Bank Shot (1974, dir. Gower Champion)

‘Bank Shot’, ‘Cops and Robbers’, and ‘Harry in Your Pocket’ Capture the Evolution of Heist Films

Starting in the '70s, heist and caper films evolved from the high-society champagne crime of the '30s and '40s to gritty, realistic robbery pictures.

The ’50s and ’60s were the heyday of cool, cosmopolitan capers in which heists were pulled off by a better class of felon, epitomized by everyone from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief to the Rat Pack in Ocean’s 11. They descended from such early ’30s royalty as Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise, and really from the dapper anti-heroes created by E.W. Hornung and Maurice Leblanc in the 1890s. And if the thieves weren’t always glamorous, then the settings were often chic European locales dotted with classy museums and jewelry stories begging to be knocked over. This was champagne crime.

That changed in the ’70s, when the Hollywood heist movie became grungy, down-market, and democratized as part of the era’s general trend of messy, noisy, and naturalistic “realism”. In that Godfather era, the genre’s status as a mixed cousin to the gangster movie became more apparent, with its criminal flipside of free-enterprise ambitions, its usually doomed tension between the gang’s unity and its individual weaknesses. Some of the new capers were stylish in some classic sense, like the black and white Paper Moon, although most adopted a contemporary rhythm of propulsive jump-cuts punctuated with the new four-letter freedom of language.

A case in point is the movie packaged as Bank Shot (onscreen title: The Bank Shot), loosely adapted by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, Death Wish) from one of Donald E. Westlake’s novels about his Dortmunder character. Dortmunder had been played by Robert Redford in The Hot Rock, but here the character’s name, age, and girth are altered significantly.

DVD: Bank Shot

Film: The Bank Shot

Director: Gower Champion

Cast: George C. Scott

Year: 1974

Rating: PG

US DVD release date: 2015-06-23

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Rating: 4

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/bankshot_dvdreview_brart350.jpg

George C. Scott adopts a faint lisp as alleged criminal mastermind Walter Upchurch Ballantine, currently ensconced on a prison farm run by Bulldog Streiger, who also narrates. Streiger is played by Clifton James, doing a more comic version of his persona from Cool Hand Luke, but not as funny as he’d be in The Man with the Golden Gun.

In the first of many loud and jumbled slapstick setpieces, scored by John Morris as if it’s a circus, Ballantine breaks out of stir in order to plan the heisting of a tiny mobile bank in the parking lot of an Anaheim strip mall. High stakes booty this ain’t, but we go meticulously through his carefully executed hijack (which involves physically transporting the whole building) and attempts to hide from the law while cracking open the safe.

His merry crew of amateurs is played by Joanna Cassidy (as a rich lady out for kicks and inexplicably turned on by Ballantine), Sorrell Booke (always changing false mustaches), Frank McRae (as a loud man who needs the money to run for mayor), Bob Balaban (as nobody in particular), and Don Calfa and Bibi Osterwald (a mother-son duo sidelining from an insurance scam, so she wears a neck brace). They’re more cartoons than characters, and more wacky than funny.

You’d never know this clanky, off-center rattle-trap is directed by Gower Champion and shot by Harry Stradling Jr., holdovers from the era of artificial studio classicism. (Champion was a choreographer turned Broadway director who’d directed one other film, My Six Loves.) They’ve adjusted to the new reality that not only requires location shooting but a cluttered, jumbled visual approach dominated by the editing of David Bretherton. He too was a late studio classicist, albeit of the Cinemascope school (An Affair to Remember, Peyton Place, The Diary of Anne Frank), but by the ’70s he’d evolved into the groundbreaker of Cabaret and such modern products as Save the Tiger and Silver Streak.

Cops and Robbers (1973, dir. Aram Avakian)

While Bank Shot is derived from a Westlake novel, Westlake himself scripted Cops and Robbers, which is such a gritty vision of 1973 New York as a crime-ridden cesspool, it might be mistaken for a Sidney Lumet picture. The director is Aram Avakian, who photographs many scenes and sequences in single elegant shots without making a fetish of it. Photographer David L. Quaid, previously of The Swimmer and Pretty Poison, shoots with many of the restless glides, pans and zooms we associate with Robert Altman. Avakian was an editor who understood the value of not cutting, and his editor here is Barry Malkin, who went on to work a lot with Francis Ford Coppola on Avakian’s recommendation. The film also boasts a complex sound mix. In short, it’s put together beautifully.

DVD: Cops and Robbers

Film: Cops and Robbers

Director: Aram Avakian

Cast: Joseph Bologna, Cliff Gorman

Year: 1973

Rating: PG

US DVD release date: 2015-06-23

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Rating: 7

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/copsandrobbers_dvdreview_brart350.jpg

Take the tense, playful, and sinister second shot, a night shot that observes a liquor store through a plate-glass window as a uniformed cop enters, shows his gun to the clerks, and receives money from the cash register before walking out with a smirk. A foreground blur to the side is an oblivious bystander reading a paper. All we hear on the soundtrack is Grady Tate and a funky chorus singing the theme song by Avakian and Michel Legrand, with its hook “it’s a world of cops and robbers”. The whole film maintains this quiet disorientation of sound and image: not extreme or flashy, but off-kilter enough to feel fresh more than 40 years later.

That scene signals a deeply cynical picture where everyone is dishonest. In case we’re uncertain whether the robber is actually a cop, it’s soon made clear that he’s a beat officer, Joe (Joseph Bologna), whose neighbor and buddy Tom (Cliff Gorman) is a plainclothes detective. While stuck in traffic without air conditioning, Joe proudly confesses that he did on impulse, that it was surprisingly easy and has improved his week in the sack with his wife. There’s never any crisis of conscience or moral discussion (“You’ve got a pair of balls on you!” says Tom), and we see that his daily job includes accepting bribes for traffic tickets. These are two tough working-class goombahs who might just as well have joined the mob.

