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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Casino Capers (originally published 3/01)

In one of the most infamous wisecracks ever uttered, Willie Sutton is said to have responded to a question about why he robbed banks by explaining that that was where the money was. As tempting a robbery target as banks might be, however, the truth is that there are plenty of other rich repositories of ready cash to attract the attention of would-be thieves. Consider gambling casinos, for example. For those with a larcenous turn of mind, it's hard to imagine a more tempting prospect than gambling profits.

One of the most popular premises for crime movies has long been what is known as a "caper film," in which an elaborate robbery is planned and executed. The object of these thefts may be anything from a bank to a museum to a jewelry store. A perennial favorite, however, is a casino, as in the recently released "3000 Miles to Graceland." For a sampling of how earlier films have played out the casino caper premise, look for these titles on home video.

"Bob Le Flambeur" (1955). French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville spent a significant portion of his career paying homage to the American gangster films he loved. One of his most entertaining tributes is this tale of "Bob the Gambler," a former criminal now largely gone straight. His glory days behind him, Bob now contents himself with the relatively minor vice of gambling. Then, a run of bad luck at the gambling tables prompts him to plan one last big heist. He will rob the Deauville Casino on Grand Prix weekend, when the casino's safe will be flush with ready cash. Melville plays the situation more for wry humor than for grim suspense, concentrating on the relationships between Bob and his co-conspirators. The influence of this film can be seen far and wide, from the French New Wave of the 1960s right down to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" (1992).

"Ocean's 11" (1960). The first of the so-called "Rat Pack" movies featuring Frank Sinatra and his cohorts is a prototypical casino heist caper film. Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, who assembles a group of 82nd Airborne Division veterans to put their military training to use in mounting an assault on five Las Vegas casinos in one night. For Sinatra and fellow rat-packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joey Bishop, a Las Vegas setting was a practical choice, since they could perform in the casinos at night while shooting the movie in the daytime. The whole film has the feeling of a lark for the actors, almost like an elaborate home movie. A remake with George Clooney and Julia Roberts is reportedly in the works for release later this year.

"Seven Thieves" (1960). This caper classic represents the work of two Hollywood veterans moving into the final phase of their careers. Both director Henry Hathaway and actor Edward G. Robinson came into this project with impressive resumes packed with classic titles. Robinson plays an academic who has become obsessed with planning and executing the perfect crime. He gathers together six additional hand-picked conspirators to attempt a robbery of the Monte Carlo Casino's underground vault. The outstanding supporting cast includes Rod Steiger, Eli Wallach, Joan Collins, and Alexander Scourby.

"The Honeymoon Machine" (1961). All of the films we've looked at so far have involved breaching the security of a casino's vault in one way or another. The other way to rob a casino, of course, is to find a way to cheat at the gaming tables. In this early consideration of the mischievous use of computing power, a young Steve McQueen plays a Navy lieutenant who hits upon the idea of using his ship's computer to predict the outcome of roulette wheel turns in a Venice casino. The comic complications begin when an admiral intercepts the incoming signals from the roulette wheel and interprets them to mean that an attack is imminent.

Successful caper films, whether set in a casino vault or a bank vault, seem to have one thing in common. The filmmaker needs to understand that it is not the action scenes that will make or break the movie but rather the characters. If, as it seems, we're about to embark on a new cycle of casino capers, let's hope they will take their cue from Melville and Hathaway by remembering to build their action on a strong foundation of engaging characters.

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