Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 10, 2013
I love a good heist film. They’re often formulaic and follow a well-worn path originally etched out by classic capers such as John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955), Alexander Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956) but the best heist films take unexpected turns and leave their own special mark on a genre that seems to find new ways to define itself every decade. My favorite heist films usually involve a ragtag group of down on their luck ne’er-do-wells, outsiders and lone wolves who come together in an attempt to steal a fortune. Mistakes are made, alliances are formed and shattered, but the end goal is always the same. These career criminals all want a chance at a better life and they assume, rightly or wrongly, that ill-gained riches will buy them a first-class ticket to a brighter future. Unfortunately for these misbegotten dreamers crime rarely pays and when it does, it demands its own kind of compensation.
As regular viewers (and readers) are probably aware of, TCM is currently airing a selection of ‘Great Capers’ every Tuesday night throughout January. Since great capers often feature a great heist I’ve been tuning in to watch some of my favorites and catch up with a few films I hadn’t seen before. One film I was particularly excited about seeing again was Henry Hathaway’s SEVEN THIEVES (1960) starring Edward G. Robinson. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, Robinson plays Professor Theo Wilkins, a scientist turned thief who brings together a bunch of small time crooks and hustlers (Rod Steiger, Joan Collins, Eli Wallach, Alexander Scourby, Michael Dante and Berry Kroeger) to rob a Monte Carlo casino. As much as I enjoyed seeing SEVEN THIEVES again, while I was watching it on Tuesday night I was reminded of another great heist film starring Edward G. Robinson that I like even more, Giuliano Montaldo’s GRAND SLAM (1967). GRAND SLAM isn’t part of TCM’s ‘Great Caper’ series but I think it’s one of the best heist films made in the ‘60s and I don’t make that claim lightly. I’ve seen a lot of good crime capers but the last moments of GRAND SLAM are so surprising and well executed that I often refer to the film whenever someone mentions, “best film endings.” But GRAND SLAM has a lot more to offer viewers besides its unforgettable conclusion.
GRAND SLAM begins with Edward G. Robinson boarding a plane to New York from Rio de Janeiro where he’s been employed as a teacher at the Scared Heart American School for the past 30 years. The world-weary Robinson has spent three decades studying the operations of a Diamond company that sat directly across the street from his classroom and he has no intention of retiring with only his small pension to carry him through his last years. In New York he visits the luxurious home of a childhood friend (Adolfo Celi) who happens to be an established gangster. With his help, Robinson puts together an international team of thieves that include a hotheaded German ex-solider (Klaus Kinski), an aging British safecracker (George Rigaud), an awkward Italian electrician (Riccardo Cucciolla) and a French playboy (Robert Hoffmann) to assist him in executing an elaborate $10 million dollar diamond heist back in Rio. The four thieves arrive in town just days before Carnival begins and while Kinski, Rigaud and Cucciolla get busy preparing for the heist, pretty boy Hoffman spends his time trying to seduce a chaste secretary (Janet Leigh) who holds the key to the vault where the diamonds are located. For their crime to succeed, they must overcome the high-tech sound sensitive security system called ‘Grand Slam’ that protects the diamonds but that won’t be easy. Tension begins to mount when it becomes clear that Janet Leigh isn’t a woman who can be easily taken advantage of and Kinski’s volatile temper makes him a threat to everyone. Naturally things don’t go exactly as planned and as the suspense mounts, you’ll find yourself wondering if this eccentric group of criminals is capable of defying the odds and delivering the jewels to Edward G. Robinson.
Sergio Leone (The Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West, etc.) was originally supposed to direct this stylish caper but the film ended up in the very capable hands of Giuliano Montaldo (Machine Gun McCain, Sacco & Vanzetti, etc.). Many of Leone’s regular collaborators, including composer Ennio Morricone and editor Nino Baragli, worked with Montaldo on GRAND SLAM helping to give the film a very distinct look and sound. The film benefits greatly from being shot on location in Rio, New York and Rome but it’s the directing choices made by Montaldo combined with Antonio Macasoli’s stunning cinematography and Baragli’s editing skills that make GRAND SLAM one of the best looking heist films to emerge from the ‘60s. Every frame is artfully composed so it’s easy to take them for granted but Leone fans will spot the director’s influence all over the film. GRAND SLAM is brimming with stunning wide shots, memorable POV shots and extreme close-ups. Throughout the movie the lead actors are shot from behind with their faces concealed from the camera for an extended period of time. This was one of Leone’s favorite tricks that suggests that the characters are part of the landscape, embedded in the scenery, instead of just hired props wandering through it. GRAND SLAM also benefits from Morricone’s lush and complex score that is arguably one of his best, and includes the extensive use of choirs; bossa beats and lounge rhythms that move the action along and allow the ensuing drama to unfold at its own pace.
