No. 126 | June 25, 2010
Our theme this week
Heist films generally fall into two groups. The first are the dark, dramatic stories, some of them film noir, with roots that go back to early gangster films. Later came the lighter tales, clever and stylish, aiming mostly to entertain, and often with a comic tone. Like Monday’s featured films (both original and remake), today’s belong to the latter category.
The original Italian Job is a beloved favorite of film buffs and car buffs, as famous for its cliffhanger ending (see below) as it is for giving the Mini Cooper a virtual starring role. The real stars are two icons of British cinema, a young Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, the gangster who organizes the caper, and Noël Coward, in his final screen appearance, as Mr. Bridger, the kingpin who runs his criminal empire from a jail cell. The plot involves an audacious plan to create massive traffic gridlock in Turin, Italy, while Croker’s gang robs a $4 million shipment of gold bullion from an armored car. The Minis are crucial since they can carry off the gold using routes unavailable to larger vehicles—over stairways, on rooftops, and through city sewers. The crooks transfer the loot to a 36-foot Harrington Legionnaire, which takes them into the Alps for their final getaway. Well, almost.
The unresolved end works like a charm, and Paramount, to its credit, never made a sequel. Thirty-four years later, though, it released the remake. Same title, same showcase for Minis, same sort of armored car robbery during a traffic jam, but a different story. The Italian job of the title is set in Venice and is only the prologue to the main plot. A successful heist and aquatic getaway is spoiled when one of the crooks double-crosses the others. A year later, in Philadelphia, the team reassembles, then travels to California with plans to recover the gold they had rightfully stolen. Bring on the armored car, the Minis, and—hard as it is to imagine in Los Angeles—a traffic jam, and one more heist later, the gold is the hands of the crooks who deserve it. A hit film, though not the landmark of the 1960s original, The Italian Job remake stars Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, Donald Sutherland as John Bridger, Charlize Theron as Bridger’s daughter, Stella, and Edward Norton as Steve, the inside man. Others rounding out the team of thieves are Jason Stratham, Mos Def, and Seth Green.
The two films make for an interesting comparison of how the times, and Hollywood, have changed. For the remake, the budget, the effects, the action have all grown bigger. The characters, not so much. Still, it’s not a bad piece of entertainment, though not nearly as memorable as the original.
Interested in how that cliffhanger ending might be resolved? Brit scientists are on it.
“Handsome Rob. Premier wheel man. Once drove all the way from Los Angeles just so he could set the record for longest freeway chase. You know he got 110 love letters sent to his jail cell from women who saw him on the news?”
—Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), The Italian Job (2003)
1. Virgil Thomson is the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for a film score. What was the film?
2. Dennis Hopper never won an Oscar but he was nominated twice. Name the two films for which he earned his nominations.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Easy Rider (1969)
The American Friend (1977)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Red Rock West (1993)
3. John Wayne starred in five films directed by Howard Hawks. Name the one film of Wayne’s from the list below that was not directed by Hawks.
Red River (1948)
Rio Grande (1950)
Rio Bravo (1959)
El Dorado (1966)
Rio Lobo (1970)
4. Three about Toy Story 3!
a. When his toy friends reset his mode at Sunnyside Daycare, Buzz Lightyear begins speaking …Russian? …Spanish? …Hindi?
b. Lotso assigns Buzz and his friends to …the Butterfly Room? …the Silkworm Room? …the Caterpillar Room?
c. The animated short film playing in theaters before Toy Story 3 is called …Black and White? …Day and Night? …Merry and Bright?
5. The promotional artwork (below) for a picture opening this week fails to show the faces of the two megastars appearing in the movie. That’s odd, to say the least, considering the many millions of dollars the producers spent on casting those two so they’d attract people to theaters. Name the movie and the two stars.
No. 125 | June 24, 2010
Our theme this week
Sexy Beast generated plenty of buzz when it opened in the U.S. in mid-2001, much of it for Ben Kingsley’s performance as a psychopath who won’t take no for an answer. I thought the hype was a little overblown, but it’s a good, solid, entertaining film. It’s vulgar and violent, and has an odd comic edge. I rather liked Ray Winstone’s character, and among heist scenes in movies, this one had a novel twist.
