If there’s a single common motivating ideology that unites the engulfing genre of film noir, let alone the heist subgenre, it’s a feeling of disillusionment. I’ve reduced Film Forum’s exhaustive series “The Heist,” now ongoing until October 21, to three American films that span 1949 - 1959 because post-WWII American melodrama has often found its most satisfying expression in stories where G.I. Joe came home from the war broken, beaten, and looking to score a little something for himself. The heist picture’s generic lens reworked the blithely burnt-out spirit of WWI’s Lost Generation, except its protagonists are less concerned with creative anguish as they are with their frustrated blue-collar ambitions.
In director Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House, a team of two draft dodgers and two vets plan to rob Harold’s Casino in Reno partly because they want to prove if they can and mostly because they feel they feel the world owes them.
Much of the film’s dialogue is breezy and care-free banter (Frank Tashlin did a polish of it at one point), but by the time you get to the final confrontation, when things finally fall apart and allegiances are tested, you realize that everything in the film boils down to a distaste for materiality and with being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. You can lose money at the craps table, get girls (even Kim Novak, as Guy Madison does here), or you can go to college years too late, like these guys initially try to.
But when confronted with the fact that the two vets in the group only survived combat because of each other’s intervention (one is constantly reminded that he saved the other’s life), they realize: There may not be more to what’s out there in the world beyond what they know they can control. So they try to rob a casino, and they only fail because they can’t bring themselves farther than the casino’s parking garage. At that moment, they realize that money, as a thing, has eclipsed their value as humans: The parking garage attendant insists that they can’t go where the cars are parked because it’s for “cars only, not people.” It’s a crushing offhand comment that brings them right back to where the war left them.
Another baroque example of the tragic fatalism inherent in heist films comes from Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross, later remade by Stephen Soderbergh as The Underneath. The armored car job in Criss Cross is only the mechanism that puts fated lovers Steve (Burt Lancaster), also a war vet, and Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) in the path of Anna’s testy new beau, Slim (sorely underrated character actor Dan Duryea), a wanted crook and probably a killer. The film’s episodic pacing is engrossing, inviting the viewer to enjoy the process of Steve’s journey toward certain conflict. But when that conflict comes, there’s no escape and no way to rise above the violence in it. The film’s caper doesn’t matter, in that sense; it’s just a means to a very bleak end.
Like 5 Against the House, Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a heist that centers on the racial tension between lead stars Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte, also pivots around the idea that regardless of the context, people will always screw each other out of what they’ve earned because of arbitrary differences. The bulk of the film is spent building up the characters so that they can be knocked down later: Ryan’s war vet is over the hill and struggling to keep his girl with him while Bellafonte’s xylophonist is in heavy debt to a club owner. Nobody wants to say it because it’s largely understood, but Ryan and Belafonte can’t get along, not even toward a common goal based on self-interest.
In that way, the bank job in Odds Against Tomorrow is especially tense. It’s not just a question of whether they can pull it off, but how long they can hold themselves together as a unit with their handler (the ever-sympathetic Ed Begley) keeping everything together before everything falls apart in one fell swoop. The tense moments before the trio forcibly opens the bank’s locked back door are mesmerizing. In these seconds, it seems like the only thing holding the job together is the sweat coating Belafonte’s face, even visible through his shades, and Ryan’s defining grimace. Naturally, things end explosively; there’s just no viable way out.
Presented by Film Forum, “The Heist” runs from October 1 to October 21. For more information click here.