Written by movies  |  11. November 2001

by Ben Kenigsberg For an old pro, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is pretty hapless. During the robbery that opens Heist, he gets his face caught on a surveillance camera, even though he's done this sort of thing a thousand times. "I'm burnt," he muses. But is he? That's one of the pleasures in David Mamet's new movie -- wondering whether Joe really is, as folks are telling him, too old for this sort of work. But the movie isn't primarily about the character. It's about his schemes. It's about seeing how -- or if -- he'll be able to get out of this one. There's nothing new about the heist genre, every entry in which harks back to The Asphalt Jungle (1950) -- and perhaps before it. The old pro goes out for one last job, a hothead at his side, not knowing the job will be his worst. Since heist movies rarely have anything new to offer, how good they are depends entirely on style and execution. In a terrific scene, the hothead, Joe and his crew are rehearsing for the heist. A cop pulls up and asks them what's going on (they're dressed as road workers) and Joe and Bobby (Delroy Lindo) try to talk their way out of it. Jimmy (Sam Rockwell), the apprentice, reaches for his gun, not realizing that the cop isn't planning on arresting them. Heist does a great job of showing its characters thinking on their feet. It suggests that the key to being able to pull off a crime like this lies in the criminals' abilities to improvise. Mamet goes all-out with his dialogue, the hilarious-but-tough brand of speech that Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman wrote in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). ("I'd hate to take a bite out of you," said Burt Lancaster to Tony Curtis. "You're a cookie full of arsenic.") Mamet has a mastery of absurdly hard-boiled one-liners. "You know why the chicken crossed the road?" Bobby asks. "Because the road crossed the chicken." "You're the brass ring, babe," says Joe (Gene Hackman). "Glad you like me," replies his significant other, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon), who could, we're told, "talk her way out of a sunburn." The screenplay will come as something of a relief to those, like me, who can't stand the inhuman rhythms of normal Mametese. "Do you know you are a real boy scout?" chants the monotone Pidgeon at the beginning of The Spanish Prisoner. "That's a compliment indeed," Campbell Scott replies. Somehow, Mamet even made the British sound bizarre in The Winslow Boy. The speech in Heist is stylized, but in crime-movie dialect, not in Mamet's usual style. Mamet avoids the mistake he made in House of Games, which had a twist less than the audience expected, by making Heist as twisty and loopy as possible. It's a con within a con within a con. And unlike in The Spanish Prisoner, which showed us one thing and expected us to believe another, the movie makes sense. Mamet directs with flair this time around, even though, especially during the first heist scene, he leaves out a few necessary shots, jarring the audience a bit. What makes Heist more exciting than Mamet's other pictures is the pace, which is so fast that you can't pause to decide if it's all plausible until the very end. Except in the dialogue, Mamet doesn't allude to the classic crime movies that provided the groundwork for Heist. For some reason, the Warner Bros. logo at the beginning of the picture is in black and white, although, if he really wanted to be classy, Mamet would have shot the whole movie that way. The heist scenes themselves are the least exciting parts of the movie, perhaps because we've seen robberies handled with more detail, and with more suspense, in classics like Rififi (1955). (We've even seen heists twice this year, in Sexy Beast and The Score.) The performances go a long way towards making Heist dynamic. Hackman is terrific -- almost as good as he is in the forthcoming Royal Tenenbaums -- and adds a touch of poignancy to a character who is, like all the characters in Heist, thinly written. Lindo strikes the perfect balance between toughness and amiability. Ricky Jay, usually just comic baggage, is surprisingly affecting. On the other hand, Danny DeVito, playing a crime boss, seems to think he's in yet another comedy. And Mamet should stop casting Pidgeon, his wife. She's the most boring vixen you've ever seen. But Mamet's movie is anything but boring. It may not be his most sophisticated effort to date (House of Games was more thematically complex), but it's one of his most entertaining. I often wonder why they don't make movies like they used to, but every so often, some filmmaker tries to muster up the skill to make a picture that could have been made in 1944, with updates in obscenity so it won't feel dated. (It's hard to have a sexy broad in a sex-free film these days. Just look at Woody Allen's last movie.) The Coen brothers, the most exciting filmmakers working today, have tried their hand at it with The Man Who Wasn't There, a