Saturday, January 10, 2009

What's your favorite caper? Any why?

Duane Swierczynski loves to pay tribute to his favorite crime writers and characters, everything from Jean-Patrick Manchette's head to Philip Marlowe's socks. But there's no one he loves better than Richard Stark's Parker, and no tribute more thrilling than the topographical accuracy of The Wheelman:

"Lennon took a hard right onto Twentieth Street, going north, then a quick left down a tiny side street that ran parallel to JFK.

"Now, here's where Philadelphia geography gets interesting. Even after ripping out the Chinese Wall, some bits of the old city remained. Tiny streets and alleys that used to run through the industrial blocks sat right next to the new thoroughfares. One of those alleys was the key to the getaway plan."
Man, I loved that. There's something seductive about planning a score on that big a scale, about making not just a bank vault, not just a building, but a whole city part of the plan. Stark did that in my favorite of the Parker novels, The Score, and what can give a crime-fiction reader a bigger vicarious rush?

Now, what about you? What's your favorite caper novel, movie or story? Why? And why do we love crime capers?
======================
The new University of Chicago Press edition of The Score comes with a foreword by John Banville (a.k.a. Benjamin Black), which ought to be interesting.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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32 Comments:

Blogger John McFetridge said...

Most Elmore Leonard novels have some kind of caper; kidnapping in 52 Pick-Up, blackmail in Freaky Deaky (a particularly good one), armed robbery in Swag and they're all good.

But I heard a rumour that Donna Moore has a heist novel coming out this year, so I'm really looking forward to that.

Also, I have a soft spot for The Score because I worked at that customs building in Montreal for five years.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Matthew E said...

There are a lot to choose from, but I might have to go with the movie Kelly's Heroes.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you dream about heists in your spare time at work?

What's the biggest caper in an Elmore Leonard novel? And I'll have to investigate that Donna Moore rumor. Thanks.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, Kelly's Heroes next up on my list. That's a caper on a grand scale, all right. Thanks.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Wow, Kelly's Heroes is an awesome pick. I wouldn't have even thought of it. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a good one as well.

January 10, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

What's your favorite caper novel, movie or story?

I always liked Caper the Friendly Ghost

(runs)

It's all your fault,Rozovsky.You started the punic wars on the other post and now I just can't stop.


I'm not a great fan of caper stories in general.
I'll go with a classic film and a recent novel:
I soliti ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street

and
Dec's The Big O

Ciao

January 10, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Kelly's Heroes could only have been made when it was made. What an awesome film. John Landis talks about being an intern on Kelly's Heroes in his movie about Don Rickles, its worth a look.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I've never seen Kelly's Heroes, but I'll almost surely rent it now. Its attitude seems different from the one Westlake/Stark would take, but the scale is right up his alley.

Too bad we're not discussing comic horror fiction, because my v-word is buffy

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You started the punic wars on the other post and now I just can't stop.

I'd say punic is more prone to low wordplay than even caper.

I'm not sure I'm such a big fan of caper stories because it's too easy for them to become formulaic. That's one reason I like The Score so much and what The Wheelman does with the theme. Both vary the formula by setting the caper on a huge scale and making gorgeous use of their settings.

I soliti ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street would be my choice for best caper movie, too. The comedy of the characters' lives is not just color or background, but rather the essence of the story as much as the heist is. And the movie was a great inspiration for Westlake.

I don't know if The Big O is exactly a caper movie in the classic sense, but it's my favorite example of whatever it is.

The English word for cappero is caper. Versatile word, that caper is.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly's Heroes could only have been made when it was made. What an awesome film.

I read a bit about the movie in preparation for these comments. It certainly was made at a time when Americans were more willing to be irreverent about the military than they are now.

And Don Rickles ... man, it will be a jolt to be reminded that the man had a career as something other than a friend of Frank Sinatra.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I'm going to pick Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as two fairly recent caper movies I liked a lot.

Oh, and how could I forget The Usual Suspects?

January 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I saw Lock, Stock ... on its original release and Snatch more recently. I liked the latter better. OK, you're always up for a chat, so why did you like them?

I am abashed to admit that I have not seen The Usual Suspects. I'll rent that with Kelly's Heroes.

