August 24, 2011

Grand Slam Review (Giuliano Montaldo)

Lasers are hard to bypass in Grand Slam, released in 1967.

Grand Slam: Let's Go to Rio and Steal Some Diamonds

Throughout this marathon, I’ve been surprised by the fairly simple methods used by the criminals to conduct their heists. In a few cases (Stander, The Silent Partner), they just walked into a bank and asked for money. Where’s the flair and suspense in that approach? Thankfully, the 1967 film Grand Slam is available to alleviate my concerns. Produced in Italy and set in Rio de Janeiro, this international project includes an extremely complex and dangerous plan. Even the smallest mistake will destroy the gang’s plans and leave them dead, or even worse, in prison.

The story begins with the retired Professor James Anders (Edward G. Robinson) presenting a daring plan for a high-stakes diamonds robbery in Rio. He explains the idea to his old friend Mark Milford (Thunderball’s Adolfo Celi), a gangster with a large group of specialized contacts. They pull together the perfect team to undertake the heist, which will be no easy task. The team members are the safecracker Gregg (Georges Rigaud), electronics pro Agostino (Riccardo Cucciola), playboy Jean-Paul (Robert Hoffmann), and the steel-eyed Erich (Klaus Kinski), who leads the group. The entire plan hinges on Jean-Paul’s ability to woo the secretary Mary Ann (Janet Leigh) to steal her key to the vault. If this shy lady is immune to his charms, the heist will fail before it starts.

Klaus Kinski and Robert Hoffman prepare the big heist in Grand Slam.

The title Grand Slam refers to the newly implemented security system that triggers an alarm if any noise occurs within the vault. It’s like an early version of the room Tom Cruise rappels into in the first Mission Impossible picture. Before they can even face the device, Gregg and his associates must take a zip line between buildings and traverse a tight series of laser sensors. Are the millions even worth this type of risk? One benefit is the presence of the annual Carnivale festival in Rio, which should occupy the cops and onlookers. That distraction gives the team at least a slight chance to pull off the heist. Of course, there’s always the risk of a double cross when millions of dollars are involved.

This movie’s obvious highlight is the heist, which involves a precise series of steps to avoid detection and subvert the alarm system. With less than 30 minutes to spare, Gregg and Agostino work in near-silence during the spellbinding sequence. It nearly rivals the classic set-up from Jules Dassin’s Rififi, which obviously inspired this film. That 1955 French movie remains the gold standard for heists, but this sequence belongs in the discussion. Seeing the original way that the duo gets around the device is nearly worth the price of admission. Working effectively as a unit, this unlikely team of experts seems primed to get the money without any major issues. What could possibly go wrong?

Janet Leigh stars in Grand Slam, from Giuliano Montaldo.

The events before the heist are mildly interesting and provide a good set-up, though they can’t match the energy of the final act. We spend a good portion of the time watching Mary Ann reject Jean-Paul repeatedly, but you can see that her resolve is weakening. It’s interesting to see the film’s biggest star in this supporting role, though she is a key part of the plot. Leigh doesn’t overplay the evolution in her character’s warmth towards Jean-Paul, which makes the change believable. His wooing attempts seem pretty basic (he buys lots of flowers), so I’m not sure he’s such an expert, but he is persistent. The standouts in the other roles are Rigaud as the older safecracker, who has a quiet confidence about his abilities, and Kinski, who retains his usual fierce intensity. Is that guy ever not frightening? Few actors can take such an underwritten part and make it memorable.

I wouldn’t place Grand Slam on the top tier of heist films, but it still provides a fun ride. I have to mention the strange dubbing, which appears at certain moments but isn’t there for others. It’s not a major distraction but pulled me out of the story at times. On the whole, having veterans like Robinson and Celi in small roles brings much-needed weight to the early scenes. The final moment feels like a cheap way to conclude the story, but it does find a silly method for subverting the plans of the ultimate winners. The Rio setting also helps the story to maintain a cool tone that leads to an enjoyable viewing. The heist is the high point, but the other moments are good enough to make it worthy of your next foray into the genre.

6 comments:

  1. i love edward g robinson. and this is another film ive not come across. how was he in it?

    i really like your marathon concept by the way dan. if i had more time and organisation i might just steal it!

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  2. Thanks! Edward G. Robinson is good in it, though he disappears after the first 20 minutes or so. He makes another brief appearance later, but isn't one of the main actors in the movie.

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  3. sadly i figured that was the case from your synopsis. the big cheese, the 'joe' character who puts things together and expects a payoff.

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  4. I can never get enough of heist movies. Never heard of this one before...

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  5. I do like this series!! A LOT. I need to see more of these films they always look like fun, or maybe it is the way you put it together

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  6. Thanks Scott! The films are a lot of fun, even the so-so ones. I'm glad you're enjoying the marathon.

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