Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Last Night on TCM...: Casino Crime
Ocean's Eleven (1960) is the code name for the 82nd Airborne, a group of men who, 15 years after the end of WWII, decide to have a most unusual kind of army buddy reunion. The old gang, led by Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra, exuding martini glass class) and his right hand man Sam Harmon (Dean Martin before his pickled years), are recruited for a big casino heist in Las Vegas. Not just one casino, but five in one night, New Year's Eve to be precise. Flown in from all corners of the nation are Jimmy Foster (dashing Peter Lawford), one-eyed soul brother Josh Howard (Sammy Davis, Jr.), stone-faced Roger Corneal (Henry Silva, at the start of a long career of low-budget film heavies), goofy 'Curly' Steffans (B-movie character actor Richard Benedict), 'Mugsy' O'Connors (a petrified Joey Bishop), wisecracking Peter Rheimer (a pre-Mr. Roper Norman Fell), cowboy Louis Jackson (westerns regular Clem Harvey), and Vince Massler (stand-up comic Buddy Lester). The final man, Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte), is sprung early from a 1-5 stint in prison, and takes on the mission for melodramatic reasons; he is suffering from a terminal heart disease and wants to put his son through college after his death. The mastermind behind the heist is Greek tycoon Spyros Acebos (hammy Akim Tamiroff), who also funds the operation.
Overlong at 127 minutes, Milestone could have easily tightened this to a much better 100-minute feature. Still, if you've been avoiding this film for whatever reason, you don't need to put off seeing it any longer. Fun cameos by Red Skelton as himself (trying to exceed his limit at one of the casinos), former gangster film regular George Raft as a casino owner who calls Duke in for advising on the robbery, and Shirley Maclaine, the sole female member of the Rat Pack, as a drunk party girl cement the generally good time to be had with Ocean and his eleven. It really is cool, cats.
Original theatrical trailer for Ocean's Eleven (1960)
The same year as Milestone's light-hearted all-star color hit from Warner Brothers, 20th Century-Fox's veteran contract director, Henry Hathaway, provided a more serious black-and-white alternative, Seven Thieves (1960). Replacing Vegas with Monte Carlo, and downplaying the star power while also escalating the talent level (sorry, Rat Pack), Hathaway's film is a marvelous surprise that has remained practically ignored in discussion of caper films over the years.
Fresh out of the clink and anxious to return to America, Paul Mason (Rod Steiger, superb as always) meets up with old friend Theo Wilkins (Edward G. Robinson, also predictably wonderful), a disgraced scientist and professor who has retreated to Monte Carlo to lick his wounds. His vacation time has led to him hatching an interesting business opportunity for Paul, or as he puts it, "a dramatically unique venture in piracy." A heist of $4 million in francs from Monte Carlo's most prestigious casino, using a team of seven, is Wilkins' plan to "make the world gasp one more time." He has already enlisted the aid of Poncho (post-Baby Doll, pre-Ugly Eli Wallach), a club saxophone player, and Melanie (a very young Joan Collins), the club's dancer, who performs the worst routine I've ever seen (and I watch Something Weird striptease movies). Insider Raymond Le May (Alexander Scourby), executive secretary to the casino's director (magnificently bearded Sebastian Cabot), is smitten with Melanie, and goes along with the plan to prove his love for her. Handsome gigolo Louis Antonizzi (Michael Dante, the town pervert in The Naked Kiss), an expert in blowing safes, and sinister muscle Hugo Baumer (popular villain Berry Kroeger) complete the septet with Paul's acceptance of the offer. The scheme is to pose as famous aristocrats for an annual ball held at the casino, providing them inside access to the safe. Naturally, the mission doesn't go off without a few hitches or two...
Better than both 1960 films is Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur (1955), a classic deserving of its acclaim. A financial failure upon its release, the film was praised by critics Truffaut and Godard and developed a cult following over the years, counting among its members Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly vowed to give up making crime films after seeing Bob because he believed Melville had perfected the genre. Melville, one of the masters of French cinema, whether you've heard of him or not, borrows from American crime films of the 1940s and early 1950s, but with a distinctive Gallic twist that makes this a uniquely thrilling yarn.
Living in the rundown Montmarte district of 1950s Paris is Bob, a has-been hood respected and admired by everyone in the neighborhood, even as he swirls deeper and deeper into dire financial straits due to a gambling problem. Out of a cunning sense of desperation to make one last grasp at success, he hatches a scheme to rob a Deauville casino on the night of the Grand Prix, recruiting his old friend Roger, inside man Jean, and young Paolo, the impressionable son of a former partner-in-crime,as well as a pair of gunmen. Funding the operation is the sinister McKimmie (played by future Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon). Thrown into the mix is Anne, a beautiful young prostitute rescued from the streets by Bob and pushed into Paolo's bed as a potential companion. The heat is on when Anne accidentally reveals the heist plan to Marc, a slimy pimp anxious to give the cops a hot tip to save his own ski, and Jean's scheming wife (shades of marvelous Marie Windsor in Kubrick's The Killing) catches wind of the plan and demands her husband get a larger cut of the score.
