Henry Hathaway’s 1960 film Seven Thieves falls in the heist category. The setting takes place is Monte Carlo. In the opening scene, we find the professor, Theo Wilkins (Edward G. Robinson), on the beach, conversing with two small children about the nature of seashell collecting – an innocuous beginning, to be sure. When a voice is heard in the background, the professor turns to greet Paul Mason (Rod Steiger), an old friend. The two men then go to a small café to talk about the “job” that the professor has in mind. The feisty Paul has just spent three years in prison and is reluctant to even consider another “experiment”, as the professor calls his plan. The latest caper that the professor has in mind is none other than breaking into the vault of the casino, or what the professor calls the temple of Midas, on the night of the governor’s ball. The professor’s hope is that during an event like that, when people divert their energy to mingling, few will notice the unnoticeable. Thus, one of the major themes of Seven Thieves has to do with the consequences of neglecting the minute details of everyday experience.
A film like Seven Thieves allows us to re-discover, or re-event, the order of what Edmund Husserl has referred to as the lived-world of experience. Theo’s world-weariness is an indication of an incomplete life. We find him troubling himself with what is to be the last and definitive attempt to round out his existence. But Theo’s plan is not as one-dimensional as the plot – that is, what the surface structure of the film may suggest. We gradually come to realize this as we get to know him as the film progresses.
What seems so important about this notion of the everyday world as the ground of human existence? Why place so much emphasis on the fleeting and stubborn conditions and exigencies of daily experience? Seven Thieves brings together a motley crew of characters who do not seem to depart too drastically from the true-life condition of actual men and women. They are a cornucopia, or slice of life, of the human condition. None of them alone may paint a picture of most people, but when viewed as composites of human strengths and frailties, they manage to enlighten us with a good representation of the human experience. A few of these characters live in a fog of suspended animation where the only thing that moves them is reaping the monetary reward that the heist promises. Others, like Melanie (Joan Collins) and Raymond (Alexander Scourby), are banking on correcting their moral deficiencies. Melanie’s greatest wish is to find respectability, while Raymond aims for the exploration of carnal pleasure. Paul and Theo, on the other hand, have loftier goals than the mere attainment of money.
Theo and Paul respect the order of everyday life. In both men we experience the same respect for detail of everyday life that we also find in Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, for instance. Theo and Paul exhibit a vitality that is not easily quenched with sensual rewards. Theo’s hope is that he will be remembered whenever people think about the casino heist, when no explanation is found for the disappearance of the money. His strongest motivation stems from a contrarian, or Volterian, regard for laughter. “How did they do it? Who was it that accomplished such a feat?” This, he hopes, is what people will ask. Granted, Theo’s answer to his existential “crisis” may seem extreme, but, given the conventions of the film, one is to accept that the casino heist can actually stand for most any other human project. After all, Seven Thieves is a film, a written story that has been transcribed into moving pictures. Thus, film must allow for a degree of “sensual magic” that reminds us that we are engaged in fiction. Cinema is not life, but rather a mere representation of its essences. Cinematic, visual magic corresponds to our personal level of imagination. For readers, film allows for a comparison of the virtues of the written word with the exigencies of the latter’s visual manifestation. Some writers and readers even refuse this on the grounds that visual representations of stories strip the vision that they have formed of the fictitious quality of written works. Of course, film and the act of reading are not mutually exclusive activities. Non-readers alike delight in the control that film offers them in terms of imaginative possibilities. It is for this latter group that film has the best justification for being. For reflective and contemplative types, film acts as a body double, where we can venture out of ourselves, away from our vital circumstance, as it were, and view aspects of our lives as they stand still before us. This is perhaps the greatest humanistic contribution that the moving image can offer us. Cinema, as Andrei Tarkovsky suggests, is essentially the capturing of time.
