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KinoKultur: The camp appeal of the odd couple caper

Bedtime Story / Gambit / Breaking In (Kino Lorber)

KinoKultur is a thematic exploration of the queer, camp, weird, and radical releases Kino Lorber has to offer.

Caper films are competitions. Outside of the obvious cops and robbers struggle, they, more importantly, dispute the value of things and who deserves to own them. While classically most capers are individuals vs institutions, there is a subgenre of capers that features an Odd Couple pair of thieves in a competitive mentorship and centers the push and pull between them.

Semi-recent entries like Entrapment (1999) and The Score (2001) are examples where the struggle between the thieves is a generational one with the old and new guards having to learn from each other. Couched within the larger struggles of value and property, these interpersonal battles between thieves play out an additional competition over cultural differences and ideas.

Three recent Odd Couple capers restored and released by Kino Lorber chart interesting socio-political changes in the struggle between the two thieves at their center. Bedtime Story (1964) comments on shifting imperial dynamics between the US and Britain. Gambit (1966) sets out as a battle of the sexes caper but ends up having to answer for growing racial insecurities. Finally, after a jump in time and a major economic depression, Breaking In (1989) addresses shifting generational attitudes but adds noteworthy elements of class analysis as well.

Directed by Ralph Levy, Bedtime Story is the source film for 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and retains much of the same story and charm. Lawrence Jameson (David Niven) is a gentleman thief robbing the wealthy of the French Riviera. Until now, he’s had practically free reign of targets. But when Freddy Benson (Marlon Brando), an upstart American GI conman, starts encroaching on his territory, the two form an unlikely bond that propels them towards one final match of cunning and skill.

Brando and Niven are exceptional individually but especially together. Niven is the gentleman of refinement and “breeding,” whereas Brando plays the “crude” and “apeish” wiseguy. Their markedly different yet somehow complementary comedic styles are in perfect service of the script. Each zinger is a cultural barb at the other.

Through its folkloristic tone, Bedtime Story can spin an enchanting tale of national archetypes. Lawrence and Freddy are each seen as the embodiment of their national styles, methods, ideologies, and interests. And it’s these differences that create the harmonious comedic tension between them.

It’s no coincidence that such a film should appear in the early 1960s. The aftereffects of World War II had started to petrify and it was clear that the geopolitical stage was set for The United States to assume the role of world imperial power, long-held by The British Empire. Like the two characters, these thieving nations have their style of doing things. 

Whereas Bedtime Story satirized international changes, Gambit looked inward towards the changes happening at home. Though the film takes place all over the world and is immersed in the politics of its times – i.e. China opening up to the West and the new wealth in The Middle East, the film is primarily concerned with the changing gender and racial attitudes, played out between its two main characters, Harry Dean (Michael Caine) and Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine). 

Harry is a professional swindler and cat burglar who needs to recruit a willing woman for his next score, the precious statue owned by a Middle Eastern tycoon named Shahbandar (Herbert Lom). He singles out burlesque dancer Nicole as a docile “Eurasian” woman who will be silent and helpful and just happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to the statue and Shahbandar’s late wife. Just when we think everything is going smoothly, it’s revealed to be nothing but fantasy.

The narrative restarts once Harry actually meets Nicole and realizes (gasp!) she has a brain! And a mouth! This isn’t the porcelain doll he had expected. Shirley Maclaine in the late 1960s was an embodiment of all the “women’s lib” was fomenting under the social surface. Always smart, sexy, questioning, and independent, she is once again bringing her New Woman personality to the caper genre. 

Gambit derives its drama and comedy from the clash of male expectation and reality. Caine and Maclaine have delightful chemistry as the mismatched pair trying to work over a target together. They’re the only thing exciting in an otherwise mundane caper with the typical foibles and late film switcheroo. What remains interesting about Gambit, however, is its uneasy racial politics.

