Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, in celebration of its 15th anniversary, we look at David Mamet’s witty and well-crafted Heist, starring the great Gene Hackman.
2001 was a big year for the heist movie. That summer gave us the onscreen union of three generations of Method acting – Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Edward Norton – in the slick studio caper flick The Score. That Christmas, an all-star cast of gorgeous movie stars gathered around newly minted Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh for a fabulously profitable remake of Ocean’s Eleven. And in between, a smaller, nastier movie with the rather too generic title Heist was all but ignored, in spite of its stellar ensemble cast, sharp direction, and a script with more quotable dialogue than a year of studio pictures. That was 15 years ago, and you probably still haven’t seen it. Stop screwing around.
Heist was the fourth of five collaborations between Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/screenwriter David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and super-producer Art Linson (Fight Club, Heat). Mamet wrote the scripts for the Linson-produced The Untouchables, We’re No Angels, and The Edge – big studio films with major stars and highly marketable elements. But his own directorial efforts tended to be smaller, and somewhat smarter, independent pictures like House of Cards, Homicide, and The Spanish Prisoner. The story goes that Linson challenged Mamet to intertwine those threads – to both write and direct star-driven action movies that nonetheless had his signature wit and intelligence. Heist was his first attempt.
Gene Hackman stars as Joe Moore, a smart and gifted thief who runs a tight-knit and efficient crew: Bobby (Delroy Lindo), Pinky (Ricky Jay), and his wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon, also Mamet’s missus). Mamet starts his story mid-stream, with a jewel store robbery in progress, reveling in the signals, fakery, disguises, and diversions. But it goes awry – in dealing with an unexpected witness (and not wanting to kill her), Joe accidentally gets his face in front of a security camera. “I’m burnt,” he growls to Bobby, though he doesn’t lose his considerable cool; he goes about his business, finishing the job at hand, and figures it’s about time to retire anyway.
This being a movie, it’s not that easy. Their regular fence, Bergman (Danny DeVito), is already deeply invested in a big, forthcoming heist, and puts Joe on the hook too: No one gets paid for this job until they do the next one, sorry you got burned, work fast. Oh, and Joe has to bring along Bergman’s hothead moron porno-mustached nephew, the wonderfully named Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), to help out and, it is assumed, keep an eye on things.
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.