After the last Double Feature, which was filled with loss and grief, I wanted to look at something a little more fast-paced and exciting. Not necessarily light, but satisfying. So I turned to my absolute favorite genre: the heist film.
There’s something about heist films that just work for me. The genre has a few basic tenets. First, we almost always see someone putting a team together. One thief has a plan, and he has to put together the perfect group of people to pull it off. The second tenet is explaining the plan and practicing. We see this team working together to try out different aspects of the plan, and start to understand their dynamics.
But by far, the most important aspect of a great heist film, is that we as the audience don’t know the entire plan, and just when things look like they will certainly fail, we discover that in fact the failure was part of the plan all along. It might seem played out, and it might seem like we can expect it, but a well constructed heist film does this perfectly.
Ocean’s Eleven is essentially the perfectly constructed heist film. It isn’t perfect, to be sure, but it pulls all the classic elements of the heist film together, and executes perfectly.
But I’m not watching Ocean’s Eleven today. I’m watching:
Georges Franju – Judex (1963)
Stanley Kubrick – The Killing (1956)
I had never seen Judex, but I’ve had it on my shelf for a bit, while The Killing I’ve been familiar with for several years, and is one of my favorite Kubrick movies. So, will these two satisfy my heist craving? Let’s find out.
All I knew about this film were the things I read on the back of the Criterion Bluray cover, and this GIF, which I saw on Twitter.
From what I knew about this movie, I had no idea how a man in a super realistic bird mask fit into the whole thing, so I knew I had to watch it as soon as possible.
Judex is the story of a rich man named Favraux being blackmailed by someone who signs his letters Judex. He seems to have a unique knowledge of the inner workings of his businesses, and he hires a detective named Cocantin to guard him and find out who is sending the letters.
The film does some setup, introducing us to Favraux’s daughter Jacqueline who is getting married soon, her young daughter Alice, Alice’s governess Marie, and Favraux’s servant Vallieres.
The film pulls no punches about letting us know who Favraux is early on. When a man named Pierre arrives demanding that Favraux deliver on a promise to help him find his son, Favraux refuses, later seeing the man on the road, and deliberately running him over with his car. He shows no remorse for this, just another moment in his day.
This results in another letter from Judex, which names Favraux a murderer, and tells him that if he doesn’t give half of his money to his victims, he will be killed at midnight.
So we have a classic suspense timer, and a mystery. Depending on the type of film, we might be seeing every moment until midnight, following the detective who is revealing clues and discovering the murder at the last moment and foiling the plot against Favraux. Or we might get a film that punishes Favraux for his evil ways, perhaps even redeeming him. We see a scene of him asking Marie, the governess to marry him, but she refuses.
The film however, takes a direction that for me was totally unexpected. At a masquerade ball that evening, celebrating Jacqueline’s marriage, Favraux passes out just as the clock strikes midnight, exactly as the letters threatened. A doctor appears and declares him dead.
So now we have a film where the threats that could have been played out over 90 minutes have been carried out within the first 20. The film by necessity takes a huge turn here. We learn that Marie the governess isn’t as she appears, as after the tragedy, she walks outside and finds a man who calls her Diana, and kisses her deeply. The film doesn’t reveal much here, but we might assume that Marie/Diana is part of the plot against Favraux.
However, the plot thickens (as they say) as Vallieres tells Jacqueline of how her father made his riches, by blackmailing other rich men and forcing them to finance his early business deals. The papers proving it are locked in his desk. Marie overhears from the door. Jacqueline renounces her inheritance while keeping her daughter’s share intact, and takes over the family home, sending her daughter to stay with a friend, and releasing the rest of the servants.
Things continue to take a strange turn, as a group of men dressed in black with masks carry Favraux’s body to a car and drive off. They take it to an underground cavern where the leader guides them through a series of secret doors to a room where they lay the body out. The implication becomes clear that Favraux isn’t really dead, and they will wake him up.
This is a crucial time in any movie that makes use of a mystery. At this point it has basically done nothing but raise questions. We want to know who is Judex, and why he pretended to kill Favraux. Is Favraux Judex? Is this part of some larger plot for him to escape some other horrible fate? How does Marie fit in? If it raises too many more, the audience might assume it will never bother to, or perhaps might not be capable of answering them (see the TV show Lost), and the audience can quickly lose interest.
Luckily, Franju takes the opportunity to start answering some of the questions by giving us some information on Marie. She finds her lover again and lays out the plan: they will steal the papers Favraux used to blackmail his rivals, and sell them or use them.
A ha! I thought. Here’s the heist! I strapped in for the rest of the movie. The next scene didn’t disappoint as Marie and her boyfriend Morales infiltrate the Favraux home, dressed in black catsuits with burglar tools.
But unfortunately, we only get the one scene. The burglary goes poorly, but we begin the motivation for the rest of the film, as Jacqueline sees Marie without her mask, leading to an attempted kidnapping, which is foiled by Judex. Meanwhile, we learn that Favraux is not in on his revival and is in fact imprisoned.
