I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.
Today, I’ll fix that.
Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.
You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”
Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.
For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.
That ought to keep it simple.
And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.
I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.
Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.
There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).
And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).
But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.
They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.
My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.
So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger
The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings
Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.
The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)
Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!
I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.
Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).
I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.
So I’ll stick to my premise.
There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.
Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.
Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.
What better than loot?
Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.
And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)
The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.
There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?
Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.
And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.
Such things can tell us…things.
If we let them.
I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.
What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).
All that’s a given.
What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom, playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.
It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.
But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.
Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.
It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.
But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.
Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.
Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.
Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.
For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.
It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.
After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.
So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.
It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.
So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.
The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.