Sunday, May 15, 2022

Rio, Rififi-style

aka Ad ogna costi (At Any Cost)

Directed by Giuliano Montaldo
Written by Mino Roli

Spoilers: moderate

The Italian film industry of second half of the 20th century, for better and worse, is legendary for knocking off anything they were physically and technologically capable of knocking off.  As well as much that they were not.  And thus an entire parallel universe of genre filmmaking where sword-and-sandal movies become pepla, Westerns are spaghettified, and Psycho is remade a good hundred times.  With the rise of the heist filmitself codified in Europe by their French neighbors (albeit under American direction) in Rififi, and confirmed by the ongoing success of Jean-Pierre Melville's series of gritty heist moviesit was probably inevitable that Italy would get in on this action somehow.  As far as I can tell, however, they did so surprisingly minimally, and there were never all that many Italian heist films (far less than you would assume since you'd assume "an easy dozen," but there were probably more Italian caper films and crime films with minor heist elements than get recorded on crowdsourced lists).  Still, they certainly exist: 1958's comic Big Deal On Madonna Street remains well-regarded, and 1969's Danger: Diabolik is a heist film of sorts inside its anti-James Bond/anti-Batman pop-art anarchist supervillain fantasy, and Lucio Fulci did at least a couple.  1967 was a good year for the Italian industry to contest the field, at the crest of the wave but in-between the major Anglophone efforts, and with the assistance of the German and Spanish industries, they gave us a damn good heist, in the form of At Any Cost, universally better-known by its simultaneously more evocative and more descriptive English title, Grand Slam.*

It's probably better described as a bandwagoner than knock-off (and though it's not truly obscure, it's not that easily available, so the phrase "universally better-known" is probably also inapropos); but in any case, heist films have a tendency to have somewhat fungible plots anyway, so who would notice?  Well, then: Grand Slam begins with a bit of Italianate exploitation, having tapped the grand old statesman of crime cinema, Edward G. Robinson, to play Prof. James Anders.  Anders is a schoolteacher (don't ask me where the "professor" honorific comes from) who has spent most of his careersome thirty yearsteaching at a Catholic school in Rio de Janeiro.  We catch up with Anders presently, as he takes his leave of his students and colleagues upon his retirement, heading back home to America.  He seems to be as mild-mannered and sweet-tempered as Robinson was in his real life, and while the very first thing he does upon his arrival in New York is look up Mark Milford (Adolfo Celi), a childhood friend who became a mob boss, our impression of Anders as a harmless old scholar isn't immediately dispelled, since for a little while it looks like all he actually wants out of his pal is a captive audience for his boring home movies about his job in Rio.  But as his presentation proceeds, Anders reveals why he's come: as he's observed over his decades-long tenure, twice a year the bank across the street from his school receives a deposit of diamonds which are kept in its vault overnight; yet every so often, this schedule collides with Carnivale, leaving them at their most vulnerable.  His object is to steal those diamonds and he needs four specialists to do it.  Anders lays out his planhe has a neat binder and everythingand Milford smiles and consults his cool rolodex of crime.

With ten million dollars' worth of rocks in the balance, Milford assembles the team (and, perhaps a little distractinglyperhaps a little disappointingly if you didn't know it going inAnders is not part of this team, and the prologue spent assembling the team represents the conclusion of Robinson's association with the film in any respect whatsoever until the very last scene).  The group numbers four: Gregg, a safecracker with a day job as an English lord's butler (George Rigaud); Agostino, an Italian electronics engineer with a dreamy disposition and enthusiasm for model trains (Riccardo Cucciolla); Erich, a tense veteran formerly of the German Bundeswehr, if not the Wehrmacht or Schutzstaffel, the latter being at least an outside possibility (Klaus Kinski); and, finally, Jean-Paul, a French gigolo (Robert Hoffmann).  The latter is necessary because a key component of Anders's scheme requires Jean-Paul to seduce a high-level employee of the bank named Mary Ann (Janet Leigh), or at least get close enough to her to steal the key trusted to her safekeeping, which alone can turn off the magnetic seal around the vault.  Even if they do get that far, there's another wrinkle (and there will be more still, since they're attempting this heist in the middle of Carnivale), for recently the bank has decided to upgrade their equipment, and have installed the Grand Slam 70that's your English-language title drop right therean unbeatable vault security system decked out with infrared detection beams and microphones sensitive enough to pick up a pin-drop.