And then there was Kaleidoscope (1966)... Sigh...how do you follow up three good, sometimes great, caper films with a psychedelic 60s genre entry? It's a definite change of pace, part smarmy playboy travelogue, part Bond-inspired crime thriller, and not an entirely successful melange of genres. The film co-stars Warren Beatty and Susannah York, so at least delivers on the suave and slinky visual appeal. But with sluggish pacing in the first half, TV director Jack Smight's eye-popping color caper
Worldly playboy Barney Lincoln (Beatty) takes cheating at cards to a whole 'nother level when he breaks into a playing card company and marks the original printing plates, following the cards as they make their way through the top casinos in Europe and making a killing at the tables. He begins romancing swinging Carnaby Street boutique owner Angel McGinnis (York), whose father, Scotland Yard inspector "Manny" McGinnis (The Legend of Hell House's Clive Revill), recognizes his scam and aims to blackmail him into using it to his advantage. Arch villain, drug kingpin Harry Dominion (Hands of the Ripper's Eric Porter), is at the top of Manny's hit list, so a plan is hatched to bankrupt Dominion's crime empire through a simple game of poker with Lincoln's marked cards. Sound familiar?
Much has been made by contemporary Bond fans of the similarities between this film and Ian Fleming's original "Casino Royale" novel, which makes for interesting trivia but only really applies to the film's much more successful second half. Before the true purpose of the film's narrative is revealed, we're subjected to obnoxious sequences of Beatty winning big and wooing York, who starts as an intriguing character before becoming a rather lame romantic interest. It is the second half that saves Kaleidoscope from utter mediocrity, with its campy super villain (who eliminates a traitor with a flamethrower), Scotland Yard heroism (McGinnis is a charming, nervy authority figure), and a finally likable hero. In an attempt to appeal to the hip youthful generation of the late 1960s, kaleidoscopic transitions, bright flashy color gels, and a sitar score are added to what is otherwise a fairly conventional comic thriller. Jane Birkin (in Blow-Up the same year) appears as an excitable boutique customer, and dig those craaaazy zooms, man! The last film Beatty made before Bonnie and Clyde (1967) transformed him into an entirely different kind of Hollywood personality, this is maybe best viewed as a transition piece between the challenging character pieces he frequented in the earlier half of the decade and the decade in which he would work with many American auteurs, influencing his eventual move behind the camera. Not an essential film to seek out, but if you'd like to see what many claim is "the original Casino Royale", by all means grab the Warner Archive Collection release.
The final film of the night, airing in the wee hours of the morning, was 5 Against the House (1955), an obscure Columbia thriller released on DVD as part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics Collection. Whatta cast! A pre-Vertigo Kim Novak is the sexual centerpiece, but the other four "against the house" are handsome piece of 50s cinema furniture Guy Madison, Brian Keith before "Family Affair" neutered him, gay actor Kerwin Matthews shortly before he went on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Alvy Moore (who later teamed up with L.Q. Jones to produce independent horror films like The Witchmaker and The Brotherhood of Satan).
Al, Brick, Roy, and Ronnie, four former G.I. buddies, take a break from college for a night at a casino, where they witness the arrest of a hold-up man who underestimates the house security. For kicks, the group decides to head back and rob the casino, except they won't keep the money (huh?), labeling it as a psychological experiment. Uh...ok.... The plan takes a turn when Brick decides to keep the money and uses a gun to get his point across. The fifth person against the house is Al's fiancee Kay, dragged into the plan solely to involve a woman in the plot. Along for the ride is TV favorite William Conrad, a great noir face in 1946's The Killlers before tracking down criminals as "Cannon" and "Nero Wolfe", forced to aid the group in the heist.
Yeah...this is a turd of a movie. Columbia, an indie studio that produced more than its fair share of underrated features in the golden age of Hollywood, churned out a sorely disappointing film that is neither noir nor caper. Stirling Silliphant's first screenplay might have played out nicely slimmed down as a 50s TV anthology play, but there is no logic behind the characters or their motivations, except for Brick. Perhaps the whole film should have simply been about Brick falling on the wrong side of the law. His unresolved issues of Korean War combat shock result in violent outbursts, scenes that elevate the film's general light tone into something of interest. As Brick, Brian Keith is the star of the show. No one else makes any real impression, which is further disappointing considering the cast's pedigree. Hell there are two musical numbers for no reason, both dubbed by Jo Ann Greer because Novak is no singer. And the ending is beyond ridiculous. 5 Against the House is nothing special, but the DVD collection it's a part of is essential.