Friday, April 23, 2010

The Split--Friday Night Heists #1

From October 14, 2009, through January 22, 2010, I watched a heist movie every day (that makes 101 days for the curious). I'm not entirely sure why I did it, but I know that my unemployment certainly enabled it. Perhaps I was training myself. Perhaps, feeling pretty wretched at the thought of being unemployed for some time, I just wanted something to look forward to each day. And heist movies--with their propensity for the precise, the logical, and the daring willful--always cheer me up.

Or perhaps it was the poster's fault.

You see, I have this beautiful re-release poster for Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi in my living room, and while I was spending way too much time thinking about what to watch on that day, I turned and stared at it for a while.

Gabin's old, crusty face. A stack of bills, sandwiched between a pistol and a pool of blood. I now needed to watch this movie again. Right away. The next day, I watched The Split, as I'd wanted to see it for a while, and it had finally fallen into my hands. I watched another, and another...until I just wanted to see how far I could go. Friends gave me suggestion after suggestion, and 101 days later, I felt a sense, however minor in the grand scheme, of accomplishment having watched that much heistacular cinema.

That said, I'm going to start posting my thoughts on some of these movies (hopefully every week), as well as new heist movies that I encounter along the way.

The Job: The Split
The Man with the Plan: Gordon Flemyng
The Year It Was Pulled: 1968
The Source: Adapted by Robert Sabaroff, from the Parker novel The Seventh, by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)
The Take: $548,000 from a Packers/Rams football game

In this rarely seen and more-than-moderately enjoyable caper, Jim Brown plays McClain (the Parker alias here, as Westlake never allowed the Parker name to be used in any adaptations of his books), a hard-as-nails thief who's come to town to find his ex-wife (Diahann Carroll). He locates her through his old friend, Gladys (Julie Harris, equally--and delightfully--tender and tough), who's incidentally got a potential job for him. Gladys & McClain do a walkthrough of the stadium where the Packers & the Rams will be playing to see who goes to the playoffs, and the plan is to walk away with all of the cash pouring into the stadium that day.

To that end, as is often the case in these good ol' heist films, McClain's gotta get a crew together. And what better crew to get than Ernest Borgnine (the heavy), Jack Klugman (the wheelman), Warren Oates (the safecracker), & Donald Sutherland (the sharpshooter). Together, the six of them look to take over half a million bucks from the game, but after they steal the money, of course, that's when things go wrong.

Part of what I wanted to do with this heist marathon was figure out what exactly constituted a heist movie. Was it the fact that there was merely a heist/robbery/burglary sequence in the movie? From the get-go, that really didn't work for me. Despite the fact that films like Bonnie & Clyde and Public Enemies have bank robberies in them, I'm hesitant to call them heist films.

The rule I set for myself was that the heist(s) had to be something which was an utterly integral component to the structure--regardless of whether the heist propelled the plot, the heist was at the center, or everything built to the heist. The Split certainly complies with that criterion. The Split also is a convenient starting place for talking about heist movies, as it conforms to the conventional wisdom about narrative structure for the heist sub-genre. For me, there are three stages: planning, execution, getaway. I'll talk about this more with subsequent entries (as the exceptions to the rule are always more interesting), but suffice it to say that The Split conforms quite cleanly to this structural pattern (planning is 33 minutes, execution is 23, and the getaway is 33). The movie also slides very stealthily from planning to execution, for there is no straightforward, "Men, here's the plan," scene. One minute, they're picking up the sub-machine guns. The next, they're breaking into the stadium, but it takes you a few minutes to realize that they're not preparing the job anymore. They're pulling it. It's usually much more satisfying to see an unknown plan unfold, rather than having it spoon fed to us before its later flawless execution.

The Split's major draw, and one of the major charms of this sub-genre, is the casting. I mean, we already have this group of hard-ass criminals, but I haven't even mentioned James Whitmore as the creepy landlord to McClain's girl, or the man of smiling rage, Gene Hackman, as a greedy hot-shot police detective. Seeing all of these guys interact with each other is a tremendous treat. I've seen some cite one the movie's flaws as the introduction of the crew, as Brown has a sequence with each one where he very literally tests their respective skills (a fight with Borgnine, a car chase with Klugman, and so on). For me, this seems like both a novel and narratively motivated way to go about introducing these men.

