hip, baby.
Heat-This is writer-director Michael Mann’s masterpiece. While it does spotlight the precise planning and execution of several heists, as well as some genuinely exciting action sequences, the heart of this film is in its character development.
Robert De Niro portrays a master thief who plays cat-and-mouse with a dogged police detective (Al Pacino). Mann not only examines the “professional” relationship these two men have with each other, but takes great pains to show us how they each relate to the significant others in their life. De Niro and Pacino only share one brief scene together, but it’s a doozy.
There’s able support on hand from Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd. Those who have been anticipating another De Niro/Pacino pair-up will be happy to hear that they will be reunited in Righteous Kill, due out this fall (I saw the previews recently, and surprise surprise, its…a crime film!)
Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round – James Coburn is at his rascally best as a con artist who schemes to knock over a bank at LAX, ingeniously manipulating the airport’s own scheduled security lock down for the visit of a controversial foreign dignitary as a distraction. The first half of the film is reminiscent of The Producers; in order to raise the money he needs to buy the blueprints for the bank, he needs to patiently seduce several women and bilk them out of their bank accounts (it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!).
Aldo Ray, Severn Darden and Robert Webber give good supporting performances. Sadly, it’s the only real film of note by writer-director Bernard Girard, but one could do worse for a one-off.
Topkapi– Undoubtedly, I will be raked over the coals by some readers for choosing director Jules Dassin’s relatively light-hearted 1964 caper romp over his much darker and more critically esteemed 1956 casse classic Rififi for my top 10 list, but there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes-eh, mon ami?
The wonderful Peter Ustinov heads an international cast that includes Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff. They are all involved in an ingeniously planned heist to nab a priceless bejeweled dagger that sits in an Istanbul museum. There’s plenty of intrigue, suspense and good laughs (mostly thanks to Ustinov’s presence). There’s also a great deal of lovely and colorful Mediterranean scenery on hand. Vastly entertaining fare.
The Ladykillers (1955) – This black comedy gem from Ealing Studios concerns a league of five quirky criminals, posing as classical musicians, who rent a flat from little old Mrs. Wilberforce and use it as a front for an elaborate bank robbery. To watch Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom working together in the same film is sublime cinematic nirvana.
William Rose wrote the script (he also penned Genevieve, another Ealing classic). Director Alexander Mackendrick would go on to make one of the darkest noirs of them all, The Sweet Smell of Success, in 1957. I’m afraid the 2004 remake by the Coen brothers was a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”
The Anderson Tapes– Sidney Lumet directed this nearly forgotten thriller. Sean Connery plays an ex-con, fresh out of the joint, who masterminds the robbery of an entire NYC apartment building. What he doesn’t know is that the job is under close surveillance by several interested parties, official and private.
It’s one of the first films to ruminate on the encroachment of electronic monitoring technology into our daily lives and the resulting loss of privacy (The Conversation was still just a gleam in Francis Ford Coppola’s eye in 1971).
Nice ensemble work from a fine cast that includes Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King and Christopher Walken (in his first major film role). The smart script was adapted from the Lawrence Sanders novel by Frank Pierson, and a typically fabulous Quincy Jones score puts a nice bow on top.
The Hot Rock– Although it starts out as a by-the-numbers diamond heist caper, this 1972 Peter Yates film delivers a unique twist halfway through: the diamond needs to be stolen all over again (so its back to the drawing board). There’s even a little political intrigue in the mix. The film boasts a William Goldman screenplay (adapted from a Donald E. Westlake novel) and a knockout cast (Robert Redford, George Segal, Zero Mostel, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand and Moses Gunn). Redford and Segal make a great team, and the film finds a nice balance between suspense and humor. Lots of fun.
That Sinking Feeling – Sort of a Scottish version of Big Deal on Madonna Street, this was the 1979 debut from writer-director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Comfort & Joy). An impoverished Glasgow teenager, tired of eating cornflakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, comes up with a scheme that will make him and his underemployed pals rich beyond their wildest dreams-knocking over a plumbing supply warehouse full of stainless steel sinks.
Funny as hell, but with a wee touch of working class weltschmertz ; this underlying subtext makes it a precursor to films like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine and Brassed Off. Nearly all of the same delightful young cast members would return in Forsyth’s 1982 charmer, Gregory’s Girl.
Kelly’s Heroes – The Dirty Dozen meets Ocean’s Eleven in this clever hybrid of WW2 action yarn and elaborate heist caper, directed by Brian G. Hutton. While interrogating a drunken German officer, an opportunistic platoon leader (Clint Eastwood) stumbles onto a hot tip about a Nazi-controlled bank, secretly stashed with millions of dollars worth of gold bullion. Clint plays it straight, but there’s plenty of anachronistic M*A*S*H style irreverence on hand from Donald Sutherland, as the perpetually stoned and aptly named bohemian tank commander, “Oddball”.
The excellent cast includes Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod and Harry Dean Stanton. Mike Curb (future Lt. Governor of California!) performs the memorable theme song “Burning Bridges”.
…And just for fun, my favorite short film/ music video of all time: