Tag Archives: Robbing Banks

Bunny O’Hare (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bette becomes a hippie.

Extremely odd Bette Davis vehicle made in her later years when her career had crested and she was forced to be less choosy about her projects. The story has to do with a lonely widow named Bunny O’Hare (Davis) who losses her home to foreclosure and is rendered homeless. She meets an older man named Bill Gruenwald (Ernest Borgnine) who is an escaped bank robber. Together they dress up as hippies and rob banks throughout the state of New Mexico in order to survive.

Davis is exceptional. Usually she plays cold, manipulative characters, but here she gives a perfect, touching performance as a nice old lady. She is terrific in every scene that she is in and the only bright spot in what is otherwise a misfire. Borgnine though seems wasted and thrown in only as a stock character.

The story really has nowhere to go. The intention was to make the film a mixture of social satire and slapstick, but it fails on either end. The novelty wears off quickly and it soon becomes derivative. Initially their ploy to rob the banks seemed clever as Bill releases a bird into the bank, which causes such a distraction that they are able to rob it without detection, but it becomes tiring when it gets played-out again and again. The police are portrayed as being universally bumbling and making it seem like a six-year old could rob a bank and easily get away with it. I also did not like the banjo music being played as they are trying to get away from the cops as it seems too similar to the much better film Bonnie and Clyde and in fact the original title for this movie was going to be ‘Bunny and Claude’.

The casting of Jack Cassidy as Lieutenant Greely, the policeman who becomes obsessed with capturing them, should’ve worked.  He was very adept at playing cold, cunning, slightly offbeat characters as evidenced by his Emmy Award winning performances on the old Columbo TV-show as well as the cult TV-series He and She. He was the husband of actress Shirley Jones and the father of Shaun and David Cassidy whose career was unfortunately cut short when he ended up dying in a fire in 1976 after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. His unique talent here is stifled because the character is portrayed as being unrealistically dimwitted and saps any possible energy from the scenes that he is in.

Actress Joan Delaney makes a terrific addition as his female counterpart R.J. Hart. She is young, attractive, and hip. She plays off of Greely’s old, regimented ways quite well and it is a shame that, with the exception of a very brief appearance in the 1991 comedy Scenes From a Mall, this ended up being her last film.

The New Mexico landscape is nice, but I got the feeling that the location shooting had not been scouted out sufficiently. The police station didn’t look authentic at all. It seemed like scenes where shot in any building that they were able to attain a film permit. The lighting consists of one bright spotlight put on the subject while the sides of the frame and the background are dark and shadowy. Sometimes, in a good movie, this is done for artistic effect, but here I felt it was more because that was all they could afford. This one is for Bette Davis completest only.

Well known character actors John Astin and Reva Rose appear as Bunny’s two grown children, but are essentially wasted. The then acting governor of New Mexico, David Cargo, plays one of the state troopers.  Larry Linville, who would later become famous for playing Major Frank Burns on the classic TV-series M*A*S*H, can be seen very briefly at the end, but has no lines of dialogue.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gerd Oswald

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: Netflix Streaming

Straight Time (1978)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Parolee can’t go straight.

Straight Time is an engrossing, highly realistic drama detailing a parolee by the name of Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) who gets released from prison and cannot seem to stay away from the allure of crime despite his initial efforts. The movie is based on the novel ‘No Beast So Fierce’ by Edward Bunker.  Bunker himself was a career criminal who was in and out of jail from 1955 to 1975 and only managed to finally turn his life around when this novel, which he had written while incarcerated and deals with many of his own exploits, got published. Bunker co-wrote the screenplay and appears in a bit part playing a character with a really bad comb-over by the name of Mickey.

I found this film gripping from the second it started and infinitely fascinating the more it progressed. It gives you a whole new perspective on things as you are forced to see it from the viewpoint of the criminal and as an outsider looking in. Every facet of the story and characters is believable and the film does a very good job of being stark and searing without ever getting exploitive, or overtly shocking.  I remember back in 1977 when I toured the new county jail in the town where I grew up when it was first opened and before it housed any inmates. I remember the officer describing the rather degrading procedures all felons had to go through when they were first booked including being stripped searched and forced to take a shower nude while a fully clothed officer stood by and watched them.  The scene where Max and other criminals are ‘welcomed’ to the L.A. County jail worked exactly like that. It was so authentic and frank that it seemed almost like a documentary.

The essence of the story revolves around Max and his relationship with his parole officer Earl Frank that is wonderfully played by noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Earl does his job a little too well. He shows a constant distrust of Max and gives him no respect while overzealously tracking his every move until it finally forces Max to snap. It is a terrific indictment on the flawed system as it examines just how hard it is for the criminal to go straight and stay straight even if they want to. It also exposes how it seems almost designed to push the person back into crime in its refusal to ever treat the criminal as a human being. The part where Max finally has enough and overpowers Earl and chains him naked to a fence in broad daylight on a busy L.A. freeway while hundreds of cars drive by him should leave an indelible image on the minds of anyone who sees it.

The remaining supporting cast is great as well. Theresa Russell is surprisingly effective as Max’s girlfriend Jenny Mercer. Usually she has played more glamorous types of roles, but here she is perfect as a very ordinary woman who inadvertently gets caught up in Max’s eventual self-destruction until she finds herself in over her head.  I liked the fact that she wore no makeup and the camera was able to pick up her natural beauty through regular lighting. The only issue I had with her character is that it is never made clear why she would fall in love with Max so quickly and what it was about him that she liked since he shows some clear destructive tendencies right from the beginning. To me it just came off as a bit forced and phony to have an otherwise well-adjusted woman that he meets at an employment agency get so infatuated with him after just one date that she immediately agrees to move in with him, visit him in jail, and even quit her job on the spot and go on the run. I know it is standard practice in a Hollywood film for the anti-hero to always have ‘his girl’ that can be used to humanize and compliment him, but there still needs to be more of an explanation and history shown to her character in order to validate the relationship.