cross between Double Indemnity and Hitchcock's The Wrong Man that feels like authentic film noir in look, atmosphere, theme, and acting. It isn't perfect -- a bit of meandering in the second half kills a great deal of suspense -- but there's simply nothing else like it playing these days. I wish there were. Let's start with the look. The Coens' cinematographer, Roger Deakins, shoots the movie in crystal-clear black and white, emphasizing every shadow. He makes brilliant expressive use of back lighting, shrouding characters in mystery (a perfect visual metaphor for what they're hiding). Cigarette smoke fills the screen in at least half the scenes. There's nothing like a little tobacco in a black-and-white movie to set the mood. The Coens' long-time production designer, Dennis Gassner, goes for broke, giving us seedy hotels, nifty cars, an old-fashioned barber shop, and western comic books. The movie is so vivid in atmosphere that even that oldest of sound tricks -- during a key scene, a clock subtly ticks away in the background, increasing suspense -- feels fresh. While The Man Who Wasn't There is a triumph of style, it's primarily great because it nails the thematic richness of the film noir genre. Like Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950), the movie tells the story of a ne'er-do-well who tries his hand at entrepreneurship -- only to sink deeper and deeper into a web of troubles. Irony abounds. As in the best noir, what happens is less important than how the main character reacts to what happens. The more damage the protagonist causes, the more we like him. Ed Crane's reactions are priceless. At first, the movie suggests that the laconic Crane, played by the riveting Billy Bob Thornton, doesn't have much going on upstairs. But it turns out he's more of a calculating sonofabitch than we'd first imagined. One of the movie's many pleasures is watching Ed keep his composure at times when you think he's going to burst. There's something completely down-home about Ed -- he's Jefferson Smith trapped in In Cold Blood. The Coens' dialogue, which combines the hard-boiled sensibilities of a film like Detour (1945) with the eccentricity that made the Coens' Big Lebowski so hilarious, beckons to be heard. For example: "Was he a huckster or an opportunity -- the real McCoy?" "You hired Freddy Riedenschneider -- it means you're not throwing in the towel. I litigate, I don't capitulate." Style and substance aren't much without great performances, and The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coens' best-acted film since Fargo. The great Frances McDormand, as Ed's wife, suggests Lauren Bacall, 20 years after The Big Sleep, with a sad edge. Tony Shalhoub is on hand as a finicky, funny lawyer, and James Gandolfini is perfectly sleazy as McDormand's character's boss. But it's Thornton, with his wonderful, gravely voice and expressive eyebrows, who embodies the soul of the movie. His voice-over narration is as sonorous as a recitation by Garrison Keillor. The Man Who Wasn't There attempts to be a richer, more philosophical film than its classic predecessors. It succeeds, but at the expense of telling a traditional story. (The same problem plagued The Wrong Man, in which Henry Fonda discovered his self-worth while the audience suffered. It was no less profound for that, though.) The second half of The Man Who Wasn't There is never less than fascinating, although the film's emotional impact is blunted because of a cerebral ending, a la Barton Fink. But the ending is in keeping with the main mystery at the movie's core: what, exactly, is Ed thinking? The Man Who Wasn't There is an affront to the Hays Code politics of classic noir. Under the Production Code, the guilty had to be punished. But since Ed is only done in by his mistakes -- he mostly isn't consciously evil -- is it fair to punish him? The Coens won't say. The ambiguity only makes The Man Who Wasn't There more haunting. The following is a checklist review of Mosnters, Inc. C'mon. You know you wish I'd write this way more often. Was it as good as Shrek? Not quite, but the humor in Monsters is mostly geared for children, with a few pop-culture references for the adults. It's not an adult movie in disguise, as Antz is, but it's not inaccessible to adults, as A Bug's Life is. As kid humor goes, this stuff'll coerce an adult laugh here and there. Was the animation good? Yes. Check out the fur on Sully (voice of John Goodman). Watch astonished at the climactic chase sequence. Then again, what did you expect? Monsters, Inc. has the same awe-inspiring attention to detail that makes Pixar's other movies so fun to watch. Ironically, the opening credits are done with perfectly good old-fashioned animation in a style strangely reminiscent of the What's New, Pussycat? titles. Was Billy Crystal funny? Funnier than he was the last time he hosted the Oscars. And the question you've all been waiting for: Was the new Star Wars trailer any good? No.

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