The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, March 8, 2013

Jack of Diamonds

Turner Classic Movies devoted Tuesdays in January to one of my favorite sub-genres; the heist film. For the most part, I had seen most of the flicks that popped up on the schedule, and the ones I hadn't seen, I at least recognized them. Well, most of them. I'd never seen or heard of 1967's Jack of Diamonds, and away we go!

An infamous thief with police and law enforcement agencies around the world searching for him, Jeff Hill (George Hamilton), dubbed the Jack of Diamonds, has pulled off countless jobs, usually stealing rare jewels and diamonds. After one particularly successful job, Jeff heads on a skiing vacation with his friend and mentor, Ace (Joseph Cotten), but instead he stumbles into another job. They meet an old friend of Ace's, Nicolai (Maurice Evans), who presents a job that will net them the rarest of blood-red diamonds. There's a catch though. Always working on his own no matter the job, Jeff must conspire with Nicolai's daughter, Olga (Marie Laforet), to pull off the job. The heist itself -- robbing a well-guarded vault -- seems impossible, and that's if the quartet can actually work together to pull it off.

The 1960s were the decade of spy flicks, espionage thrillers, and heist capers. For all the serious entries in those three films though, there were probably just as many spoof and/or comedic takes on the genre. In a lot of ways, this 1967 caper reminded me most of the Matt Helm series starring Dean Martin. Goofy, tongue-in-cheek and very stylish, 'Diamonds' succeeds because it doesn't take itself too all. At the same time, director (and former actor) Don Taylor knows not to make it outright stupid. As far as capers go, it sticks to the basics; likable, roguish thief pursued by cops. What shenanigans will he get into this time around? Pretty meat and potatoes, although there is a good twist in the final 10 minutes that breathes some new life into a familiar formula.

'Diamonds' has a very distinctive 1960s style from its cheesy-looking indoor sets to its odd musical score from composers Bob Harris and Peter Thomas. The music is good and bad, some reviews comparing it to a psuedo-Ennio Morricone score. When it works, that's a fair comparison. Much of the time though, it's just odd vocals that are annoying more than appropriate. Other reviews pointed out the style here in 'Diamond' is similar to the generally odd Danger: Diabolik which I think is fair too, if in a measured way. How best to describe it? A mix falling somewhere in between American, European and low-budget B-movie style that works because it is so random and eclectic. It's hard to describe this 1960s style in detail or pin-point fashion, but throw all that weirdness together, and it just works. And in the random department, stars Carroll Baker, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lilli Palmer all make cameos as themselves, all victims of the Jack of Diamonds.

My first thought at hearing George Hamilton's name is not 'dramatic actor' so with that said, this is the perfect part for him! He gets to be charming, suave and cool, delivering basically all his lines with a kind of cheesy charm....and a whole lot of guy-liner. From the word 'go,' he's clearly having a lot of fun. I especially liked the dynamic between Hamilton's Jack and Cotten's Ace, the mentor-student relationship producing some pretty funny, cool scenes. Cotten does a solid job with a smaller part. Evans too is a scene-stealer as Nicolai, possibly suspicious partner in crime to Jack and Ace. Playing his daughter who's got a love-hate rivalry with Jack, Laforet is okay as Olga, but she doesn't have a ton of chemistry with Hamilton. In another solid supporting part, WWII movie vet Wolfgang Preiss plays Von Shenk, the Interpol agent on Jeff's trail.

For a movie with a pretty jokey, spoofish tone, I was surprised then when the actual heist comes along. I'm figuring it would be something ridiculous and completely out of left field that would make no sense. Well, I was wrong. It's the complete opposite in a sequence that runs about 15 minutes as Jack and Olga make their way into a heavily-guarded building via some Paris rooftops. The extended sequence is basically wordless, letting the silence mess with our heads as the tension gets ratcheted up. It's a great sequence with a surprising conclusion, but still an exciting one. The reviews are almost uniformly down to below average for this flick, but I liked it a lot. Watch Hamilton and Co. traipse across Paris, New York City, and Munich and have fun with them.

Jack of Diamonds (1967): ***/****

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