But despite the imaginative conventions established by any art form, human reality remains the anchor of how much we can actually reap from imagination, our inherent regulator of possibility. Cinema, as is also the case in literature, ought not to merely purport to demonstrate cases or modes of the believable – for that matter, we often find reality to be much stranger than fiction, but only to serve as a silhouette, or map, of the human condition. In addition, we cannot neglect to weigh the playful or unserious nature of film as a propædeutic of human experience.
It happens that the professor is a scientist, a chemist who has lost his job a while back due to some academic imbroglio. The fine details of the professor’s past are not made known, thus creating the impression of a more sophisticated character than one would normally expect in this genre – not to mention in the academic world. The strength of Theo’s character is that he is multi-dimensional. He is a man of culture who finds himself outside of his comfort zone. Yet, he is also worldly, practical and innovative. He would never be able to manage the different personalities that he brings together and with the level of control that he retains, if not for the latter two qualities. We find the professor surprising us throughout the film. Theo understands that his choices cast a light in both, his inner self as well, as in external conditions that will eventually transcend him. As a chemist, he is concerned with the nature of experimentation. We hear him mentioning this several times throughout the film. But this notion of experimentation clearly surpasses his regard for the scientific method once that he is no longer employed as a scientist. What then can he mean by “experiment”, “temperature”, “ingredients”? He has incubated the idea or hypothesis of the casino heist for more than a year. The experiment has essentially turned into an existential project. While the scientist literally remains outside of the experiment, Theo now has become his own project. This is his understanding of posterity. When asked by Paul in his characteristic matter-of-fact manner why he wants to undertake this job, the professor responds, “I want to make the world gasp a little, Paul.” This, he intimates, is his final testament to a world that, he believes, has wronged him.
The beginning of Seven Thieves showcases an undeniable existential fare in Theo and Paul that sets the mood for the rest of the film. These two characters are highly stylised and represent an individualized and personal direction to the casino heist plot. There is nothing stereotypical about them. They are not mindless criminals. Theirs is not a world ruled by greed or quick sensual satisfaction. This is evident in Paul’s restrained composure in dealing with Melanie. Neither are they portrayed as territorial – strongmen wielding guns. Their manner is cordial and likeable. As they sit on a bench that overlooks the beach, Paul asks Theo why he sent him the airline ticket. Theo responds: “I thought you might enjoy a change, rest.” Theo does not know just how to break his latest idea to Paul. This reticence on the professor’s part seems to stem from a recent failure, where Paul paid heavily with his imprisonment. Paul answers in his characteristic wry manner: “I’ve been resting for the last three years, remember?” This is Paul’s subdued way of admitting regret for a past that he does not allow himself to dwell on. And then Theo says, “I have very few friends. Nobody closer than you.” This line of dialogue proves to be prophetic, as we come to realize at the end of the film. But Paul doesn’t buy this and forces Theo to ask, “What’s happened to you? You used to have those treasured gifts: patience, silence.” Paul then answers sarcastically: “I lost them resting.” Paul is nobody’s fool. Hence, early in the film, Paul comes across as restless, an irascibility born of too many failed aspirations and illusions. Only later do we begin to see this jagged disposition as an overtly cautious and measured perspective.
These early scenes by the beach also establish Theo as somewhat of an idealist romantic who is still struggling to cope with the events of his past. Paul, on the contrary, is pragmatic and methodical, always cutting through the chase. Both Theo and Paul are concerned with time: Theo does not have much left, while Paul has an aversion to wasting it. Then Theo, apparently trying to put his life in perspective, admits: “Me? A disowned Einstein? A man kicked out of the seat of higher learning and into the gutter?” Theo views his future as thwarted. Paul, on the other hand, responds by shrugging off the past. He merely says, “Well, let’s not indulge ourselves.” Putting the past to rest may be Paul’s manner of dealing with his past – with the passage of time itself perhaps – but he remains practical in disposition, not bitter.
