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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Scores (originally published 7/01)

One of the most durable movie genres is the caper film, in which a group of people band together to pull off a spectacular robbery against impossible odds. This durability is not so hard to understand. For one thing, caper producers can use the necessity of an ensemble cast to hedge their bet at the box office by recruiting several bankable stars so as to combine their drawing power. Also, capers lend themselves equally well to comedy treatment, action treatment, or a combination of the two.

The recent release of "The Score" is the latest in a long line of such cinematic capers. If you enjoyed "The Score" and want to see more, here's a list of caper titles for all tastes.

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950). Director John Huston's gritty drama is generally recognized as the prototype of the genre. Sam Jaffe plays a criminal mastermind who specializes in plotting big time robberies. We watch as he methodically recruits a gang, procures working capital from a crooked lawyer and his bookmaking stooge, and oversees the execution of the crime. After the job has been pulled, master storyteller Huston piles irony on top of irony as each criminal comes to his inevitable bad end.

"The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951). If "The Asphalt Jungle" is the prototype for dramatic caper films, this wonderful comedy from the British Ealing studio must be regarded as the progenitor for all subsequent films on the lighter side of the genre. Alec Guinness plays a bank employee, a mousey little clerk who rides along with the armored cars that carry shipments of gold bullion. He is fussy and persnickety, insisting that security procedures be followed to the letter each and every time. In reality, however, he has been quietly plotting for years to steal the gold. The gang he assembles to pull the job is full of wonderful British character actors, including Stanley Holloway, whom you may remember as Alfred Doolittle in the film adaptation of "My Fair Lady." The hysterical final chase scene alone is worth the price of admission.

"The Killing" (1956). Stanley Kubrick's contribution to the genre, like Huston's, is a bit on the grim side. This time the band of thieves hits a racetrack, hiring a gunman to shoot a horse in the middle of a race to create the required confusion. Kubrick shows the elements of the plan coming together by shifting us back and forth on the time-line, showing simultaneous events in consecutive sequences. Sounds confusing, I know, but Kubrick, being Kubrick, pulls it off.

"Rififi" (1955). Driven out of the United States by the Hollywood blacklist and the red-baiting House Unamerican Activities Committee, director Jules Dassin simply set up shop in France. There he directed one of the screen's most memorable caper films. "Rififi" tells the story of a complex jewelry heist, culminating in a justly famous half-hour sequence showing the execution of the robbery without music or dialogue. Interestingly, Dassin returned to the caper genre in 1964 with a comedy called "Topkapi," which was essentially a parody of "Rififi." "Topkapi" is also available on video.

"Who's Minding the Mint?" (1967). This one plays the caper premise strictly for laughs. The cast is composed almost entirely of comedians and character actors, including Milton Berle, Bob Denver (of "Gilligan's Island"), Victor Buono, and Jack Gilford. The film was directed by Howard Morris, whom you may remember as Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show," but who cut his comedy teeth working with Sid Caesar on "Your Show of Shows." This isn't a classic by any means, but I think I can promise you a good time watching it.

The caper formula has also provided the inspiration for at least one television series. "Mission: Impossible" was, in effect, a weekly caper story in which the perpetrators were working for the government rather than for their own profit. That way, they could be shown getting away with their intrigues week after week without violating anyone's scruples. Caper films, after all, have historically been very particular about showing us that the perpetrators, no matter how clever, are always caught in the end. "Mission: Impossible" added the footnote that if they were working for the government that rule didn't necessarily apply. Somehow that just doesn't comfort me the way it used to.

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