The alpha and omega of British gangster movies. The two could not be further apart in every way. Get Carter, from 1971, has a single protagonist, the structure of a revenge tragedy, an elegant, inexorable screenplay, gritty 70s realism, a palpable, Altmanesque sense of place, stunning, ferocious moments of brutality and ugliness, canny, closely-observed directing, and characters who are thinking, feeling human beings. Snatch has multiple protagonists, the structure of a screwball comedy, a ridiculously complicated screenplay bursting with incident and coincidence, flip 00s surrealism, action where even murder victims don’t seem to suffer, restless, anything-for-a-gag direction and a cast of screwy cartoon characters.
I dearly love both of them. When I can understand the accents, anyway.
My movie-going life crossed paths with Michael Caine during his “I’ll choose roles for the sunny locations” phase (beginning, I’d say, with The Swarm, continuing through Jaws: The Revenge and on to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. This is Michael Caine during his “eminence for hire” era, and it’s easy to forget what an impressive, cold-eyed, nasty, mean little fucker he could be. He’s absolutely blood-chilling in Get Carter (and check him out in Mona Lisa as well, a dynamite script), a real cockney Samuel L. Jackson.
The script really helps. Everything is underplayed and unexplained. For the first half-hour, we’re not even sure who Caine is and what he’s doing. We know he’s some kind of London lowlife and we know he’s going to somebody’s funeral, but it isn’t until 25 minutes into the movie, when he suddenly picks up a fallen branch to knock a lookout man unconscious to we realize what kind of man we’re dealing with. We learn that the funeral was for his brother and that he didn’t die by accident, and we soon learn that Carter isn’t going to take his brother’s death in stride, and by the third act we almost feel sorry for the pornographers, gamblers and real-estate developers in his path, we cringe anticipating each savage remorseless, merciless encounter. We see him kick a car-door closed on a man’s head, grab another man by the genitals, throw yet another man off a seven-story car park. We see him drown a drugged woman, stab a man repeatedly in the gut and club another to death with a shotgun. We also get to see him engage in explicit phone sex (a cinematic first, I believe) while his landlady sits mere feet away.
Not that Carter is happy with himself, mind you. A good deal of his rage is directed inward as he knows that he, himself, is at least partly responsible for the death of his brother. He’s filled with turmoil and self-loathing and he plows through the underworld of Newcastle knowing that he’s never going to get back to London, he’s playing for keeps.
A lot of gangsters have passed into cinema history since Carter, but Snatch still manages to bristle with indelible portraits. The acting in Snatch is wonderful across the board, but two performances always stand out for me: Brad Pitt as the Irish traveler and Alan Ford as Brick Top, the gangster who feeds his enemies to his pigs. I’ve always enjoyed Pitt’s work, but his performance here is, I believe, without precedent. He’s game, lovable, fascinating and completely indecipherable, playing a character both utterly simple and yet utterly unknowable, and he positively inhabits the role, vanishes into it. It’s no star turn and no goof, he’s both playing the role straight and also performing it in the context of a comedy and you can’t take your eyes off him. This and Fight Club are his two best performances.
(I first saw Snatch in Paris [with Urbaniak and our wives, if you must know]: between the heavily-accented English and the French subtitles, we could almost make out what the actual plot of the movie was.)
When Alan Ford’s character first showed up, I first thought “Oh well, here’s another mean gang boss, I’ve seen this character a hundred times,” but Ford brings such a livid, seething intensity to the role that he’s breathtaking. I found myself actually scared of what he was going to do next, since there seemed to be no limit to his rage. Maybe it helped that I’d never seen Alan Ford’s work before (although he has a small role in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and has apparently done a lot of British television), I had no casting reference to fall back on (you know, the way we feel that it’s okay if Matt Damon kills someone in The Departed because we’ve seen him do it in The Talented Mr. Ripley but we freak when we see Henry Fonda kill someone in Once Upon a Time in the West because, damn it, he’s Henry Fonda, he’s not supposed to kill people!).
And, as different as the script for Snatch is from Get Carter‘s, I love the way the stories dovetail, I love tracing the plotlines from character to character and dive to dive, from madcap situation to madcap situation. If Richard Lester made gangster movies, they would probably be a lot like this. The scripts for this and two other Matthew Vaughn productions (Lock, Stock and Layer Cake) are, as far as I’m concerned, top-notch, intricate puzzle-boxes of narrative invention, Roman candles of collision and intrigue.
Take Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Keep the romantic triangle and the light, reflexive tone, take out the violence and the historic and mythic context. Set it in contemporary America. Take out Redford and replace him with Woody Allen, give it a happy ending, boffo comedy.
