"It Takes a Thief to Catch a Thief ": Crime and the American genre film──Interview with Chris Fujiwara & Mark Roberts vol.2

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Kinugasa: In certain films of the 1950s, like "Kiss Me Deadly" and "Pickup on South Street" (1953), we can see a change in what is stolen. Here, people are stealing something, but it's unreal, abstract, we can't even see what it is. Maybe it's a nuclear device in "Kiss Me Deadly" — we cannot see it, or in "Pickup on South Street" it's a theft of microfilm, and again we cannot see it — but through these films we can see a certain critique of society in the atmosphere of the Cold War. So, perhaps after the 1950s we see more films about the theft of important things which are not money, things related to international affairs.

Fujiwara: Definitely, and that's a good point about "Kiss Me Deadly". What they're stealing is not tangible. He says that it has no value, that you can't spend it. His mistress asks him what it is, and she says: "I want half." Well, you can't divide it. There's this terrible insanity embodied in that box. It has no concrete existence, and in fact it's the negative of existence because if you open it you'll be destroyed. It sucks everything into itself. That's a rather extreme example, but actually we find a similar thing in Becker's "Arsène Lupin" where something is being stolen which has no value, as they cannot calculate its value. In "Touchez pas au Grisbi" they're stealing bars of gold, but in the end they can't get at the gold, they can't touch it because it's too hot. The gold burns up when the car carrying it is blown up. So, the critique of society goes through this idea that we can't touch the thing which has the most value, it can do nothing for us, we can't get anything from it.

Roberts: Maybe this idea also comes into the foreground in films which are about stealing formulae or secrets. There's a thriller, not exactly a film about a thief per se, "Shack Out on 101" (1955), with Lee Marvin playing a cook at a roadside diner in California, a diner which happens to be frequented by nuclear scientists from a nearby research laboratory. Marvin's nickname is "Slob", nobody seems to take him too seriously, and he's a vaguely comic character until the film takes a paranoid turn and it is revealed that actually he's a Russian spy seeking to steal nuclear secrets. In this case, we do eventually see what he's trying to steal, in a close shot of the film, and it's a kind of ludicrous scrawl that's supposed to look like integral calculus, but it's just gobbledegook. Here, the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia sort of turns back on itself, leaving us to wonder: is this it? This is what he's stealing? There's another film from this period, called "The Thief" (1952), directed by Russell Rouse, also about a spy trying to the steal nuclear secrets, this time in Washington D.C. It's in a noir style, but there's absolutely no dialog — the film is completely silent.
  It seems that the theme of theft as it develops in the later films comes through the gangster film, the noir film, and the caper film, where the crime is plotted out. There's a further development where the caper itself seems to become almost more important than the characters, and the reasoning behind the theft less important. This leads to films like the original "Oceans Eleven" (1960), a glossy rat pack vehicle about stealing money from a Vegas casino. Before it devolves into a caper narrative, which is more about technique, the film story can raise a social question about who is being stolen from and why. If somebody's stealing jewelry or artworks from the wealthy, there can be a sense of sympathy for that type of theft, because perhaps these victims are not seen to be really losing something. Whereas the low thieves, the pickpockets, those who steal from anybody, in their case we could say that perhaps there's a different morality, that maybe it's not really the same as stealing from governments or rich people. Sometimes there's a peculiar morality around theft. In "Fantômas vs. Scotland Yard" (1967), the thief tells his wealthy victims that he's imposing "a tax on their right to live" [un impôt sur le droit de vivre]. In other words, if they're going to be so wealthy, then they should pay for their right to be alive (i.e., not killed by Fantômas). He says: "I consider bandits and the higher ranks of society to be the same." So it's "not really" theft, but rather a kind of peculiar contract that he presents to them (he even asks for their signature, as on a life insurance policy), or else he'll just take the money by force and kill them. Here, there's a sense of theft as somehow equalizing the injustice in society, the inequality that is imposed by the social order, though equalized using another violence.

