The Heistmasters

By Stu Kobak

     Going to the movies can be a crash course in any number of subjects. The movies instruct. Nitty gritty details are laid as a visual instruction manual. Wanna learn the Carioca, swaying to the music like Astaire: you can watch the master glide across the floor over and over and soon you too will be moving your feet through the clouds. It can be scary too. Remember the hullabaloo around the thematic material of Taxi Driver and how when Reagan was shot by John Hinckley the media made an immediate and not unreasonable tie-in with the movie and Jodie Foster. Pure crime films often offer the crudest statement of the man and the gun. With James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat the title suits the character. Not much to be gleaned from the Jarrett equation. Heist films, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, however, are the best of these of these crime movies and often offer a college level course in how to take down a score.

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Sterling waits for the right moment in The Killing.   ©MGM-UA

     Though the heist film may serve as a blueprint for crime, fortunately, most heist movies are about failed characters who ultimately pay the price for their crimes and misdemeanors. Usually, it’s an unexpected element cropping up to sully perfection. Maybe a cop walking his beat like in Dead Presidents. There is beauty about a heist film’s dedication to detail. The heist film may depict perfectly successful crimes done in by the greed of the gang members. There too lies a sense of perfection, the gang’s perfect execution failing because these characters must fail of their own nature. The fascination film lovers have for these movies relates directly to the precision is which the detail is laid out. Heist movies have long catered to the passions of the cinephile. Consider the word itself: heist. You can feel the clarity. A heist is a robbery and confrontation is one of the prime elements.
     A heist is not just a burglary, though it can be one; however, it must include that element of confrontation. The man with the gun and the bank clerk with his hands raised high. I like to think of a heist as having a certain panache about it. It’s not just barging into a bank behind a gun. There has to be a plan. Part of the beauty of the heist is the plan. Heist films can focus are different aspects of the heist. The planning can be the heart of the heist film, or the execution of the plan, or the aftermath of the heist; the chase, the gang defections, the self-imploding nature of the beast.
     Like the noir film, which the heist film overlaps, there is a relish to the darkness that threads its way into the fabric of these films. Many filmmakers find themselves lured to material of this ilk, but few succeed in capturing the dynamics of the heist with the clarity necessary to create explosive entertainment. The most successful directors of this sub-genre are The Heistmasters. They understand the timings and rhythms needed to build and sustain tension, prior to, during and after the heist. Their own sense of precision as filmmakers is translated into relentless images, often violent and out of control on screen, but always controlled by the director.
     Since the late forties and fifties, the appearance of heist movies has been sporadic, to say the least. Often, they appear in bunches, one project inspiring another. Most recently, the excellent 1997 City of Industry featured a heist and its aftermath. Both Dead Presidents and Heat were 1995 entries in the heist derby. Dead Presidents detailed an armored car robbery with crisp Hughes Brothers editing and a pounding soundtrack, while Heat became a heist classic presenting not just one of the greatest screen heists, but two. A magic double for perfectionist director Michael Mann. The precision of Heat's heists reflect the dedication and uncompromising vision of director Mann. But years before the brothers Hughes and perfectionist Mann took their cracks at the heist, filmmakers of another generation were producing classics of the genre.

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Lancaster and Duryea in Criss Cross ©MCA-Universal

Criss Cross has several major assets going for it. Directed in 1949 by European émigré Robert Siodmak, its directness of approach marries well with the aims of the heist. The heist is the constant focus of Criss Cross even though the relationship of Steve (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) drives the story further than the van that Lancaster drives in the heist. Told through flashbacks woven during the drive to the heist, Criss Cross moves at a swift and sure pace. Robert Siodmak does an excellent job of moving this classic film noir along toward the completion of the heist and the eventual confrontation and noir twist. Like many heist films, Criss Cross, as the name indicates, is about the double cross and triple cross. Trust no one might be the credo of this slickly delivered film. Along with the sure performance of the likeable Lancaster, bad man Dan Duryea adds an edge of unpredictability to the action. Director Siodmak proves himself the consummate heistmaster at the helm of this beautifully realized heist classic.
     Director Stephen Soderberg (Sex, Lies, & Videotape, Kafka, Kill of the Hill) decided to tackle film noir in 1994 with a remake of Criss Cross called The Underneath. Remakes are often a treacherous path to follow and when a film works as well as Criss Cross, one wonders why not just re-release the movie. The conventional wisdom is contemporary stars attract new audiences and in the case of black and white originals, color photography supposedly adds a new dimension. The Underneath heist is well done, but does color do anything for the execution. I doubt it. Can Peter Gallagher hold a candle to Burt Lancaster in the role of the loser trying to make a go of it. Let’s not get ridiculous here. Lancaster brought a sympathy to the character of Steve Thompson that is totally lacking in the remake. Who cares whether or not Gallagher (called Michael Chambers in the remake) goes down. He’s a sleazy guy to begin with. "Not a average Joe" trying to make it on his return home and falling over the falls for a sexy girl. Maybe Soderberg should have tried for an original heist vision unhampered by the huge shadow of the original. Originality goes a long way toward earning the accolade heistmaster.
     Stanley Kubrick earned his degree as heistmaster with the brilliant noir classic The Killing. No, it’s not a film about mayhem and murder, though before it’s over it sheds its fair share of blood. This is pure heist, distilled through the perspicacious vision of Kubrick. The Killing of the title is the financial score from the daring racetrack robbery depicted in the film.

