Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Great Bank Hoax (1978)

          A would-be farce that never achieves liftoff, this comedy is nonetheless a handsomely made film with a strong cast and a number of mildly amusing moments. Running a brisk 87 minutes, the picture is a trifle containing charms sufficient to engage viewers who are willing to lower their expectations.
          Set in a small American town, the movie tracks the adventures of three bank officers—Manny Benchley (Richard Basehart), Jack Stutz (Burgess Meredith), and Julius Taggart (Ned Beatty)—who discover that $100,000 has disappeared from their bank’s holdings. Jack, the wily senior member of the trio, suggests an outrageous scheme: Why not stage a robbery to cover the absence of the money, and then recover the $100,000 through insurance? Despite Julian’s troubled conscience and Manny’s weak constitution, the trio performs their fake heist, only to discover a new problem. One of their employees, meek teller Richard Smedley (Paul Sand), confesses to embezzling the original $100,000 and says he wants to return the money. Writer-director Joseph Jacoby comes close to making this convoluted setup work, although his storyline ultimately crumbles beneath the weight of confusing subplots, incessant logic problems, and underdeveloped characters. Among other things, the whole business of a romantic triangle between Richard, ambitious local beauty Cathy Bonano (Charlene Dallas), and neighborhood preacher Everett Manigma (Michael Murphy) rings false. It’s also distracting that The Great Bank Hoax is so reminiscent of Cold Turkey (1971), a better film about small-town greed that also prominently features a preacher.
          Yet The Great Bank Hoax is a good example of a picture in which the parts are greater than the sum. The scenes featuring Basehart, Beatty, and Meredith are droll, with each actor contributing a different tonality; whether they’re attempting a getaway on a bicycle or negotiating deals in a boardroom, the actors make the most of weak material. Dallas, Murphy, and Sand are good, as well, though none of their characters makes much sense. On the technical side, cinematographer Walter Lassally shoots the picture beautifully, using silky backlights to give the locations a warm, Norman Rockwell-type glow. Also making his presence felt is noted film editor Ralph Rosenblum, who cut most of Woody Allen’s ’70s movies. Based on his other work, it seems fair to credit Rosenblum with the picture’s imaginative intercut sequences and vibrant visual juxtapositions. Especially after the plot becomes too labored to follow, the presence of bright visuals and zippy pacing helps keep the focus on patter and performances.

The Great Bank Hoax: FUNKY

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