Los Angeles Times, December 13, 2004
By James Verini
During a century of cinema, Americans have enjoyed seeing our anxieties about crime and criminals sublimated in the movie theater in any number of ways. After the gritty-gangster-film craze of the 1930s, audiences turned to the more fanciful western. Sometime later a hankering for reality returned, and movies about beat cops and grizzled detectives took hold.
And now, it seems, as the world grows more worrisome, we’ve rediscovered our need for whimsy on the wrong side of the law.
The not-so-noir du jour? The heist movie.
A vault of new bank, jewel and art capers brought us, on Friday, “Ocean’s Twelve,” the sequel to 2001’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” itself a remake. Using the box-office barometer alone, it seems we’re still in the mood as “Ocean’s Twelve” made off with an estimated $40.9 million this weekend, putting it at No. 1.
Other recent capers have included “National Treasure,” “The Score,” “The Ladykillers” and “The Italian Job” (the latter two remakes as well), as well as “The Good Thief” — a loose rehashing of the impossibly cool French film “Bob le Flambeur” — David Mamet’s straightforwardly titled but anything but straightforward “Heist,” and “Sexy Beast.” (One can be forgiven for forgetting “Sexy Beast” was a heist film, though. After seeing Ben Kingsley offer to put his cigarette out on the face of a fellow plane passenger, diamonds tend to lose their sparkle. Kingsley, incidentally, is reprising the Michael Caine role in a new version of “Gambit.”)
In a time when the best-known criminals are terrorists, the thief — at least, the bespoke suave thief — is a palatable, even likable, villain who usually doesn’t carry weapons and adheres to a moral code (the thief’s code, granted, but still a far sight better than jihad).
The heist is a quaint, even classy, crime. It beckons Alpine locales, roadsters, first-edition-filled libraries with hidden doors, and as many French cuffs as there are scenes. (“Michael Caine’s suits by … ” warrants its own title card in the opening credits of the original “Italian Job.”) What other genre could have Hollywood cannibalizing European films from the 1960s?
Certain troubling developments have taken place in the interim. In classics such as “Rififi,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” or “Topkapi,” the thieves are caught or killed or are somehow hoodwinked themselves. Occasionally, this still happens — in Michael Mann’s brilliant “Heat,” for instance. But more often, these days, crime pays. The kind-of antiheroes in recent heist movies usually get away with the loot. An audience that figures, “Hey, at least they’re not blowing up a building” is nectar to any screenwriter biting his nails over comeuppance.
In the original “Ocean’s,” the long-sought casino cash is cremated, to the Rat Pack’s chagrin. In the remake, by contrast, the thieves get their millions and get away, and the casino owner — State Farm is there — is fully covered by insurance.
Even prison is rendered glamorous. George Clooney leaves it not once but twice in “Ocean’s Eleven,” both times in a tuxedo.
“I guess crimes of pure greed, non-ideological crimes, are in,” said Leo Braudy, a literature and film professor at USC. “There’s a kind of nostalgia that comes in for simpler times and a simpler world where you only had to worry about people stealing money or jewels.”
Braudy also had another theory: “I don’t know how far you want to push this, but the whole divisiveness of the country right now politically may play a part. Maybe the only people who can get together are people who are going to commit a crime.”
Indeed, the heist movie offers a unique situation: In a den of thieves, social distinctions don’t matter. Thus the ideal crew will include the rich ne’er-do-well alongside the poor muscle, whites, blacks, Asians, at least one pallid techie (the sine qua non of the modern heist movie), janitors, Mormons and lotharios, all on equal footing.
Inspired casting follows. In what universe except that of the heist could Edward G. Robinson, Janet Leigh and the kooky German actor Klaus Kinski, the stars of the forgotten 1967 gem “Grand Slam,” get together?
Just as the aging thief comes out of retirement for one more shot, so the heist movie can get an old thoroughbred out of pasture. Noel Coward as the incarcerated patriotic crime lord in the original “Italian Job,” for instance; Carl Reiner in “Ocean’s”; and Marlon Brando in “The Score” (his last movie).
This strategy can backfire, however. By the time Albert Finney shows up in the last frames of “Ocean’s Twelve” — this comes after the scene in which Julia Roberts impersonates herself, only to be foiled via an extended cameo by Bruce Willis, mind you — the movie has come to feel like a sort of experimental sendup of the star system. Steven Soderbergh may be trying to invent a new genre: the avant-garde heist movie.
Certain actors seem ideally suited to the heist: in the ’40s and ’50s, B-reelers like Aldo Ray and Sterling Hayden. Recently, Edward Norton in his ruthless mustachioed guise does well. At least one Englishman, ideally cockney, should be present.
“For us the cast was more important than the heist,” said Frank Oz, who directed Norton, along with Brando, in “The Score.” “The heist was the McGuffin so I could explore the characters. A McGuffin [a plot device] allows you to hook the audience, and then you can explore things.”
Heist movies also seem to be cashing in on the recent infatuation with “procedural” crime fare such as the “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises. Much if not all of the dialogue and story can be taken up with the details of casing the “mark” and planning the “job,” if the screenwriter wishes. Alternately, the built-in tension of the impending caper can free up the writer to explore character, as Oz suggested, or simply be stylish. The latter constitutes a large part of the appeal of the French, Italian and English heist classics from the ’60s and seems to be Soderbergh’s main attraction to the genre.
And there is also this appeal: In the same way that the heist movie charms audiences with a certain nostalgia, it may bring its creators back to an earlier, more virtuosic era of cinema. Its success depends on the believability of minute-to-minute details; the filmmakers must become watchmakers, and that most underappreciated of craftsmen, the editor, becomes a hero. Computer tricks may be of use to the crew’s pallid techie but nowhere else.
“Heist movies obey the unity of time,” Braudy pointed out. “They’re almost Aristotelian. The thing about special effects … is they destroy your sense of time. But the heist movie has to be detailed and so precise. This guy has to be doing this thing at this time. It has a purity that other movies have left behind.”