Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bank Shot (1974)

          To get a sense of the endearingly fluffy humor that pervades this caper flick, consider a moment when bumbling FBI agent Streiger (Clifton James) shows his team surveillance footage of master criminal Walter Upjohn Ballantine (George C. Scott). First, the surveillance camera is angled away from Ballantine because the cameraman is ogling a pretty girl’s figure, and second, Ballantine reveals he’s aware of the surveillance camera by dabbing the lens with the tip of an ice cream cone. Gritty realism this is not. Yet while some other adaptations of lighthearted crime books by author Donald E. Westlake spiral into stupidity, the Westlake adaptation Bank Shot comes awfully close to cooking that most delicate soufflé of pure farce, especially during sequences of epic-proportioned slapstick. It helps, of course, to have a leading actor of consummate skill, since Scott plays every single scene perfectly straight, no matter how absurd the circumstances. Together with an adept supporting cast and the confident direction of Gower Champion (a former dancer and choreographer), Scott’s performance makes Bank Shot highly entertaining.
          The plot is a standard Westlake lark. Career thief Ballantine, whom Scott portrays with comically bushy eyebrows and a pronounced lisp, is stuck in a prison work farm until his excitable accomplice, A. G. Karp (Sorrell Booke), visits with news that a bank has been identified as vulnerable for robbery. Ballantine stages a ridiculous escape by hijacking an earthmover and bulldozing his way through prison walls. Then he meets the unimpressive crew Karp has gathered. These offbeat theives include a nebbish ex-FBI agent (Bob Balaban), a jittery goodfella (Don Calfa), and a sexy society dame (Joanna Cassidy) who’s moonlighting as a crook for thrills. Karp’s undercooked plan involves robbing a bank that’s temporarily housed in a mobile home, so Ballantine arrives at an audacious method—hook the mobile home to a truck, cart it away to a safe location, and crack the bank’s vault later.
          Even though the movie is very brief (83 minutes), Bank Shot includes a string of goofy running gangs, like the trope of Ballantine dosing himself with saltpeter in order to resist the advances of Cassidy’s character, lest he get distracted from his task. (Cassidy, playing one of her earliest major film roles, enlivens the picture with her carefree spirit and throaty laugh.) The picture is handsomely shot and quickly paced, though it slows down, appropriately, during moments displaying the thieves’ careful technique; watch for the bit when an explosives man gets more and more frustrated each time a charge proves insufficient for blowing a safe open. Bank Shot gets very cartoonish toward the end, with Streiger and his men chasing after a runaway mobile home—c’mon, you knew that was going to happen—but the charm of the main performances and the cheerful unpretentiousness of the whole enterprise compensate for a lot of rough edges.

Bank Shot: GROOVY


Tommy Ross said...

No pun intended but I took a "shot" on this with a real cheap used copy I got on Amazon. Yikes, where do I begin? I felt the best thing it had going for it was a great story and production design. Several times while watching I couldn't help but think what a great regular bank robber movie it would have made without all the silly jokes and gags which for the most part really didn't work for me. I just couldn't easily accept George C Scott in a comedic role, at least not this one. The locations were great though and it moves fast enough although I was very much ready for the credits to roll even at the 80 minute mark.

J said...

You spelled Sorrell Booke's name wrong. THanks.