Winston plays Gal Dove, an ex-con living in Costa del Sol with his wife. Dove is retired, and wants to be, but he gets an invitation from Don Logan (Kingsley) to join him for (yes, that staple of the genre) one last job—a bank heist in London. Dove turns down Logan but Logan makes it clear that the only acceptable answer is yes. That’s a problem. Logan is so unhinged you can never be sure what he’ll do, and his volatile, profanity-spewing, likely-to-blow-at-any-moment temper makes him an utterly watchable villain. While he’s in the movie, that is. But he’s too nasty a creep to last.
Dove still has to deal with Logan’s boss and agrees to go through with the heist, a somewhat ludicrous job involving drilling into the bank vault from the neighboring Turkish bath. It makes for some memorable images, and a good metaphor for Dove—who’s underwater and unable to breathe. He needs the heist to go well, not for the riches, but just so he can be done with the life of crime.
Kingsley earned an Oscar nomination, one of his four, and got the lion’s share of the film’s famously juicy dialogue. The script had an exceptional number of f-words and c-words; many hundreds, in fact, and someone apparently has counted them. In that respect, Sexy Beast didn’t borrow from heist films of the ’50s, which broke new ground but still conformed to Production Code standards (at least in Hollywood). Brits, however, seem to have a certain talent for that kind of language.
No. 124 | June 23, 2010
Our theme this week
The Asphalt Jungle is a heist film in the noir tradition, directed by a master of film noir, John Huston, and adapted from the novel by a master of crime fiction, W.R. Burnett.
The plot elements are not unlike what you see in other films of the genre. A criminal gets out of prison and rounds up a team of crooks. They plan a big score, knocking off a jewelry store. The crime is carried off with precision—the break-in, disabling the alarm, evading the electric eye. Then, something goes wrong. A watchman interrupts the heist. A shot is fired, wounding one of the criminals. The men escape. One of the criminals double-crosses the others. Separately, the men try to elude a police manhunt. Fate finds each of them, one way or another.
Sounds familiar, but that’s not to say The Asphalt Jungle is derivative. Just the opposite. It’s the movie that a thousand other heist films have borrowed from, some directly, some a few generations removed.
The plot is clean and compelling, but the real appeal of the story is the characters. The thieves are ordinary men, real flesh and blood, not just types. They’re not the kind of bad guys you often see in early gangster films. You understand where these men come from. You see the world through their eyes. They make crime seem like just another line of business.
The stellar cast includes Louis Calhern as Alonzo D. Emmerich, the lawyer whom the criminals need to finance the operation. Sam Jaffe is the mastermind just out of prison, Doc Riedenschneider (a name borrowed years later by the Coens). Doc’s picks for the break-in team include tough guy Dix Handley, memorably played by noir favorite Sterling Hayden; the driver Gus Minissi, an early role for James Whitmore; and the safecracker Louie Ciavelli, portrayed by character actor Anthony Caruso. Two of the women to watch are Jean Hagen, in one of her best performances, and Marilyn Monroe, in the first of a pair of small roles in 1950 (the other, in All About Eve) that helped launch her career.
No. 123 | June 22, 2010
Our theme this week
Rififi is a French movie made by American-born director Jules Dassin, in his return to filmmaking after being blacklisted by Hollywood. Rififi isn’t the earliest heist film, but it’s a classic of the genre and it ranks among the most influential, along with (to cite just a couple of examples from French cinema) Jacques Becker’s Grisbi (1954), starring Jean Gabin, and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956), perhaps the best of the lot.
The Rififi plot follows four gangsters as they plan and execute a robbery at a Paris jeweler’s. Tony (Jean Servais) is just out of prison, persuaded to join Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Robert Manuel), a Swede and Italian, for one last job. Jules Dassin (credited under a pseudonym) plays César, the expert safe cracker whose mistress is a nightclub chanteuse.
Rififi is notable for its suspense and its sympathetic portrayal of gangsters. Its most famous sequence is the heist, a nearly silent set piece lasting about a half-hour, as the thieves break into and rob the jewelry shop. The filmmaking is as expertly done as the theft, each moment planned in precise detail and pulled off to perfection.
The final third of the film follows the consequences of the crime on the men involved. César betrays the others, and he and Tony have a final confrontation. Jo’s son is kidnapped, leading to a desperate search for the boy. Tony finally tracks him down at the country estate of Grutter, the owner of the nightclub. Bleeding profusely, Tony escapes, taking a wild ride back to Paris in a memorable final scene.
Jules Dassin continued making films, mostly in Europe, until 1980. In 1964 he returned to the heist genre with Topkapi, set in Istanbul and starring his wife-to-be Melina Mercouri.