Fujiwara: There also tends to be a nostalgia for the thief, which seems to become stronger through the 1950s and later. Somebody like the Belmondo character in "À bout de souffle" (1960) can still be seen as admirable, because he's all by himself. He's not part of a syndicate. He's his own man, and this becomes what's admirable about him. This kind of trait, this independence, is elevated as a value in many films. It's often associated with older style things that are dying out, and this again recalls "High Sierra", which is in that sense is perhaps a touchstone. There's another film, by Paul Wendkos from 1957 called "The Burglar", which is based on a David Goodis novel. In that film, the Dan Duryea character is admirable because, first, he's got technical ability. He's working with a small gang, but he's the one who really knows what he's doing. He's an artist of thievery, and that sets him apart. We get the sense, then, that not only is he all alone, an outsider, but he stands for values that everybody rejects, but which the film shows to the audience as being in some way admirable. One of the main films that comes to mind as saying something similar would be "Point Blank" (1967) by John Boorman. That's a relatively late film, also with Lee Marvin, and it's all about this guy coming back almost from the dead, and from a different time, in order to fight the modern, late 60s, very sleek, computerized syndicate — and he completely smashes it.

Roberts: He may even be dead, actually. At the beginning of the film, it's sort of unclear.

Fujiwara: Right. So that's a film that is pretty explicitly about a kind of nostalgia. Marvin represents this old-style guy. He's better than the new guys, and he's disappearing, but whether he's dead or not, he's our hero — he's the guy that we want to win because he's better than the crap that we have now. In other words, the contemporary world is lousy and terrible and deserves to be put out of its misery, but there's nothing really to put in its place, as the guy who's doing it is sort of a ghost. There's a remake of that film with Mel Gibson that doesn't quite get at the same logic.

Roberts: You can't replace Lee Marvin or... Carroll O'Connor.

Fujiwara: — or any of those guys, no. We can see something similar in another famous film about theft: "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975). Here, we have a totally different set of narrative circumstances, but under the surface of that film there's a kind of nostalgia. For, the very idea of the bank robber is sort of an old-style idea. The Al Pacino character and his partner pull off this miserable little hold-up in Brooklyn, and you get the feeling that they really are guys from an older time. Now they're in the 1970s and they have no chance. They get taken down very easily, ultimately by the FBI, as all of technology is massed against them, all the mass media is there, but these guys are pre-technological. They lose, they don't have the equipment, and of course they run out of luck, but they're admirable. They're admirable for personal reasons — and that's the sentimentality of the film — but they're admirable because they belong to a way of life that's no longer possible. That's what this film, in the mid-70s, is celebrating. As Altman's films, in the same decade, are celebrating an earlier way of life, though in a somewhat ironic way. "Thieves like Us" (1974), for example.

Roberts: Do you think that a certain nostalgia is also at play in the character of the gentleman thief? For example, Arsène Lupin and, before him, Raffles, are both really nineteenth-century characters. Those films were adapted from stories written around the end of the nineteenth century, and even then, it feels like there's something anachronistic about the gentleman thief. Through the 1960s and 1970s, this kind of character seems to also disappear from the theft genre, so to speak. Instead, we can find the emphasis on how the thieves must come to terms with the modern conditions of society, how they can survive. Maybe this anachronism around the gentleman thief is a form of nostalgia as well.

Fujiwara: Definitely. It's a form of nostalgia, much like the way that Dracula is a form of nostalgia for another late nineteenth-century hero-villain who appears repeatedly in films. Maybe this is a more specifically European form of nostalgia — though we find it sometimes in America too — that is, a nostalgia for the aristocracy, a nostalgia for a period when individual value is not based upon how much money you make, but on a system that allows people born into a higher class to cultivate their skills, their charm, their abilities. In films, those values — the purely individual values — are seen as disappearing from our society, aren't they? They seem to be constantly endangered, even though we keep alluding to them.