2003. Directed by F. Gary Gray.
THE SHOT: Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch steal and re-steal a whole bunch of gold.
TONE: Slick, professional, consummately executed, two thrilling heist sequences and a better script than I remember it being.
It does a much better job of being a remake than, say, Welcome to Collinwood. Instead of being a remake of the original, it borrows a couple of key concepts from the original and is otherwise is a completely different movie with its own visual scheme, character dynamics and philosophy. And it certainly stands on its own as a picture.
And yet there’s something a little dispassionate, a little impersonal about this movie. The cast is an amazing one, everyone in it has done extraordinary work elsewhere, but for whatever reason I don’t get wrapped up in their stories.
DOES CRIME PAY? (SPOILER WARNING) An excellent example of what we’ve been talking about. They “get the gold” on page 10, and it’s unclear whose it is. So that’s okay, because who cares? It’s found money. But then, Ed Norton steals it, and he’s hateful (his moustache tells us so), so it’s perfectly okay for Mark to steal it from Ed. In the original there’s the Mafia, who intrude on the job and become a force to be reckoned with; the remake, the Urkrainian mob intrudes and Mark makes nice with them and gives them a cut. Everything very polite. And the villain is even given a comic sendoff.
Any ideas why the gang is rarely allowed to get the loot? Only in Ocean’s 11 (and 12), The Sting, Sneakers and The Hot Rock is there actually the giddy pleasure of actually getting away with the crime.
The reason it works in these movies is because the gang is stealing something from someone we hate. Whether it’s Robert Shaw or Andy Garcia or Moses Gunn or Ben Kingsley, right up to the brand new Inside Man with Christopher Plummer, it must be a single man and he must be utterly hateable. The rule seems to be, if the gang just stealing from some institution or some country or some bank or something, the gang must ultimately lose in the end. Why is that? Why can’t someone just rob a bank and get away with it? Doesn’t that happen in real life? Why must the criminals be punished, in movies of all shades and tones, stretching back 50 years now? We keep wanting them to get away with it, why don’t the movies let them?
Yes, yes, I know that the money in the bank ultimately belongs to everybody, and you can’t support a crime against a society, but so what? We’re not talking about real life, we’re talking about movies. Can anyone think of a movie where they get away with the loot, and the only villains are the police who are trying to stop them?
1964. Directed by Jules Dassin.
Dassin, of course, directed the taut, grim classic Rififi. This is not that.
THE SHOT: Maximilian Schell et alia plot to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from a museum in Istanbul.
TONE: Amused, playful, smug.
Like many artifacts from the 1960s, what was once carefree, daring and liberated now seems curdled, bloated and dull. Melina Mercouri is meant to be sexy, coqettish and exotic, but comes off as haggard, embalmed and iguana-like. Peter Ustinov is a bumbling idiot who — excuse me, Peter Ustinov plays a bumbling idiot who unwittingly becomes a key member of the crew. His performance is cutesy, busy and condescending; naturally, he won an Oscar for it (as a friend of mine once remarked, the Oscar is awarded for most acting). Maximilian Schell comes off as a bizarre mix of Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Stiller and Ralph Fiennes.
The movie starts quite slowly. Nothing happens for fifty whole paint-drying minutes, as the cast romps and poses in exotic locations.
PLEASANT SURPRISE: The heist, which, like the one in Rififi nine years earlier, is played in real time and near-total silence, is still gripping and enveloping cinema 40 years later.
DOES CRIME PAY? Oh, so close. But this movie is too cute for its own good to let our heroes suffer long.
1992. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson.
One of only four films by Robinson. He waited 10 years to do his next one, The Sum of All Fears.
THE SHOT: Robert Redford, et alia, must steal and re-steal a thingamajig that could change the course of blah de blah.
TONE: Polished, smooth, thrill-seeking entertainment.
Brisk, witty, professional direction, a terrific, utterly original script that wrings tension from phone calls, car rides, flocks of ducks, computer terminals and Scrabble tiles. A brilliant hook, a compelling villain (complete with Li’l Villain Shark Tank [tm]), a great cast (Sidney Freaking Poitier! Dan Ackroyd, acting! David Strathairn Before Anyone Knew Who He Was! Stephen Tobolowsky In The Second Greatest Role of His Career!). River Phoenix is strangely underused, and Ben Kingsley has been given a bizarre accent (must be all that time spent in prison), but otherwise, superlative entertainment.
