Armchair Cinephile 

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Christmas and Capers

Ready or not, the carols-and-tinsel season is upon us; time for schlocky sentiment, shameless commercialism, and sometimes edgy family reunions. Fear not, for a secret weapon has just landed on the home video shelves: A Christmas Story (Warner) now boasts a decent (read: widescreen and with fun bonus features) DVD edition, and is capable of stopping roomfuls of relatives dead in their tracks. Jean Shepherd's recollections of his '40s childhood mix nostalgia with satire in an unsyrupy way, and the countless little touches added by cast and crew make the film adaptation worth the countless repeat viewings many of us have given it. I would think this off-kilter classic needs no introduction, but I recently heard an acquaintance dismiss it and had to speak up: Director Bob Clark may never have made another good film, but many of us owe more hours of laughter to him for this one than for many of our favorite comedies.

I was looking for laughs when I unwrapped two new Columbia/TriStar films starring Judy Holliday (who played the homicidal wife in the Tracy/Hepburn classic Adam's Rib), but evidently even a too-short filmography like Holliday's can contain surprises: The Marrying Kind turned out to be a prototype for the bittersweet "how did our marriage fall apart" dramas that pop up every few years. There are some laughs in it, but mainly it's a war of overwhelming screen personalities: Holliday's streetwise sass vs. Aldo Ray's braying cluelessness. The roles are anomalies for both actors: Holliday went back to straight comedies like The Solid Gold Cadillac, and Ray became a career tough guy who spent his sunset years in scores of faceless crime movies.

One that wasn't faceless is Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (Columbia/TriStar), a hip 1966 caper flick starring James Coburn. Ray has a small part here, and has put on so much weight you wouldn't know him if he didn't open his mouth to whine now and then. Coburn, on the other hand, is flinty cool - cooler than the movie, in fact, which plods a bit for something with so much going for it. The bank robbery itself feels incidental; more fun are all the seductions and identity-switches Coburn has to pull building up to it. (Similarities to Catch Me If You Can are played up by the disc's retro packaging.)

A Christmas Story (Warner)
The Marrying Kind, The Solid Gold Cadillac, Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (Columbia/TriStar)
The Italian Job (1969 & 2003 versions, Paramount)
The Good Thief (20th Century Fox)
Just a few years later, in 1969, came the first The Italian Job (Paramount), which also slides by largely on star power. Michael Caine is in top form here, just out of the clink and ready to swing, Austin Powers-style. Or is that Dolemite-style? The first things on his post-jail mind are prostitutes, a fine car, and his tailor. The crime he eventually plans (with assistance from Noel Coward, no less) is a bigger deal in this film, functioning as a long, thrilling ad for the original Cooper Mini, which tears through the streets in unlikely ways.

Call me a heretic, but I was more entertained by the 2003 remake. (Paramount released both DVDs last month.) Yes, Mark Wahlberg has none of Caine's charisma - he exists mainly to appreciate his much more engaging conspirators - and the film's real star is still a little car that can. But the remake takes those Minis and the idea of using a traffic jam to rob somebody, then adds so much of its own fun invention to it. The opening heist in the canals of Venice is all by itself a reason to watch the film, but hit-and-miss filmmaker F. Gary Gray hits consistently for the rest of this slick and enjoyable ride.

The other recent big heist-flick remake, The Good Thief (20th Century Fox), is as different from The Italian Job as its inspiration - the 1955 French film Bob Le Flambeur - was from Dead Heat and the first Job. The other films ride on a personality and the illicit charm of crime, but Thief really cares about its hero as a character - to the point of sacrificing some of the slippery kicks we usually expect from crime films, in order to spend more time getting to know the man. It didn't do much for ticket-buyers, but it's well worth a second chance on video - even if nobody's going to spin it as many times as A Christmas Story. •

More by John DeFore



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