Tag Archives: Heist Movies

Family Business (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Any movie that casts Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, and Mathew Broderick as a father, son, and grandson team of robbers has me hooked before I have even seen the first frame. It was a great bit of inspired casting even if Connery was playing Hoffman’s father and in reality was only seven years older than him.  Throw in the fact that it was directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet and you should have a sure fire winner.

The story involves the grandfather Jessie (Connery) getting out of jail and trying to rekindle relations with both his son Vito (Hoffman) and grandson Adam (Broderick).  Vito wants nothing to do with his father as he has done time himself by getting mixed-up in some of his father’s old schemes and is now trying to go straight by working as a manager at a meat packing facility. However, Adam, who is going to college and has a promising career ahead of him, idolizes his grandfather and relishes the idea of pulling off a robbery himself. He has even come up with one that all three of them can do together. The robbery is unique in that they aren’t stealing from a bank, jewelry store, home of someone rich, or even a priceless artifact at a museum, but instead some important research materials at a science lab.

The crime itself is not elaborate and could have been easily pulled off with just one person. I was anticipating something a little more daring and exciting especially since Jessie and Vito were career criminals. It also takes too long to get to it. The first fifty minutes are spent with them endlessly arguing and rehashing the same old points.

The second part is a little more interesting as it deals with Adam getting caught while the other two are able to get away and all the dilemmas that they then face. Even here the drama becomes strained and talky.  The ending fizzles and leaves no emotional impact.  I saw a lot of similarities with this film and Sidney Lumet’s last film that he did before he died, which was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.  Both of these movies deal with robberies and the consequences of family members betraying one another and yet that film was far more gripping while this one falls flat.

I thought Connery was highly engaging and would have enjoyed seeing him take over the movie. Hoffman gives a solid dramatic performance, but his character is bland.

The Adam character got on my nerves. He had been given everything in life and yet refuses to appreciate it and seems almost ungrateful to his father for working so hard to give him a better life. He acts cocky about going through with the robbery and yet when they get there he is ill-prepared and confused. I understand sometimes people become curious about those that live a different lifestyle than they do and that they don’t fully understand, but I still felt there needed to be a little more balance.  I just didn’t understand why this kid would want to throw it all away just so he could be like his career criminal grandfather.

The film gives one a good taste of New York. I liked how it showed the different neighborhoods and boroughs. Not only do we get a good feel of the Bronx, but we also see Flushing, Brooklyn, and downtown Manhattan. Most films that take place in the Big Apple seem to concentrate in only one section of it while this one tried to give a broader feel.

The indoor sets are nicely realized. Everything from the trashed halls of the prison to Vito’s modernistic, sleek apartment, to the science lab and even Jessie’s small, cramped apartment looked authentic and distinct.

I did notice a few logistical errors. One is the fact that they discuss plans of the robbery in a lot of public places, which seemed just plain careless to me especially since these were ‘professional’ thieves. One discussion takes place at a bar, another on a busy sidewalk with pedestrians going by, and the third at a funeral with mourners standing right behind them. There is also the fact that they park their car on the side of the road in front of the lab and put a sign in the windshield stating that they are out of gas and will be back in one hour. I thought this seemed dumb because a policeman could come by and do a check on the license plate to find out who the owner is. Then, the next day when the robbery is reported, they would only have to put the two together to trace the culprits. There is also a scene were Vito fires one of his employees at his plant for stealing. He punches him violently in his office that is surrounded by windows and is in full view of the other workers.  The man leaves with a broken nose and bloodied face, but the workers do not react and go on with their tasks like nothing happened, which didn’t strike me as believable.

The music score is another problem.  It has a big band, show-tune type melody and sound, which might have worked for a Broadway production, but here it seems completely out-of-sync with the mood and tone of the story.

Although competently done this thing still seems like a misfire namely because the material isn’t diverting, or interesting enough for the cast that it has. I was expecting a little more razzle-dazzle and a lot more action and excitement. I almost felt that if this same story had been approached in a comic vein it might have done better.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 15, 1989

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: TriStar Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

$ (Dollars) (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Robbery done inside safe.

Inspired by the British hit Perfect Friday this inventive and original bank heist film holds up well and has a great mix of action and comedy as well as oozing with cynical sensibilities and jaded characters.  It is one of the very few films ever made that has a symbol for its title and no words. Although most reference books do list the word ‘dollars’ in parenthesis, technically it is the dollar sign that is the official title. It also has the distinction of not displaying its title on screen in any type of print format. Instead a brief scene with a large steel structure made into a dollar sign is shown at the beginning being hauled in the air by a crane.