And a great capper for Redford’s career, almost a final-exam kind of picture. Draws together themes and elements from his whole career, from The Hot Rock and The Candidate, through The Sting, Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. There’s even the WASP guilt of Quiz Show thrown in for good measure.
James Earl Jones, voice of Verizon, gets to introduce himself by saying “We spoke on the phone.”
NITS (AND, SPOILER ALERT):
1. We find out, at the end of Act II, that Ben Kingsley is the guy who hired Redford to steal the whatsit. Why? I guess he knew that Redford was capable of finding and stealing it, but why didn’t he just hire his goons to go capture and torture the mathemetician? And didn’t he suspect that Redford would know what it was, and try to keep it for himself?
2. Who does Ben work for? When we meet him, he says he works for the Mafia. Then later, we find out that his office is withing the offices of a toy company. It is also explained that the toy company is a front (you know, the “mechanical dog skeleton art” in the lobby would have tipped me off that this was no ordinary toy company). But Stephen Tobolowsky really does design toys. So apparently there is some actual toy design going on at the toy company. So, is the toy company a Mafia front? And if they’re really making toys, how is it a front? Or, is the toy company simply Ben’s business (he describes the Mafia as his “day job”), the thing he does while he’s planning to take over the world?
It just occurred to me, twenty years too late, that this is a heist picture.
It has always baffled me in terms of its structure, always remaining a little bit outside of the Coens repetoire, unclassifiable, even though it’s always been one of my top three Coen films. It’s clearly a comedy, sure, but what is it structurally? It’s not a domestic comedy, although it contains elements of that, and it’s not a noir, although it contains elements of that too.
No, it’s a heist picture. The baby is the Maltese Falcon, the thing everyone’s after, the thing that will change the lives of everyone who touches it, the “stuff that dreams are made of.”
It’s got all the elements of a classic heist picture: corrupt cops, three-time losers, escaped convicts, desperate criminals, crosses, double-crosses, snitches, betrayers, hotheads, even a shotgun-wielding maniac.
Now I realize that the place the Coens started was, “Hey, what if we did a heist picture, and instead of suitcase full of diamonds (or Ving Rhames’s soul), it was a baby?”
2002. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
How lame am I? I put this movie in the DVD player, I had no idea that it’s a scene by scene, sometimes shot by shot remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street, which I just finished watching ten minutes earlier.
Last night, it was a Steven Soderbergh production of a remake of a classic Argentinian crime film. Tonight, it’s a Steven Soderbergh production of a remake of a classic Italian crime film. Small world.
So obviously, that’s not the way to watch this movie. But that’s the way this particular cookie crumbled.
Interesting as a study in contrasts. Whereas the original is full of roguish charm and bittersweet human comedy, the remake comes off as arch, forced, cartoonish, broad and insincere. The cast includes Sam Rockwell (Mr. Insincere himself) and a number of other Smart Actors Playing Stupid, including WH Macy and George Clooney, who handled this sort of task much better in Fargo and O Brother.
Where the original ended on its wistful, humanist note, the remake must Make Nice and Spell Out What It All Means, as American remakes of foreign films must. A lesson for us all.
1958. Directed by Mario Monicelli.
THE SHOT: A ragtag group of lovable screwups plots a less-than-ingenious heist of a pawnbroker’s safe.
TONE: Charming, roguish humor, humming with a wise and witty stance on human life.
Heat it is not. The gang is unprofessional in the extreme. On the one hand, they don’t have a clue as to what they’re doing. On the other hand, it does not turn out that one of the gang is a trigger-happy psychopath. The love stories woven into the plot seem natural and revealing of character, instead of being shoehorned in. The comedy is easy, organic and human in scale.
The back of the box says that this is a satire of Rififi and its ilk. Satire it’s not. It’s warm, affectionate and bittersweet and requires no special knowledge of those films to enjoy.
1969. Directed by Peter Collinson.
THE SHOT: Michael Caine et alia are going to steal a whole bunch of gold from somebody or other in Turin, then get away in a trio of Mini Coopers.
TONE: Blithe, breezy 60s comedy. Women offer sex at all turns, criminals are concerned about their cars and wardrobe, realism is kept to a bare minimum. In the most fanciful moment, magic mafiosi appear on the side of an Italian Alp, complete with Piranha Brother hats, suits and tommy guns, then moments later vanish into the hillside like gun-toting fairies.
With supporting performances by Noel Coward and Benny Hill, this film can truly be said to contain the alpha and omega of 20th century British wit.
WORTH NOTING: in the original, the triumphant Mini Cooper chase is intended as a metaphor for British ingenuity. In the remake, it’s intended as a very long commercial for Mini Coopers.