Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Score: Actors who act as actors acting

You know that old commonplace that an actor's surest path to an Oscar is to play a handicapped character (Jon Voight, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Patty Duke, Harold Russell, et al.)? Edward Norton does something even more ego-gratifying in The Score, a 2001 heist movie that was also Marlon Brando's last film: He plays someone who plays at being handicapped.

Norton is a thief who uses a bogus handicap as cover to get a janitor's job at Montreal's Customs House so he can case the joint for a heist. (Wikipedia delicately calls Norton's character "intellectually challenged," ludicrous for its euphemism, and misleading, because the chief characteristics of Norton's guise are physical: distorted speech, a lurching walk, and a withered, clawlike way of holding his right arm.   He's an actor playing an actor. His role is self-conscious exhibitionism to the core, and he does a decent job of it. But then, he was playing opposite Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, so maybe he felt like he had to do something to keep up.)

There's nothing terribly wrong with this workmanlike heist movie, but:

  1. The salient aspect of its first half for me was its interior scenes. I'm from Montreal, and I got to see the gorgeous modern interiors of the gorgeous stone buildings of Old Montreal.
  2. The heist, of a precious golden scepter, involves computer hacking, electronics, underground mapping, physics, and De Niro's character hanging like a spider from a ceiling.  I've always thought simplicity was best. What proportion of real-life big heists involve such elaborate gimcrackery?
  3. The movie transfers to screen one of the hoariest cheats in crime fiction, that of withholding information from the reader/viewer to build suspense when such withholding is out of character with what has gone before. One scene has Norton's character reading aloud plans for the heist as De Niro shows them to him. I find it unlikely that a person would do this in real life, but it's an acceptable solution to the problem of how to convey large chunks of information. Later, though, when De Niro shows Norton the coup de grace that will let them overcome increased security at the Customs House, Norton just says something like, "Are you sure this will work?", leaving the audience guessing. It's a cheap tease.
  4. A later trick is much less obvious and hence, more effective. It also makes narrative sense. I won't spoil things for you, but it has to do with Norton's character's deliberate temporary inaction after it becomes obvious he will double-cross De Niro during the heist, and it's a lovely touch.
  5. De Niro's character owns a jazz club. This is a perfunctory excuse to get a nice song or two on the soundtrack. He could just as easily be a mechanic, an office worker, a lawyer, or anything else. His profession is at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction.
  6. Again according to Wikipedia, Roger Ebert called The Score "the best pure heist movie in recent years."  Peter Travers, on the other hand, wrote that when "two Don Corleones team up," he expected "the kind of movie that makes people say, 'I'd pay to see these guys just read from the phone book.'"  Travers concluded, however: "There's nothing you can't see coming in this flick, including the surprise ending. Quick, somebody get a phone book." Travers was right
© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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10 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I saw The Score in a theater when it came out. I'd forgotten all about it until I read this. You just reminded me why.

It did get me to thinking I might want to see Heist again.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Score was not bad, just utterly routine.

Heist looks good: Good cast, good director. It does not appear to be available on the Netflix streaming plan, which is no surprise. It likely would have been available for rental at TLA Video, whose stores have closed--another way the technology of entertainment has reduced the range of choices available to customers.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

The Heist was only watchable because of the cast, but I did enjoy the fact that Montreal wasn't doubling for some other city. And on an episode of Mythbusters I saw them replicate De Niro's method of blowing the safe. It actually works. Here's a piece I did on heist films a while ago.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So The Heist was also set in Montreal? I, too, liked that Montreal was Montreal. It was not the first time De Niro had shot a movie up there. I seem to recall my mother once saying that she had to use some side entrance to her apartment building because De Niro was shooting a movie out front.

I like Mythbusters, and I shall take a look at your heist-movie article. I wasn't so much doubting that such a method of blowing a safe would work. For one thing, the movie never explains the method precisely. The cheat, remember? I was skeptical that so much panning would go into a job whose complexity would seem to multiply the chance of failure, and to do so with so few robbers.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Whoops. I meant to say The Score. The Heist definitely wasn't set in Montreal. My bad.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha! In any case, I like your observation that elaborate heists are almost entirely fictional and your speculation that the appeal of heist stories is grounded in folk tales. I wonder, too, if Donald Westlake's contribution to the genre consists in exploring that can go wrong in stories whose characteristic resolution includes the robbers getting away with it.

Your invocation of Robin Hood is interesting, too. The Score never tires of showing us that the guy who gets away with it lives in a gorgeous house and has a gorgeous girlfriend, whereas the crook who gets screwed lives in a shabby apartment. This is the 21st century, after all.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

There seems to be a whiff of class warfare in heist films, although we also have the odd situation of The Thomas Crown Affair in which we're rooting for a rich guy to become richer. I think in all heist films the audience is simply enjoying a display of ingenuity and intelligence, which, on the criminal flip side, is also what we like about a sleuth like Sherlock Holmes.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe one ought to distinguish between heist movies and heist books. One certainly roots for the rich guy in The Score. Here's part of a post I made a few years ago about the curious casting and set-design choices in the movies based on Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels:

...here's what Westlake answered when asked what Dortmunder would have done had he not become a thief. Dortmunder is eternally 44 years old, Westlake said, and:

"I doubt John would have chosen a profession. He might have run a grocery store in a changing neighborhood where nothing really works out, or run the construction office for a large inept builder corporation constantly being ripped off by the employees. `Hey, where you goin with that plywood?' `It’s mine, I brought it with me this mornin.' `Oh, okay.'"

And you're going to have Christopher Lambert, Robert Redford and Martin Lawrence play this guy? OK, I can understand casting big names, but why violate the books' charm? Dortmunder is a downmarket type of guy. He slouches. His girlfriend May helps herself to bags of groceries from her job, and Dortmunder's gang always have to scramble for places to sit when they meet in his apartment. Yet the Dortmunder character in the movie Why Me?, for some reason called Gus Cardinale, lives in a clean, sunny apartment that appears full of gorgeous, blond-wood furniture. Why?


The movie The Score is not to be confused with Westlake's heist novel The Score, one of the best of the Parker novels he wrote as RIchard Stark.

January 09, 2014  
Blogger Dana King said...

Peter,
I agree with your Dortmunder comments, though I think Redford did a nice job in The Hot Rock. He captured the attitude well.

On the other hand, What's the Worst That Can Happen is about the worst movie, and worst adaptation, I have ever seen, and I like Lawrence and DeVito, and love the book.

January 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Redford's performance as Dortmunder earned my respect. The guy can look glum without making me think he's capable of no other expression. George Segal made a fine Kelp, too. The only thing that threw me was the movie's decision to end the story after three attempts to recover the rock, rather than six, as in the novel. I felt cut off in the middle of the story when the movie ended.

Martin Lawrence was just bizarre. What the hell were the producers thinking when they let the director allow a performance like that?

January 10, 2014  

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