"i do what i do best, i takes scores. you do what you do best, try to stop guys like me." - robert de niro, heat (1995)
day three of queue de grâce celebrates the heist in its various incarnations and we begin with what i consider - and i say this with love and purely as a compliment - the ishtar (1987) of its generation, john hamburg's safe men (1998).
sam rockwell and steve zahn play two aspiring and inept singer-songwriters who are mistaken for safe crackers and find themselves caught in the middle of a pissing contest between, what i can only assume are, the only two jewish gangsters in providence, rhode island. on its surface, it doesn't seem like a remarkable set-up. it's not really, the ol' mistaken identity leads to wacky hijinks business. what sets it apart is the quality of the writing and perfectly awkward performances, including paul giamatti as the mob intern/manchild who goes by the name veal chop. every conversation is spiked with some memorably off-kilter line or delivery that makes you cock your head sideways like a dog that just heard a high-pitched sound. the parallels with ishtar range from the songwriting angle (which i know is probably much funnier to musicians) to the "you've got the wrong guys" angle to the vastly underrated comic gem angle. along the way, michael lerner and harvey fierstein almost steal the show as the mob kingpins, what with their bar mitzvah preparations and stories about exploding slacks. you should see it. i can't do it justice. this always seems to be one of those that people haven't seen when i mention it. i would like to take this opportunity to rectify that for the lot of you.
next up, we have jules dassin's other heist movie, topkapi (1964).
this is like the lighthearted b-side to dassin's earlier, superior caper rififi (1955). it was his first color film and he certainly doesn't spare the horses in that regard. kaleidoscopic effects abound and there isn't a swatch of wallpaper that you can't practically hear. maximilian schell, sporting his best proto-daniel day-lewis look, assembles a team of non-thieves to boost a bejeweled dagger from a turkish museum. peter ustinov, who is the highlight of the film, gets unwittingly roped into the deal and ends up playing both ends against the middle when he's pinched by the police bringing weapons back for the job. he turns informant, updating the turkish authorities about the gang's plans while simultaneously becoming more and more integral to the thieves' scheme. the first half of the film drags a bit because it is primarily a showcase for dassin's wife, melina mercouri, who thrashes her way through the film like an aging, garish and greedy crocodile.
it was difficult to suspend my disbelief as they were trying to convince me that anyone found her seductive enough to rob a candy store on her behalf, much less taking rare artifacts under heavy guard. once she clears the lane for the actual heist things improve considerably. the robbery is a nice set piece and the twist that gets them nabbed is in keeping with the lighthearted tone of the rest of the film. i just prefer the darkness of rififi. this seems like a slight step backwards when you view it in that light. this was good fun but ultimately disposable.
next up is brian de palma's film about how much he obviously hates me, femme fatale (2002).
actually, that title is held by the black dahlia (2006). this is merely the runner-up, but i did take it awfully personally. rebecca romijn and antonio banderas star in this silly and overheated piece of "intrigue" about a diamond thief that doublecrosses her compatriots, assumes a dead woman's identity and then has to deal with the avalanche of repercussions when a paparazzi unwittingly exposes her charade. i give him enormous credit for the opening sequence. it has all the trappings of the traditional heist - the fancy gadgets, the black clothing, the meticulously timed maneuvers - but he manages to put his unmistakable stamp on it by having romijn seduce the priceless baubles right off a nubile starlet in a bathroom tryst at a cannes film festival event. it is the sort of voyeuristic, lurid bait-and-switch that he excels at. and then the wheels fall off. you would think that a film about a bisexual jewel thief who has to adopt another identity which is then uncovered by a photographer would be tailor-made for de palma's trademark techniques/themes - the overt sexuality, the split screen, things not being what they seem, the slow motion violence, the viewer and the viewed. yet, when he plugs them in to this framework almost none of them work. i have to think a lot of this falls on the choice of romijn. the idiotic lines she's given don't help. de palma is still in thrall to hitchcock so much that he once again casts his female lead much like the master would: blond, beautiful, a little cold and not a very good actress when it comes down to it. most of the time this was just boring. sometimes it was unintentionally funny. and when the twist came i think jon probably heard my "COME ON!" all the way out on the west coast. hitchcock's manipulations didn't leave you feeling cheated. there's the difference between the two men in a nutshell. don't watch this. just be honest with yourself and watch girl-girl porn.
closing things out we have bob rafelson's most recent collaboration with jack nicholson, blood & wine (1996).
nicholson plays a wine merchant who, in an attempt to get out from under enormous debt, conceives a plan to steal a diamond necklace from one of his clients. he enlists the help of his mistress and a safe cracking michael caine and they make off with the jewelry but, as is usually the case, things go awry. i liked this, didn't love it, but what they got right, they got really right. first the locale is perfect. if los angeles was the definitive classic noir location, then florida has to be it for the modern era. it is sultry and dirty and weird down there. you're bound to make bad decisions when you're that uncomfortable all the time. miles of swamps and endless ocean can conceal an awful lot of crimes. there's too much time to lay awake thinking when it's too hot to sleep. florida is a natural for neo-noir. they nailed the attitude as well. when things go wrong for these guys, and it always will for guys like this, it's because they are small-timers at heart. it doesn't matter the size of the stakes they are playing for, they will always be small-timers. losing is built in with them. they are grubby lowlifes even when you're talking seven figures and it couldn't be more obvious. look how they give themselves away when the chips are down. they crawl, they wheedle, they plead, the scrounge. they are locked in and can't let it go even when walking away is the only choice. that ugly, desperate vibe is dead-on here. i am hesitant to say it's more than good because i know what rafelson and nicholson are capable of together and this doesn't quite measure up to previous work. it is appropriately and unflinchingly downbeat, though. any time nicholson is on the screen there's the chance that he could charm us into seeing it his way, the old sly boots. they don't make that choice here and i am grateful. he starts low and stays low. it's worth a watch, if you're a neo-noir fan.
a lifetime of heist films has led me to one conclusion: i am never taking on a job that i can't do alone. someone is always getting greedy. someone is always running their mouth. someone is always gumming up the works. it's all about the company you keep, you know? on that note, did i mention j. lo is back again tomorrow?
yep, it's all about the company you keep.