January 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I have to say that without watching them again I would be hard pressed to come up with details. I do tend to really like these small, gritty British and Irish movies. I don't seem to mind the violent aspects as much as I do in American films, and that's an interesting question why. Off the top of my head, I would say that I tend to trust small film makers motives more, and Hollywood driven motives less. It's not totally apropos, because not a caper flick, but I did really, really like "In Bruges", and that certainly has it's share of gore, but I can see that somehow being made into a big Hollywood production and me, well, not hating it, exactly, because I saw all those Jason Bourne pics and was entertained to some degree, but not feeling very involved in it either.

I would be interested to hear what you think of Usual Suspects, partly because I think it works the first time, but not so much the second, and I wonder if some of the freshness of it is now irretrievably gone, or if it's just a story you can only see once, which is my hypothesis.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose the violence in those movies might work because ... hmm, because it's fun, and yet it's serious without being too moralistic. This might make it a cousin of such violence as occurs in, say, The Big O.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

You know it's hard to get into all this stuff without immediately overgeneralizing, but I think it may be that the opposite is true. I hate to keep coming back to 'In Bruge' because it's slightly off point, but I think morality is what drives it, and yet it's not ultimately 'serious', meaning it's not setting itself up as a tragedy. In the big Hollywood movies, scores may die, and yet they are kind of cartoon deaths, they don't count. Maybe there is a death to avenge, but in a way that vengeance is a plot device as well. I think in the smaller movies the death have a kind of gravity and significance, because people react the way they do in real life, which is uneasily. And a lot of funny things can happen as a result of that uneasiness, but they don't forget the horrible moment in the telling of it.

In Elmore Leonard, who I'm most familiar with as far as writers who write a kind of caper, it seems to me that one story he tells many variations of is about people who have maybe seen too many Hollywood movies and who get ahold of the wrong end of the stick, and think that they can do what screen characters do--ie, get the guns, get the girls, get rich. And the story is funny because it involves the way these fantasies run up against reality time and again.

Well, that's way too many examples on too superficial a level to really be coherent, but maybe it will incite some more pertinent comments from others.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe a pertinent comment from me. I think you're right about In Bruges. The deaths and almost-deaths carry great weight. Incidentally, this is why the movie was somewhat jarring. The trailer had made it it out to be a rollicking comedy, which it was not (though it did have its funny parts).

And one can't get much more pertinent than "because people react the way they do in real life, which is uneasily. And a lot of funny things can happen as a result of that uneasiness, but they don't forget the horrible moment in the telling of it."

That's an intriguing take on Elmore Leonard. If he can pull that off consistently, he's as good as everything people say about him and maybe even better.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

The caper isn't a subgenre I'm well-acquainted with, I rarely watch movies and I've never read a book by Michael Crichton, but I did much enjoy The First Great Train Robbery with Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland et al., based on Crichton's novel. Much suspense, laced with humour, and captures mid-Victorian England surprisingly well. Well worth a look if you haven't seen it.

January 11, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

I don't know if The Big O is exactly a caper movie in the classic sense, but it's my favorite example of whatever it is.

Well,there is a kidnapping/insurance scam scheme.

The English word for cappero is caper. Versatile word, that caper is

I probably prefer capperi, especially garnishing a pizza,to capers.

In Italian capperi is also used to express surprise,for instance:

"Did you know that the post on helicopters down the page reached 323 comments?
Capperi!"


Seana's points re Hollywood Movies and Elmore Leonard are very perceptive.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Seana -

I love The Usual Suspects, but I think a lot of people complain about it being "gimmicky," without going into any details. Sort of in the same way that Memento was gimmicky too.

Peter -

You're right about the In Bruges ads making the film out to be more of a whacky comedy. Normally, going into a film with false expectations would ruin the experience for me. But I think In Bruges was so good it didn't matter I'd come in expecting to see something else.

Philip -

The Great Train Robbery is a good novel. Based on what you liked about the film, you'd probably like the book too. I haven't seen the movie yet, but plan to.

January 11, 2009  
Anonymous justcorbly said...

The Italian Job, the 1969 film with Michael Caine, not the recent remake. Classy, funny, great ending.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I know I saw the previews for In Bruges, but I think I also read some recommendation of it that gave me more of a clue, though no spoilers, which probably helped set me up for it better.

