MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

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:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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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?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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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

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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

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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.

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Gambit (1966)
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.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.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.

FOOT SOLDIERS, PART TWO (And Then There Was Hollywood: Second Rumination)

Three films:

The Longest Day (Daryl Zanuck, Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wiki, Andrew Marton, 1962)

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Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)

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Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell, 1993)

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One theme:

“Tich ‘as ‘ed it! Fook me!” His face was purple, running sweat. “That shows ye w’at air strikes an’ tanks is woorth! Fookin’ ‘ell!”
“Will we go in again?”
“We’ll fookin’ have to!”

(George MacDonald Fraser, recounting a conversation with his Border Regiment’s old hand, Grandarse, during the Battle of Meiktila, fought between the British and the Japanese in Burma, 1945. From Quartered Safe Out Here, 1992)

I hope to be reviewing Fraser’s book soon. That will give me an excuse to look up his quote about the value of “special forces.” For now, suffice it to say Fraser and his mate were hardly alone in their disdain. Infantrymen who have served in combat tend to have a jaundiced view of the things which most impress their betters.

That’s because, from the dawn of warfare until yesterday, war only had a very limited set of real meanings.

Take the ground.

Hold the ground you’ve taken.

Don’t give up the ground somebody else is trying to take.

Until yesterday, war’s hard rules–and history’s–were well and universally understood.

Don’t lose.

If you lose, expect to bear the consequences.

When the men with the hardware meet the men with the belief, the men with the belief will end up owning the hardware.

These meanings, and yes, one might call them rules, were best and most clearly understood by those who were asked to do the hardest, dirtiest work–and the overwhelming majority of the killing and dying.

They were called various things in various languages at various times and places. All of which boiled down to a simple concept: Foot soldiers.

Important battles–or portions thereof–have been fought throughout history on horseback, at sea, in the air.

Every existential battle has come down to foot soldiers. You can win an important, history changing battle at sea (see the English defeat of the Spanish Armada for a prime example). But to take and hold ground–the final essence of war–you have to put boots on it. And those boots have to stay put.

The English could have lost to the Spanish Armada (or at Trafalgar, more than two hundred years later, or the Battle of Britain, fought in the air over a century after that) and still not lost.

You only really lose, existentially, when your foot soldiers lose.

Now, this foot-soldiers-holding-or-taking-ground seems like an inherently dramatic situation, the telling of which would lend itself most readily to film, the most visceral story-telling medium. And so it does. That being the case, there are surprisingly few movies devoted to straightforward depictions of foot soldiers doing their dirtiest work.

A lot of movies have battle scenes, and these battle scenes are often riveting. They frequently form some important role in a larger story. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), ostensibly about the same subject as The Longest Day, has a memorably harrowing opening sequence devoted to taking the Normandy beaches. After which, in typical fashion, it spends an additional two hours being about something else, namely saving Private Ryan. Such sequences are highlighted in almost any film that concerns itself with war.

But I only know a relative handful of such films where the clash of foot soldiers is the primary focus.

Of those, I only know three really good ones.

I don’t think any of them reach the last level of greatness–no one’s going to mistake them for Citizen Kane or The Searchers or even Paths of Glory (another film where foot soldiers figure prominently but the actual fighting is not quite the point). But they’re the best we have, in the English language anyway. And they have lessons within them that we have spent the last half-century forgetting.

We have convinced ourselves that no powerful army will ever again be in striking distance of our own national capital…or the capital of any valuable ally. We have convinced ourselves that we will never again have to throw the full weight of our own mighty army onto the outer edges of a foreign continent and fight for every inch of ground just to get a foothold. We’ve even convinced ourselves that the defense of an empire’s lonely outposts (and God knows we have more of those than any empire which has preceded us) will never come down to hard fighting against overwhelming odds.

We have convinced ourselves that any victory worth having can be won by special forces and air strikes and, at a stretch, tanks.

We have entered a safe zone where none of this….

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or this…

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or certainly this…

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will again be necessary.

These are now ancient anachronisms. Not useful to our enlightened age, never mind that our age and our “enlightenment” were built upon ten thousand years worth of such.

And it’s true that even the most improbable victories do not necessarily bear final fruit.

More or less faithfully depicted in Zulu, the stand a hundred and fifty British regulars made at Rorke’s Drift in present day South Africa, on January 22-23 of 1879, against four thousand Zulus whose fellow tribesman had wiped out a command ten times larger at Islandlwana literally hours before, kept the earlier battle from being counted a disaster on the order of Custer’s Last Stand, fought with similar odds to those faced at Rorke’s Drift, three years earlier, half way around the world. It greatly enhanced the British army’s ability to quickly and efficiently mount a re-invasion of the Zulu Kingdom (the attacks on Islandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were a response to the first invasion). And it gave the Brits a stirring mythology (the best “myths” are always the ones based in hard truth) that may well have served to stiffen more than a spine or two in the dark days awaiting in the century ahead.

Still, in the long run, the victory at Rorke’s Drift meant no more strategically than the defeat at Little Big Horn. We’re still in charge of the lands where the Sioux and Cheyenne once roamed. The Brits are long gone from South Africa.

Which ought to give us a clue about our tendency to continually poke hornets’ nests and be forever surprised when we are stung and stung and stung again.

In case that doesn’t happen–in case we insist on both fighting “wars” and not winning them–there are other lessons to be learned from the films that give us the most realistic glimpse of what the dirtiest work of not just empire, but civilization, looks and feels like.

One of the lessons is civilization’s fragility–the nearness of Chaos and its attendant darkness. Cast aside Rorke’s Drift, with its junior commanders (played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine), the senior of the two an engineer, who had seen no action previously and would never again distinguish themselves in battle or anywhere else, if you want to.

But we’ll do well to ponder Joshua Chamberlain  (Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg) holding the far flank at Little Round Top after having been told that retreat was not an option, or a crippled Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda in The Longest Day), landing on the wrong Normandy beach and deciding “We’ll start the war from here.”

They and their men, and thousands of others doing equally dangerous and difficult things around them, turned tides that might well have swept over western civilization had they given way. And none of those men sprang from a vacuum. Certainly none sprang from the kind of vacuum we have created for ourselves now, when military units are valued, if at all, more for their all-well-and-good-if-they-work social laboratory aspects than their ability to do the elementary things every single empire before us has forgotten at its peril when the weight of battle turned their laboratories back into yet another real war zone, where chariots or tanks or social experiments were never enough by themselves.

What elementary things?

Once more with feeling….

Take and hold ground. Whatever ground Fate and the moment have deemed vital to personal, national, civilizational, survival.

Believe that the effort was worth something.

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zulu4 longestday6It’s possible we won’t need to remember the basics, of course.

There’s always the chance that the hard and fast rules of human history and human nature really were made for others.

But if I could lay odds on the future I won’t live to see, I know which way I’d bet.