We have at least two people race playing in this 109-minute picture. Lom’s Shahbandar is in poorly-applied tan face to play the Arab oil baron while MacLaine has taped-back eyes to play Chang. Fairly mundane makeup as far as racist representations go. Yet what’s intriguing is how anxious Gambit is about Nicole/MacLaine’s race.

The film is continually anxious about how to explain just why Shirl is here in yellowface. She looks like a priceless statue of a mythic Chinese empress who was half Greek, half Chinese. She’s given the blanket racial identifier of “Eurasian.” Her parentage is quickly dismissed as murky, but decidedly of mixed-race background. Yet for all the film’s attempts to remind us that Nicole is part-white (thereby making the makeup okay somehow?), composer Maurice Jarre always accompanies her with orientalist tones. It wants to play into the exotic fantasy but seems hesitant.

Likely because, by 1966, the attitudes towards racial representation were changing. The Civil Rights Movement was well underway in the United States with Black Liberation movements inspiring other social moments and more widespread racial consciousness. Gambit appears as a film caught between changing tides, wanting to rely on classical cliches, yet recognizing audience attitudes have shifted after the post-WWII era.

What both Bedtime Story and Gambit have in common is a sense of glamor. Yet by 1989 when our final film was released, The United States had experienced major economic depression and massive unemployment and the allure of escapist glamor had faded. 

The Portland, Oregon of Bill Forsyth and John SaylesBreaking In is decidedly anti-glamor. It’s worn down and threadbare. Our thief isn’t a gentleman cat burglar stealing from the wealthy, he’s Ernie Mullins (Burt Reynolds) a 61-year-old semi-retired safecracker stealing from grocery stores. He lives on what he has to get by, keeping any large loots tucked away quietly to not arouse suspicion. 

When he teams up with Mike (Casey Siemaszko) a young energetic thief, the pair work well together for a time, knocking over a few small targets. But when Mike can’t manage to lay now and begins to spread suspicious amounts of cash around, the loyalty of their friendship will be put to the ultimate test.

As the world-worn and weary Ernie, Reynolds is an absolute delight. He’s funny and paternal with plenty of salt. He plays great with Siemaszko but is simply screen-scorching with Lorraine Toussaint who plays his self-possessed girlfriend, Delphine. This is a true character role for Reynolds. He works hard to fade his persona behind Ernie’s big glasses and gray hair and is quite successful. Reynolds displays that, like Ernie, he hasn’t lost any of his dexterity and craft.

What’s also striking about Breaking In is its tone. Forsyth and Sayles, both known for stories of common folk and their heroes, approach the caper genre from the bottom-up by bringing in strong elements of class. It’s a simple tale about the un-simple economic realities of thieves. Far from the glamorous globetrotting of the swinging sixties capers, these are criminals trying to scrape by in an eroding American city.

But what all these films retain from the caper genre is its maco-micro play of competition. Within larger struggles (the job), there are interpersonal ones (the relationships). Lawrence and Freddy have their bet. Harry and Nicole try to get along to complete the job. Ernie would like Mike to be quiet for just one second. Yet it flips; a dialectic begins.

The interpersonal conflicts play out macro socio-cultural changes. Lawrence and Freddy represent imperial nations changing guard. Harry and Nicole try to wrestle with contemporary gender (and racial) norms. Ernie and Mike live within the visible constraints of class. The heists become microexpressions of/against these changes, largely inconsequential to the personal drama. Heist films show us what we value. Often there’s a literal price tag. But, as “Odd Couple capers” like Bedtime Story, Gambit, and Breaking In exemplify, underneath is a layer where social values are debated and contested. 

A ‘caper’ is a playful skip. This particular subgenre of caper is particularly well suited for cultural studies because they vault values back and forth between characters, rendering them slightly more visible as they’re projected in the air. 

Bedtime Story, Gambit, and Breaking In are available on Bluray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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CategoriesKinoKultur Movies

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