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Hayden with Elisha Cook, Jr. behind the cage. The Killing ©MGM-UA

     The Killing opens in documentary style as a narrator meticulously and coldly relates the events surrounding the heist of the racetrack. After the opening shot of horses on the track sets the scene, Kubrick introduces each of the players in the heist, setting up motivations and character. Cop Randy Kennan owes money to the wrong people. Mutual clerk George Peatty can’t put enough on the table to satisfy his wife. Johnny Clay, the mastermind of the heist, after a five year prison stint is looking for the big score to change his life.
     Kubrick has recruited a cast with heist written all over it. Sterling Hayden offers up a failed quality as Joe Clay. Hayden is an actor born of classic noir elements. Despite movie star looks, a morose quality dominates Hayden, suggesting a darkness and a twisted perfection. Even when Hayden played hero like in Suddenly, opposite Frank Sinatra as a psychopathic killer hired to hit the President, there is a perfect imperfection about his character.
     The assortment of character actors in The Killing is sweet. Hayden is such a neutral screen presence he plays perfectly with colorful actors in small roles. Elisha Cook, Jr., the wonderful Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon, brings his usual edge to the role of racetrack mutual clerk George Peatty. Marie Windsor, Peatty’s wife Sherri is all ice and disinterest. Race track bartender Mike Reilly is made sympathetic by Joe Sawyer through the scenes in which he treats his wife sweetly. Ted De Corsia adds a corrupt fleshiness to cop Kennan.
     Kubrick films in classic noir style as the heist plan unfolds, all shadows and key lighting through the lens of cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s lens. Conflict is set up early as soon as the heisters get together, adding an additional level of tension. By keeping each of the set-up scenes to minimal length, the director prevents the talky nature of The Killing to seem slow. The patient Kubrick understands. He moves back and forth in time in short increments, building tension, stretching out the moment of the actual heist with overlapping scenes, repeating minute portions of scenes, then cutting to alternative perspectives of the moments leading up to the execution of the heist.   

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A man, a mask and a gun. The Killing ©MGM-UA

     The heist itself is utter simplicity. A man, a mask, a gun and precise timing, each player doing his small part. What makes The Killing delicious is the small coincidences that foil the perfection of the heist. A missed cab, a dog off the leash, a wife having an affair, airline regulations. You could even say The Killing is Stanley Kubrick doing Rashoman through a noir lens. We get to look at this cleverly structured heist from any number of point of views and we can enjoy the execution all the more from the various angles. The Killing is sublime filmmaking.
     Just as a successful heist requires precision execution, a heist film has similar needs. The heist film often seduces audience through precision planning, while a sense of doom pervades casts a cloud over the proceedings. Each detail of the heist must be planned to perfection, each player must perform his part. The participants in the heist are failed characters, linked by desperation. They are fated to fail. There is a seductive beauty to the nature of the heist. Often, even though we are aware that a crime is being planned and executed, audiences cannot help but align themselves with the criminals. We watch as the heist unfolds, feeling the tension build with realization that one unexpected moment can make everything go awry. In The Killing it is the small dog, In Heat it is the lure of one more job, In some cases, the heisters are doomed to failure even before the heist, as in The Getaway. Sam Peckinpah's deftly filmed heist movie has the enormous advantage of Steve McQueen as it's star. McQueen typically brought an added measure of cool to his films and The Getaway is no exception. As an ex-con and top-notch criminal, McQueen's Doc McCoy is steely-eyed and lethal. He plans The Getaway's bank heist with consummate professionalism. Everything goes awry because of double-dealing, just as in Criss Cross, with Thompson as the fall guy, Doc McCoy is never supposed to drive off with the loot. Peckinpah, always a master cutter, brings to the heist the tension and precision of a well tuned crime. Once the heist is accomplished, The Getaway turns its lens on duplicity and fire power in a classic hotel shoot-out, a door-to-door hail of bullets embellished by the artful cinematography of Lucien Ballard, who also was the DP for The Killing. The 1972 Getaway was remade in 1993 as a starring vehicle for Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Directed by Roger Donaldson The Getaway is slickly made but it doesn't break any new ground and Baldwin does not manage to capture the cool of McQueen. The surprise is Basinger, who is clearly better than Ali McGraw was in the original. I'd stick with the original if only to watch McQueen work at what he does best and hell, it is Peckinpah and it's shot by Ballard. The 1972 film is available on laser and DVD from MGM.
     Heat , made in 1995, is one of the all time great heist flicks. Though the heist is not the heart of this film it depicted with a dedication to perfection seldom surpassed. It is often impossible to separate the heist from the preparation or the escape. In the case of Heat, there are two brilliant heists, both classics, an armored car and a bank. Who could ask for anything more. The first Heat set-piece is the armored car, which is executed with the extreme precision that has become a Michael Mann signature. What I appreciate is the planning and then the casual nature of the violence associated with crimes of this nature. It is incidental. It doesn’t have to take place. Actually, the unnecessary violence that takes place during this first heist almost lays the groundwork for the rest of the movie in that the rejected gang member becomes a gnawing splinter in heist leader Neil McCauley’s craw that leads to his fateful downfall.
     Mann is an interesting artist in that he takes themes or elements and uses them over and over again in different works. Great painters have also had this tendency to examine in great detail stimulating elements of personal interest. Heat was preceded by a television movie called LA Takedown that provided many of the plot elements for Heat. And the same perfectionism that drove Neil MacCauley was carefully examined in Mann’s earlier Thief in which James Caan played an ex-con safecracker with a passion for precision. Just as McCauley knows you have to be able to walk away from everything at the drop of a match Caan’s safecracker is ready to leave it all behind when the decisive moment comes. Still, none of Mann’s prior efforts approaches the hypnotic quality of Heat and the two heists that form the set pieces on which the plot is fattened out on are nothing short of mind-blowing.
     Like Heat, Criss Cross has its twist and turns and unexpected burst of violence. In Heat, it is the unprofessional quality of the act that makes it stand out while in Criss Cross it is more a personal blow at Steve Thompson when his friend and would-be mentor becomes the chief victim of his crime. Twists and turns, elements of the heist that seem ever so comfortable on celluloid together. 