The story evolves around a crafty bank robbery devised by Joe Collins (Warren Beatty) who is also the bank’s security expert. He comes to realize that various criminals have stolen money stored in the safety deposit boxes inside the bank’s safe.  He figures that he could steal the money from them and they would be unable to go to the police. He gets a ditzy call-girl named Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn), who has been a prostitute to most of the criminals whose money is in the safe, to call in a bomb threat to the bank. As the bank is evacuated, Joe enters the safe and closes it. He then methodically transfers the money from the bad guy’s boxes and into Dawn’s, who also rents a box there, as the bomb squad searches for the explosive. Then the next day Dawn takes the money from her box and stuffs it into her bag without anyone suspecting a thing.

Of course this is only the first-part. The second half deals with the crooks slowly figuring out what happened and chasing down Joe, who they think has the money. This begins one of the longest and most elaborate chase sequences ever put on film.  It takes up almost the whole second hour and it is amazing. Joe ends up being chased through city streets, tunnels, subways, trains, and even on a frozen lake with thin ice. Beatty did most of his own stunts here, which is impressive especially during the lake sequence, which was done on location in Sweden. When he goes through the ice he is really going into icy water and seems to be genuinely struggling to get out. Veteran character actor Scott Brady is memorable as one of the antagonists named Sarge.  He was much older than Beatty, but this contrast is fun, especially with the very relentless way he stays on Joe’s tail despite being out-of-shape.

Goldie is great as always, somehow her ditzy blonde routine never seems to get old and it is played to perfection here. I did have a few issues with the character though. She has sex with these slimy middle-aged men and even plays out their kinky fantasies, but ends up only taking $100 dollars from them for her ‘services’. I know this takes place in 1971, but even if you factor in inflation it still seemed low when these guys were loaded. I also thought her attitude was a little too carefree.  She invited these men into her apartment, but seemed to have no back-up plan in case things got out of control, which seemed risky. It is also never explained how Joe came to know her, or devise the plan that he did, but it would have been helpful. There also the fact that despite being a very crucial link in the plan she shows little confidence and describes how she always breaks down under pressure. It is nice that Joe stays supportive and sticks with her, but I felt it was unrealistic. Just about anyone else would have second thoughts about going through with it when they have a partner who is so shaky, or at the very least considered someone who is more self-assured.

Beatty is a terrific. He displays a cool demeanor and nicely underplays everything.  His mop-top Beatles like haircut  shows in a subtle, visual way his non-conformity from the more staid and conventionally dressed bank mangers.

Gert Frobe, best known as the villainous Auric Goldfinger from the classic James Bond film Goldfinger, is a hoot as the bumbling, clueless bank manager Mr. Kessel. The only actor I didn’t like was Arthur Brauss as ‘the candy man’. He certainly had the steely cold eyes of a killer, but his excessively raspy voice was a distraction and did not sound natural. There was no reason given why he sounded that way, but I would have liked one.

Even after 40 years the film still seems fresh. There are certain things here that I have never seen anywhere else. The prolonged chase is one, but there is also the scene where, to get Joe out of the safe, they have a torch burn a hole through the metal. They use an actual blowtorch and the sounds of it burning into the metal as well as the smoke and flying sparks is vivid and exciting.

I know my brother, who once watched the film with me, as well as other reviewers on IMDB, have complained that the first part of the film is too disjointed, slow and confusing. It does have a certain fragmented, cinema-vertite style to it where the viewer is forced to make their own connections, but I have watched this movie several times and it has never bothered me. The robbery and chase are so creative that I feel it more than makes up for any other limitations.  This early segment also effectively show how nasty the villainous men are and there is a part where, at a strip club, a stripper has a giant image of a dollar bill projected on her nude body, which I found to be evocative and artsy.

Critic Leonard Maltin has called this film ‘awfully similar to Perfect Friday’, but I have to disagree. I have seen both movies, which are excellent in their own right, but quite different in a lot of aspects. If you are looking for light entertainment that is exciting and still intelligently done, than this is a good flick to check-out.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 17, 1971

Runtime: 2Hours 1Minute

Rated R

Director: Richard Brooks

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: They can hear everything.

In Sean Connery’s long and storied career in which he has played in a wide variety of films, The Anderson Tapes somehow always gets lost in the shuffle, which is unfair as it is really an offbeat gem waiting to be discovered and appreciated.  Fortunately in October it was finally released to DVD and the print is excellent and there is now discussions of a remake, but see the original first.

It involves a man by the name of Duke Anderson (Connery), who upon being released from prison, seeks to borrow money from the mob in order to finance a high scale robbery of an apartment building that is filled with affluent tenants. The problem is that Duke is being tailed by the government who, through means of sophisticated electronic devices, are able to record everything he says and does.  Even by today’s standards I thought the gadgetry and the way it was used was quite clever.

Many things help make this film stand out. One is the very distinctive music score by the legendary Quincy Jones.  It has a weird electronic, techno quality to it that nicely compliments all the gadgetry in the story.

