Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Master Touch (1972)

Original title: Un Uomo Da Rispettare

aka A Man To Respect

High-tech (by standards of the early 70s) thief Steve Wallace (Kirk Douglas) has barely been released from a Hamburg prison when Miller (Wolfgang Preiss), an old associate - but surely no friend - of his, tries his hardest to convince him to just another heist. Miller entices Steve with the sheer impossibility of breaking into a vault so high-tech, it's controlled by one of those "computer" thingies.

Miller's technique, and a bit of a looksee, do indeed convince Steve that the vault is just the job for him, but he doesn't want anything to do with Miller, who, after all, would want half the take and tends to have faces smashed in by his enforcer (Romano Puppo) where Steve prefers a non-violent approach to his job. Still, Steve will need a partner for the plan he has developed. Consequently, the aging thief finds himself one in form of trapeze artist Marco (Giuliano Gemma). Marco doesn't know anything about safecracking, but is willing to learn.

Problems do of course arise. Steve's wife Anna (Florinda Bolkan) wants her husband to end his life as a criminal; it's not so much out of moral abhorrence (Steve is, after all, a non-violent criminal robbing banks and other institutions of that type) but because his jail time has been very hard on her, and she can't imagine going through another year or two without him. That's particularly bad because Steve's plan to rob the vault and keep Miller off his back absolutely includes further jail time. And as if that weren't enough, heists do have the tendency to go wrong.

In the fourth decade of his career, at a point where most other actors of his generation were either starting to rest on their laurels or take an early semi-retirement on TV, Kirk Douglas went weird, taking on roles in peculiar comedies, Italian end times movies, and Michele Lupo's The Master Touch.

The Master Touch isn't a particularly weird film in itself but it is also a far cry from the movies the actor could have starred in at this point in his career that'd see him just point his face in the direction of the camera and go through the motions. At its core, this is a very typical heist movie, containing everything you'd expect from such a film yet giving everything just enough of a little twist to make it a very good heist movie, even for a viewer more than used to what the genre has to offer; see, for example, the film's rejection of the femme fatale concept.

However, Lupo's movie also contains elements rather less typical of its genre, like an absolutely insane car chase between Gemma and Puppo through the streets of Hamburg that looks and feels incredibly dangerous, seeing as it ends with both cars involved nearly totally destroyed. Hamburg itself looks at its least appealing here, as it mainly seems to consist of the dirtiest part of its harbour, grey and brown streets, and grey industrial buildings sitting under the typically grey skies of Northern Germany. If the rules of the heist movie (quite in opposition to the caper movie) wouldn't nearly guarantee it already, Hamburg's rather noirish appearance does suggest things won't end well for anyone involved.

In contrast to Hamburg's ugly side, much of the film's interior action tends towards the modernist and semi-futuristic, with a vault and safe-cracking tools that involve all the polished silver, blinking lights, and emptiness the Future of 1972 had to offer. It's a curiously nostalgic feeling watching computers large as a room, a few video cameras and what amounts to a microphone-based alarm system treated as awe-inspiring technological advances only a genius thief could conquer, but the film treats this aspect with such reverence and care, it does never become ridiculous from my jaded perspective on technology. It helps that Steve's plan actually makes sense with the technology given. The use of music to distract the computer system also has a finely poetic touch, and just feels right even if it may be slightly absurd in practice. Of course, once you witness Douglas wearing a rather wonderful suit (I say this with the full conviction of a man who neither wears suits nor likes suits as a concept) oozing tension and charisma while going through the absurd and not so absurd elements of his heist, there's no room for doubting you're witnessing something very serious and exciting.

Clarity is a particularly important part of every good heist sequence, because the audience usually needs to have a clear picture of what's going on in several places at once. The Master Touch's heist sequence shows Lupo as a director very much in control of the pacing of his heist sequence. Lupo clearly knew the importance of every edit here, resulting in a sequence with a highly impressive flow that alone would be enough to recommend the film.

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