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Heists often go awry. Dead Presidents ©Disney

Dead Presidents, I companion in 1995's mini heist Renaissance has one of the most finely crafted heist sequences ever captured on film. Editing of the sequence is as lightening quick as the execution of the heist. This is one way to make a heist exciting. Quick, incisive stabs of action providing a minimal amount of time to reflect on the perfection of the moment. Dead Presidents has the advantage of modern sound to embellish the slashing film images with another level of impact. The Hughes brothers are adept at making the most of their cinematic resources. Are they next in succession of a line of film masters who understand the unique vocabulary to create the excitement and immediacy of the heist on film?    

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The heist: Quick and efficient. City of Industry ©Largo

The most recent entry into the heist sweepstakes is City of Industry, a ferocious little film starring Harvey Keitel and directed by John Irvin. This time out it's a successful jewel heist that is blown apart by greed. There's one especially choice moment when you watch Stephen Dorff, the wildest of the heisters, contemplate his share of the cut and follow his thought process to a tee. It's a neat big of acting and directing. City of Industry's focus is clearly the aftermath of the heist . Perhaps it bogs down somewhat in the complexity of the chase after the double cross, but the unrelenting nature and determination of Keitel's Roy Egan is pure genre pleasure. With City of Industry Irvin achieves the accolade heistmaster with his modern counterparts, Michael Mann and the Hughes Brothers.
     Numerous other heist films have made it to the screen with varied success. Charley Varrick, 1973, is a compact flick from director Don Siegel. The heist itself is of little consequence, however, and it's the twist of particulars that make the film so enjoyable. Would you believe Walter Matthau masterminding a heist. Playing Charley Varrick, Matthau brings deadpan delivery to the machinations of a bank heist and its aftermath. The heist takes place at the film's opening and plays mucho smooth under the crooked vision of veteran Don Siegel.
     The Thomas Crown Affair is almost an excuse for an exercise in cinematic showmanship. Director Norman Jewison is like a kid in a candy store so free is his use of the then new split-screen techniques. Of course, nothing’s ever new, not even a fresh heist. In the case of the split screen Abel Gance used in brilliantly in his seminal silent epic Napoleon. Talk about the epitome of smooth, it’s Steve McQueen again, this time in a business suit smoking a fat stogie and merely master-minding a series of sparkling heists. The heists are heightened by multiple images on the screen. The first heist is clearly the best. The bank vault is ripe and then rife with the smoke of the robbers. McQueen is a slick and able heist mastermind, keeping his focus on those things most important in life, namely the sultry insurance investigator that’s on to his trail. The split screens, the heists and fireworks all turn out to be little more than an excuse to watch the two luminous co-stars of Thomas Crown, Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen. With equal shivers of ice these two measure the mental and sexual capacities of each other. They play chess, drink wine, stare seductively. This time McQueen doesn’t have the firepower of the Getaway to make his escape. He rides a Rolls Royce to freedom instead of a pick-up truck.
     Americans don't have an exclusive on the heist film. Fans of the genre should check out the street purity of Jean-Pierre Melville's French noirish gem, Bob Le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler). The 1955 black and white film focuses more on the lives of these petty crooks than on the heist of the Deauville Casino. But Melville directs with a confidence and direct approach that makes this film a particular pleasure. Roger Duchesne is perfection is the role of Bob and the assortment of Melville characters creates a marvelous ambiance for the world of Bob Le Flambeur.

