In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish
Why are zillion dollar robberies so fascinating? And why are heist movies so attractive?
Recently we heard about the massive European robbery with a theft of millions, and last week Time Magazine reminded us of Bruce Reynolds, who in 1963 escaped London with what was called the greatest train robbery of the 20th century. We were fascinated by these and other heists, perhaps by their audaciousness – the conception, the planning, the precision-like preparation, the rehearsals, and, finally, the successful carrying out of the dastardly deeds is that what hooks us in reality or on the screen?
When we see a movie that carefully details the planning of a daring caper observing with baited breath the workings down to the tiniest detail is there part of us that hopes it will succeed while another part, recognizing the immorality of the deed, hopes to the contrary? Is it that conflict plus the suspenseful playing out of the action that has us for a few hours on the edge of our seats?
Could that account for the fact that the first American film with a plot, “The Great Train Robbery,” was chosen to be filmed back in 1903?
Heist films have become a very successful money-making staple as a genre, and film companies have been churning them out, endlessly, some more memorably than others. From this partial list, how about renting some for a few winter nights to indulge in some of the more daring of them?
“Rififi” – a 1954 suspenseful caper, the French granddaddy of all such films, centering on a quartet of jewel thieves who find each other more dangerous than the gendarmes. Director Jules Dassin set the pattern for building suspense by carrying out the heist in total silence a device that worked with equal success in his 1964 “Topkapi,” shot in Turkey with its suspenseful action amidst exotic locales.
“Hot Rock” – in 1972, Peter Yates directed Robert Redford, George Segal, Ron Leibman, Paul Sand, Zero Mostel and others in an amusing caper comedy with inept robbers blundering every step of the way. That same light-hearted technique worked wonders with the 1951 British movie, “The Lavender Hill Mob,” about a similar group of bungling burglars headed by Alec Guinness, who attempt the theft of a huge amount of gold disguised as cheap Eifel Tower souvenirs. In 1999 a more modern take on the caper/comedy, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells,” is set in London’s East End (heavy on gross-out Cockney dialogue), where a big bucks scheme goes hilariously awry.
“The Sting” – the best big budget con movie ever made is the 1973 film in which Paul Newman and Robert Redford combine to whip their game on the 1930s mobster Robert Shaw with a dandy racetrack scheme took Best Picture and Best Director (George Roy Hill).
“Bonnie & Clyde” – in 1967, set a trend for Depression heists with this sensational Arthur Penn accounting of the life and times of the infamous bank-robbing team of the 30s. In 1975 another bank robbing situation, “Dog Day Afternoon,” introduced a more complicated scheme with director Sidney Lumet, a keen surveyor of NYC oddballs, recreating the true case of a Brooklyn kook who holds up a bank for money to help pay for a friend’s sex change.
“The Pink Panther” series, beginning with the 1964 Blake Edwards run-on a story that starts with David Niven as a mysterious jewel thief, with Peter Sellers on his trail, and while Niven plays his usual insouciant character, it is Sellers who rcarries on as the totallyt incompetent Inspector Clouzeau in “Pink Panther Strikes Again” the 1976 follow-up and by far the most original of the following series.
“The Thomas Crown Affair” first made in 1968 with Norman Jewison directing Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen as a super-cool couple involved in the “perfect” bank robbery – a mix of light humor, sex, and suspense, featuring one of the best car chases ever, down the streets of San Francisco. Followed by a less than satisfying remake in 1999.
“The Great Train Robbery,” a 1979 British import that bears no resemblance to the 1903 silent one-reeler – a stylish, elegant film about a trio of crooks including Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland who, in the 1800s conspire to steal the greatest shipment of gold from a moving train all filmed against the glorious greens of the Irish countryside.
Oh, and so many more from around the world, but these should be enough to whet your appetite and prove that crime does pay – at the box-office.
Rotten Tomatoes average: “Oz,” C.