Roberts: Yes, it seems that the over the past few decades, even the figure of the ultra-wealthy person, has faded from view somewhat. This type of person used to be more of a stock character in films, whereas now there's a sense in which characters need to be "more like us", closer and more recognizable economically. During World War II, George Orwell wrote an essay about Raffles and the figure of the gentleman thief, in which he talks about how Raffles expresses a certain form of class antagonism. The problem for Raffles is that he has found his way into a certain élite social circle but then he has a money problem. So he needs to start stealing to try and support his lifestyle and maintain his place in that social sphere. If he gets caught, though, it wrecks everything. As Orwell puts it: if you're a member of this social world and you get out of jail, you still belong, whereas if you're just a thief and you get out of jail, well, then you're just a thief.
  To return to this idea of the art of thievery and "Arsène Lupin", one thing that really struck me in that film is how Becker manages to create a sense of dramatic tension, and yet make the thefts all seem effortless. We're carried along, it doesn't seem like everything is perfectly scripted, we're shown everything, and yet there is never a fear that Lupin will get caught — I think Chris talked about this during the symposium. Becker can engage us as spectators, and yet there are no serious surprises, no real dramatic reversals.
  "Lupin" also raises another interesting point. In some films about crime or thieves, the motives for stealing something are quite abstract. What is being stolen can be concrete — money, jewels, and so forth — but why somebody is actually compelled to steal is unclear. As Chris mentioned, part of the mystery of "Marnie" is why she's stealing, while "Arsène Lupin" on the other hand, seems to steal for the "sheer joy" of it. They're not stealing because they need money, and in the case of Lupin, our attention is shifted to how he carries out his crimes, not why. Of course, Bresson's "Pickpocket" (1959) also looks at the "how" of theft, though it's not about a wealthy person stealing. In Bresson's film, Michel the pickpocket leads a very marginal life, he lives in a seedy garret, his friends think he could be a success in life if he'd only apply himself, but he seems obsessed with picking pockets, finally with the art of it. Much of the film is just about the perfection of this art. We see this on display in the scene on a train, when Michel and his accomplices are using these extraordinary gestures to rob the other passengers. By the end of the film, the conflict is more around Michel's reputation, but again, it really has nothing to do with money. In contrast with a rather squalid life, his lack of money just doesn't seem terribly important.
  Another film in which theft seems to go beyond a lack of concern for the value of money, would be "Danger: Diabolik" (1968). Diabolik is a kind of super criminal whose motive for stealing is unclear. First, he seems to just be stealing things for his girlfriend: money and jewels. He's got a lot of money and a very stylish life (private life, at least), so the actual theft seems quite frivolous. There's one very interesting scene, though, later in the film, when the government that's pursuing Diabolik angers him and in retaliation he stages a series of bombings. He blows up the Ministry of Finance, the Internal Revenue Service, and other government buildings involved with the national economy. There's a spectacular montage of buildings being blown up and then the Finance Minster, played by Terry Thomas, appears on TV to plead with the nation to pay their taxes, appealing to their goodwill as citizens, their concern for society, because they are part of society, etc. Diabolik's action is not really explained, so it comes across as a nihilistic gesture — like the ending of "Fight Club" — to destroy the economic system. It gets pushed to that point, to a kind of financial terrorism. It's no longer theft for gain, but theft to obliterate the value of money.

Fujiwara: That's a good example. "Diabolik" is a film in which eventually, everything is put on display. There's the early scene with all of the dollar bills covering the giant bed, and at the end he's covered in gold, isn't he? The result of all his activities seems to be, on the one hand, destroy the financial structure, as you say, and on the other hand to decorate their internal world. Diabolik and his girlfriend live in this cave where everything becomes a kind of art object. They're the ultimate collectors, the ultimate avant-garde art connoisseurs. Money eventually becomes an art object. That's a very extreme position — especially for Mario Bava, who had no money. That was probably his most expensive film.

Roberts: Yes, it's somehow reassuring that when he did get some money, this is what he did.

Fujiwara: It's quite a radical film in that respect. Usually, caper films are not so interesting to me. It's one of the least interesting genres.

Roberts: Perhaps there's too much focus on planning and execution. The generic pattern is very familiar: assemble the team of quirky experts, there are tensions between the group that foreshadow schisms that might cause the crime to fail, they practice, rehearse, something goes wrong in the execution. I suppose it's just very predictable plot structure, and more about the mechanics of execution than delineating characters or talking about relationships between people. There some some amusing films about planned crimes, though. "Charley Varrick" (1973) with Walter Matthau, for example, though I suppose that's more of a bank heist film. Something goes wrong during the heist, because the mafia is using the bank they knock off, and then the mob is after them and it becomes a serious problem.

