April 7, 2016
Seven Thieves – US, 1960
Sometimes I feel awful for disliking a film, especially one in which it’s clear just how hard the cast is working. In fact, there are times when I’m tempted to give substandard films a pass for this reason alone, to swallow the bitter feeling in my throat and say something like The performances alone are worth the price of admission. The problem with this is that nine times out of ten, they’re not. Story matters, and no matter how likable an actor is or how much effort he gives, if the story doesn’t connect, the film sinks.
The film that brought about this reflection was Henry Hathaway’s Seven Thieves. Now with a title like that, it’s not hard to guess what the film is about, yet to the film’s credit, its set up is perfectly serviceable. In the film, an older criminal named Theo Wilkins (played by the great Edward G. Robinson) tries to enlist a fellow criminal named Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) in a bold casino heist. Wilkins already has a crew, but Mason is said to be the key to pulling it off. This is standard stuff, really, and contemporary viewers will likely recognize the conventional nature of such a scenario from the get-go, but it should be said that sometimes decent films evolve out of predictability.
Only this time one doesn’t. We expect Mason to be tentative at first, and the film does not break any new ground in this regard. We expect him eventually to join the crew, and this he does sooner rather than later. During early parts of the film, there are stretches in which the dialogue resembles the kind spoken by Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan in Steven Soderberg’s Ocean’s Eleven. Unfortunately, the humor and the fun of that later film are absent here, and for the next hour, the film rarely elevates itself above established caper film conventions. Like most films in this genre, Wilkins’s team is made up of eccentric characters and a beautiful young lady. Here, we get the performer, the muscle – who never heard a joke he didn’t frown at, the risk-taker, and the inside man, who’s a bit of a coward. Joan Collins’s character Melanie rounds out the group, and she’s a variation of the cold temptress that we suspect secretly has a heart of gold.
The screenplay, adapted from a book by Max Catto, was written by Sydney Boehm, and early on in the film, he makes a fatal mistake - he neglects to create either a villain or a reason to root for the criminals other than the fact that most of them seem to be nice guys. Compounding this blunder is the decision to have the casino staff also come across as decent folk. Just who is the audience supposed to root for, the nice guys or the nice guys scheming to rob them? What the film needed was a character like Tony Benedict, someone so vile that you didn’t mind watching be deprived of millions of dollars. Instead, we get one that, while not being the sharpest knife in the drawer or the quickest to assess a situation, is genuinely likable, and at no point in the film did I ever root for him to get his just desserts.
To his credit, Robinson gives a much better performance than the film deserves. Here, he is playing a variation of the tragic criminal, someone forced into a terrible lifestyle and merely looking for a path to normalcy. It’s a variation of the one last score storyline, and Robinson gives it his all. Steiger and Collins are quite good in the film as well, yet their characters never quite won me over the way Robinson’s did. Perhaps it was the way Robinson looks at the camera throughout the film and boldly displays a full range of emotions – often fluctuating from hope to caution and from calm to unbridled joy. I understood this character, and I truly wish that had been enough.
With Seven Thieves, we get a standard procedural that offers little in the way of originality or thrills. Sure, it ends with a swerve, and I have no doubt that some viewers will walk away from the film pleased as a result of that. To me, though, it was simply a case of too little, too late. The film’s last act is a masquerade, an attempt at magic in order to distract you from what came earlier, a delicious topping on a poorly-made cake. Sure, it impressed for a moment, but eventually I got to thinking about the rest of the film and the empty feelings that had been stirred. No bit of magic can mask just how little of quality there is in the middle, and surely that has to count more than any fleeting moments of admiration. (on DVD)