Tuesday 31 March 2009

The Great Bank Hoax (1978)

Director: Joseph Jacoby
Stars: Richard Basehart, Ned Beatty, Charlene Dallas, Burgess Meredith, Michael Murphy and Paul Sand

Ostensibly a comedy, this one doesn't actually have a lot of laughs and plays a little better as an intellectual exercise. Imagine Richard Basehart and Burgess Meredith riding a tandem together but crashing into a bush. Oh, and that's post-Rocky Meredith, not Batman-era Meredith. If that's the sort of thing you find humorous you're probably going to love this film, otherwise just forget that it's supposed to be a comedy. Meredith rocks, as he always did, and people like Ned Beatty are never difficult to watch, but this is hardly their best work.

We're at the Pewter Bank and Trust, where most of the cast work. Ned Beatty is the accountant, Julius Taggart, and he discovers that just over $100,000 has gone missing, embezzled from the bank. It's been done, rather cleverly, by the nerdy chief clerk, Richard Smedley, played by Paul Sand, who was never planning to keep the money. He was acting as the seventies equivalent of a white hat hacker, devising a system to embezzle money and putting it to the test, only to then expose the flaw and return the money. Unfortunately for him, Taggart has already found out and raised it to the people who run the bank.

Burgess Meredith is the sleazy bank chairman, Jack Stutz, and this knowledge sparks his imagination. Announcing that the bank has been embezzled would be a public relations disaster that could cause a run on the bank and even bring the place down. It would be far better for the bank's reputation that it be robbed in a more traditional manner, so he sets up a fake robbery. He, along with Taggart and the honest Emanuel Benchley, the president of the bank, turn up one dark night to rob the place of the money that isn't there because it's already been embezzled.

It's an intriguing concept but it doesn't just stop there, even though Taggart has fixed the books and the whole thing is done and dusted. When Smedley finds out about the robbery he fesses up and puts the bank officials in a whole new mess. They can't put the embezzled money back in the bank, so they're stuck with a choice between letting Smedley keep it, even though he doesn't want it, or take it themselves, even though two of the three of them are fundamentally honest. And it gets progressively more complex from there with a few more twists to take care of.

Yes, this works as an intellectual exercise far better than a comedy. It also works better as a script than a performed piece because the characters aren't really characters, merely chess pieces in a chess game. It was written for the screen, by Joseph Jacoby, who also directed, but it could have worked as a stand alone novel with more characterisation built in. Meredith is the only actor who really gets a part to sink his teeth into; Beatty is wasted; Basehart and Sand are both annoying; and the other actors don't get even screen time to make much of their parts.

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