Heist Noir: The Bank Job (2008) and Armored Car Robbery (1950)
Film noir was never meant to be realistic. In a 1953 New York Times review of Pickup on South Street reviewer Bosley Crowther called the now-classic noir “brutish and... sadistic” and went on to conclude “Sam Fuller, who wrote it and directed, appears to have been more concerned with firing a barrage of sensations than with telling a story to be believed.” What a perfect way to describe film noir. It's not supposed to be realistic – although film watchers today may think that was a goal of classic-era film makers. The truth is, however, no one ever talked like Walter Neff; and no detective was as clever as Philip Marlowe. It was a made-up world where camera angles and acting were exaggerated for effect. Film noir plots were so dense that movie goers weren't expected to fully understand what happened. It was an attitude more than any other element. Personally, I watched Out of the Past at least five times before I decided to actually try to follow the plot. I was to busy the first four viewings just taking in the amazing camera work and listening to the almost poetic dialogue. I, as a first time viewer, was satisfied with the “sensations” the film gave me more than the story that was being told.
Jack Shadoian, in his excellent book Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film, writes:
Most film noir, however, usually involves a crime and some of the best film noir are “heist films.” Both The Bank Job (2008) and Armored Car Robbery (1950) are excellent examples. Unlike many other heist films considered noir – including The Scar or The Asphalt Jungle – Armored Car Robbery and The Bank Job have a bit of reality mixed in with the classic film noir attitude. Both movies are based on real-life crimes. The Bank Job is taken from the 1971 London vault cleanout on Baker Street labeled the walkie-talkie robbery while Armored Car Robbery is a story based on a 1934 armored car heist at the Rubel Ice Company in Brooklyn. However, if you assumed that these movies are somehow realistic you'd be wrong. They follow other film noir before them by being over-the-top crime movies with attitude.Noir was an attitude that could be applied to most any kind of film, and was. It hardened and nastied up a soaper like Mildred Pierce (1945), existentialized a Western like Yellow Sky (1948), and confounded a culture piece like the normally imperturbable George Cukor's A Double Life (1947).
Noir cinema is about people who live in the night and make their fearful way through darkness.
The Bank Job is a wonderfully sleazy film. It's filled with enough sex and violence that, if made years before, would have made Sam Fuller smile (and review Crowther probably blow his top). The thing I love about The Bank Job is the fact that the criminals who actually pull off the crime know they aren't all that clever. They do the crime knowing it probably won't work out for the best. It turns out that the robbery - that was just supposed to be about “snatching and grabbing” cash in a bank vault - ends up being in reality a set up by British politicians and crooked coppers - an attempt to recover some highly embarrassing blackmail-related sex photos stored in the vault. British intelligence uses just about everything in their power to get the small-time criminals who walk away with said photos and whatever else they could get their hands on in the vault.
Jason Statham (a modern-day B-movie star in the mold of Charles McGraw) has never been better. Statham, who has a dominating movie-star presence on screen, should have a serious talk with his agent and demand he only make movies like this in the future.
The heist plan is hatched when Statham's Terry Leather gets together with a sexy old flame who tells him about an easy bank vault job. Leather jumps on the chance to get rich quick even knowing he's not smart enough to actually get away with it. When he and his colorful gang do pull off the crime early in the movie, the gang goes underground when it seems like the whole country is looking for them. Leather and his gang are forced to play a couple of intense chess games simultaneously against a much smarter mob and MI5 while also being on the run from Scotland Yard. Like most heist films the crime is not the most interesting part. It's the angling to get away with it afterwards that makes the film suspenseful. Supporting Statham is Saffron Burrows as Martine Love – the drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale that sets it all up. She looks just like those skinny 70s models from that period - that's just one of many nice touches that makes the film feel not only that it took place in the 70s but that the actual film was made in that era. Although Terry Leather (love that name) is happily married I can see how no man could resist any temptation offered up by Martine – a woman all the blokes' wives don't trust and one young member of Leather's bunch secretly wants to run away with. Also in the cast is the intense David Suchet (who is probably best known as BBC's Hercule Poirot) as a porn-king you probably never – ever - want to cross.
The crime was called the walkie-talkie caper because they used walkie-talkies in the crime and was overheard by a short-wave radio enthusiast who quickly recorded the conversations and reported it to the police. Some reviewers complained - when the film was released - that there's no way anyone would actually think that walkie-talkie conversations were somehow secure. The funny thing is that's what actually happened during the real crime. People are much more technologically savvy today. I remember using those type of radios years ago and having no idea that anyone else could pick up on them. Lucky I never tried to rob a bank.
Australian suspense-and-action pro Roger Donaldson does a fine job mixing facts from the real crime with fiction to make a very entertaining neo-noir. Mercifully, he doesn't add Tarantino-esque irony to the twisty story – an element so often found in recent British crime films. The film did modest business when it was released but I suspect it will have a cult-like following years down the road not unlike Armored Car Robbery from 1950.