The casting is also interesting.  Martin Balsam, who made a career playing typical, everyman characters, appears here as a flaming gay interior decorator, which he does hilariously well. Comedian Alan King gets cast in a serious role as the crime boss. Even the casting of Connery is offbeat.  Usually he plays characters with strong personalities who are very much in control.  Here he plays a character who is constantly forced to compromise and trying desperately just to hold everything together  he even ends up getting rejected by his girlfriend (played by Dyan Cannon) for another man and all Connery’s character can do is stand there looking dumbfounded.

The script has some really sharp dialogue. This is probably the third or fourth time that I have seen this film and yet I was still impressed by some of the great lines that I hadn’t caught from the previous viewings.  One should actually make a point to watch this film twice just so they can take in all the great writing, which coincidently was done by Fran Pierson the same person who did Dog Day Afternoon.

The most unique thing about the movie though is the actual robbery sequence, which is made memorable due to director Sidney Lumet’s innovative approach.  It is told in semi-flashback form where you see a scene of the robbery and then it cuts to a scene where the victim recounts what happened to the police, which makes for some creative segues. The robbery victims are full of odd quirks and quite amusing.  Two of the best ones involve Margaret Hamilton best know as the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz who plays a cursing, argumentative elderly woman in this her final film role. I also like the bedridden, paraplegic young boy (Scott Jacoby) who is far more resourceful than anyone thinks and ends up single handily ruining all of their well thought out plans.

This sequence also edits in scenes of the police force quietly getting set-up to raid the building.  I especially like the shots of the S.W.A.T. team members sliding along a rope from one high rise rooftop to another.  It is photographed in a realistic way so you see them dangling high in the air with nothing but the street below, which made me cringe a little.  This is also a great chance to see Garret Morris in a pre-Saturday Night Live role playing the head of the S.W.A.T. team.

There is very little that I didn’t like in this film that I otherwise found to be original and engaging from start to finish. However, of the two issues that I do have, one is the ending, which in typical 70’s fashion was a bit of downer. It does have a twist to it, but it is not as clever as I think the film-makers thought it was.  There is also a glaring factual error that in a film as sophisticated and polished as this should never have happened.  It deals with a woman on a phone stating that she is calling from Wichita Falls, Kansas.  Now Kansas does have a city of Wichita, but Wichita Falls is actually in Texas.

I highly recommend this movie not only to those who may be fans of Connery or director Lumet, but also to those who enjoy movies with an offbeat story and approach.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Charley Varrick (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Charley outsmarts them all.

Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) is a crop duster and former stunt pilot who in order to make ends meet robs small banks in and around the state of Nevada. He does this with the help of his girlfriend Nadine (Jacqueline Scott) as well as a young, quick tempered man named Harmen Sullivan (Andrew Robinson). Unfortunately the latest bank that they rob was a front for the mob and the money they take was already stolen cash and the mob is soon hot on their trail as are the police. Worse is the fact that Charley and Harman don’t seem to see eye to eye on anything, which leads to a lot of intense confrontations and intrigue at every turn.

Initially I felt Matthau may have been miscast. We are so used to seeing him in comedies that watching him in a movie that features gritty violence seems almost unsettling. However, as the movie wears on and the story gets more intricate I started to really enjoy Matthau’s character and felt he was a perfect fit. I loved how he is so laid back and unassuming and yet in his own subtle way still manages to outwit everyone, even the dangerous mob. The film definitely feeds off of the confrontations between Charley and Harman who are diametrically different in every aspect. The fact that Charley manages to get the upper hand on the otherwise violent prone, out-of-control young man makes it all the more pleasing.

Robinson again gives another outstanding performance. The guy is an amazingly intense actor, who has never been given his just recognition. The guy stole the film in his most famous part as the killer Scorpio in Dirty Harry and he practically does it here as well.

Woodrow Parfrey another unfairly over-looked character actor gives a delightful performance as the timid bank manager stuck between the mob and the police. The conversation that he has with the mob boss Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) out near a cow pasture where they ascertain that the cows may have it better in life than the humans is memorable.

The only actor that didn’t quite hit the mark with me was Joe Don Baker as the mob hit man named Molly. I liked the character who was this extremely cold, calculating killer smoldering underneath his calm façade with a nasty penchant for violence and sadism as well as an odd moral code. Baker seems to be having a lot of fun with the part, but I would have liked the character to have been bigger physically and a few more scenes showing just how mean and threatening he really was. Although politically incorrect to the extreme the scene where he ‘convinces’ the Sheree North character to go to bed with him is amusing.

The cinematography seems to be lacking. Nevada can be a scenic desert state if captured right, but that wasn’t done here. The majority of the action takes place in a dusty trailer park, which is expectedly bland visually. The bank that was chosen for the opening sequence was very ordinary as was the locale. I think they should have scouted around for something a little more exotic as the opening shot should always be something that should grab the viewer in and that certainly didn’t happen. Despite being directed by the legendary Don Siegel this whole thing had a little too much of a TV-movie look.

