Though William Wyler’s “How to Steal a Million” makes the pretense of being about a million dollar art heist, what it’s really about is Audrey Hepburn looking chic in Givenchy and Peter O’Toole mouthing the derivative bon mots of which Harry Kurnitz’ screenplay is entirely comprised, all the while attempting to simultaneously look suave and giving the impression his prodigious talent isn’t slumming. Though Hepburn seems comfortably in her element here (her swan-like neck has seldom seemed as elegantly posed), O’Toole looks more than a bit awkward attempting to assume a Cary Grant posture and his performance feels forced as if conveying to the audience that he’s aware the material is harmlessly trivial: the type of pseudo-sophisticated movie junk food that in more genteel days used to be called a “romp”.
Finding that her art forger father Charles Bonnet (a delightfully immoral Hugh Griffith straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon, and the best thing in the film) is in danger of exposure due to a insurance authenticity test on a Cellini Venus statuette which has carelessly allowed to be displayed as the centerpiece in a major exhibit in Paris’ Kléber-Lafayette Museum, daughter Nicole enlists the aid of the same art burglar, Simon Dermott (O’Toole), she has inadvertently shot while he was attempting to lift a Van Gogh painting (also a fake) from over the living room mantle. The bulk of the film incorporates the pair’s planning and execution of a rather farfetched (though amusing in its simplicity) scheme involving magnets, a scrub woman’s outfit and a toy boomerang, with a serious detour involving the burgeoning romantic attraction between the partners in crime: an affair of great convenience since great pains are taken to make the couple the most glamorous people in the room, with the rest of the cast made to look generally buffoonish (Hepburn’s romantic choices seem limited between the widescreen sparkle of O’Toole’s baby blues or Eli Wallach’s fidgety bulldog sweatiness) and professionally inept, with much of the humor deriving from poking fun at the actual inefficiency of even the most complex security arrangements especially with the aid of a script which resists the interruption of the chic sophistication with anything as mundane as unforeseen monkey wrenches in the robbery (the plan isn’t all that clever and it’s a cheat that its flaws aren’t exploited to comic or tension building effect) that might generate any real suspense or offer an even momentary distraction away from the fact that the real point of the film is to show off how damnably cute and sophisticated it’s all supposed to be; a similar blandness that crept into Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief”, a sibling cinematic bauble which sacrificed the darker side of criminality in favor of the fashionably coiffed.
One of the appealing aspects of the heist film is the pleasure of an immersive invitation into a corrupt but seductive psychology, drawing the audience into a brief conspiratorial congress with a mentality that is equal parts dangerous amorality and thrillingly inventive cunning during the planning phases of the job, which then instills the viewer with an empathetic investment in the outcome of the plan that eclipses a natural predilection toward a moral resistance having a vested interest in the success of a criminal enterprise (proof of this empathetic reversal is amply demonstrated in the swampy car immersion scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, perhaps the most overt demonstration of audience manipulation ever captured on screen). Where too are of the expected subsequent intrusions of fate that threaten to unravel the most masterful anticipatory blueprints, a characteristic entirely missing from Wyler’s film which, incredibly, has the pair staging the robbery without Nicole made aware of even a single detail of Simon’s plan? Thus, instead of the audience being engaged in watching for those random elements which will call for ingenious spontaneity on the part of the crooks (never once is it seriously asserted that the couple are criminals, such a suggestion being contrary to the rather astonishing sense of privilege which permeates the film), we are subjected to interminable shots of moving keys and the constant reminder that the guard is a slob drunk, neither of which contribute momentum to a story which seems comfortable to delay the robbery in mid-action so the sparkling, sophisticated coupling of cinema titans may cast aside the presumed object of the exercise (a robbery) to instead pursue the film’s true romantic objective (the kiss). Unfortunately, the entire affair seems so artificially wrought from far wittier models (the Thin Man series, for one) and to further abbreviate the most commonly anticipated traits of the genre, it severely fudges on an important part of the heist plot: the aftermath. Significantly, there is not a single hint of a detective or policeman investigating this million dollar crime, nor does there seem to be any concern by the duo that there will be any pursuit of the perpetrators; a rather optimistic stretch of credibility considering the trail of clues they leave scattered all over the museum. Nor is there the slightest explanation as to how they exit a crime scene that is, by now, swarming with cops, except to suggest they simply climb down a set of cellar stairs. After the genre heights of “The Asphalt Jungle”, “Rififi” and”Topkapi”, the film seems to take ill-advised inspiration from its own characters and feels like a fake, only unlike the the efforts of M. Bonnet, the counterfeiting here is transparent. It’s not that every film has to follow a rigid formula- far from it -but the film’s willingness to deliver a romantic comic caper that substitutes supposed star power (whatever that’s actually means in a case where the power is wasted) for class, and empty glamor for true sophistication is a letdown when even the basic mechanics of the caper elements are written in shorthand.
