When Best Laid Plans Go Awry

On first impressions The Big Caper (1957) may look like just another grade B bank heist thriller but don’t be fooled. This 1957 independent pickup by United Artists is a genuine loose canon and highly peculiar within its own specialized genre. In the best heist thrillers (Rififi, The Asphalt Jungle), the robbery is usually ingeniously planned and executed but when it goes awry, it’s usually due to festering hatred among the instigators (Odds Against Tomorrow) or bad luck (Plunder Road). In The Big Caper, the glaring flaw is the organizer who appears to be a shrewd and cautious businessman until you see the wacko team he assembles for the job. And he might be the biggest nutcase in the lot. It’s not a comedy, but it should be, and you may very well find yourself laughing uncontrollably at times.  

The Big Caper is delirious fun but also has moments when it suggests it could have been a taut, edgy B-movie masterpiece in the style of Gun Crazy (1950) or The Big Combo (1955) if someone like Joseph H. Lewis had directed it. The 1955 source, a novel by the same title, was penned by Lionel White, the American crime novelist who also gave us 1956’s The Killing (from the novel Clean Break), 1965’s The Money Trap and the highly underrated The Night of the Following Day (from the novel The Snatch) in 1969.  

Produced by Howard Pine (Cult of the Cobra) and William C. Thomas (Run for Cover), The Big Caper was directed by Robert Stevens, who is best known for helming some of the most memorable TV episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Twilight Zone and Suspicion. This low-budget programmer was his feature film debut and it is wildly erratic in tone and direction, often sacrificing suspense for character development or overplaying dramatic situations at such a high pitch that it topples over into self-parody. Suspension of disbelief becomes impossible but you still can’t take your eyes off the screen. Twenty minutes into the film, it begins to self-destruct in spectacular ways yet it keeps lurching forward relentlessly like a runner in a race who suffered a heart attack a mile back but doesn’t know it yet. [Spoilers ahead]   

Luckily Stevens has a more than game cast and a great cinematographer – Lionel Lindon, whose long line of credits include such beautifully shot and lit features as The Blue Dahlia (1946), Alias Nick Beal (1949), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He was nominated for an Oscar three times and won for his work on Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Lindon shoots in a crisp black and white style for The Big Caper and designs some spooky shadowy sequences in the second half that take place in the boiler room of a high school.

Elderly safecracker (Florenz Ames) and psychotic accomplice Corey Allen execute a heist in The Big Caper (1957).

All of this is enhanced by Albert Glasser’s pitch perfect score that mixes quasi-beatnik jazz with suspenseful music cues. Glasser, with more than 100 composer film credits, could do this stuff in his sleep and was most famous for his B-movie monster scores (The Neanderthal Man, The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Attack of the Puppet People). Famous Monsters of Filmland used to sell Glasser’s horror soundtrack anthologies in the magazine’s back pages. 

The Big Caper starts promisingly enough with a terse, economic set-up that spells out the central premise – the planned robbery of a small town bank in San Felipe, California that handles the weekly payroll (totaling one million dollars) of nearby Camp Pendleton. Our three main characters are Frank Harper (Rory Calhoun), a small time hood who is looking for a big score, Flood (James Gregory), his shady employer and mentor, and Kay (Mary Costa), Flood’s mistress. We get the brief backstory on Flood; he brought Frank in off the streets as a troubled teenager and gave him work so there is a sense of obligation and loyalty there. And our first impressions of Flood fit the profile of a meticulous and intelligent criminal mastermind.

Flood (James Gregory) and his mistress Kay (Mary Costa) are key players in a planned robbery in The Big Caper (1957).

At first, Flood even resists Frank’s bank heist scheme as too risky and dangerous and gives every impression of preferring jobs that avoid the use of guns or the possibility of physical violence. So much for first impressions.

The trio soon put Frank’s grand scheme into action. First, Frank and Kay agree to pose as a married couple with Frank buying the local gas station and a home in the suburbs. The idea is for the couple to blend into the community while they get familiar with the town, the daily patterns of life there and the bank’s operations. After four months in San Felipe, the couple are attending backyard barbecues, picnics and card games with the neighbors and the local cop even invites Frank on fishing trips.

Frank (Rory Calhoun) and Kay (Mary Costa) pose as a married couple in suburbia in the heist thriller The Big Caper (1957).

This part of The Big Caper is fascinating with the two outsiders trying to pass themselves off as a normal, middle class couple (think of them as the last two human beings in a world of pod people, trying to fit in without being noticed – Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released the year before). As a result, the experience becomes transformative for them. Frank struggles with the arrangement at first but despite his tough, cynical demeanor, he adapts quickly to domesticity, even showing Kay how to make pancakes without burning them in one unlikely scene. Kay, for her part, has also grown disillusioned with her empty, pampered lifestyle as a kept woman and this experiment in faux marital bliss is giving her ideas.

