Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Squeeze (1978)

There will be spoilers later on.

After a few years in the slammer former expert safe cracker Chris Gretchko (Lee Van Cleef) has retired from the crime world, and lives in Mexico as a cattle rancher. Still, when Jeff OIafsen (Edward Albert), the son of an old friend, seeks Chris out to ask him for help, the old gangster doesn't make the young man beg all that much. Jeff is in big trouble with a gang of Germans under the leadership of a certain Van Stratten (Peter Carsten), but if Chris would be willing to come to New York and open a safe full of diamonds for the Germans, all would be forgiven for the young man, and Chris would make a nice amount of money. At least that's what Jeff says.

In truth, once Chris has arrived in the US and contacted his old friend, the fence Sam Steinfeld (Lionel Stander), it becomes quite clear why the Germans have to import a retiree like him for the job instead of digging into New York's native talent pool: people doing business for or with the group tend to disappear or turn up dead, which makes these Germans somewhat unpopular partners. Chris enjoys challenges, it seems, for he decides to stay in the city, do the job, and take the diamonds for himself and Jeff - whom he plans to keep safe by talking him into letting himself getting arrested before the heist starts - instead.

Things go nearly as the old gangster has planned, except for the fact that his escape from his murderous partners entails dead people and explosions and leaves himself hurt badly enough to need to lay low in an empty apartment quite close to the place where he got rid of his escape car. That sort of trace is eminently followable for the police, the former owners of the diamonds, and the rest of Chris's former partners. Jeff's true loyalties seem dubious at best, too. On the positive side, Chris's empty apartment has a very friendly - and impossibly ditzy - neighbour (Karen Black), only too willing to help him out for no obvious reason.

As much as I adore Italian director Antonio Margheriti, Lee Van Cleef's natural coolness, Edward Albert's easy sociopathy and Karen Black's full-blown looniness, I can't call The Squeeze a fully successful film. The first half of the movie is strong enough, with Margheriti seemingly just turning on his camera, being happy to film in New York, and giving his actors possibilities to shine in an authentic and laid-back way that doesn't produce much of the tension you'd usually expect from a crime movie, but establishes the characters and the city they are living in quite wonderfully.

Unfortunately, once the in a Margheriti movie mandatory mediocre but beautiful model effects sequence has passed and Van Cleef's character is laying low and not doing much anymore, the film's looseness turns into a liability. The focus shifts from Van Cleef to Albert to Stander to the former owners to Black overacting hilariously and back again nervously, with half of the scenes of no use to further develop the film's characters or plot, and the other half being pretty fine looked at as single scenes, but not as parts of a whole that's supposed to be a movie. The actors are doing some fine work with what they are given, but the script becomes just too disjointed for them to truly salvage anything.

It sure doesn't help The Squeeze's case that it has two absolutely horrible plot twists that don't make sense even if you're trying very hard not to think about them - and believe me, I was trying. Twist number one (please be advised I'm getting spoiler-y now) might explain why Black's Clarisse is so damn helpful, but could only have worked if Jeff had known beforehand where Chris would be hiding out, which he doesn't, while twist number two needs the audience to believe that Chris is either always carrying dummy ammunition around with him or can somehow pull some out of his ass.

And still, having said all that, I don't regret having watched The Squeeze. There's enough good, relaxed acting in it, and it evokes enough of a sense of place and time for me to put it down on the "basically enjoyable" side of the equation. Everyone concerned has certainly made or been in better movies, but they've also wasted their (and my) time on worse.


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