William Wyler directs with the sure hand of an experienced director who seems to have had all intuitions toward originality flushed from his efforts; disappointing especially after his fine work on “The Collector”, a far more challenging project which he approached and executed with stunningly aberrant finesse. Still, “How to Steal a Million” is undeniably entertaining but in an extremely vaporous fashion: the memory of it vanishes within minutes of leaving the theater and we’ve certainly seen it all- and better -before. Surely, with all of the talent involved, the audience cannot be faulted to expect more.
One of the most immediately promising aspects of Bonnie Sherr Klein’s anti-pornography documentary “Not A Love Story: A Motion Picture About Pornography” is the fact it is a product of Canada, and as such will not be immediately weighed down with the typical obfuscating arguments that would have arisen had it had its genesis in the United States. Gone are the arcanely labyrinthine ACLU contortions of Constitutionally-based doublespeak, frustrating any discussion- outside of billable lawyer’s hours -as to the cultural and psychological ramifications of a society awash in pornographic content. A reminder is in order that that the release date of the film is 1981, light years away from the age of the porn engorged Internet, yet the cogency of the arguments within the film’s narrow focus are certain to retain their credibility regardless of any historical changes in the culture-at-large; though this also supposes that they are cogent and well reasoned on the basis of intellectual observation and analysis rather than strictly reactions of emotion. After all, relevant conclusions should be based upon fundamental philosophical cultural principles which contain certain consistent values despite the cosmetic trappings of technological and social trending, which, in the end, may be amusing diversions for the unenlightened but only offer the opportunity for critical waffling born of incomplete thinking.
The film, with a limiting running time of a mere 69 minutes, attempts to bite of more than is sensibly digested, with the field of pornography covered not merely printed and film materials, but also in the related sex trades of exotic dancing, magazines, prostitution and live sex shows. In a nutshell, the producers of the film are attempting the impossible task of encompassing the entire sex industry in its withering gaze, ensuring, at best, that the film may provide a primer on the subject but it may be impractical to expect much more than surface exploration of the subject, which leads to the danger that it could succumb to the very exploitative values it means to condemn. Unfortunately, this may be the case, though the cheapening of the subject derives less from the cataloging of depravity than in questionable intent for which these materials are used. Though there are explicit documentations of exotic dancing, live sex shows, porn film shoots and myriad examples of the most tawdry film clips, there is not a moment that even hints at a genuine erotic charge, a result achieved by the degenerate nature of the representative materials chosen and through a palpable bias of disdain toward the subject (understandable), its providers and consumer base. It’s almost impossible to view the film without the sensation of feeling unclean. However, what is problematic is that the film’s perspective is entirely grounded in a hostile posture of radical feminism, quite obviously anti-male and anti-sex. By the end of the film, the militant feminism is so hostilely expressed, the very concept of sex is made to seem a loathsome weapon of misogyny; an deliberate invention of the chauvinistic male with which to oppress and objectify all women. There is a disturbing lack of charity present within this distinctly radical feminist framework nor even the merest possibility suggested that every man in the world isn’t party to the pornographic objectification of women. There is a palpable hatred of men unearthed in Klein’s rather limp investigations that are illuminating but demoralizing: certainly the defensive accusations of sexual objectivity against women are as equally untenable an absolute as the enraged expression that all men are culpable in the process of demeaning and objectifying women. Intellectually, abstract absolutes are a suspect and lazy path which limit the scope of both a clear sense of observation and a cogent capacity for argument over the full meaning of what those observations unearth. (Ironically, it is the mindset of absolutes which is precisely what the feminist camp within the the film is ultimately railing against as it these same asserted absolutes that fuel and generate misogyny.) While this attitudinizing may be understandable in a spontaneous expression of emotionally charged outrage- where the absence of fullest reason might find momentary harbor in explosive utterances of frustration stoked by a society that increasingly exploits women -it undermines the usefulness of the film as documentary and instead devolves into an extreme and in many ways equally distasteful, though ultimately revealing, polemic.
