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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My View of Seven Thieves

An obvious attempt to market the movie as an
Ocean's Eleven knock-off, despite the fact
it was released four months before
the Rat Pack extravaganza.
Everyone knows the heist caper Ocean's Eleven--all you youngsters know the Brad Pitt, George Clooney, glitzy production by Steven Soderbergh; you older kids might first think of the Rat Pack glamour flick from the days when Frank, Dean, Sammy, and Peter were the hottest ticket in town.  They were both entertaining movies.  Both of them sold tickets because of their stars; as ensembles go, these movies are some of the best examples of an ensemble cast with dynamite chemistry.
  The Ocean's Eleven success did more than just propel the Rat Pack (and eventually the Clooney/Pitt Pack) to iconic status.  Released in August of 1960, it almost completely erased the film Seven Thieves from our collective memory.  Unfortunately for those actors and technicians who worked on Seven Thieves, it was released only four months prior to Ocean's.  This gave it very little time to garner any sort of loyalty from the viewing public.  I think I can see several reasons for this:
  The obvious jumps out at us right away--who would most people rather watch?  The young, dynamic Rat Pack lead by Sinatra and his side-kick Dino?  Or  the elderly Edward G. Robinson with his dour companion Rod Steiger?  Thieves might have had an advantage with the alluring Joan Collins in its corner (she does a strip-tease, more or less), but at best this leaves the film evenly matched with Ocean's own glamorous screen-goddess Angie Dickinson.
  Just as obvious is the fact that Ocean's is filmed in color, Thieves in black and white.  Now, that's not a problem for a cinephile  like myself, but it certainly didn't help this movie at a time when the public was increasingly coming to expect color films at the theaters.  Black and white was okay for television, even though color television had been broadcast since 1951.  (Oddly enough, it wasn't until the 1970's that more Americans were buying color TVs instead of black and white ones.)  But a film about casinos really ought to be seen in color.
A far more appropriate ad campaign for a
film that easily stands on its own two feet.
  The third difference that hits you right away is the comedy found in Ocean's, which is non-existent in Thieves.  The Rat Pack spends more time making jokes than being tough-guy crooks.  The whole feel of the movie is that it is all a lark.  And it was.  The boys filmed it in the afternoons, after waking up late from their nights of performing in Vegas.  There was little acting, since they were essentially playing themselves.  It was all shot right there in the casinos where they performed.  (Including Dino's crooning in his little piano bar.)  There's no humor in Seven Thieves.  Though a heist movie, it also carries a pretty heavy Noir atmosphere, much like the French heist film Rififfi.  By 1960, the Noir train had run out of steam; the dark days of WWII were getting farther away, the boom of the 50's was well established, and people weren't looking to explore the darker side of life anymore.
  So why have I mentioned all of that?  Why don't I just review Ocean's Eleven and forget about Seven Thieves like everyone else?  Because it's a darned good movie, that's why.  So let me tell you all about it.
  The film opens when a professor by the name of Theo Wilkins (played by the unique and fascinating Edward G. Robinson) lures an old partner to Monte Carlo for the typically perfect heist.  The partner, Paul Mason (the staid, menacing Rod Steiger) wants nothing to do with it.  He's been in prison, and is not too eager to get caught again.  But as Wilkins points out, this one is fool-proof!  And he's assembled a team.
  You know what comes next: we begin to meet the crew.  There's the beatnik played by Eli Wallach.  If you're a fan of his, like I am, you'll know he's always a bit wild.  But for some reason, I never saw him as a beatnik.  But it suits him here.  He plays in the band as we meet the enticing Melanie, played by a twenty-seven-year old Joan Collins.  She's still a bit young here, and hasn't quite hit her stride yet in Hollywood, but you can tell she has charisma.  She's a stripper who wants to make that big score and get out of her club life.  Collins was famously trained by Candy Barr, a somewhat notorious stripper from the 50s.  (Please note the link will take you to her Wikipedia page, but there aren't any pictures there, guys, sorry.  But if you're really interested in her, I can tell you she shot her second husband and hung around with the likes of Mickey Cohen.  So...)  The rest of the team is filled in with the pretty boy safe-cracker (Michael Dante), the muscle (Berry Kroeger) and the fish-out-of-water Alexander Scourby, playing the "inside man" at the casino.
He's having an affair with her?  Are you kidding me?
(Alexander Scourby and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves.)
  I'll leave the musical dance number alone.  Watch the film and judge for yourself if Ms. Barr taught Ms. Collins anything worthwhile.  This is 1960, of course, so the strip-tease is anything but.  I will say it seems out of place, since the atmosphere of the rest of movie does not fit in with a club-act like hers.  But I'm sure the executives at the studio insisted on this to put seats in the seats, so to speak.