That's for later.  For nowif Grand Slam has act structure, it's a two-act structure with prologue and epilogue, so let us simply say the first hour, and it is in fact slightly longer than thatwhat we're concerned with are the logistics of setting up shop on a houseboat in Rio, and more concerned still with Jean-Paul's abject failure to make time with the key lady, and the fact is that Grand Slam is a little too loose for its own good at the outset, especially as regards the seduction subplot that swallows up most of its time.  It's not that it isn't a theoretically serviceable spine for a sexy, breezy 60s heist movie, but leaving aside for the moment that Grand Slam isn't breezy by design (it isn't particularly sexy, either, but it does have its moments), it's just done so lazily: it basically amounts to Jean-Paul stalking shy, demure Mary Ann in increasingly discomfiting ways while drowning her in flowers.  So many flowersfor a man described as one of the greatest lotharios in the world, his bag of tricks appears to contain precisely just this one move.

He doesn't even have a plan B with chocolates or anything.

The stalking, meanwhile, is egregious even for a 1967 filmthough I did get a laugh, more at the movie than with it, that Jean-Paul's very first gambit involves 1)staging a car accident and 2)negging her with an insult to her glasses and hairdo, which eventually results in Mary Ann ditching her glasses, and, fortunately, avoiding breaking her nose on any walls or shelving.  (She also gets a more flattering hairdo, and, in fairness, Jean-Paul was right about that.)  It's not sold very well: Leigh gives it a go with her retiring 40 year old spinster routine, tempted but frightened of her own sexuality and all that, but it's difficult to perceive what's supposed to be fascinating about Hoffmann, who's a little twerpish, and moreso to us because we see the contrast with Jean-Paul's colleagues.  (There's likewise the question of whether this all makes more sense, or less sense, in light of later revelationsbut I choose not to pick at it.)  And while this is only the focus and not the whole show for that first hour, it's not the only wheel Grand Slam's spinning, and things are not aided much by director Giuliano Montaldo, who reportedly did the film somewhat begrudgingly and in pursuit of money for what appear to be more "serious" projects, nearer and dearer to his heart. 

This is part of why I hesitate to call it "breezy," even though this an adjective that would be almost obligatory for every other film in the 60s caper film cycle.  There's attempts at glossy exotic travelogue and some attempt at poppy style (mostly in the form of Ennio Morricone's upbeat jazzy theme, though Morricone may be in the movie less than Robinson), but all the really successful flair is almost entirely confined to Milford's mansion at the beginning (and perhaps the ocular violence of Gregg's employer's abominably ugly kitchen, a red-and-blue checkerboard thing).  And most of this is just in a single shot of some kind of burlesque strip show for a ballroom full of guests (that, weirdly, Milford isn't even attending), with the performer reflected in a series of mirrors.  It's solidly-builtand as an Italian director, Montaldo's adept enough at integrating urban stock footage, in this case of the actual Rio (New York is a different story, and owing to production realities, almost every exterior shot with Robinson involves disorienting rear projection, causing you to wonder aloud why a cosmic being unmoored from space and time needs diamonds)but even the most frivolous glamor-shots are let down by an ocher tint bleeding through the filmstock in almost every daytime shot, which may be a factor of age or just the Kino Lorber blu-ray's presentation, but has the effect of making the film look kind of gross, scuzzy, and cheap.