There is a basic intellectual dishonesty in the deliberately stubborn attitudinizing inherent in the film’s ultimately narrow mission- where none of the featured radical commentators bothers to be reacting to the evidence gathered by Klein, but merely campaign within their own deeply rooted emotional agendas -evident that the film’s perspective is one born of a moralist’s crusading zeal rather than the cogently considered editorial intention. Nor does the film ever uncover information and either pursue an renewed direction based upon such evidence nor is there a capacity for spontaneous of creative thought displayed: never is there an occasion where Klein brings an immediacy to her arguments when faced by a contrary statement, her arguments all seem preplanned and read off of a sheet. Most curious of all, there is no distinction made in the legitimate popular sexualized culture and the more crassly commercialized sex industry, or how the sexualization of the advertising world might lead (if indeed it is a causational force) to the extreme boundaries of the pornographic. That it fails to delineate (or even the attempt at such delineation) the difference between pornography and the very concept of genuine artistic eroticism is an inevitable casualty of the film’s inflexible insistence that the culturalization of sex is both demeaning to, and a deliberate, attack on women by men and only for the salacious pleasure of the same. This assertion fails to recognize the participation of men as a subject of the same lurid objectification- either in “straight” or gay sexually explicit materials. nor does it attempt any balanced gender representation in the film’s directed commentary. In fact, the film surprises in that it fails to cover the basics 0f its extant subject; much more than any casual perusal of the cellophane wrapped periodicals behind the register of a local convenience store might equally provide. What is missing in the film’s investigative approach is not the willingness to delve into the seamier ends of the sex trade or to even find credible, illuminating “witnesses” who might convey their own experiences in the trade and the detrimental (or not) effects it has had on their lives; but in acknowledging the facts uncovered in its investigations and then by manipulating those findings or outright denial of their informational value by their callous dismissal by meaningless roundtable discussions peopled by shockingly narrow-minded and unrelated literary and academic “experts” who are all proponents of the specifically militant radical viewpoint that undercuts the credibility of the film’s intentions.
To understand the perspective (despite the breadth of commentary, there seems to be only one point-of-view accepted) presented by the film, its important to understand just what questions Bonnie Sherr Klein is attempting to answer, motivational presumptions that are possible by the evidence within the demonstrations of unsubtle inquiry the film operates. For example, if Klein believes that the sex industry seriously damages society (and culture), how and why? Would it not be instructive to feature discussions with workers in these industries, especially women? The film’s central failing arises when we realize that Klein does indeed pursue the aforementioned workers as evidentiary participants and then scathingly dismisses their testimony within the context of academic snobbery which devolves far more into class separation than either sisterhood or legitimate journalistic receptiveness.
Not coincidentally, the Klein’s chosen “experts” with few exceptions tend to be women and with this gender imbalance also emerges a rather disturbing class snobbery through which lies the key in explaining the source of the film’s limited editorial curiosity, a limitation which ultimately undermines the film’s general intent (a more specifically defined purpose never emerges). Expert witnesses are separated into two distinct categories: the participants in the industry, and literary/academia types, the latter whose effusive sense of superiority is so suffocating, it is- by far -the most unsavory aspect of the film. This violent dichotomy of classicism- more defined by social positioning rather than legitimately useful knowledge or experience -might be revealing in itself, if it weren’t so enthusiastically encouraged by Klein; the endless parade of close-up reaction shots of the (usually) scowling director are deliberately inserted to tell the viewer exactly how to react to the material at any given moment- since these shots intrusively break up the fluidity of the testimonials, using her own hangdog expression as an assertive and interfering visual punctuation. Additionally, Klein never really includes many on-camera questions aimed at her more literary brethren, perhaps feeling they don’t need the intellectual prodding she practices with the actual sex industry workers, in some instances shamelessly leading those witnesses into what she wants them to say.