After all, these characters are little more than skillsets personified. The bulk of the characterization is in the casting. It's not necessarily a bad approach, or at least not with these actors. And from a narrative standpoint, if McClain doesn't know any of these guys, why should he trust what he might hear from some schnook he's never worked with? But if he can make sure they're as good as he's heard, then he'd have the certainty he needs to proceed.

Besides--teaser alert--who wouldn't want a scene where the only way Warren Oates can break out of a vault is with his pants? I'll say no more.

It was that novelty of the ensemble that sparked my initial enthusiasm for the movie (look for Sutherland in later columns here, who proves himself to be a regular heistmeister). I also walked away with the intense desire to listen to Quincy Jones's score over and over, which was an easy thing to do, seeing as how I already owned it. Listen to the track called "Kifka Car Caper," and you'll feel like the coolest person on earth, no matter what you're doing.

Upon second viewing, it's still an entertaining flick, but it has its problems. The romantic sequences feel less like story fuel and more like boring burglaries of screen time. Also, as talented as Whitmore is, his scenes are so far away on the spectrum from the relatively even tone throughout most of the picture, it's almost as though he's in another movie altogether. Gordon Flemyng and cinematographer Burnett Guffey provide us with visuals that are highly competent, though not especially awful. I have read comments here and there that indicate it's not at all a solid adaptation of the novel. My apologies, but I can't speak to that yet, as I've only read the first 6 Parker novels. I really must get to that, mustn't I?

All in all, because of the cast and the overall enjoyable structure of the movie, I do recommend The Split, particularly if you can find a copy in scope. MGM, why won't you release a copy of this movie? Oh, right, you've got...a few other things on your plate.

Next week, I'll be looking at a new film (i.e. one I didn't watch during the marathon) that's got a fantastic title: La Raison du plus faible (The Law of the Weakest).

Bonus Feature:

Here's the breakdown of the original heist marathon, for those of you who haven't seen it. You'll note some...interesting choices...and believe me, I can justify them all.

The Films:

10/14—Touchez pas au grisbi (dir. Jacques Becker, 1954)
10/15—The Split (dir. Gordon Flemyng, 1968)
10/16—Out of Sight (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
10/17—The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. John McTiernan, 1999)
10/18—Topkapi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1964)
10/19—Heat (dir. Michael Mann, 1995)
10/20—Thief (dir. Michael Mann, 1981)
10/21—The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. Norman Jewison, 1968)
10/22—Ronin (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1998)
10/23—Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (dir. Michael Cimino, 1974)
10/24—The Good Thief (dir. Neil Jordan, 2002)
10/25—Bob le flambeur (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955)
10/26—The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
10/27—Heist (dir. David Mamet, 2001)
10/28—Bottle Rocket (dir. Wes Anderson, 1996)
10/29—The Italian Job (dir. Peter Collinson, 1969)
10/30—Quick Change (dir. Howard Franklin & Bill Murray, 1990)
10/31—The Anderson Tapes (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1971)
11/01—$ (dir. Richard Brooks, 1971)
11/02—The Hot Rock (dir. Peter Yates, 1972)
11/03—Ocean’s Eleven (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
11/04—Ocean’s Twelve (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2004)
11/05—Ocean’s Thirteen (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2007)
11/06—Inside Man (dir. Spike Lee, 2006)
11/07—Sneakers (dir. Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)
11/08—Underneath (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1995)
11/09—Dog Day Afternoon (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1975)
11/10—Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)
11/11—The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1950)
11/12—The Lavender Hill Mob (dir. Charles Crichton, 1951)
11/13—Criss Cross (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1948)
11/14—Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
11/15—The Getaway (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
11/16—The Wild Bunch (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
11/17—Dead Presidents (dir. The Hughes Brothers, 1995)
11/18—The Great Muppet Caper (dir. Jim Henson, 1981)
11/19—Charley Varrick (dir. Don Siegel, 1973)
11/20—Straight Time (dir. Ulu Grosbard, 1978)
11/21—After the Sunset (dir. Brett Ratner, 2004)
11/22—The Italian Job (dir. F. Gary Gray, 2003)
11/23—Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, 1999)
11/24—The Code (dir. Mimi Leder, 2009)
11/25—Blue Collar (dir. Paul Schrader, 1978)
11/26—Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, 2009)
11/27—The Driver (dir. Walter Hill, 1978)
11/28—Family Business (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1989)
11/29—The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972)
11/30—City of Industry (dir. John Irvin, 1997)
12/01—Classes tous risques (dir. Claude Sautet, 1960)
12/02—Le Cercle rouge (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
12/03—The Usual Suspects (dir. Bryan Singer, 1995)
12/04—Beverly Hills Cop II (dir. Tony Scott, 1987)
12/05—Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (dir. Guy Ritchie, 1998)
12/06—The Brink’s Job (dir. William Friedkin, 1978)
12/07—Kansas City Confidential (dir. Phil Karlson, 1952)
12/08—Blood and Wine (dir. Bob Rafelson, 1997)
12/09—City on Fire (dir. Ringo Lam, 1987)
12/10—Mannequin (dir. Michael Gottlieb, 1987)
12/11—Two-Way Stretch (dir. Robert Day, 1960)
12/12—A Man, a Woman and a Bank (dir. Noel Black, 1979)
12/13—Ocean’s Eleven (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1960)
12/14—Big Deal on Madonna Street (dir. Mario Monicelli, 1958)
12/15—Kelly’s Heroes (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1970)
12/16—Once a Thief (dir. John Woo, 1991)
12/17—Point Break (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
12/18—The Silent Partner (dir. Daryl Duke, 1978)
12/19—A Fish Called Wanda (dir. Charles Crichton, 1988)
12/20—5 Against the House (dir. Phil Karlson, 1955)
12/21—To Catch a Thief (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
12/22—Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
12/23—High Sierra (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1941)
12/24—Seven Thieves (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1960)
12/25—How to Steal a Million (dir. William Wyler, 1966)
12/26—The Aura (dir. Fabián Bielinsky, 2005)
12/27—Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (dir. Simon Wincer, 1991)
12/28—Full Contact (dir. Ringo Lam, 1993)
12/29—Cops and Robbers (dir. Aram Avakian, 1973)
12/30—The Bank Job (dir. Roger Donaldson, 2008)
12/31—Cruel Gun Story (dir. Takumi Furukawa, 1964)
01/01—The Ladykillers (dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)
01/02—Die Hard with a Vengeance (dir. John McTiernan, 1995)
01/03—Going in Style (dir. Martin Brest, 1979)
01/04—The Bank Shot (dir. Gower Champion, 1974)
01/05—Odds Against Tomorrow (dir. Robert Wise, 1959)
01/06—The Hard Word (dir. Scott Roberts, 2002)
01/07—Grand Slam (dir. Guiliano Montaldo, 1967)
01/08—The Heist (dir. Stuart Orme, 1989)
01/09—Hudson Hawk (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1991)
01/10—Flawless (dir. Michael Radford, 2007)
01/11—The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (dir. Charles Guggenheim & John Stix, 1959)
01/12—The Hard Easy (dir. Ari Ryan, 2005)
01/13—Larceny, Inc. (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1942)
01/14—Welcome to Collinwood (dir. Anthony & Joe Russo, 2002)
01/15—Gonin (dir. Takashi Ishii, 1995)
01/16—Set It Off (dir. F. Gary Gray, 1996)
01/17—The Real McCoy (dir. Russell Mulcahy, 1993)
01/18—Robbery (dir. Peter Yates, 1967)
01/19—The League of Gentlemen (dir. Basil Dearden, 1960)
01/20—Le Deuxieme soufflé (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966)
01/21—Rififi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1955)
01/22—Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1986)

The Breakdown:

101: Films

101: Days

51: Films Watched for the First Time

24: Most Films from One Decade (1990s)

13: Directors with Multiple Films in the Marathon

7: Most Films with One Actor (George Clooney)

6: Remakes

5: Most Films by One Director (Steven Soderbergh)

5: Most Films from One Year (1978)

3: Number of films it takes to inflate actor/director stats (not a complaint, merely an acknowledgement)

The Loot:

A few swirls of paint, a cuss-ton of food, a jeweled dagger, some jeweled eggs, a little black box, a device that can turn lead into gold, a case that should contain ice skates but probably doesn’t, 2 humpback whales, 1 whole bank, and eleventy gajillion dollars in cash, stones, and gold bars.

And Kim Cattrall.

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