This is where the film takes an even stranger turn, but I began to understand the film a bit more. At this point in the film, it is revealed that Judex has sci-fi technology. He has imprisoned Favraux, and watches on a monitor straight out of a 50s sci-fi film. Favraux is watched by some kind of mirror that follows his movements. In addition, a panel in the ceiling opens up and writing appears on some kind of projection screen. It tells Favraux that he was to be killed, but that his daughters actions have led to him being imprisoned for life by Judex.
Here’s where I finally understood this film. It’s not a heist film, it’s a Saturday matinee serial made by a really great director. The film continues from here, Marie and her gang trying to capture Jacqueline to ensure her silence, then trying to capture Favraux to get access to his fortune, while Judex attempts to rescue Jacqueline.
This all leads to a tense climax where everything turns out ok.
This is a back and forth cat and mouse film romp and if it was made by a less talented filmmaker with a less talented cast, it would slide from a strange but interesting film into a total B-movie mess. But luckily, it was made by a talented filmmaker with a talented cast. Still, the Saturday matinee serial bones are still clearly visible. You can practically hear an overwrought narrator emoting “MEANWHILE!”. Lots of twists and turns, many of which don’t really add to the story, but are still fun to see, a completely irredeemable villain, a damsel in constant danger, and a story where the villain and hero constantly trade the upper hand.
The main thing saving the film from b-movie mediocrity is the cinematography. The shots are all impeccably photographed, and the costumes are all excellent as well. Of course, the bird masks in an early scene create an unforgettable image, but the costume Judex wears is classic and cool, without being showy. Marie’s catsuit and mask also looks amazing, and the careful shots of the knife she carries on her hip really complete her character.
Looking into the history of this film, I found that it was indeed based on a silent film serial from 1916. It makes a lot of sense. It’s always interesting to see a filmmaker embrace an earlier genre and play with it. We’ve seen it before on this blog with At Long Last Love.
But is it a good film? I solemnly swear that you will never see any kind of numerical rating on this blog, but I think it’s a fair question to ask. Even though it mixes genres in a bizzare way, and has some incredibly ridiculous moments, including an acrobat character we never met before arriving at the exact right moment to help solve the problem, I think it is. It is at the very least unforgettable. And it’s a film I want to tell people about. So for me, that leans towards a good film.
But we can definitively say that it isn’t a heist film. The team isn’t coming together, we don’t get a detailed explanation of the plan, and there is no twist to convince us that plan failed before discovering it didn’t.
The Killing (1956)
The Killing is an early Stanley Kubrick film, about a heist at a racetrack, led by Johnny, played by Sterling Hayden (best known as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove). While this doesn’t follow the formula precisely, this is definitely a heist movie. The movie opens with a team building scene. Marvin, another conspirator, walks around the bar and cashier windows of a racetrack, subtly handing out an address to the men we discover are also on the team.
Kubrick uses the following scenes to give some motivation to the characters, answering questions about why these men might want to risk so much on this crime. Johnny is an ex-con, tired of going to jail for small crimes, he wants a big score. Mike the bartender has a sick wife, Randy the policeman is in debt to criminals, and George wants to impress his wife. George’s wife Sherry is immediately set up as an antagonist. She loathes George, insulting him and treating him like dirt while he tries to tell a simple story.
To impress her, he hints that he has something big coming up that will earn a lot of money. She perks up, and browbeats him into telling her the plan. George crumbles. This is the moment that Johnny’s entire plan falls apart, but he doesn’t know it yet.
In the next scene, Sherry visits her boyfriend on the side to tell him all about the plan. He instructs her to find out as many details as she can.
The next scene we get another heist movie staple, the meeting of the team to discuss the plan. The crew meets at the address they received earlier and Johnny starts laying things out. Starting with the fact that there are two extra people on the team that no one else gets to meet, and who will be paid separately, one gunman, and one man to start a fight as a distraction. The crew agrees and they hear a rustling at the door. They catch Sherry trying to listen in on the meeting. George recognizes her and claims her, losing some trust from the other men.
George is taken away and Johnny sits down with Sherry to figure out what she knows. In a tense, threatening scene, Johnny explains that if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut, the job is off and George gets nothing. She tries flirting, but Johnny sees right through her, showing in a simple way that he’s a strong leader. He doesn’t need to impress anyone, and Sherry’s mind games won’t work on him. George stays in the plan, and Sherry stays next to George, needling him for information.
The film continues to reveal little bits of the plan. Never enough for us to know everything, but enough for us to start piecing it together. Johnny will be at the track and use the gunman to shoot a horse, and having someone start a fight in the bar, causing confusion, and causing the guards to exit the count room where all the money is stored.