For example, the film presents stripper Linda Lee Tracey with an explanation by the director that she admires Tracey’s “comfort with her own sexuality” and observes that the dancer is also “asking questions about pornography”, though it becomes abundantly clear that Tracey’s views on sexuality are far more generously considered but also have a basis in direct knowledge born of direct experience and are expressed with a selfless lack of gender and class bias but which are answered with by the director’s own arsenal of facial scowls, frowns and beaming smiles depending on which opinion conveniently agrees with her own. In a particularly telling piece of testimony (which Klein seems to dismiss despite its inclusion), Tracey relates an incident in which:
“I went to this pornography rally in New York. It was Women Against Pornography marching down 42nd Street. Now, these women were saying that the hookers that were not to blame for their plight, it was the pimps and the club owners, OK? And when I joined their ranks and told them I was a stripper, it was like: “Oh, poor you. Oh gee, where do you work? Oh, those guys. Oh boy.”, and they were making excuses for me. They were very condescending and when you get anyone who’s condescending, they’ve already passed a judgment on you, OK? And it’s like this party line is that I’m stupid and I’m being used and I really have no choice whatsoever, so let’s hit the dirty guy, let’s hit the men. Listen to the same line the guys are using: that women are stupid.”
If this statement is an example of Klein’s reference to Tracey’s “asking questions about pornography” then how can the director find inspiration in the stripper’s “plight” while simultaneously turning such a blind eye to her actual thoughts born of experience of which Sherr is entirely ignorant? The film lacks a structural focus, and except for the relentless tactics of indoctrination Klein employs against Tracey by rubbing her face into the worst of the pornographic marketplace until she relents to her way of thinking, but by offering up Tracey as a sacrificial lamb to prove her own philosophical ends, Klein is just as culpable in objectifying and victimizing a woman as her targeted pornographers. It is an example of appalling intellectual sloth and an editorial dishonesty at work here, which is not suggesting that a film is not entitled to its own perspective despite the intrusion of a blinding radical bias, but there must be collaborative content which fairly supports that proffered bias without the intervention of strong-arm tactics, though there is a caveat which emerges when catering to a very reactionary point-of-view that renders suspect the conclusions of such discussions. It is a self-defeating process, antithetical to rational, dispassionate thought and threatens to undercut many of Klein’s areas of concern, doubly so as the blind siding extremist radical feminist commentaries are actually continually encouraged by the director. (It’s as if she is not secure enough to impose her own editorial rationale without attempting to prejudicially stack the deck.)
The film comes from an unwavering radical feminist stance, which though it is legitimate to express all viewpoints, immerses the film’s argument into an irrational accusation of exclusively female objectification- not onlys,one suspects, in the sex industry, but in society in general -which is baffling since many of the depicted participants (not consumers, mind you) of the industry are male, and yet nothing is mentioned of the objectification nor abuse of those of the male gender. (Nor does the film ever mention pornography that excludes women such as gay porn, nor examples where men would be portrayed as objectified victims such as dominatrix material.) This would only make sense if the argument were that sex itself is an objectifying, demeaning and victimizing act (but only against women), a polemic stance which is mirrored in the viciously ant-male rants of star “expert” witnesses (though what this expertise is comprised of-beyond the mere fact of being a woman, is unclear), though how the director’s onscreen victimization against Tracey is different from that for which she accuses the pornographers except that it is initiated by a woman? The film is an ugly process of dehumanize by the director against a chosen individual, who is mercilessly pummeled into liquid submission that if not objectifying, is soullessly corrosive. None of this honestly addresses any natural degenerative process pornography may have on society since there is no similar grinding of the average citizen’s face in the sordid materials or venues to which Klein’s Pygmalion is summarily subjected. Just the opposite, in fact, as there is no explanation as to how Tracey might be employed within the sex industry and yet maintain a healthy self-image and disinterest in the more prurient ends of the pornographic industry until the enlightened, educated elite feminists rub her nose into the dirt (though they would never think to immerse themselves in such ugliness, that particular experience being reserved for the underclasses) and remove from her this sense of self-worth. Just who are the persecutors of women to these same feminists, one who prominently promotes- without contradiction -an immersion in pornography as a path to enlightenment? (What?? This rationale taken to its logical conclusion would have everyone flocking to support the very industry these “intellectuals” posture and rail against!) To take these testimonials at face value is to embrace a number of clearly damaged personalities (one writer works up such a self-loathing lather she practically talks herself into an on-screen nervous breakdown) that is more a cautionary public service announcement warning against the lack of lucidity and emotional stability within the feminist core. One would presume this was not Klein’s intention, though the cruelly meticulous method employed by the director to pick at the initially healthy self-image of Linda Lee Tracey does give pause, as the uglier connotations of such methods suggest that in the world of unhealthily radicalized feminism, misery demands company.
