ftDC is a "high concept" stream-of-consciousness rave meets "deep thought" analysis on movies. The end result is a series of thoughtful essays that group together and examine many films along thematic paths.
As a jumping off point, I've taken up the idea of the labyrinth, both literal and figurative, and woven a number of rants around that theme. This first essay looks at heist movies, based on their use of metaphorical labyrinths. The second one takes a look at more literal labyrinths.
Like a tunnel that you follow
I've always loved labyrinthine plots - the mainly heist and mystery movies with incredibly complex plots in which the hero(es) attempt to steal a million or find out who-dunnit. This essay will look at the attempts to steal a million, especially Heat, probably the best contemporary heist movie.
The Literal Labyrinth:
Heist movies like The Thomas Crown Affair (1966) in which our theme song, partly reproduced above, was featured. This is a relatively simple complex movie as such movies go. Steve McQueen's gentleman burglar is planning and executing his thefts, while being chased by Faye Dunaway. Like its close contemporary, The Thief Who Came to Dinner, Thomas Crown made no attempt to take itself or its formulas seriously. The best things about it were the taut scripting and some of the bit players. Neither McQueen nor Dunaway are all that great but the movie is fun - and that is the aim of such pieces. We're not talking about deep philosophy here: heist movies are meant to entertain first and foremost.
Most heist movies, like Jules Dassin's two masterpieces, Rififi (1955) and its more humorous cousin, Topkapi (1964), follow a formula as predictable as the villagers' behavior when confronted by the mad scientist's experiments. Rififi is sui generis. Being the original template it doesn't quite follow the pattern that developed in its imitators. The gritty monochrome crime thriller is centred on the heist sequence, over half-an-hour of taut drama with no background music and only those incidental accidental sounds made by the villains. And the central character is more complex than his successors. Topkapi was more the template for the surfeit of imitators. A planning genius plots out an arcane plan, recruits a diverse group of thieves and villains and puts them through a series of unexplained training exercises that divulge little or nothing about the heist itself. The movie climaxes with an incredibly long and suspenseful sequence in which the robbery is carried through to fruition. In addition, in most of these movies, there is also an very long anti-climax where it all falls apart and the gang (and its loot) are rounded up.
Topkapi, with its international cast and exotic settings, and Rififi, with its incredibly stretched robbery sequence, are the epitome of these labyrinthinely-plotted heist movies. But a couple of less serious entries are, to me, more worthwhile. How to Steal a Million (1966) in which Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn combine to pinch a "Cellini Venus" is the champion of the farcical end of the spectrum. And, because it makes fun of the elaborately contrived rituals of the heist movie, even while rigorously applying them, it is ultimately a more satisfying movie. This is despite its very sixties' look and feel that derogates from its success thirty years on. But the irresistible combination of two great stars, Hepburn and O'Toole, just about in their primes, balances those concerns and the overacting of French comedians in minor roles. It even makes up for Hugh Griffiths, the 60s' great scenery eater, mugging and pulling faces in the background. The advantage of a great script and Wiiliam Wyler, who'd directed Hepburn in her best light comedy, Roman Holiday, is inestimable.
Another favourite which plays around with the heist movie cliches while creating a different feeling is The First Great Train Robbery (1979), in which Sean Connery is the criminal mastermind and Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down his loyal underlings. Set in a detailed evocation of the Victorian era, which Michael Crichton creates with loving care for the society, the culture and the criminal argot, the central robbery takes place on a moving train, adding some extra excitement to the expected suspense of the heist sequence.
The problem is that these movies infrequently rise above their material. Formulaic movie making is safe movie making because the maker is providing the audience with a product that it has demonstrated that it wants. The expense involved in movie-making - especially talking pictures - has meant that most producers have turned to the formulaic. In the thirties it was the low budget horror movie and the crime melodrama; in the forties, the war story; in the fifties, the western and the low budget sci-fi thriller; in the late fifties and sixties, the heist movie had its day. Today, the formulaic movie is again the schlock horror movie, although these days it's promoted as "ironic" or "post-modern", which translates as, "We made it straight but it's so laughable you'll accept we were trying to be cute."
The best movies avoid or play against these formulas (although the odd one, like Casablanca, uses them and rises above them). The best movie of the 90s not to be even nominated for an Academy Award - indeed, one of the best two or three movies of the decade - played around with the formulas of the labyrinthine-plotted heist movie and then worked both with them and against them. Michael Mann's Heat (1995) is essentially that variant of the heist movie in which the big robbery is planned but the cops are on to the suspects and have them under observation. It brings together, for the second time in a movie, but the first time on screen together, two of the great modern screen actors, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Mann is a stylish director, despite learning his trade on Miami Vice. His first essay into the territory, the elegant but sparse adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (released as Manhunter), demonstrated an understanding of the medium and an ability to co-ordinate the various aspects of it. The Last of the Mohicans was also a stylish and well-contrived historical adaptation in which Mann showed that he could put together a chase sequence that was awesome.
Heat shows that Mann is even better than the first movie might have suggested or his western hinted at. In Heat, he has the climactic heist as the centre-piece of the movie and the second half is the tracking down. The heist itself is not the elaborately played out trope of Rififi or its ilk, but rather more business-like than that. It does not involve a clean getaway and then the falling apart of the gang - another cliche of the genre. Instead, we have the police right on the track of the criminals and, in the modern twist on the old standards, the shoot-out is both dramatic and bloody.
The essence of the success of Heat is that the central characters, the criminals and their nemeses, are all flawed individuals with relationship problems. There is something more here than the planning and execution of the crime and the inevitable capture of the criminals. Their girlfriends and wives might fill secondary roles but their existence is very important to the plot.
Unlike many formulaic heist pictures where the planning and execution of the robbery and the inevitable disintgeration of the gang mean that there is little time for character development, the male leads in Heat are given depth and interest as a result of their attachment to their women. Pacino's cop is self-destructive and has a corrosive effect on his wife and daughter. De Niro's robber is so self-contained that the possibility of his feeling for another gives a dimension not often found in the type. And Val Kilmer's marriage sets him apart from his fellows and leads to his redemption.
It is this additional dimension to the drama, created by the relationshiips and the women which makes the audience far more involved in the story.
It may be the violence and blood of the robbery scene that turned off the critics and Academy voters, it's hard to tell. But Heat, using the central elements of the labyrinthinely-plotted heist movie, is one of the great modern movie experiences.
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Datebase (IMDb). I am not going to provide a link for each movie mentioned.]
Last updated: 23 October 2003