No. 122 | June 21, 2010
What the heck was going on in the art world last month?
PARIS, May 20 (AP) — “A broken alarm system made it as easy as 1-2-3: A masked intruder clipped a padlock, smashed a window and stole a Picasso, a Matisse and three other masterpieces from a Paris museum Thursday — a $123 million haul that is one of the world’s biggest art heists.” (More at NPR.)
MARSEILLES, May 22 (CBC) — “Art thieves have struck again in France by stealing five pictures, including a Picasso lithograph, from the home of an art collector in Marseilles only a day after a major heist in Paris. French police said Saturday the owner was beaten up at his home in southern France on Friday.”
LONDON, May 21 (E!) — “You know if this happened to Naomi Campbell, we’d have a bad case of street justice on our hands. Instead, it was the unlucky Kate Moss whose London home was burgled around 4 a.m. Thursday…. No crime of fashion, these sticky-fingered criminals weren’t after Moss’ designer duds, but rather her pricey art collection, as they made off with several pieces, including a portrait from guerrilla artist Banksy worth more than $115,000 (incidentally, two other Banksy works were also stolen from a London gallery earlier this month).”
You read those news stories, and if you’re like me, you may be thinking, Haven’t I seen this movie before?
Countless heist movies have been made over the years. The genre took off in the 1950s and it’s been popular ever since. More recently there have been some notable remakes. Art heists are just one popular subject of these caper films. Other times the thieves’ target is a stash of jewels, or gold bullion, or a bundle of cash.
We’ll look at a range of heist films this week, but before we get to them, here are clips from a couple of documentaries specifically about art theft. Stolen is a film about the 1990 heist at the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston involving thirteen works worth more the $500 million, by artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas. It was the most valuable museum theft in history. The Rape of Europa is about the plunder of art treasures from territories occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. (If you’re interested in more, you can read about five of history’s most notable art thefts here, including the Gardner Museum heist.)
Rebecca Dreyfus, director
The Rape of Europa (2006)
Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Nicole Newnham, directors
Many fiction films have been about art thefts as well. They run the gamut from one of today’s featured films, below, to the infamous bomb known as Hudson Hawk (1991). Perhaps the most successful was Topkapi (1964), with Melina Mercouri and an Oscar-winning Peter Ustinov. Others include How to Steal a Million (1966), a comedy with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, directed by William Wyler; Once a Thief (1991), from John Woo; Entrapment (1999), with Sean Connery and (in a prominent way) Catherine Zeta-Jones; The Score (2001), a worthy effort, with Edward Norton and the two Vito Corleones, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando; and Ocean’s Twelve (2004), featured here recently. Also, a couple I have no opinion on: Kevin Spacey’s Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000) and last year’s direct-to-video The Maiden Heist (the distributor went under and couldn’t afford a theatrical release), with Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, and William H. Macy.
Our theme this week
The take in the bank heist from the earlier film is $2.6 million in cash. For the remake, the stolen painting is worth a cool hundred mil. That’s what inflation will do for you. But the real question is, Which would you rather have? Cash, of course, you can spend. How much is a stolen Monet on your wall worth to you?
Thomas Crown (in the remake) is a billionaire. He can afford to have a different answer than you.
Steve McQueen created the role for the original (that other movie he did in 1968, just before Bullitt). Crown is a sportsman and he’s in it for the game, not the money. The character, like the movie, has style to burn. If you’re looking for depth, there’s not a lot there, but the surface appearances are pretty to look at. The visual signature of the film is the split screen technique used for some scenes. It had the look of something new at the time, though the effect never quite caught on. Today (like certain zoom shots) it looks either novel or dated, depending on how you feel about it. The sensibility of the film is very much the ’60s, and its devil-may-care attitude helped define a segment of heist movies in years to come.
Thirty years later, the remake borrowed the title, the character, and the central elements of the story—a rich businessman pulling off a daring theft, then having an affair with the beautiful woman investigating the crime. Pierce Brosnan is Crown, and Rene Russo takes the investigator/love interest role played earlier by Faye Dunaway (Dunaway gets a supporting role in the remake as Crown’s psychiatrist). The prize of Crown’s pursuit is a masterpiece of Claude Monet’s, which he steals in broad daylight from the Met. The second time around, the story leads to a different end. The remake is more tightly written and directed than the original. It’s a better film, in a way, yet as often is the case with remakes, not as fresh.
“It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, John. What the hell else have we got to do?”
—Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)