The good news is that everything else works, namely Gregg and Agostino rehearsing their performance in the vault, offering us just enough specifics to be intrigued by their confidence that they can beat the machine (though we're told, explicitly, that shaving cream isn't going to work this time), all whilst Erich vibrates at some maniac frequency divorced entirely from the wavelenth everyone else is on.  "CRAZY YOUR BRAIN," he exhorts his pitiful co-conspirators, in what I assume was translated through several different languages before it got back to be dubbed into the English track by Kinski.  Kinski, in fact, essays a downright vicious little Teuton, almost single-handedly pulling Grand Slam towards "actual crime drama."  This serves the film well, since it really is more Rififi than Topkapi. It becomes increasingly apparent that it's not only Erichour heroes are less a collection of colorful kooks than they are a gang of sociopaths.  (Jean-Paul is the only one with anything even akin to a conscience.)  Grand Slam is a grimmer movie than you'd expect and even, perhaps, grimmer than it intended to benot ever a humorless movie, though, and it ends with a whole series of great big nihilistic belly-laughsbut whatever else Montaldo does or doesn't do, he manages to keep tight control over a film that could have easily been a complete tonal mess.

But if the first hour is clunky and slow, we are rewarded for our patience with the second, Grand Slam bifurcating itself pretty cleanly into "pre-heist" and "heist" phases, and I guess Montaldo was saving up all his style points for that, since the "heist" phase is extraordinary, cross-cutting at a nail-biting pace with ratcheting tension between Gregg and Agostino's stealthy ingress into an airlessly (paradoxically, almost deafeningly) silent bank vault and Erich's navigation of the cacophony of the Carnivale parade outside.  (This is where that location shooting actually pays off, and for an added bonus, it's nighttime so the filmstock's yellow fog doesn't follow, either.)

There are many elements to consider, and several elements of chaos that our thieves could not have considered, but even the challenges we know about ahead-of-time would make for a delightfully complicated thrill machine: the necessity of getting into the building and evading guards; the requirement to steal but also to return the key (the manner in which they are obliged to do this being captured in a superb lateral tracking shot across a busy street that winds up perhaps the single funniest visual gag in any heist film, buttoned by reaction shots from Kinski and Hoffmann on either side of it); and, of course, there is the vault alarm system itself.  Suffice it to say, some of it is brilliant in its simplicity, some of it is literal out-of-the-box thinking, but what floors meand maybe belies his claims of jobbingis the radical solution Montaldo and his designers arrived at for the problem of "invisible light."

The previous year's How To Steal a Million and Gambit had both posited high-tech security systems that you couldn't see (I think Asphalt Jungle did way back, too), but Grand Slam isto the very best of my knowledge, and I dearly hope I'm rightthe very first film to actually show thieves clambering across a grid of lasers.  It's a whimsical little trick done all in camera with practical effects: Gregg and Agostino have goggles that reveal the lasers to them, and in a POV shot the screen goes red; in a cut, we're transported to an entirely differently-dressed set bathed in crimson light and carved up into little boxes by the green lasers lancing through the space.  It's top-tier in concept if maybe not entirely convincing in execution (the "lasers" are glow sticks and neither "lasers" nor, more technically accurately, infrared beams, would cast green reflections on the walls like these glow sticks do), but it is so deliriously creative that for a couple of minutes Grand Slam is an original masterpiece of cinematic iconography, the rock upon which Entrapment and Ocean's 12 and so much else rests.  And even when the goggles come off, that's not the end of Gregg and Agostino's thrillingly, hilariously sisyphean struggle with the vault.

I don't want to make it sound like the heist sequence is everythingthere is also the matter of some signposted but satisfying twists, and that denouement is one of the most bleakly amusing thingsbut that heist is amazing, and if Grand Slam is one of the most backloaded heist movies you'll ever see (and it is a genre that, by definition, will almost always be backloaded to some degree or another), at least this one is backloaded with some of the best filmmaking the genre offers.

Score: 8/10

*It's also a cute metaphor, if intentional, since the film's mastermind's master plan does, after all, entail sending four players  "home" so he can win.

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