So the team is built, the plan is in motion, and there’s a fly in the ointment, waiting to ruin it all. But that’s not what makes this movie special. What Kubrick does here is start playing with time. While most movies would cut the scenes together while keeping time as a constant while switching between characters, Kubrick instead keeps each character constant, telling the story of each individual character up to a certain point, and then moving back in time to start the story of the next character. This was very strange in 1956, and the studio and test audiences didn’t like it. They didn’t like it to the point that they forced Kubrick to add a narrator to the film to tell the audience what was happening at any given moment. This is usually used to list the time at the beginning of each scene. It’s definitely not needed, but it doesn’t ruin the film. I’ve always been curious to see a version of this film without this voiceover, but apparently that version doesn’t exist.
The non-linear structure was a major influence on films like Pulp Fiction, and you can see it clearly when watching. Kubrick doesn’t call attention to what he’s doing, he’s just made a choice and rolls with it. It gave Kubrick a reputation as a serious filmmaker, and his next two films were Paths of Glory and Spartacus and he never looked back.
The one element missing from the heist film formula is the moment when we’re sure everything is going to fail, but it turns out it was part of the plan, but Kubrick is careful to not reveal the plan until it is actually in motion. For the actual heist, Kubrick switches more into a standard crime film, where we see a few different perspectives of each character prepping for the heist, and Johnny actually performing the heist exactly as planned, with every element coming together perfectly. He gets the money, and he escapes.
Just as things are looking up though, the entire thing falls apart. I won’t spoil how it happens, because it’s worth seeing, but it’s a carefully constructed series of events that could only have one outcome. Kubrick was working from some source material, but he was also certainly limited by the production code mandating that criminals must be punished for their crimes, so the ending was inevitable.
Looking at Kubrick’s feature filmography, you see a list of classic films. Only the first two are less well-known, this film, and Fear and Desire. It’s incredibly how every one of his films is burned into the public consciousness, either because it’s an amazing film, or it touched some societal nerve.
I think this is why The Killing is my 2nd favorite Kubrick film (after Dr. Strangelove). It’s a film that doesn’t have all the baggage involved in a classic film, where the consensus of the best scenes, best lines, best shots and best performances are already decided. I love The Killing because it’s a film that I haven’t seen all the best stuff before I sat down to watch it.
Of course, there’s a ton of joy seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey, or A Clockwork Orange, but it takes time to get past the baggage of knowing you’re supposed to love this film before watching it. It took me multiple viewings of some of these films to begin to fully appreciate them.
But The Killing is one of those films that I can’t get enough of. It’s only 84 minutes, and every minute counts. If a minute was added, it would be a worse movie. Even though it doesn’t complete the formula, it’s deviations make it a great, unique heist film.
The Double Feature
I had high hopes for Judex, but after seeing it, even though I did find it interesting, I felt a bit let down. I had seen The Killing several times before, so I knew what it was bringing to the table, and I chose Judex assuming it could hold it’s own. But I should have known that it couldn’t stand up to a brilliant film like The Killing. There aren’t a ton of films that could.
This isn’t really a criticism of Judex, because the fault lies with me as well. I was expecting a heist film, and I got a Saturday adventure serial. That alone lead to some disappointment. That’s also a failure of the format I’ve chosen. I don’t spend a lot of time researching films before I start watching them. I make assumptions about what will make a good double feature. But that’s something I like about this format. One of my favorite things about film is my ability to discover things. In almost every double feature, I’ve selected one film I know well, and one that I don’t know at all. This means that I’m essentially guessing in a lot of ways. I could research films extensively before selecting them, even consulting expert film historians as to what they consider to be good pairings.
But I don’t want to do that. I want to keep that sense of discovery. And if the films don’t end up pairing well, or have a massive difference in quality, then so be it. I think that’s more interesting.
I’m thinking less about school, which is comforting to me. It’s comforting to know that there are other things in life and that I won’t be chained to this work for all time. That makes it much easier for me to continue my PhD work, knowing that I’ll be able to put it away and enjoy other things.
I’ve been thinking about the future of this blog once the summer is over. I’ve got 3 weeks until I start teaching and won’t have the time to write a post every other day. But I really enjoy doing this. I know not a ton of people are reading, and I’d love to have more feedback and discussion about my thoughts, but at the end of the day, this is for me. It’s an outlet. This is my 7th blog post, and they’ve been between 3000 and 6000 words each. That’s a lot of words I’ve written in just a couple of weeks. And that’s really what I want to be doing. I don’t always sit down and put my head down and churn out words. I generally turn on a TV show I’ve seen a thousand times and let it play while I write a paragraph here and there. The posts usually take 5-6 hours to write completely. Add in 3-4 hours to watch both movies and that’s a big time commitment. I definitely don’t have time to do that during my normal workload. But I think one post per week is reasonable, especially as a way to wind down and step back from everything else.
So for the next two films, I’m going to again cover one I know really well, and one that I’ve never seen before. This time I’m selecting two comedies, one of which with a crime theme that I considered for the heist pairing. The next two films are:
Preston Sturges – Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Stanley Donen – Charade (1963)
Two big directors, one of which we’ve covered before with Singin’ In The Rain, but Stanley Donen had to share billing with Gene Kelly on that movie, this time he’s all alone. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are too.