A publicity photo of Mary Costa and Rory Calhoun from The Big Caper (1957), directed by Robert Stevens

All of this comes pouring out after the couple spends an evening playing Scrabble with their neighbors. Kay reveals her yearning for the normalcy of marriage, children and a quiet life in a small town, saying “I hadn’t seen my sister in five years. Never met her husband or kids. They live in a lousy flat and have to keep the baby crib in the front room. She’s got a husband and kids. No diamond rings or mink coats but a family. I’m so jealous of her I could scream. I’m sick of the way I’ve been living.”  Frank’s firm response is “It’s too late to pull out now.”

A publicity of Rory Calhoun from the crime drama, The Big Caper (1957), directed by Robert Stevens

One thing neither Frank or Kay counted on was their mutual attraction and, in one desperate moment, Kay grabs Frank and kisses him passionately before being rebuffed with “I don’t mix pleasure with business.” But Frank’s loyalty to Flood soon begins to erode as tensions mount between the threesome, aggravated by the arrival of Flood’s gang of “experts” in bank robbery. And this is when this potentially dynamic little caper picture becomes an entirely different movie.

Robert H. Harris (center) is featured in this lobbycard from The Big Caper (1957).

Enter Zimmer (Robert H. Harris), the bomb maker, whose purpose is to distract the police with explosions while Dutch (Florenz Ames), an elderly safecracker who hasn’t worked in ten years, is the bank vault safecracker (Dutch appears to be modeled on Sam Jaffe’s dapper criminal genius in 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle).

Florenz Ames was a character actor who appeared in several films and TV series during the 1950s.

Zimmer arrives at Frank’s house as a sweaty neurotic mess and stays that way the rest of the movie. Not only is he a barely functioning alcoholic with a gin obsession but he soon proves to be a dangerous pyromaniac as well. To say that Robert Harris’s performance is bouncing-off-the-walls looney is an understatement and every time he’s on screen he is more reminiscent of some eccentric character out of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) or Murder, He Says (1945).

Roxanne Arlen, Paul Picerni (center) and Corey Allen are part of a gang plotting a robbery in The Big Caper (1957).

Then director Robert Stevens kicks the madness up a notch to level 11 with the introduction of Roy (Corey Allen), a psychotic platinum blonde muscleman whose sole purpose is to provide any brute strength needed for the job. In one of the movie’s craziest scenes, Roy, a self proclaimed health nut, attempts to entertain Kay in his swinging bachelor pad, deejaying discs on his turntable and serving her booze (“I don’t touch the stuff myself”), while she waits for Flood’s arrival. And when the big boss man finally shows up, his dark side starts to emerge in a dramatic way. He takes Roy aside in the bedroom, reprimanding him for his behavior.

Roy (Corey Allen) cowers in fear as Flood (James Gregory) prepares to give him a beating in The Big Caper (1957).

In a scene charged with homoerotic overtones, Roy cringes on the bed in fear (or is it eager anticipation?) as Flood, towering over him, takes over his belt and begins to beat him while Kay waits apprehensively in the next room. In case we miss the mutual SM arrangement between Roy and Flood, a later scene underscores the perversity yet again when Flood says menacingly to Roy, “Before you turn in [for bed], I want to have a little talk with you.”

Paul Picerni (second from right) starred in the popular TV series, The Untouchables.

Topping off the heist team is another loser – Harry (Paul Picerni, best known as Robert Stack’s partner on the TV series, The Untouchables), the lookout guy on the caper, who shows up with Doll (Roxanne Arlen), a loud-mouthed blonde vixen who already knows about the heist and demands to be cut in on the deal or she’ll blab to the cops.

A publicity photo featuring James Gregory (left), Rory Calhoun and Mary Acosta in the crime thriller, The Big Caper (1957), directed by Robert Stevens

With all of these wild card characters chewing up the scenery, the execution of the actual bank heist is relatively low key and dull in comparison. There is a much more suspenseful sequence midway through The Big Caper where the neighbor Mr. Loxley (Patrick McVey), his son Bennie (Terry Kelman) and their dog Murphy make a surprise visit to Frank and Kay’s home. The dog senses the rest of the gang hiding upstairs and runs off to find them, barking his head off, with Bennie in hot pursuit. Kay manages to stop Benny before he discovers the unusual house guests and she rescues the dog in the nick of time; we see Flood and Roy getting ready to slit the dog’s throat with a knife. Yikes! 

Most of the real excitement though comes in seeing what the deranged Zimmer will do next. Earlier in the film, he goes on a gin bender and winds up burning down an old factory warehouse just for kicks. During the robbery, however, he goes off to the local high school, determined to blow it sky high as a diversion for the police. Frank and Fay, attending a neighbor’s cookout as an alibi, learn to their horror that the high school is not deserted as expected but is hosting a rehearsal for an upcoming student pageant. Frank rushes off to stop the madman before he can do any collateral damage but he has another nemesis on his trail – an enraged Flood whose suspicion of Frank and Fay’s relationship has been confirmed.  