Another beef I had with the film is the segment where Charley goes to bed with a woman named Sybil Fort (Felicia Farr) who is the secretary of the mob boss that Charley wants to get into contact with. Charley barges into her apartment after disguising himself as a flower delivery man and then threatens to harm her if she screams. Then, just a little while later they go to bed together and she behaves like she has suddenly gotten really ‘in’ to him. I know in the post-sexual revolution 70’s and in Hollywood’s effort to always seem ‘sophisticated’ and ‘relevant’ it was common for characters of the opposite sex to go to bed together even if they had just met. Sometimes though this ritual seemed to border on the absurd and this scene here was a perfect example. This woman had no idea who this man was and who had threatened her just a short while before. Also, Matthau does not have the face or physique that most women are going to get the ‘hots’ for. My only guess is that this was meant to be an inside joke since Farr in real-life was the wife of Jack Lemmon and therefore they thought it would be fun to have Matthau go to bed with his best friend’s wife and also possibly live out a private fantasy. Either way it came off as dumb and forced.

Despite all of this it is an entertaining and fun movie especially for those who enjoy a story that emphasizes a clever battle of wits. A remake wouldn’t be a bad idea if it could give it a little more visual flair and a slightly better choreographed action.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 19, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes

Rated R

Director: Don Siegel

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Bank Shot 1974

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: A bank on wheels.

Donald E. Westlake was a prolific author that excelled in writing elaborate and ingenious crime capers that were later turned into movies including:  The Split, The Hot Rock, and Cops and Robbers. However, this one may not only be his most ingenious and funniest, but it may actually be the most ingenious and hilarious bank robbery movie made of all time. The concept is outrageously offbeat and consists of a bunch of drop-outs who decided to rob a mobile home that has been turned into a bank, but instead of stealing money out of the bank they decided to steal the entire building.

One of the great things about this movie and one that makes it so delightful to watch over and over is the fact that it doesn’t just sit on its one-joke premise and squeeze it until there is nothing left, but instead uses it as a springboard for all sorts of wild and offbeat tangents. This film is simply one wild comedic gag and set-up after another and all at a zany fast-pace. The scenes are original and work in perfect balance to the characters and rest of the story.

Some of the best ones are when the main character of Walter Upjohn Ballentine (George C. Scott) tries to break out of his prison grounds by using a bulldozer that he has stolen while the prison warden tries to somehow chase him down while driving a little bitty golf cart. There is also the scene where the motley crew crawl underneath the bank building and quietly install wheels on it and then cart the place away with the bank guards still inside.  The scene where they hide out in a crowded trailer park and the police and F.B.I. surround the wrong home is also hilarious and is their many futile attempts to break open the bank’s safe, which is supposedly burglar proof. Another gem is when the bank goes careening down a steep hill and they go chasing after it.

All the characters are wonderfully kooky. Ballentine and his group are truly social outcasts and losers. Too many films portray the supposed outsider as still being cool and hip when in reality they are anything but. Here they are dopey looking and inept. None of them could fit in if they wanted too and yet they all show a nice camaraderie to one another as well as an amazing resiliency and a ‘never say die’ philosophy even as they come upon one unexpected obstacle after another. The film nicely brings out the vivid anti-establishment, anti-authority feeling during that era that in today’s films seems diluted. The idiosyncrasies of the characters is also fun including Frank McRae as Herman X a black man who wants to use his share of the stolen proceeds to run for mayor of Anaheim where he hopes to then instill ‘some law and order’.  Joanna Barnes as a carefree hippie is engaging as is her infectious laugh.

Clifton James as ‘Bulldog’ Strieger the police warden who makes it his mission to track down Ballentine and is gang is perfect. For one thing he really does look like a bulldog and his hamminess is fun without going overboard. He has become famous for his redneck sheriff character and it has been used in many other, more famous films including two James Bond movies: Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.  As well as Superman II and Silver Streak, but here I think he is at his funniest.

About the only thing that I did have a problem with was with George C. Scott himself. Normally he is a fine actor who usually gives brilliant, flawless performances, but here he added traits to his character that make him annoying. For one thing he speaks with a lisp. I have no idea why he decided to do this, but it doesn’t work. He also wears big bushy eyebrows, which look dumb and distracting.

The film is also too short. It runs at only 80 minutes, but I would have loved to see it keep going. The ending is also a bit of a dud. It seems like the writers wrote themselves into a hole that they had no idea how to get themselves out of, so they just abruptly ended it.

Otherwise this is a creative, highly original comedy that improves with each viewing. It’s great non-think entertainment for a slow evening that can also be enjoyed by the whole family.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 31, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 23Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gower Champion

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Netflix Streaming