Fujiwara: That's a great film. Initially it's a heist film, but then the theft reveals the structure of social relationships, this hidden financial network that was not apparent before, over which Varrick eventually triumphs. This is another 70s film that is very much about being independent. Charley Varrick is, as it's printed right on his jacket, "the last of the independents." We see all of the pictures of him when he was working in a carnival as a stunt pilot. The film is about linking this man to an older time and then — much like in "Point Blank" — putting him up against a modern universe in which everything is very impersonal, very bleak. At the end, he rejects it all and goes to Mexico, like people in Peckinpah films.
  One film that came out last year that I liked was Spike Lee's "Inside Man". It's definitely not a typical heist film. It's also a film in which the nature of what's being stolen eventually becomes ambiguous, and in an interesting way. In general, though, it's not a very appealing genre. I used to think that the first "Ocean's Eleven" was the worst film ever made, but one of the things that happens as history goes forward, and more and more films get made, is that eventually we realize that the films we used to hate aren't that bad. Compared to the Soderbergh film, the first "Ocean's Eleven" is pretty good. The Soderbergh version is a new nostalgia, not what we were talking about before. It's a nostalgia for the early 1960s, for a certain kind of masculinity.

Kinugasa: After "Out of Sight" (1998), Soderbergh is recycling patterns from very bright, colorful, and happy films of the 1960s, but how do you see this new nostalgia that, for example, appears in "Ocean's Eleven"? I'm ambivalent about his films. "The Limey" (1999), is quite good, I think.

Fujiwara: It's interesting that you mention "The Limey". I don't think that's a remake of anything, but it's very much a nostalgia film too. It's a film about the 60s, with Terence Stamp as an older guy. Maybe that's one of Soderbergh's concerns, making films that return to the model of earlier films like "Point Blank", or an earlier period of noir films. With Hollywood today, it doesn't seem to be a question of nostalgia, however. I'm not sure that's even the right word to use anymore. When Frederic Jameson talks about films from the 80s like "Body Heat" (1981), the remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1981), or "Miami Vice" the TV show, he points out that these were all examples of postmodern nostalgia — pastiche. Now, it seems that paradigm Jameson described has been played out and there's a new one. Nostalgia seems too nostalgic for people. Going back to Spike Lee's "Inside Man" for moment, I don't think it did very well. Apparently, audiences don't want to see films that celebrate the independence of thieves. Now, people want to see films about torture. Torture is big.

Kinugasa: What about Michael Mann? I'm not sure if we can tie him to film noir, but his films seem exceptional in Hollywood, they seem to bear the influence of an older style, that he is trying to renovate somehow.

Roberts: There's "Thief" (1981), of course with James Caan, but "Heat" (1995) is a curious a film. Many people didn't like it, but it's an unusual treatment for a crime story. The story itself is straight-forward, but Mann has made it very spacious. Maybe this is part of the renovation: it's quite a long film, and a lot of time is given to incidental characters, both on the side of the police and among the accomplices in the criminal gang, we see them spending time with their wives, their families, and this works to level out the relationship between the Pacino and De Niro characters. It's a deviation from an overall tendency to make such films tighter, more chiseled, harder-edged. Here, there's more space, which allows him to insert violence as punctuation, not continuous mayhem.

Fujiwara: The problem that Michael Mann has, which we also find with Walter Hill, and perhaps Steven Soderbergh, is that they are making these genre films, but it's difficult when nobody else is making them. You can't have a genre in which only one person is making a film. Soderbergh, for example, just made "The Good German" (2006), which is explicitly an attempt to make a late 1940s style of film. The problem is that only he is making that. If it were the late 1940s, or if everybody suddenly made films like that, then Soderbergh's film would make more sense, and we could evaluate it in its context and that would be interesting. As it is, there's something senseless and terrible about it. I don't think there's enough context for these films to work. Michael Mann is an interesting director, but to be really interesting there would need to be an institutional and generic context for what he's doing. He can't just create this on the strength of one film every three years. It often seems that something is lacking in those films, and I wonder if it isn't the lack of a context. These films are often made as if there is a context, but it's not there.



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02 Apr 2007
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