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A disparate collection of crooks, small-time hustlers, and disreputable characters knocking around Monte Carlo are brought together to rob a casino in an elaborate heist in Seven Thieves (1960), an unshowy caper film from Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway. Edward G. Robinson plays the mastermind of the job, Theo Wilkins, a once-respected scientist whose career foundered after serving time for theft, and Rod Steiger plays his loyal friend, partner, and right hand Paul Mason, a sophisticated career criminal brought over by Theo to run the untrustworthy crew.
The film was promoted by Fox as "Little Caesar meets Al Capone," referring to the pairing of old school gangster star Robinson with method actor (and Al Capone star) Steiger. In fact, Theo is much closer to another Robinson role from his gangster past: The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), where Robinson's titular doctor joins a criminal gang to research his book and ends up plotting their robberies. Theo could be Clitterhouse twenty years later, an old pro more interested in the mechanics and execution of the perfect plan than the money.
Joan Collins plays the key to their scheme, a stripper in a second-rate nightclub where the nervous assistant director of Monte Carlo's biggest casino arrives nightly to watch her dance, and Eli Wallach is her mentor and mother hen Poncho, who blows the saxophone (and at one point becomes a partner in her routine) in the club's jazz combo. The team is filled out by Michael Dante as the grinning safecracker, Berry Kroeger as the driver and team muscle, and Alexander Scourby as the reluctant partner inside the club, the casino assistant director pressured by Collins to be their inside man.
Collins doesn't actually take anything off on screen, but her skimpy, form-hugging dance leotards (they could double as lingerie) and her flamboyant dances are plenty suggestive, showing off her legs and putting every curve on display. Her other outfits were no less modest -- the gown she wears for the casino heist scene was so tight that she couldn't sit down -- and they helped the film earn its sole Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
Collins was personally tutored for her dance numbers by Candy Barr, "the best stripper in America," as Collins writes in her autobiography. "For two or three hours every day she taught me how to move and dance, bump and grind, and strip.... She taught me more about sensuality than I learned in all my years under contract." Their rehearsal sessions, needless to say, made Stage 6 at Fox the most popular spot for most of the men on the lot.
The Monte Carlo setting may evoke the sophisticated continental heist movies coming out of France at the time, such as Rififi (1955) and Bob le flambeur (1956), but this production is pure Hollywood all the way, from the sturdy direction of veteran filmmaker Henry Hathaway to the "location" scenes filmed in the studio against back-projection beach scenes (according to the studio press release, Hathaway personally oversaw the location shooting of establishing shots and background footage). For the heist itself, a 15-ton safe was built into the vault set and Robinson and Dante were taught to actually crack the safe on camera. Hathaway directs with the clarity of an old school Hollywood pro. This isn't about tension or suspense or down-to-the-second last-minute saves, but about the mechanics of combining all these individual pieces and fallible players into a single machine with many moving parts.
Robinson and Steiger are the cool heads who stay on top of it all with clear thinking, strong nerves, and quick wits. The two actors are study in contrasts, the studio-trained old-school star Robinson with his easy, precise delivery and confident control of every scene, and the unexpected bounce of method actor Steiger's approach, like a classical musician carrying the melody and a bebop soloist improvising around him. Yet for all differences in style, the two actors establish an unforced affection beyond friendship and loyalty between their two characters, and that relationship ultimately grounds the film.
Producer: Sydney Boehm
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Sydney Boehm (screenplay); Max Catto (novel)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Art Direction: John DeCuir, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Dominic Frontiere
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Theo Wilkins), Rod Steiger (Paul Mason), Joan Collins (Melanie), Eli Wallach (Poncho), Alexander Scourby (Raymond Le May), Michael Dante (Louis Antonizzi), Berry Kroeger (Hugo Baumer), Sebastian Cabot (Director of Casino), Marcel Hillaire (Duc di Salins), John Beradino (Chief of Detectives)
By Sean Axmaker
20th Century Fox press release, reproduced on the "Seven Thieves" DVD. Fox Home Video DVD, 2007.
"Past Imperfect," Joan Collins. Simon and Schuster, 1978.
"The Complete Films of Edward G. Robinson," Alvin H. Marill. Citadel Press, 1990.
"The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My Anecdotage," Eli Wallach. Harcourt Inc., 2005.