Tuesday, February 5, 2013

DVR Diary: THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS (Las Vegas 500 milliones, 1968)

"J ack Palance is very upset over the plight of American actors," Hal Humphrey reported in 1967. Earlier that year, Palance had played his role in Antonio Isasi's caper film on location -- in Spain. "Now obviously there's no need except a financial one to make a movie about Las Vegas in Spain," he complained to Humphrey. He thought American studios were taking work away from American actors, stars like himself excepted, in pursuit of profit. Palance wished that the Screen Actors Guild would show more backbone, as if they could stop the trend. "Why should American actors sit and watch their living go down the drain while American producers either import foreign actors or go overseas and hire them?" he protested. Palance plays a good guy in the picture and seems to have been one in real life, at least at that moment.

At least he had the company of fellow Americans Lee J. Cobb and Gary Lockwood for this project, and at least Isasi sent a second-unit crew to Vegas for some money-shot scenes of the film's superdeluxe armored car rolling down the Sunset Strip. Around the same time, Elizabeth Taylor, who apparently had less scruples on the subject than Palance, insisted on having the Strip recreated on a Paris soundstage for one of her pictures. But despite Palance's griping, I can't help but be impressed by the pictorial results Isasi got in the Spanish desert. The contrast with Vegas is perhaps more stark than could have been illustrated by Nevada itself, and it pays off in one ingenious transition from that shot I mentioned of the armored car cruising by the casinos to a small troop of men trudging from the upper right corner of the widescreen frame into a wasteland of dunes. There's a hint of Lawrence of Arabia in those desert scenes, but They Came to Rob Las Vegas is basically the bastard child of The War Wagon and Takumi Furakawa's Nikkatsu noir Cruel Gun Story. It's a mobile caper film with a revenge/redemption element. Tony Ferris (Lockwood) rebuffs his gangster brother Gino (French actor Jean Servais) who, having just broken out of prison, wants to take one Steve Skorsky's (Cobb) armored cars, which the casinos use to transport their money and the Mob uses, or so suspects Treasury agent Douglas (Palance), to transport contraband. Tony says no to his brother because Skorsky has an overwhelming technological advantage with his armed and armored vehicles, his hi-def surveillance system (everyone has widescreen monitors), and his computerized security network. Gino tries anyway, and despite wielding bazookas the Skorsky vehicle wipes them out. Somehow Isasi and composer Georges Garvantez wring pathos from a failed armored-car robbery, and Gino's corpse face-down and alone in the street is a poignant sight, especially if you watch from Tony's point of view. Now he owes it to his dead brother to prove that a Skorsky car can be broken into and humble Skorsky himself in the bargain.

With a job as a blackjack dealer Tony starts an affair with Ann Bennett (German Elke Sommer, but who cares about the nationality when you look at her?), a high roller who happens to work for Skorsky and may be more than an employee to him. Through her Tony expects to get information on schedules and personnel so he can plan his desert assault precisely with his ragtag team of misfits. This means keeping a lot of balls in the air: convincing Ann that he loves her and isn't just using her; dissuading his gang from simply blowing up the armored car, should they catch it, so he can prove that the impenetrable machine can be cracked. Little does he know that Douglas will throw an extra ball at him by nabbing Skorsky's drivers on the very route Tony intends to intercept and replacing them with his own agents, who expect to find proof of illegal transactions. That doesn't stop the first stage of Tony's plan -- I won't spoil it -- but the car, with Skorsky's men still in the main compartment, remains a tough nut to crack as tensions build within the gang....

 Palance might have been peeved because his good-guy role doesn't exactly play to his strengths, though it does allow for some suspicion of Douglas's ultimate motives to complicate matters further. This is really Lockwood's picture, the nearest thing he had to a star role in his best year in movies, and Isasi does his best to give him a star presence. Behind his shades Lockwood has something of the cool calculating demeanor of spaghetti western heroes, and in Sommer he has more woman to handle than his western counterparts normally did. They make a handsome couple, and Lockwood even gets to hold his own with the mighty Cobb in a climactic desert showdown as Tony tauntingly urges a hidden colleague to help Skorsky find his truck. Pictorially and musically the film is uneven in tone. Impressive location work in Vegas and the Spanish desert alternates with patently fake looking interior sets. Garvantez alternates between the poignant simplicity of Gino's requiem and spooky-sounding vocalise more suited to a giallo -- playing some on a stereo, Lockwood comments implausibly on how the music really gets you. Either way, the music definitely seems to fit the time, even if it's Euro genre rather than American pop time. Overall, there's enough going on visually and the story works well enough as a thiller (with something of a heart) to make this worth a look despite its underutilization of an apparently unhappy Palance. He probably wouldn't have been better off had the whole thing been filmed in Nevada, but he might have felt better about it all.

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