Harry Dean Stanton gives another great performance as Jerry Schue. He was a long-time partner to Max during the robberies he did before landing in prison. Jerry has now turned his life around. He has a nice house in the suburbs, an honest job, and a beautiful wife. However, when Max comes to visit, and the minute his wife leaves the room, Jerry begs him for a crime job that they can do together because he finds his new found life to be boring.  I thought this made a great statement as to how the sterile suburban existence is not the American dream for everyone and how it will not necessarily ‘domesticate’ those that still harbor a reckless urge.  I also found it interesting how Jerry views the art of robbery as an actual profession that he takes a great deal of pride and care in. When one of the men shows up late for a planned robbery Jerry calls him ‘unprofessional’.

The robbery scenes are filmed in a diverting way. In most films the camera gets real close to the action in order to heighten the tension. Here the action is captured from a long shot that allows the viewer to see just how chaotic and frantic a robbery really is as well as showing how the most nervous people in the place are the thieves themselves.

If I have one complaint with the film it is in the fact that the second hour becomes rather difficult to watch as it focuses solely on the self-destructive downward spiral of the main character. Max has some good qualities, which makes it all the more painful to watch. Yes, some of his anger is justified, but his insistence at ‘evening the score’ with everyone who has wronged him ends up only hurting himself. Hoffman is outstanding as usual. It is interesting to compare his role here playing a very violent character with the pacifist one that he played just seven years earlier in Sam Peckinpah’s classic Straw Dogs.

If you are looking for an intelligent, searing drama that is still relevant today then this no-holds-bar character study is highly recommended.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: March 18, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ulu Grosbard

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Money for sex change.

Dog Day Afternoon is a 1975 film based on a true story that took place on August 22, 1972.  It tells the tale of a man by the name of John Wojtowicz, who robbed a Brooklyn bank in order to pay for his gay lover’s sex change operation.  Here the character’s name has been altered slightly to John ‘Sonny’ Wortzik (played by Al Pacino), but otherwise this Oscar-winning script by Frank Pierson pretty much sticks closely to the actual events in this incredible saga about everything that can go wrong will.

Just about everyone who has watched this film will tell you how it manages to grab and pull you in right from the start.  It achieves this without having any special effects, pounding soundtrack, elaborate camera work, or artificial lighting.  Instead of ‘telegraphing all of its punches’ the film draws back and puts more emphasis on the little subtitles like the character’s facial expressions, side conversations, and other nuances that put together make this film very rich and textured.   In essence it successfully ‘shows’ instead of ‘tells’, which is a remarkable achievement since so many Hollywood films seem to want to do the exact opposite.

Director Sidney Lumet allowed for a lot of improvisation by his actors and gave each performer full rein on how to create their character, even the minor supporting ones. The result gives each and every one of the characters a distinct personality. The bank hostages become almost as fascinating as the thieves and it is interesting seeing all the different ways each one responds to the situation and how they interact with the robbers, which at times is both amusing and surprising.

The film also vividly captures 1970’s Brooklyn atmosphere. The sights and sounds of the area as well as the people’s personalities and the anti-establishment sentiment that was still quite prevalent at the time are all right on target.  After you finish watching this movie you feel like you just got back from a trip over there.  I really liked how during the opening credits you are shown all sorts of shots and scenes of Brooklyn, so by the time the story actually begins you are already well entrenched in the setting.

Pacino gives a dynamic performance in the starring role.  Some insist this is the best performance never to be nominated for an Oscar and I might have to agree.  If you are a Pacino fan than you absolutely have to see this, but if you are not a Pacino fan you still should see it because afterwards you might become one.

The supporting cast is stellar.  Sully Boyar, who was a real-life lawyer who did not enter into acting until he was in his 50’s, leaves a strong impression as the stoic bank manager.  As the police captain, the always durable Charles Durning is a blast especially during his frenzied and frantic negotiations with Pacino that almost become the film’s highlight. Another memorable moment is the improvised phone conversation between Sonny and his gay lover played by Chris Sarandon.  John Cazale is also amazing as Pacino’s bank robbing partner.  The partner in the actual incident was only 18 while Cazale was then 39, which created some controversy. However, Cazale is so convincing in the part that it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well.

In the end the film’s brilliance comes from its ability to convey the humanity of its characters. You can’t help but feel for the Sonny character despite his many flaws.  This a man who craves acceptance and yet goes through life being betrayed and hurt by everyone he meets. The shocked expression he shows at being betrayed by his own hostages, who he felt he had ‘bonded’ with, is, in my opinion, the most memorable shot of the whole film.

I only have two negative comments about this film and they are both minor.  One is the abrupt ending.  Since the film was made only a few years after the incident there wasn’t much of an epilogue to the characters.  The real John Wojtowicz, who really did look a lot like Pacino, didn’t end up dying until the year 2006.  It would have been a stronger conclusion by showing what happened to the Sonny character through the years and maybe even how he might of changed or grown.  My only other complaint is the fact that actress Carol Kane appears as one of the bank employees, but is shown very little.  A quirky and unique talent such as hers should have been given a bigger role.

Overall this is a great movie that I would recommend to any serious movie fan who can appreciate great film-making in top form.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: September 21, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated R

Director: Sidney Lumet

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (2-Disc Special Edition), Blu-ray, HDDVD, 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

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