Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Last Night on TCM...: Casino Crime

 The TCM Spotlight this month is on great caper films. You know, films with taut suspenseful robberies or crimes pulled off in the nick of time, or unsuccessfully when the law intervenes. A genre that saw revitalization with the 2001 remake of one of tonight's films (Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, as well as its subsequent sequels), there's a certain something about the good old days of elaborately staged heists that keeps us coming back to the classics: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1956), Rififi (1955). It must be because these crimes were pulled off with frequent cinematic grace by some of the most skilled directors Hollywood has ever seen. Of course not every film in this TCM Spotlight is a star of the genre, as seen in tonight's spotlight on 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.

Lewis Milestone, active since the silent era and best known for his action flicks, is an odd choice to direct this ultimate Rat Pack film that is better known for its cast than its cinematic quality. Who needs a good movie when you have Sinatra, Lawford, Martin, Bishop, and Davis, Jr.? At the risk of sounding like a heretic, Soderbergh's re-imagining of this comic adventure is far more satisfying than the original, even with Julia Roberts as a poor stand-in for Angie Dickinson (not really a fair trade, though they're mildly similar). What stops Ocean's Eleven from being a great caper film is the fact that it's not really a caper film. It's a personality film, built on the star persona of its ensemble cast. Thankfully this doesn't mean the movie is a complete waste. The chemistry between the eleven is incredibly suave and sophisticated, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Even though the plan isn't fully fleshed out or even plausible, the charisma of the cast sells it...only barely. To be sure, this is not an unjustly maligned caper feature. There are more than enough reasons to dislike it. The movie stops cold for songs from Davis, Jr. in his introductory scene, Martin serenading a bunch of maids in his hotel and acting as distracting entertainment during the heist singing "Ain't That a Kick in the Head", but somehow refrains from allowing Sinatra to croon. The romantic subplot attempting to reunite Danny and his estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson, in her youth resembling and sounding like Robin Wright Penn) tends to be hokey and awash with silly lines ("I just woke up one morning and realized there was nothing underneath us but thin air"). I will give Beatrice credit for some choice barbs when Danny's mistress phones her at home. Even with Mrs. Ocean providing some bite to the proceedings, no offense to womankind but unless you're involved with the crime itself, make yourself scarce in heist films, ladies. Your roles will be thankless and the audience views you as a distraction from the real thrust of the film. Take into further consideration Ilka Chase as Foster's mother, whose sole purpose in the narrative is to be engaged to Duke Santos, a retired gangster (delightfully smarmy Cesar Romero) who catches wind of the heist and demands a percentage of the stolen money to keep him from exposing their crime.

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...

Based on a novel by Max Cotto and written by the film's producer, Sydney Boehm, Seven Thieves excels most impressively in the dialogue department. Asked to have faith in the original plan, Paul retorts, "Cemeteries are full of people who had faith." He is full of delicious bons mot like these, which keep the pre-heist half of the film consistently entertaining. When the heist is underway, Hathaway's taut direction (including choice removals of musical score from suspenseful moments) provides edge of your seat suspense as Paul and Louis scale the casino's wall, dangling above a mile-high cliff, and narrowly avoid activating an alarm sensor, Melanie's identity fraud is threatened, and an important cyanide capsule jeopardizes the success of the heist. Performances are all around excellent, with special notice necessarily paid to Collins, who some forget was an admirable ingenue and actress before she became the campy queen of mean in the 1970s and 1980s. Superb pacing, beautiful CinemaScope photography, a sharp script and interesting characters, and a nail-biting heist make this one of the best caper films you've never seen, even with an anti-climactic ending.

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.

The genius of Melville's film is that its suspense is not in the heist itself, but the interaction between the characters discussing and leading up to the crime. These are desperate men, anxious to prove themselves to their friends, their women, the world, and this one 800 million franc robbery will leave them made in the shade for life. This desperation is what drives the film, as Melville places his characters in shabby apartments, fleapit bars, and scummy streets, recalling American pre-Code crime films of the 1930s. Even Bob's detective pal feeds into this aura of desperation as he frantically searches for his friend to stop him from sure self-destruction. It's quite a film that has the audience anxious for the heist to be pulled off one minute, then rooting for it to be stopped the next. Melville would prove most successful as a director of crime films, including such wonderful offerings as Le Samourai (1967), Le Doulos (1962), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and with its inventive editing, absorbing cinematography, and convincing and caring characterizations, Bob le Flambeur is a perfect introduction to his oeuvre.

And then there was Kaleidoscope (1966)... 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.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.