The grand finale of The Big Caper should have been explosive but instead feels rushed and anticlimactic. It’s as if the director was on the sidelines with a stop watch, urging his cast to rush through their scenes because they have only seconds left to spare. Don’t expect any closure here or any epilogue explaining what happened to Dutch or Roy or Harry or even Flood who is almost beaten to death.  

There is no clear indication of what will happen to Frank and Kay either though Frank seems surprisingly upbeat as he calls the cops with the cool million close at hand. But if The Big Caper fails to completely satisfy on the level of a heist thriller, it more than makes up for it with its unfettered histrionics.

Rory Calhoun makes a convincing small time hood in the crime drama, The Big Caper (1957).

The performances are all over the place though Roy Calhoun and Mary Costa help ground the film at times in a grittier, more realistic film noir universe. Calhoun is completely convincing as a dead end career criminal who begins to see the writing on the wall. Maybe his natural ease in the role comes from being an ex-con himself (he served time in San Quentin for various offenses before he was even 21 years old).

Rory Calhoun was a 20th-Century-Fox contract player who was promoted as a promising leading man in such films as 1954’s River of No Return (pictured) with Marilyn Monroe.

No one would probably vouch for Calhoun as a great actor but he could be surprisingly effective when given decent material and certainly brought some much needed verve and attitude to his many genre films. At one time 20th Century Fox was grooming him as a leading man in the fifties (With a Song in My Heart, How to Marry a Millionaire, River of No Return) but he was too rough around the edges for that kind of star build-up and worked much better in bad boy roles (A Bullet is Waiting, The Spoilers) like another slightly older actor of his generation, Robert Mitchum. Calhoun was also not afraid to have fun and even reveal a sly sense of humor when he found himself stuck in ridiculous costume epics such as Marco Polo (1962) or camp horror outings like Motel Hell (1980).

A publicity photo of Mary Acosta in the 1957 crime thriller, The Big Caper (1957)

Mary Costa? She is quite the scintillating dish in The Big Caper and possesses some physical characteristics that remind me of Lola Albright. But she also generates real chemistry with Calhoun and strikes the right note of vulnerability, sexual longing and despair. Unfortunately Costa barely had a career at all and The Big Caper was her first starring role. Her biggest claim to fame is Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) in which she provided the voice for Princess Aurora. After that, she worked in television (mostly providing voice overs) and didn’t make another on-screen appearance until The Great Waltz in 1972.

Corey Allen (left) and James Gregory play a bizarre S&M couple in The Big Caper (1957).

The rest of The Big Caper casting is like a face off between the world’s greatest scene stealers. James Gregory, a fine and charismatic character actor who is best remembered for his role as the commie political puppet in The Manchurian Candidate (1963), does the best he can with a character that grows more ridiculous as the film progresses. By the end he has been reduced to a sociopathic buffoon yet the movie never explains the hold he has over his gang or why they were in such awe of him. Neverthess, Gregory brings a touch of smooth villainy to the part and adds a touch of sadism and kinkiness to his scenes with Roy and inevitably Kay.

Robert H. Harris plays a habitual pyromaniac in the heist melodrama, The Big Caper (1957)

Robert H. Harris and Corey Allen, on the other hand, go for broke in their scenes. Harris, a familiar face in countless TV shows and movies of the 50s and 60s (How to Make a Monster, The Invisible Boy), has a lot of fun with the pyromaniac aspect of his character, particularly in one scene where he strikes a match and gazes lustfully at it as if lost in sexual revelry.

Corey Allen flexes his muscles for Mary Acosta in this lobbycard from The Big Caper (1957).

Corey Allen, who appeared two years earlier as James Dean’s chief rival and tormentor in Rebel Without a Cause, is almost unrecognizable here with his bronzed skin and albino hair but he looks like he’s having a blast acting the part of a complete lunatic; his post-midnight swim scene with the ill-fated Doll is a short but colorful example of gleeful excess.

HUAC hearings circa 1951-1953

One last bit of trivia about the film: Martin Berkeley, the screenwriter who adapted the Lionel White novel for the screen, is infamous as the industry insider who named more than a 150 fellow writers, actors and directors in the 1951-52 HUAC hearings during the communist purge of the McCarthy era.

The Big Caper was released on DVD-R by MGM as part of their “Limited Edition Collection” in October 2011 (it includes no extras) and is the only way to view this offbeat crime thriller even if it isn’t presented in its original aspect ratio. The movie could certainly use a Blu-Ray upgrade but that probably isn’t going to happen.

Mary Costa models a swim suit in this publicity photo from The Big Caper (1957).

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