Notes from a heist-meister

In theory, there’s a simple model for the heist movie. Bunch of crooks meet, pore over the blueprints, bust into the jeweller’s, spend a painstaking hour trying not to set off the alarms, then get away to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. Or not: there’s always the optional final twist in which one overlooked detail leads the forces of justice to their door.

In practice, it’s not always like that.There are only limited pleasures to be had from the standard forensic procedures of the caper movie.

The one pure caper movie that everyone remembers is Jules Dassin’s 1955 Rififi, with its 35-minute wordless robbery and ingenious misuse of an umbrella. But having done it once, Dassin could only repeat it as farce, in Topkapi (1964) — still a nail-biter, even if the thing you remember most is the improbability of anyone engaging an accomplice like blustering, sweaty Peter Ustinov. For most of the Sixties and Seventies, the caper movie remained a jolly game of robbers without cops.

What’s really calculated to catch our interest, though, is the way a caper goes wrong. No one remembers the heist in The Italian Job (1969); what sticks in the mind is the finale, with Michael Caine’s gang of roaring boys teetering in their coach on the edge of a cliff. Sidney Lumet, a director who’s often used the caper as a reliable fall-back (The Anderson Tapes, Family Business), fared best in the genre with Dog Day Afternoon, a film less about the heist than the chaotic, interminable face-off between the robber and the world outside.

The film that put a full stop to the caper movie as we once knew it was Reservoir Dogs, which started from the axiom that a caper will go wrong, and therefore what’s really interesting is what happens before (the gang don their suits, quibble over their colour-coding) and after (the bloody face-off in a warehouse). Quentin Tarantino left the heist itself to his friend Roger Avary, whose recent ketchuppy Killing Zoe showed the diminishing returns of the genre bank job.

But there still is one more place for the heist thriller to go — into the realms of the metaphysical. Bryan Singer’s brilliantly devious The Usual Suspects is the Name of the Rose among caper films. A bunch of crooks meet on an identity parade, and pull first one job, then another, until finally they reach the apocalyptic showdown that begins the film (the story is told in flashback).

Punchy as it is, The Usual Suspects is altogether more cerebral than Reservoir Dogs, although people insist on comparing the films, largely because a couple of Singer’s hoods wear suits.

Singer acknowledges the parallel, but isn’t worried by it. “The strategy was to regard it as a plus, not a minus — to make a film so different that after seeing it no one could even imagine comparing the story and the aesthetic, merely the set-up.”

At 27, Singer is an abrasively confident smart cookie, with breakneck delivery that he could have perfected from listening to Martin Scorsese interviews.

He has a neat little formula he uses to sum up what he’s about: “I love to entertain. I love to tell stories and … [faintly manic snigger)] I love to be in control. When you’re making a novel, a poem, a painting, the artwork is seen at the viewer’s pace, you can go back and read it again or see it from different angles. But with a movie, you’re forcing the audience to your pace and they can’t stop it.”

The Usual Suspects is more acutely a control freak’s movie than most, dangling its viewer on a well-knotted narrative rope. Its brilliance owes much to writer Christopher McQuarrie, with whom Singer made his earlier feature Public Access. They went out of their way to ensure that, once the plot has unfolded, the viewer would want to go and unfold it all over again.

“I guarantee,” says Singer, “If you look at it again, you’ll see all kinds of things that you didn’t know were there. There are a lot of obnoxious giveaways — everything is there, from every bit of dialogue. I thought how can I make sure there’s no question anyone can ask me that I can’t answer? Chris would always say: ‘Just do it, the audience will buy this’ and I’d say, ‘You don’t have to do half the press conferences I’m gonna have to do. I’m gonna answer this stuff — so rewrite it.’ “

The result is compellingly bizarre. The first time you see The Usual Suspects, you know that more is going on than meets the eye, but you’re not entirely sure what it is. It could be a gay subtext, to judge from the loaded glances that the film’s characters keep exchanging (they’re all men, except for one pointedly marginal female role).

“There was a very homoerotic sense of humour on the set,” says Singer. “I think that’s essential — ever since those guys got together to kill Julius Caesar. Bunch of guys in a bath house talking about killing!”

Then there’s the demonic theme — something you don’t usually get in films where everyone’s more worried about electric eyes than the evil eye. “At the front of the script we put a quote from Sympathy for the Devil … The genre is simply a tool to attract an audience — ‘Oh, I’m gonna see a crime movie’ — and then you do something different with it.

“Every picture is a genre picture — the goal is to make a movie that you can’t pitch. No movie I ever make will have a single pitch. I can’t just do ‘Die-Hard-set-on-a-plane’. It has to have at least two things going on in the pitch — and then it’ll have a hundred things going on in the movie.”

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