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Monday, October 29, 2007

Bank Robber Movies, Part 2 (originally published 3/97)

Last week we were looking at movies featuring bank robbers as lead characters. Like the current release "The Newton Boys," most bank robber movies take advantage of the curious fact that such outlaws have traditionally had an undeniable appeal for movie audiences. Whether this reflects a broad-based distaste for banks among movie patrons or is merely a way of tapping into deep-seated fantasies about thumbing one's nose at society is a question for the sociologists. Whatever the explanation, moviemakers have understood for years that using bank bandits as sympathetic main characters can earn an enterprising filmmaker more money at the box office than most real bank robbers can steal in a lifetime. Here are a few more examples of bank robber movies available on home video.

"The Getaway" (1972). Jim Thompson was one of those fascinating writers produced by American literature from time to time who labor in the literary ghetto of paperback genre fiction producing high quality work that goes largely ignored by the critics. Some of these overlooked masters get their due years later when an English professor, slumming at the beach with a quick read from the secondhand paperback store, discovers an unexpected gem between the lurid covers, but by then they're usually dead and gone. Thompson, a master of psychological crime fiction, did live to see a couple of his novels adapted by Hollywood, most notably "The Getaway," which was directed by another great eccentric master, Sam Peckinpah. Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw star as a pair of lovers who become partners in crime, one of the most enduring icons of the crime genre.

"Dillinger" (1973). Director John Milius may not be as familiar a name as Francis Ford Coppola or George Lucas, but he was very much a product of the same background. Each of them belonged to the generation of "movie brats" who came charging out of film schools in the seventies to infuse Hollywood with some badly needed new creative blood. Steeped in the classics of cinema, these young turks loved to pay homage to the directors whose work had inspired them. Milius, in retelling the story of John Dillinger, made a conscious effort to evoke the poetic imagery of the films of John Ford. Warren Oates gives an outstanding performance in the role of Dillinger.

"Big Bad Mama" (1974). Through much of the sixties and seventies, producer Roger Corman reigned as the undisputed "King of the B's," Hollywood's most consistently successful purveyor of exploitation films. But the thing that makes Corman memorable, and deserving of respect, is that he gave dozens of talented young actors, writers, and directors a start in the industry at a point in their careers when no one else would have. Among others, he gave us Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Ron

Howard. One of the genres that Corman successfully exploited was the violent crime genre. Sandwiched in between "Bloody Mama" (1970) and "Crazy Mama" (1975) was "Big Bad Mama," in which Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson) and her daughters make ends meet by getting into the bank robbing business.

"Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). One of director Sidney Lumet's very finest hours -- in a career that's been filled with them -- was this incredible exploration of how common bank robbers can become media darlings. Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) are just a couple of hoods knocking over a New York City bank until they find themselves barricaded in the bank, surrounded by police, with a crowd gathering to watch and local TV cameras springing up like mushrooms to take in the unfolding drama. Sonny plays to the crowd, preening for the cameras and making outlandish demands in return for the safe release of the bank employees he is holding hostage. Even some of the hostages get into the spirit by putting on a show for the cameras. Everything seemed to come together just perfectly in this remarkable film. Screenwriter Frank Pierson's outstanding script received an Academy Award, and Pacino and Cazale have never been better.

With all the hoopla surrounding the release of "The Newton Boys," all indications are that movie audiences' affection for bank robbers remains undiminished. On the other hand, it may be the theaters that really love these bandits the most. At six and seven bucks a pop for tickets, they certainly seem to share a common business philosophy.

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