Thanks for the movie recs, everyone. I haven't seen The Italian Job,Big Deal on Madonna Street or Kelly's Heroes, but I will certainly add them to my list.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I had not seen The First Great Train Robbery, and I didn't even know Michael Crichton wrote caper novels. I had not planned this post as a fishing expedition for movie and book suggestions, but it's reaping a rich catch. Thanks.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Capperi! is a wonderful way to express surprise, right up there with And Bob's your uncle! I shall try to remember to use it when I run into mmy Italian acquaintances at the Pen & Pencil Club.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I love The Usual Suspects, but I think a lot of people complain about it being "gimmicky," without going into any details. Sort of in the same way that Memento was gimmicky too.

I suppose that's one danger of caper stories: the drive to make the caper bigger and wilder to make it fresh. "Memento" was gimmicky, but the filmmakers executed it well.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

justcorbly said...
The Italian Job, the 1969 film with Michael Caine, not the recent remake. Classy, funny, great ending.


This is tough to discuss without spoilers, but I was not at first a fan of that ending. Then I read a thoughtful comparison of the endings of that movie and the remake, and I began to regard the original's ending more favorably.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, In Bruges' trailer was a subject of discussion on this blog some time back. Someone said there had been at least two trailers for the movie, with one more faithful to the film.

You'll see that I, too, plan to use these comments as a shopping list at the local video store. If you like comic capers, or think you might, I can't recommend Big Deal on Madonna Street highly enough. And it has quite a cast, Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman, to name two.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Some very nice cameos in the original Italian Job including Noel Coward and Benny Hill. Someone also told me Harold Pinter's in it too, but he's not listed in the credits and I've never seen him.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some very nice cameos in the original Italian Job including Noel Coward and Benny Hill. Someone also told me Harold Pinter's in it too, but he's not listed in the credits and I've never seen him.

I seem to remember the Noel Coward and Benny Hill appearances, but I had not heard about Harold Pinter.

That movie might be worth another viewing. On first viewing, the ending seemed gimmicky, perhaps too much a product of its time. But I later read a discussion of the original and the remake that compares that ending favorably to the new version's. In the remake, everyone gets away with everything, a fantasy of painless American greed, according to the thought-provoking analysis.

January 11, 2009  
Blogger Juri said...

In books: The Wheelman, something by Lionel White, something by that Stark guy (sorry, can't pick up a specific title). By White, probably Clean Break, but only because it was made into The Killing by Stanley Kubrick. But anything by Lionel White is great.

Still books: Al Conroy's Devil in Dungarees. Brian Garfield's Relentless. Zekial Marko's Scratch a Thief. The first two Earl Drakes by Dan Marlowe and Four For the Money by the said writer.

In films: Jean-Pierre Melville The Red Circle (Le rouge cercle or some such in French). Melville must have some other films I'm overlooking, but that has had the best-staying effect. Reservoir Dogs. Still Tarantino's best and still one of the best crime films ever made. The Killing, if it only were not for the voice-over narration! The Asphalt Jungle. The caper scenes in Gun Crazy, which are just superb, superb, superb.

A Fish Called Wanda has a good caper scene in the beginning, too, so we shouldn't forget the Ealing film I Stole a Million. Nor The Ladykillers!

January 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for some intriguing suggestions, some of which are new to me.

Brian Garfield has credibility with me because he was a friend and, I think, occasional collaborator of Westlake's. I've seen a number of the Jean-Pierre Melville caper films. The man had a good eye for character.

Yep, this list of yours would make a nice syllabus for a crime-film course. I need not specify that the godawful remake of The Ladykillers is not to be mentioned in polite company.

January 12, 2009  
Blogger Juri said...

Peter, I didn't see the Coen Ladykillers, but I know it has some pretty civilized and knowledgeable opponents.

Westlake and Garfield wrote a novel together, I think it's called Gangway! It's what one could call Westlake's only western, but it takes place in California, which many think is not fit for a Western.

January 13, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not even sure I knew until now that the new Ladykillers was from the Coen brothers. I saw it on a plane a few years ago, and I found Tom Hanks' performance repellant and self-indulgent. I think he did it just to show that he could do comedy, and it made creepy viewing. I also don't think the American setting worked terribly well.

Anything with Westlake's name on it is worth a look. One would naturally ask of a Western in California what the characters did now that they no longer had anymore West to conquer. Maybe it's a Western about to turn into a crime story.

January 13, 2009  

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