As memorable as the twist ending of GRAND SLAM is, the film wouldn’t work at all if the buildup to it was sloppy and haphazardly put together but it’s not. GRAND SLAM is executed with a lot of thought and care, even while it’s asking you to suspend your disbelief in order to appreciate its wild premise, and the film works on multiple levels. It’s a terrific heist movie, suspenseful, slick and lot of fun but it also packs an emotional wallop thanks to the tightly wound performances of the exceptional cast. With very little dialogue and only a sliver of a back-story provided for them, Edward G. Robinson, Janet Leigh, Klaus Kinski, George Rigaud, Riccardo Cucciolla and Robert Hoffmann all bring an emotional depth to their roles that’s shrewd, smart and surprising. Kinski’s a natural scene-stealer and in GRAND SLAM he amps up his testosterone levels to play a German solider who favors professionalism over human compassion. It’s easily one of Kinski’s best performances and every line he manages to spit out is dripping with acid. But he’s not the only actor I admire who delivers some of their best work in GRAND SLAM. I also think the film contains one of Janet Leigh’s most fascinating and nuanced performances as a mousy secretary who seems to slowly open herself up to love while playing her own cards close to her chest. If you haven’t seen the film yet I suggest you stop reading here. Do yourself a favor and seek out GRAND SLAM immediately. But if you’re familiar with the film please feel free to read on. I’d like to discuss Janet Leigh’s performance a bit more but I wanted to let readers know that there may be some spoilers ahead and GRAND SLAM should be seen blind. Knowing too much about the film could lessen its impact.
When Janet Leigh made GRAND SLAM in 1967 she had appeared in a number of notable films but her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO had gained her an Oscar nomination and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. It’s Leigh’s signature role and one that earned her a legion of devoted fans and a lifetime of critical praise. No matter how many other accomplishments Janet Leigh had during her acting career, she will always be remembered as the female star of PSYCHO but it’s surprising to see her subverting that role in GRAND SLAM just 7 short years after making Hitchcock’s film. In PSYCHO Leigh played Marion, a secretary who pockets $40,000 of her boss’ money and heads out of town in hopes of meeting up with her lover before she’s murdered in a seedy motel. While watching GRAND SLAM again I was struck by the similarities between her character in the film and the character she portrayed in PSYCHO. First and foremost is her name. In GRAND SLAM Leigh is called Mary Ann, which sounds almost identical to Marion when said aloud. Mary Ann, like Marion, works as a secretary and she’s given some big responsibilities. In PYSCHO Leigh’s Marion is trusted with $40,000 dollars and in GRAND SLAM Leigh’s Mary Ann is trusted with $10 million dollars in diamonds. Both characters eventually end up giving up their job security and risking prison for money and men. Both women are also stalked by suspect characters who want to destroy or control them in very different ways. But the parallels between Janet Leigh’s Marion and Mary Ann run deep and there’s no doubt in my mind that director Giuliano Montaldo purposefully linked these too unfortunate and unlikely heroines together. Hitchcock aficionados will have fun spotting these ambiguous references and anyone who appreciates a good heist film should enjoy Montaldo’s suspense filled crime caper.
Blue Underground released GRAND SLAM on DVD in 2004. Except no substitutes! Bootleg copies of the film are floating around and I’m sure someone has probably uploaded multigenerational copies of the movie to good old Youtube but this film deserves to be seen in the best circumstances available. The Blue Underground release is topnotch and presents the film in widescreen so you can enjoy every aspect of Giuliano Montaldo’s deftly directed film.
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