Later, we’ll also see three urban-hell incidents within a few days in which he’s shot at twice, his partner (Richard Ward) hospitalized, and he arrests a hysterical woman (Frances Foster) who killed her husband or boyfriend when she find him fooling with “her baby”. (This is what the PG rating looked like in the ’70s.) It’s the era’s typical New York nightmare as purveyed in films as diverse as Little Murders, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, two of which are based on real incidents.

This context gets the viewer interested in whether the guys will pull off robbing a Wall Street firm of ten million dollars in bearer bonds (a scene shot to convey the air-conditioned aroma of money), and if so, whether that other dishonest organization, the mob, will pay them the agreed-upon two-million-dollar asking price. There are additional twists that raise the script’s level of intelligence and cynicism, and this too keeps us watching through what’s probably an unlikely last act in Central Park.

Also in the picture are ’40s film star Shepperd Strudwick as the dapper Mr. Eastpoole (a play on Westlake), Ellen Holly as his cucumber-cool secretary, John P. Ryan as the gangster nicknamed Patsy O’Neill (more Westlake humor) in a private bowling alley that foreshadows There Will Be Blood, famous NY cop Randy Jurgensen (who first appeared in The French Connection) as a detective, Joe Spinell as a mobster (after being in The Godfather), Delphi Lawrence as a rich lady on a wittily staged set, Dolph Sweet as a sneering neighbor, Martin Kove as the paramedic who doesn’t freak out, Cliff Gorman’s wife Gayle as Tom’s wife, and Bologna’s family as Joe’s family, as he mentions in a bonus interview. He also says Westlake wrote the script first, then the book.

The bowling alley and the rich lady’s apartment involve striking artworks, and this is probably due to scenic artist Bruno Robotti, who got a credit he otherwise wouldn’t have received in this era. He was at the beginning of a career with an impressive list of credits.

Harry in Your Pocket (1973, dir. Bruce Geller)

Less ambitious than these two heists is Harry in Your Pocket, the only feature directed by Bruce Geller, the man behind Mission Impossible. Like that show, it’s about a small crew who work together by choosing a mark and using misdirection. Unlike it, no elaborate cons are necessary, and every job is impromptu, taking only a couple of minutes. One of the many street scenes uses slow motion in a medium shot to break down the event for our careful study.

DVD: Harry in Your Pocket

Film: Harry in Your Pocket

Director: Bruce Geller

Cast: James Coburn, Walter Pidgeon

Year: 1973

Rating: PG

US DVD release date: 2015-06-23

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Rating: 6

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/harryinyourpocket_dvdreview_brart350.jpg

James Coburn, in his element as a man of polished sheen over rough textures, plays Harry, the “cannon”. He runs a “wire mob” of pickpockets, consisting of a “stall” (Trish Van Devere in short skirts) who distracts the mark long enough for Harry to dip the poke (sometimes from the pit, or inner jacket pocket) and pass it off to another stall (Michael Sarrazin) and finally to the steer (Walter Pidgeon) who scouted the mark. The system and lingo haven’t changed much in the 40 years between this movie, scripted by James David Buchanan and Ron Austin, and the recent Focus, a much more elaborate and flashily edited and less interesting con picture.

Aside from the fascinating workaday aspects, it’s a somewhat romanticized character study of these small-timers, who get excited when a day’s work nets $1400 (mind you, that’s in 1973). The elder Casey (Pidgeon), who sniffs coke for his “circulation”, is a father figure to Harry. “My weakness is cocaine. Harry’s weakness is me,” says Casey. We can guess that aside from his stature as an actor, Pidgeon was cast for the irony of seeing this upright patrician persona as a waning reprobate who laments his shaking hands and the general decline of standards, upholding bygone elegance and professionalism while pinching cocaine like snuff.

There’s sexual tension between the other three. Sandy (Van Devere) is the girlfriend of the ambitious, young, handsome but green Ray (Sarrazin), an alpha rival and potential new cannon. They must work smoothly together but their alliance, like their way of life, is uneasy and fragile. It’s hard work to be petty and penny-ante. Really, they’re all losers but faking it American-dream style. The ending is abrupt, thoughtful and credible.

With photographer Fred J. Koenekamp, Geller shoots the film with an eye for mild ’70s glamour in the touristy streets of Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Victoria, British Columbia. The crew stays in nice hotels, and there’s a lengthy montage on the cruise ship to Canada. Harry puts on an elegant front, but he’s from “poor white trash” and still lives on the edge. Like Mission Impossible, the movie adopts a clean, pretty/gritty, uncluttered visual approach with bits of transitional cleverness. Koenekamp had shot for that series, but mostly for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before launching into such films as Patton and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Unlike his boldly forefronted rhythms for Mission Impossible, Lalo Schifrin’s music percolates and simmers wistfully. The opening credits feature a Geller-Schifrin ballad, “Day by Day by Day” (sung by Josh Adams), while panning with a sense of mundane poignancy over various personal articles and clippings in front of a bureau: tattered bits of a life left behind. It’s similar to how the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby would open.

This film had previously been released only as an on-demand disc, but now it’s nicely remastered for Blu-ray. The only extra is the trailer, which advertises the title with an exclamation point. Bank Shot and Cops and Robbes have been on DVD before, but this is their first time on Blu-ray, and they come with trailers only.