  One of the unique characters in this film is Raymond, played by the very English Alexander Scourby.  Some of you might know him from those commercials that used to run all the time advertising the Bible on audio tape, read aloud by Alexander Scourby.  He's very proper, always the unshakable Brit.  But not here.  Yes, he's the assistant to the Director of Casino operations, but he's also having an affair with Melanie, and he's the one who provides the information needed to locate and extract the money.  But he's one anxiety attack away from the funny farm.  He's a mess.  Who would have though Alex Scourby would be the comic relief?
  Edward G., as always, is top notch.  He has that haunting lilt to his speech.  I don't often say this about a guy, but his voice is mellifluous.  He could talk me into a crime caper, I'm sure, no matter how much I didn't want to get involved.  Yes, he's always portrayed as the gangster tough guy, but that's missing the point about him.  When he's not actively trying to intimidate you, he's subtly at work on you, suggesting, probing, giving out little bits of wisdom like chocolates.  Watch him in The Cincinnati Kid, or Double Indemnity, and you'll see what I mean.  And he gets it right here too, with a little twist; he shows unabashed love for his friend Paul Mason.  Who knew Edward G. could do this?  His face opens up, he looks like a kid who's just opened a Christmas present.  You can see he is so delighted to be with Rod Steiger, which is odd, since Steiger never seems to inspire this in anyone.  Ever.  But that is explained later in the film.
Steiger takes control of the crew and never lets go.
(left to right: Robinson, Steiger, Collins, and Wallach.)
  And speaking of Rod Steiger, let me say a few things.  First of all, I've always had a reserved respect for him.  Not because I don't like his acting, but because he's always played reserved, hard-to-like characters.  Almost always noble, full of good-intentions, Steiger's characters just have trouble being nice to whomever he happens to be next to.  One gets the idea there isn't anyone he is fond of, respects, or wishes to make happy.  Robert Osborne, the TCM host, said the same thing.  Saying he was surprised when Steiger came on the show to co-host a few movies, he was very affable, and easy to get along with.  All of which I point out because that is Steiger's character, Mason.  He doesn't want to be there.  If he has to be, he's gonna be in charge, and no one is going to question how he does things.  Beyond that, he says very little.  The Alpha dog who really just wants to be the lone wolf.  And of course, Melanie finds this irresistible, and her loyalties to Wallach, Scourby and even Robinson pale in comparison to her desire to be with Paul.  Some guys have all the luck.
  One more observation on Steiger.  I can see that Russell Crowe is our generation's Rod Steiger.  Both have that same solid, quiet power that keeps the camera entranced.
  Joan Collins has become something of a joke to our society.  Her success as the bad-girl of Dynasty as well as a few forays into the tawdry, near-porn of her late-70's films, as well as her stint as Potiphar's wife on stage in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat have all combined to convince us that she is nothing more than a sexed-up cougar who's only career asset was her body and her seductive ways.  But if you watch some of her earlier works, you'll see a talented actress who knew how to hold her own with actors like Steiger, Richard Burton, and yes, even William Shatner.  Here, in Thieves, she is more than just eye-candy.  Her effect on the usually unflappable Steiger is enough to spark some excellent scenes between them.  They're not Bogart and Becall, but they're not far behind.
  The heist itself is well done, with that same slow, systematic atmosphere one finds in other heist movies like Riffifi and the little known Maximilian Schell/Peter Ustinov Topkapi.  While there is tension as Steiger and Dante risk the high window ledges above the Mediterranean, the better story is on the casino floor as Wallach and Robinson put on their show for the casino officials, which includes one of my favorite actors, Sebastian Cabot.
  This is 1960, and so the Breen office still would not allow crime to be successful unless the crooks were eventually punished.  You know this going in, and I won't spoil the way they handled it.  It is not the strongest finish to a film, but it does manage to surprise you.  After all, who would have thought that I'd find it touching when Rod Steiger holds Edward G. Robinson in his arms and actually sheds tears?  I sure didn't.
  Seven Thieves is not the best heist caper you'll ever see.  It may not even be the best movie of 1960.  But I would strongly recommend it.  Ignore the silly newer posters/DVD covers for it.  It is not anything like Ocean's Eleven.  The marketing department needs a swift kick in its collective backside for trying to ride that horse.  Directed by Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death, Niagara, True Grit), this movies stand easily on its own merits, and you'll be glad you took the time to look it up.  For now, you can rent it for just $2.99 from Amazon.  (See below.)  It is available at Neflix, though not for instant watch.

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