They all refer to the heist as, simply, “the Swiss thing,” a running label that’s indicative of how Mamet writes these old pros – they speak in shorthand and in-jokes, and as with any Mamet work, straight-forward exposition is next to Satanic. He lets us figure out what they’re talking about, and if they’re occasionally ahead of us, we’re never unclear on the feel of what’s happening, if not its particulars. He gives us the customary fake-outs and crosses of all numeric values (I’m pretty sure that, by the end, Joe has quadruple-crossed his employer), but there’s never the sense, as in so many lesser “twisty” thrillers, that he’s playing fast and loose. He’s a writer who hides in plain sight – or, as Joe puts it when Fran advises him to “stay in the shadows”: “Everybody’s gonna be looking in the shadows… The place to be is in the sun.”
That’s one of many, many memorable exchanges in Mamet’s script, and the quotable dialogue is the key to its success. He knows that, inventive double-backs or not, he’s telling the oft-told tale of an old pro going for one last big score, and he doesn’t pretend he’s doing anything else. Nobody goes to hear Beethoven’s 9th because they’ve never heard it before; they go to hear what this conductor and orchestra have done with it. And similarly, we watch a movie like Heist for the virtuosity of the execution, for the wit with which Mamet writes his way through these conventions, and the pleasure his actors take in chewing on his dialogue, in all of its repetition, shop talk, dry wit, and artful profanity.
It’s one of those scripts that you could just read for pleasure, so I’ll limit myself to just a couple of its best exchanges:
Mark: You’re a pretty smart fella. Joe: Ah, not that smart. Mark: You’re not that smart, how’d you figure it out? Joe: I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, ‘What would he do?”
Joe: He ain’t gonna shoot me? Fran: No. Joe: Then he hadn’t ought to point a gun at me. It’s insincere.
Bergman: The other thing, the Swiss thing? If I was a publisher, I’d publish the plans. Bobby: Why don’t you publish the plans? Bergman: Yeah, no, I said that’s what I would do, if I was a publisher. Unfortunately, I’m a thief, so I have to do that thing.
Joe: Anybody can get the goods, the hard part’s getting away. Bergman: Uh huh. Joe: You plan a good enough getaway, you could steal Ebbets Field. Bergman: Ebbet’s Field’s gone. Joe: What did I tell you?
DeVito delivers that “Ebbet’s Field” line with a big grin, which signals both the character knowing he’s setting Joe up, and the actor taking joy in this delicious exchange (Hackman’s grin on the response conveys a similar dual level of pleasure). Heist is an action movie, but an anomaly in the genre in that the most exciting scenes are the ones where the characters talk to each other – there’s electricity in these back-and-forths, and it’s fun to watch them trade lines like sparring prize fighters.
In other words, Mamet’s action flicks operated under the bold notion that maybe the people inhabiting such films don’t have to talk like monosyllabic morons. Needless to say, that idea was not embraced by the giant audiences that ponied up to see such braindead fare as Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns, and the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes that year. Heist grossed a respectable but unspectacular $23 million that fall, a jackpot compared the anemic $4.4 million return of Linson and Mamet’s fifth (and final) film, the political thriller Spartan, three years later. Mamet’s last theatrical feature to date, the 2008 martial arts flick Redbelt, could only manage $2.3 million. So much for smart action movies.
But Heist remains a testament to a career that could’ve been, for Mamet – and a valentine to star Hackman, in one of his final screen roles to date. The ever-busy thesp, who famously gave Michael Caine a run for his ubiquity money and appeared in four other movies in 2001, quietly just stopped a couple of years later. But this, alongside that year’s Royal Tenenbaums, is a reminder of what he did better than anyone. He plays a no-nonsense professional, as wily and inventive as he is sensible and smart, and one of the many pleasures of the picture is how much we get to observe Gene Hackman thinking. Watch carefully how he has to call an audible when his way in to the Swiss thing goes bust. Note how, when finally figures out his play, he stops, his eyes dart for a second, and he takes a beat before proclaiming, “I know how to get the gold.” And get a load of that knowing little smile that spreads across his face when he tells his crew, “Just listen: I’m gonna stand this thing on its head.” It’s fun to just watch him work – and that goes for everyone, on both sides of the camera, in Heist.
Heist is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.