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Tough guy Bob in Bob Le Flambeur ©Image

     The Brits have brought their peculiar sensibilities to the heist film as well. The League of Gentlemen, stars Jack Hawkins as disgruntled retired British Army Colonel Hyde. Hawkins recruits members of his former unit, all down on their luck to some degree, to take part in a major bank heist. One of the pleasures of Gentlemen is that there are two caper executions, the first to procure the implements which are used in the ultimate heist. It's all laced with droll English humor to the very last scene. The Lavender Hill Mob is another British take on the heist, pure golden humor from the very beginning. Alec Guinness is the mastermind this time, with the object of his desire a shipment of gold bullion. After the successful heist of the armored car carrying the gold, Guinness and cohort Stanley Holloway meld the gelt down into statues of the Eiffel Tower. Charles Crichton directs the madness with astounding non-stop energy. Believe me, this is all hilarious and the two stars are bumbling masterpieces.
     Simple or complex, these films all share a common feeling and appeal. He diverse elements of the gang, smoldering, waiting to explode, constantly threatening the success of the heist. Tension serves. You can dress the basics up with love, high powered guns and sophisticated explosives, but it still boils down to the purity of execution. The Killing, more than forty years later, is fresh as ever because Kubrick locked down the basics of a Heistmaster. Why not try on a sampling of heist films for yourself. Guaranteed, you won't be disappointed. 
     The Criterion edition laser disc of The Killing is currently out-of-print. It is available in a gatefold laser edition from MGM-UA packaged together with another interesting Kubrick film Killer's Kiss. The image is excellent of this laser disc. Transfer elements are quite clean, focus is sharp. Perhaps the contrast could have been pumped slightly. The very fine score from Gerald Fried, which in some ways suggests the later score from Jerry Fielding for The Wild Bunch, sounds just fine.
     Criss Cross is available in another two movie laser disc set from Universal. Packaged with The Killers, another film that features a heist and stars Burt Lancaster and is directed by Robert Siodmak. Criss Cross is delivered in a very fine transfer. Immaculate transfer elements have been used to bring it to laser disc. The score by Miklos Rozsa is a treat.
     Dead Presidents is available as a terrific widescreen special editon laser disc from Voyager as part of The Criterion Collection. The images are consistently sharp and the beautiful photography of Lisa Renzler is shown off to best advantage. The transfer is immaculate. The Dolby Digital 5:1 soundtrack is dynamic, directional, and thoroughly involving. The extras included in the special edition are extensive and put together in the most professional fashion. Second Audio Commentary is very informative. Dead Presidents is also available in a plain vanilla laser disc version from Image/Disney. And coming May 19th,  a DVD version of Dead Presidents from Buena Vista.
     City of Industry is currently available from Image Entertainment in a 1.85:1 widescreen edition. The transfer is crisp and colors accurate and save for some minor excessive grain in the opening moments, it's an excellent transfer. Flesh tones have a good range and the blood on Harvey Keitel jumps right off the screen. The aggressive surround sound is very good.
     One original of The Getaway is already out on DVD from MGM in an anamorphic transfer with colors a lot more vital than on the laserdisc from the same company. There's a grainy feeling to many of the scenes, but that's the look Ballard and Peckinpah were looking for. The remake from Universal is currently available on laser disc in a fine transfer and has been announced for a May 26 DVD release.
    The League of Gentlemen is a Criterion Collection release from Voyager. There are no extras, but the clean transfer is representative of what laserphiles have come to expect from the company.
    Bob Le Flambeur was part of Image Entertainment's Cinemadisc Collection of a number of years ago. I would guess that it is out of print, but don't quote. Check with one of the big laser disc retailers. It's a solid of unexceptional transfer. Subtitles are white with a black shadow and read easily enough. Contrast is slightly weak, but overall the image never shorts the pleasure of the movie.
     Heat is a Warner Brothers release. The laser disc is  sharp with intense colors. The widescreen release preserves the original aspect ratio of the film. It's a first rate laser disc. Heat, long overdue on DVD from Warner still has no definite release date.
    The Underneath is available on laser disc from Universal in a widescreen editon. Sharp with little grain, the transfer is spotless.


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