Capers with everything

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As pot-smoking car-crash comedy ‘Pineapple Express’ screeches onto our screen, Adam Lee Davies revisits the madcap ’70s caper movies that inspired it

Jean-Luc Godard memorably claimed that all you need to get a movie rolling is a gun and a girl. By the start of the ’70s, Hollywood had refined this offhand formula into an infinitely variable and intricately nuanced loose-leaf playbook from which it would draw some of the most enjoyable movies of that golden decade. Tires screeched and sirens wailed as heists, plots and fashions went badly wrong to a soundtrack of wah-wah guitar and wall-to-wall shouting. It was the era of the caper film and no caper was too screwy.

Many of these larks relied on a fair amount of automotive carnage. The advent of lighter camera equipment meant location filming was far more practical than before, and the huge success of Easy Rider convinced many filmmakers that hitting the road was the order of the day.

One of the funkiest movies made in the wake of that unfulfilled hippy daydream, ‘Crazy Mary Dirty Larry’ starred none other than Peter Fonda as a thwarted NASCAR driver turned supermarket heist-merchant hurtling around rural California in a Dodge Charger. 'You remember Robert Mitchum in "Thunder Road"?' he enquires of no-one in particular whilst casually negotiating a dusty switchback at hubcap-rattling speed, 'I’m gonna powder his face!' The times were a-changin’ indeed.

Not so widely regarded today, Don Siegel’s superb Charley Varrick contains beats that are strongly echoed in recent hits ‘No Country For Old Men’ and ‘Road to Perdition’, as Walter Matthau’s moonlighting crop-duster pilot inadvertently steals mob money from a New Mexico bank. Other notables in this strain include Sam Peckinpah’s snake-blooded adaptation of Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled masterwork ‘The Getaway’ and automotive auteur HB Halicki’s original Gone in 60 Seconds.

A darker, weirder sub-sub-genre might include the existential angst of Walter Hill’s meditative ram-raid, The Driver, Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and 'The far-out world of the high-speed scene' in Two-Lane Blacktop: all were pinned on preposterous MacGuffins that freed up their laconic protagonists to indulge in myriad forms of moody nonsense.

On the rare occasion our light-fingered heroes failed to make it to their wheels, they found themselves knee-deep in siege territory. The tenor of these overblown arias of self-absorption could be best said to have been pitched somewhere between the faux-anti authoritarian hysteria that Al Pacino lent Dog Day Afternoon and Walter Matthau’s crusty cynicism in sly subway thriller ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’. One was aimed at the gallery, one to the gallows. Both were excellent.

The recently rediscovered charms of Alan Arkin were front and centre in the more comic end of the spectrum during a period that saw him not only star opposite Peter Falk in the CIA-based tomfoolery of The In-Laws but skylark and bicker his way through some off-the-peg cop malarkey with James Caan in the peerless Freebie and the Bean. Other notables include the Hamburg-set ‘$’ starring Warren Beatty as an affable con man, Bank Shot – in which George C Scott and co redefine the term ‘bank robbery’ by stealing the entire building – and the Cosby/Poitier wingding Uptown Saturday Night.

The tone stayed pithy and civil through what might be called the ‘Social Commentary Caper’. George Segal and Jane Fonda turn to crime after their sickeningly upwardly mobile life takes a financial downturn in the effortlessly watchable ‘Fun With Dick & Jane’ – a sort of ‘Dead Presidents’ for suburbanites. Go-to guy Segal also gallivants through Robert Altman’s all-but forgotten gambling-addiction masterpiece California Split with Elliott Gould.

Real-life pranks were given the caper treatment in William Friedkin’s underrated comedy (yes, you read that right) version of 1950’s ‘crime of the century’, ‘The Brinks Job’, while ‘The French Connection'’s sleazy, voyeuristic cop’s-eye-view of smack-smuggling sat at the very top table for 1971’s Academy Awards. Fictional but no less dogged is Robert Duvall’s determination to get what’s owed to him by the Mafia in The Outfit. It's a lean, spare film but still makes time for a few madcap digressions. Slither, on the other hand, offers a genially offbeat take on the same basic plot, but it’s true purpose is to allow James Caan to fun it up with a succession of zany character actors.

Mainstream Hollywood also chimed in now and again with the likes of the easy-going Clint Eastwood/Jeff Bridges flingThunderbolt and Lightfoot, Newman and Redford’s complicated ragtime wheeze ‘The Sting’ and of course the turbocharged bootlegging uber-caper Smokey and the Bandit starring horseplay supremo Burt Reynolds. And now, after a long stretch of near-misses and non-starters such as ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ and ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’,Pineapple Express has put the caper film very much back on the agenda. To borrow a line from Sam Peckinpah’s proto-romp, ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘it ain’t like it used to be; but it’ll do’.

Author: Adam Lee Davies



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