Bulldog Steiger (Clifton James) has great faith in his justice system, specifically the hard labour camp he runs for hardened criminals, out in the middle of nowhere so there’s no chance of escape because there’s nowhere to go, but one inmate in particular is a tough nut to crack. Walter Upjohn Ballentine (George C. Scott) is one of the most ingenious criminals around, and he has pulled off some incredible thefts, but now he’s caught in Steiger’s clutches with a long sentence ahead. That is until his lawyer Al G. Karp (Sorrell Booke) arrives – or is he his lawyer at all? Whatever, he has a proposition for Ballentine, and all he needs to do is break out then everything will be arranged. The target: a bank.
Bank Shot was the sort of film for which the word “offbeat” was invented, a succession of wacky characters getting up to wacky things, where nobody really gets hurt even though it’s a bunch of experienced criminals we’re dealing with, and you don’t even mind if they are making off with a fortune in cash, no matter that before we get to the ironic ending they were committed to their scheme with no show of remorse. Based on a Donald E. Westlake novel, it played as the type of comedy caper that British films of the previous decade had been revelling in where a collection of misfits would assemble to bring off the big job that would see them all set for the rest of their lives, but only after a few bumps in the road.
Quite often those bumps were of their own devising rather than anything the cops were dreaming up, but George C. Scott as the protagonist held it all together and it was really he we were following as the various threads were tied up in preparation for the film’s major setpiece. If anything, aside from a few off colour jokes this could easily have passed muster as a live action Disney effort of the same year, it had that same approach, benevolent even when the characters were up to no good, since they were never going to cross any kind of moral line other than their own self-interest, which we indulged mostly because we wanted to discover precisely how Ballentine was going to succeed, if indeed he would.
Scott was the rock in the cast, the centre of some lightly comic portrayals starting off with Clifton James as his screen nemesis, whose absurdity is emphasised when we see Ballentine make good his escape in a massive truck he hijacks, and a car chase ensues with one of the smallest vehicles around, a silly little police car that looks like a golf cart with an flashing light on top; the disparity between their sizes is just foolish enough to render the sequence amusing. What it was not perhaps was absolutely hilarious, and that’s what you had the impression director Gower Champion (a renowned dancer and choreographer who made the jump to directing) was aiming for, to have the audience rolling in the aisles.
The trouble with that was, while perfectly diverting and capable of raising the odd chuckle, you can’t imagine anyone roaring with laughter at Bank Shot, possibly down to how mild-mannered it was. When we reached the plans for stealing the money, things grew potentially interesting as the bank itself is situated in a mobile home, so Ballentine’s big idea was to not break in and make off with the safe, but to cart off the whole trailer, complete with security guards still inside. As with any heist movie, this lived or died by its central escapade, and in this case it was pretty good thanks to the novelty factor, but it never seemed quite as brilliant as the lead criminal mastermind’s abilities would have been geared towards from the way the others speak of him. Still, there was fun to be had from Joanna Cassidy (and her goofy laugh) as the backer who has designs on Ballentine which he is bizarrely reluctant to go through with, Booke blustering as only he could, Bob Balaban as a 1920s themed gangster, Frank McRae a safecracker too keen on pulling his gun, and so on. Maybe it was one for actor fanciers – or huge eyebrow fanciers. Music by John Morris.