Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Heist, The (2001) **1/2

Written & directed by David Mamet. Photography, Robert Elswit. Editing, Barbara Tulliver. Production design, David Wasco. Music, Theodore Shapiro. Producers, Art Linson, Elie Samaha. Cast: Gene Hackman (Joe Moore), Danny DeVito (Bergman), Delroy Lindo (Bobby), Sam Rockwell (Jimmy), Rebecca Pidgeon (Fran), Ricky Jay (Don Pinkus), Patti Lupone (Betty). A Warners release. 107 minutes. Rated R (violence, language).

Why do so many publics that differ in age, nationality, taste, etc. like so much movies about large-scale robberies? Because of the suspense? Of the jigsaw-puzzle, chess-game, military-like strategies preparations and execution of the deed by its perpetrators? Because of the stress on minutiae? The pleasure of watching the symbols of capitalism and wealth (gold, currency, precious stones or artifacts, invaluable works of art, etc.) stolen by robbers who may be criminals yet represent our own, dormant greed? Because of our subconscious enjoyment of proxy individuals thwarting The System?

There may be no single answer but the fact is that the heist-movie genre is alive, well and here to stay. In David Mamet's movie it has its own twists and characteristics.

Septuagenarian Joe (Gene Hackman) is the vigorous, smart leader of a small gang of thieves. At the film's opening Joe leads his well-drilled acolytes, friends and regulars Bobby (Delroy Lindo) and Don Pinkus (Ricky Jay) in a jewelry-store robbery in full daylight. This is deja vu cinema, yet its mechanics are gripping. But the operation is not a full success. While it does net a good loot it is "heistus interruptus," has to be aborted before full completion. Why? Because, in an almost inexplicable way for a man of Joe's savvy, the situation makes him remove his mask -- and his face is caught by surveillance cameras.

For Joe, this was to be the familiar-from-movies "one last job" before retiring and sailing off to exotic locations on his beautiful boat, hand-made by him. He would take off with his young wife Fran, played by Rebecca Pidgeon, 38 (to Mamet's 53 and Hackman's 71) and in real life the second Mrs. Mamet.

Worst news appear when Bergman (DeVito), the gang's regular financier and fence, will not share the loot with them unless they agree to a final-final job, "the Swiss job." And hereby hangs a very complicated tale that it would be criminal to disclose. One aspect of it is there is affection and honor among some thieves, and no honor whatever among others.

What is a constant, within this movie and in other films by Mamet is Mametspeak, the colorful vocabulary used by this writer's underworld creatures and most probably not used by real-life bad 'uns. It amuses.

The second heist is, I am tempted to say, a post-modern affair, immensely complex, surrounded by changing alliances, including both time-honored clichés of the genre as well as novelties. There are twists after twists, while whatever you see at any give moment is impeccably timed and carried out to a second, as well as subject to "seriatim" betrayals. It is all so meticulously done that I just could not buy it.

Where are you Alfred Hitchcock? No matter what the Master staged was crystal clear within its development, and lucid within the overall construct. Hitch allowed you to follow his plots and characters step by step and put you in a state of suspended disbelief. Think of "To Catch a Thief," "North by Northwest," and practically everything else.

For that matter, Hackman's Harry Caul in Coppola's masterful "The Conversation" (1974) never once distanced the audience from the character (s). But here, what may be acceptable, even clearly defined inside Mamet's head, is not in the minds of the audience.

There is much left hanging. One example. Joe's cover is a modest marina he runs and where he built superb boats. On a single viewing, the interesting but ill-defined character (a wealthy gangster?) who wants badly to purchase Joe's own boat, is confusing each time he appears. What he is doing in the script baffles me.

Where Hitchcock triumphed in his plot-building is that he followed the "form follows function" principle of the Bauhaus, that school (1919-1933) of all the arts that has contributed the most to modernism. Or the "less is more" slogan of that great architect Mies van de Rohe who ran the Illinois Institute of Technology for twenty years. Or even the last words of Czech religious reformer Jan Hus, as he was dying at the stake in 1415: "Holy Simplicity!"

This movie is something of a fantasy, more feisty than heisty.

I confess that a single screening of "Heist" cannot result in a precise verdict. A patient, repeat-viewer may or may not discover nuances or qualities missed earlier. But one thing is for sure. If you want true classics in the genre, check out the first of that line, "Rififi" (France, 1955) by American Jules Dassin, and Stanley Kubrick's first widely noted feature "The Killing" (1956.) Both are masterpieces of action and characters.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel