Heist: David Mamet Film Noir, Starring Gene Hackman and DeVito

Structured as a trick within a trick within a trick, and as a con upon a con upon a con, Heist, David Mamet’s latest contribution to film noir, his favorite genre, is a mildly entertaining character-driven crimer that exposes too much his strenuous efforts to outsmart the audience.

After a couple of diversions, Mamet returns to the Byzantine cons and double-crossing tough guys he had mined in previous films, including House of Games, his impressive debut, and The Spanish Prisoner, his most elegant noir to date.

Name cast, headed by Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, and Delroy Lindo, should help position this anatomy of male camaraderie, loyalty and betrayal as a major film (one of Mamet’s few studio enterprises), but the squeaky, laborious, and not entirely convincing movie should result in mid-range numbers for Warner’s fall release that’s bound to satisfy Mamet’s aficionados but is not likely to achieve the mass appeal Mamet was hoping for.

Over the past few years, Mamet has tried to expand his repertoire with a literary adaptation, The Winslow Boy, and most recently a light Hollywood satire, State and Main, but his forte is unmistakably noir. Despite the familiar premise of an aging thief, recruited to commit “the Last Big Job,” (most recently seen in the Robert De Niro starrer, The Score), Mamet serves up enough complications and twists and turns to make his new potboiler perfectly watchable, without ever being truly exciting.

The story begins with a carefully-orchestrated robbery that goes awry. Joe Moore (Hackman) and his expert crew are overtaking a jewelry store in broad daylight, when a female clerk unwittingly disrupts their operation. Pincus (Mamet regular Jay) pulls a gun, but in order to get near the girl without her making a fuss, Joe waves him off and makes the fateful decision of removing his mask. In rendering the girl unconscious, Joe spares her life, but also commits his face to the surveillance video. The rest of the job goes off without a hitch, but with his visage “burned” on tape, Joe figures it’s time to retire and enjoy life with his much younger wife at the dream boat he has built for them.

Enter Mickey Bergman (DeVito), the shady “businessman” who fronted the jewelry heist. Despite Joe’s reluctance, Mickey insists that Joe and company do one more, high-risk job that involves the theft of Swiss gold off a Swiss cargo plane. Mickey refuses to give up Joe’s cut on the previous job unless he scores the gold and uses his over-confident, but under-experienced nephew, Jimmy Silk (Rockwell). “Everybody needs money,” Mickey berates Joe, “That’s why they call it money.”

Remainder of tale details how Joe’s world-weary leader of a posse of thieves handles Mickey’s betrayal and blackmail. And true to the noir format, Joe also has to deal with his Fran (Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife), his trophy wife, who seems to betray him with Jimmy, the fence’s young lieutenant.

Problem is, Mamet’s cynicism is not only expected, but a bit tiresome. The notion that it’s the love of gold that makes the world go around, as several characters state, is not likely to shock or surprise any viewer. Indeed, the machinations of the plot are more visible here than in other Mamet works, but Heist offers other pleasures. The film could be seen as a Mamet reflection on the Howard Hawks’s prevalent motif of intimate male camaraderie, evident in such classics as Rio Bravo and El Dorado, except that unlike Hawks’s heroic figures, Mamet’s are both immoral and amoral. Hence, early on there’s a splendid scene in which Pincus exercise what’s known as “the flopper and diver racket,” an old con played among swindlers in which a partner steps in front of a moving car and let himself be hit to buy time for the rest of his crew.

Heist’s strength is its sharp characterizations. Unflappable Joe is unfazed by any kind of pressure; he’s described by his peer as “so cool that when he goes to bed, sheep count him.” A master in the art of deception (Mamet’s most desirable human quality), Joe is blessed with innate talent and experience. The key to his success is thorough preparation and attention to detail, as he quips, “Anybody can get the goods, the hard part is getting away.” As the mastermind, Joe appears to be a con man more excited by the thrills of the game than by money perse.

As the team’s sole female member, Fran is a chameleon who’s as cunning as her beauty is disarming, a woman who “could talk her way out of a sunburn.” Working with Joe, Fran has developed a silent language of communication that enables her to interpret tricky situations instinctively, and do whatever is necessary to circumvent trouble, from poisoning a cup of coffee to sleeping with the enemy.

As always, subtext is more important than text. A master of double and triple entendres, Mamet writes a shorthand dialogue in which the meaning may differ from what the words actually say. The signature rhythms of Mamet’s staccato dialogue is all here: The character talk in charged, often delirious broken phrases that reveal hostile, but not entirely clear goals.

While adept at staging tense interactions, Mamet lacks the technical skills to orchestrate thrilling action sequences, specifically shootouts, which are the yarn’s weakest points. In the past, it was hard to tell whether Mamet’s movies were badly acted, or the actors were misdirected by him. But over the years, Mamet has developed facility with his actors, coaxing superb performances from his entire ensemble, particularly Hackman and Lindo, both Mamet virgins, who show no trouble adapting to the peculiar lines.

An actioner rather than paranoia thriller, Heist is less elusive than Mamet’s other films, but it’s also less smooth, elegant and seductive.