There is also an undeniable suggestion that among the director’s chosen expert female witnesses, none revealing a direct experience with the world of lurid pornography (unless they have viewed this film which is so gratuitously loaded with extreme, sexually violent imagery that it would undoubtedly be attacked by these same experts as yet another opportunity to shamelessly degrade women had this same film been made by a man), that their real issues are not with the sex industry but with men in general, for never is there one acknowledgement of the damage this culture of supposed objectification might have on the self-image of the male. Rather than the misogynistic ogres engorged in sexual violence as epitomized either in the feminist verse or reflective commentaries, the men portrayed in the film- not directly involved solely in the craven money end of the business -are almost entirely comprised of the wincing wounded in varying degrees of psychic emasculation. In an interesting passage with a group calling themselves Men Against Male Violence, the suggestion emerges that real-life women can’t measure up to the standards the erotic fantasy figure represented by the sex object, a rational observation entirely in keeping with the feminist line of thought concerning women’s objectification, however, an interesting observation can also be made as to the boundaries of such an argument, as not unlike the radical feminist camp, this assertion of objectification works both ways yet these men who are clearly damaged by such self-inflicted doubts based on the same rationale of impossible demands raised by objectification go unaddressed. Only former porn actor Marc Wallace directly addresses this issue head-on, though his unflattering hubris tends to undercut any universal value his thoughts might convey. However, there is a more direct demonstration of bullied gender timidity in the case of Kenneth Pitchford who is the very portrait of a man terrified to speak without the threat of psychological evisceration from his spouse writer/poet Robin Morgan whose blind hatred of the perceived of society borders on madness. whose rambling vacuous arguments (each taken as a golden nugget by the director and the increasingly unhinged Morgan who appears enormously pleased with herself in holding her own Inquisitional Court, especially when a pained Pitchford reveals he’s felt the demands of feminism were making him impotent) accuse others against a lack of intimacy though her statements suggest she’s really never met another human being in her life except through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
Nor is there a credible basis to many of the underlying facts presented in the film. It’s as if the director felt that the subject itself is of such a controversially inflammatory nature that any direct showdown would be sufficiently courageous to blur the usually necessary lines of diligent research complimented by well reasoned (and focused) editorial articulation. It is interesting to note that whenever Klein finds herself stuck in a philosophic Catch-22, she falls back on tired arguments on organized crime’s participation in the pornography game (this mistaken path would concede legitimacy to pornography as long as the money trail were clean, a conclusion which is doubtful to have been her intent), as if there were no better method to gain easy sympathy than to conjure the criminal element, and even this accusation is rendered less than wholly reliable with the sloppily contradictory assertion that the profits from pornography are hidden as taxable income from an illicit enterprise, yet she then proceeds to quote the average profit distinctions between a porn palace and a McDonald’s franchise. What happened to the Mafia Code of Silence? Nor does it advance the credibility in another of her experts- this time a man -a psychologist who inexcusably misreads the motivational points of the novel and film “Deliverance”. Though what is most disturbing of all in the film’s method is Klein’s choice of illustrative materials: she seems thoroughly obsessed by the most violently extreme boundaries of pornography and seems to find little distinction between consensual sex, rape and torture. Instead of earning her Brownie points legitimately (which should have been a cakewalk), she force feeds the audience with a funnel and plunger.
As a primer on the subject of pornography, “Not a Love Story” fails to reach any level of useful contributory value in the ceaseless arguments inherent in the continued artless sexualization of mass culture, a subject dealt with in both the media and judicially with an exhausting dishonesty and thus the film is a major disappointment. How often does anyone attempt a serious film which unflinchingly approaches such an uncomfortable subject? How sad that Klein loses her way by foolishly allowing the easy road to polemic to obscure the evidence directly at her fingertips.