Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)

I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell Bank, currently headquartered in a trailer while construction is finished on a new building. Karp’s assembled a nutty robbery crew that includes his ex-FBI agent nephew Victor, ditzy, amorous financial backer Eleonora, looney driver Stosh Gornik and his con artist mom, and trigger happy wanna-be politician Hermann X. The brainy Ballentine decides they won’t just rob the bank… they’ll steal the entire kit’n’kaboodle! Ballentine and company pull off an elaborate, ingenious heist that baffles everyone but “Bulldog”, who’s hot on the fugitive’s trail.

 

Scott, complete with bushy eyebrows and a pronounced lisp, is the lynchpin holding BANK SHOT together, playing straight man to the wackiness going on around him. When he learns the job is in LA, he grumbles it’s “freak town- kook city – where the nuts are – trouble”, and he’s not wrong. Sorrell Booke (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Boss Hogg) goes strictly for laughs as his partner-in-crime Karp. Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) has one of her earliest roles as the constantly giggling Eleonora, as does Bob Balaban (credited as Robert) as young Karp. One of my favorite comic character actors Don Calfa (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) plays the manic Stosh, with Bibi Osterwald (THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) as his swindler mom. Ex-NFLer Fred McRae (48 HRS) makes a funny Hermann X, but it’s the late Clifton James (Sheriff J.W. Pepper of LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN ) who stands out as the ornery, doggedly determined Warden “Bulldog” Streiger.

Director Gower Champion was a former MGM musical star famed for his dancing with wife Marge Champion. He was more successful as a Broadway director (BYE BYE BIRDIE and HELLO DOLLY! were among his many hits) than on film, in fact BANK SHOT was only his second (and last) feature. It was a good swan song, as the film captures the Westlake flavor nicely. The movie has a daffy, anarchic spirit to it, and though sometimes it can be over-the-top silly, is worth watching when you’re in the mood for a good, solid belly-laugh.

Danger Is Their Business: STUNTS (New Line Cinema 1977)

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With the success of films like WHITE LIGHTING, CANNONBALL, DEATH RACE 2000, and SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (not to mention the continuing fascination with Evel Knenevel), movies revolving around stunts and stuntmen were big box office in the 1970’s. New Line Cinema took note and produced STUNTS, a murder mystery about stuntmen being killed off that gives us a behind-the-scenes look at low-budget filmmaking in addition to a good cast and well-staged action.

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When stuntman Greg Wilson’s hanging from a helicopter gag goes horribly awry, resulting in him plummeting to his death, his brother Glen arrives on the set determined to do the stunt himself and investigate Greg’s demise. Along the way he picks up B.J. Parswell, an attractive reporter doing a story on stuntmen. Glen’s fellow stuntmen start getting picked off one by one in gruesome “accidents”, and he must find the killer before he becomes next.

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This basic variation on “Ten Little Indians” serves as the backdrop for some exciting stunt-and-special effect scenes, including one where Glen, asking for more explosive charge in his car, does a spectacular five-and-a-half rolls, emerging unscathed. The film-within-a-film setting also allows the viewer to observe some aspects of moviemaking on a tight budget, which always fascinates me. Director Mark L. Lester keeps things moving, adding comedy to the mystery and action. Lester knew a thing or two about low-budget films, having helmed TRUCK STOP WOMEN and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW among others, before making hits like ROLLER BOOGIE, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, and CLASS OF 1999.

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Robert Forster stars as Glen, and he’s one of my favorite underrated actors. The star of Haskell Wexler’s MEDIUM COOL and TV’s BANYON (a short-lived detective series about a 30’s private eye) struggled for decades starring in low-budget movies and supporting roles in larger ones before being rediscovered in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 JACKIE BROWN, earning an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Fiona Lewis (BJ) is known to horror genre fans for DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and TINTONERA. Ray Sharkey (THE IDOLMAKER) plays macho stuntman Paulie, Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) is Patty, and Bruce Glover (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER) is Chuck. The great Richard Lynch plays special effects wizard Pete Lustig, Candice Rialson (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, CANDY STRIPE NURSES, CHATTERBOX) is horny starlet Judy Blake, and James Luisi (THE ROCKFORD FILES) is her cuckolded producer hubby. Veteran Malachi Throne (IT TAKES A THIEF, BATMAN villain Falseface) puts up with everyone as director Earl O’Brien.

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But the real stars are the stuntmen behind the scenes, and this film assembled some of the best: Joie Chitwood (cars), Deanna Coleman (motorcycles), Dar Robinson (high fall), Lee Pulford (barroom brawl), and Chuck Tamburro (aeriel) all perform their specialties to thrill the audience. STUNTS doesn’t work as a mystery (it was originally titled WHO IS KILLING THE STUNTMEN?), but as an action pic it’s chock full of wild and wooly, death-defying stunts and, though not the best of it’s genre, is an entertaining 90 minutes of fun for movie buffs.

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