RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 17th column, Kim explored a casino-robbing heist film.
In the 1950s and ’60s, a strange inflation set into heist movies in a cycle of films in which conspirators enumerated in the title set out to rob casinos. Seven Thieves, a glossy, CinemaScope caper from 1960 falls logically between Five Against the House (1955) and Ocean’s Eleven (1961). The remake of the latter, of course, started the escalation again, with Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen following.
The initial inspiration for the trend might have been the rise of Las Vegas as a gambling center, not only because it was new, exciting American turf a short hop across the desert from Hollywood but because the casinos were widely thought to be mob-affiliated and therefore a fair target for independent, ingenious sympathetic crooks. Seven Thieves is set in Monaco instead of Vegas, and ups the sophistication level, both in superficial elements like clothes and cool, but in the casting of a wide range of heavy acting talents, all of whom revolve around the elegant, sexy presence of Joan Collins.
Mastermind Theo Wilkins (Edward G. Robinson), an academic in disgrace after a previous scheme, is joined on the Riviera by Paul Mason (Rod Steiger), just out of jail and prickly about it. Paul signs up for Theo’s scheme, and meets the other five ‘thieves’ Theo has recruited — devastating stripper Melanie (Collins), who has various men on a string but in a few censor-appeasing lines seems not to be sleeping with any of them; saxophone-playing beatnik Poncho (Eli Wallach), who has method acting ability and ably impersonates a nasty crippled, gambling addict Baron; Raymond (Alexander Scourby), a casino minion smitten with Melanie; Louis (Michael Dante), a skilled safecracker with a fear of heights that makes the ledge-walking necessary in the heist tricky; and Hugo (Berry Kroeger), a thuggish German mechanic/chauffeur.
The film follows the expected, pleasurable structure of its sub-genre: the thieves get together, bicker and flirt a bit, and go through the planning and rehearsal stage. Then, in the long middle act (set during a swanky, invitation-only high society ball), the coup is managed, with minor difficulties (Poncho’s last-minute nerves when he needs to swallow a cyanide pill which will make him seem dead) overcome and the crooks getting away clean with the loot (stashed in the Baron’s wheelchair).
In 1960, the trouble with these things was coming up with a satisfactory third act since the censors wouldn’t allow the criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. In gritty noir-type heists (Rififi, The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, The League of Gentlemen), the thieves could fall out and tear each other apart or be tracked down by the resourceful police, but caper entertainments like this needed to deliver a more ironic, less depressing finish, often with the money somehow snatched from the crooks and everyone shrugging it off to plot anew.
Here, the film gets out of its cleft stick with a minor feint to the first position, as the crooks disagree about what to do with the cash, which is new-printed, sequentially-numbered and probably unspendable. The Professor dies happy to have pulled off the robbery, in a moment set up by a clever misdirection: it seems that he has been ruthless enough to murder Poncho during the crime, but this pays off with Poncho coming round to find the old man dead of natural causes. Paul, revealed as the old man’s dutiful but not naturally crooked son, decides to return the money — though he has to tackle his supposed comrades to pull it off.
*END SPOILER ALERT*
Scripted by Sydney Boehm (graduating from grit like The Big Heat and Violent Saturday to glossier stuff) from a novel by Brit Max Catto (author of the source novels for Trapeze and Murphy’s War) and directed by old pro Henry Hathaway, this delivers solid work from Robinson and Steiger, with Steiger showing that he can rein in his tendency to bluster when matched against a performer who favours the less-is-more approach.
The leading men are much more comfortable playing against each other than Steiger and Collins, who make a fairly unlikely couple, while Wallach (then often cast as third bananas, as in The Rainmaker and The Misfits) tries to get some attention with a few showy bits. There’s decent enough suspense, though Seven Thieves seems quite mild-mannered after many, many similar films (and, from The Thomas Crown Affair onwards, the lifting of the ban on crooks getting away with it in the movies).
Note how one tiny slip can throw off the mood. The introductory scene finds Robinson genially chatting on the beach with some seashell-collecting kids and talking up the latin name of their latest find when Steiger shows up and says it’s just an ordinary snail. Maybe another actor wouldn’t have this affect, but Steiger generally plays heavies — since the first thing he does on screen is be mean to some little kids, it takes a few reels to click that he won’t turn out to be the villain.
Collins’ exotic dancing was probably tame even for 1960 (compare the stripteases in Beat Girl, Expresso Bongo or Shock Corridor) but she is certainly lovely. It seems strange that 20th Century Fox, then among the most lavish of studios, should choose to shoot this in chilly black and white. The movie’s sole Oscar nomination was for black and white costume design, back when the Academy gave out separate statuettes for black and white and colour costuming and cinematography: while monochrome might suit the intense playing of Robinson and Steiger, you can’t help feeling Collins’ gowns (designed by Bill Thomas) and complexion would have been better served by the proverbial ‘breath-taking Technicolor’.