Theo’s unfettered idealism and optimism is best manifested when he tells Paul that “Luck grows like apples on trees. If your reach is long enough it’s there to be plucked.” This is an indication of Theo’s reticence. But judging by his immense enthusiasm for the new project, we come to view him as one who is motivated by renewal. This is also an embracing of daily experience in all that it has to offer. Several times throughout the film, Theo manages to offer glimpses of his wisdom, much as Howard (Walter Huston), the old, but wise prospector in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Theo’s preoccupation seems to suggest the question: “Just what does it all mean?” From there they go into the casino to have a drink. Theo tells him, “Look around you Paul. You’re in the temple of Midas. The holy of holiest. See all the worshipers of the golden calf.” Paul agrees. Bringing the drink to his mouth, he then answers, “Everybody’s rich but they want to get richer.” Theo capitulates on this mutual perspective, as he turns philosophical:
Just think of it, Paul. Whose money is it? Where does it all come from? Tax deductible expenses, excess dividends, rents paid to absentee landlords, or money of men who never got a fingernail dirty, who become rich on the sweat of …
At this point, Paul interrupts Theo by reminding him that nobody forces then to gamble. Paul is not interested in self-pitying, ideological fodder that merely serves as justification for their actions.
This sequence of dialogue effectively establishes the confidence that the two men responsible for setting up the heist are equal to their task. In other words, the start of the film convinces the viewer early on that Paul and Theo are not merely reckless and irrational criminals. That being the case, they would never successfully plan the heist, or much less pull it off.
For the heist genre to work effectively, a cinematic convention must be established that reproduces the essence and techniques used in real-world capers. The exploits of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, the “butterfly” who allegedly escaped from Devil’s Island in the 1940s, and the twenty members of the great train robbery of 1963, in Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, quickly come to mind as real-life examples of this kind of calculated daring. Many more of these real-life capers can be mentioned, but somehow, as W. Somerset Maugham asserts, reality makes for boring storytelling. Part of the reason for this seems to be that imagination must be cultivated and allowed free reign for it to suggest something of substantial worth for most people. This process takes time and patience. This may explain the qualitative differences between imaginative heists as the above-mentioned, and the lowly examples of brutal and deadly hold-ups. However, expediency is the main problem that most of the films that try to convey these stories run into. How to best tell a story? This may be a central question of the writer: words conveying emotions, thoughts, and pictures formed from language conventions. In addition to this, the film director must address these same concerns in respect to time and visuals. In a sensually desensitised age such as ours, hollow visual images seem enough to carry a large portion of mankind from the drudgery of daily life into a final drudgery called death. There are some minor exceptions, where the sensual conveys a profound spiritual oasis where objectifying forces are neutralized by the human spirit. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) quickly come to mind as examples of the latter. Yet uses of visual images in cinema dating from the late 1960s seem to have deteriorated to the order of special effects that often merely work as a device that calls attention to itself.
Art, then, like human existence, ought to possess a translucent and transcendent quality that enlightens without the need for self-conscious artifice. Human existence may present itself as a spectacle of sight and sound in its immediacy, but to refuse to go beyond this level merely suggests a fool’s tale. Unfortunately, like children, who’s initial æsthetic stage of engagement with reality is limited to the sensual – one of colour and sound – most films cannot transcend this sensual temptation. The same way that the casino robbers have to be up to the task that they are called upon to perform, so too remains the level of art that we embrace in proportion to our experience. What is so captivating about film as visual art is its inherent – even though accidental – humanistic quality. By this I merely mean that, in looking at the world through a mirror called cinema, we are given a golden opportunity to decipher the bits and pieces of reality that normally would escape our attention. From these neglected details and vignettes of daily existence one can awaken to the greater unseen order of human life. Georg Simmel points this out when he argues in his essay from 1908 entitled “Subjective Culture” that “thus far at least, historical development has moved toward steadily increasing separation between objective cultural production and the cultural level of the individual.” (1) The importance of this realization is nowhere better played out that in the æsthetic, cultural and life forms of contemporary man.
Seven Thieves is comparable in theme to such other great heist films like: Topkapi (Jules Dassin, 1964), which revolves around the stealing of precious jewels from a national museum in Turkey; The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, 1968), a film that has to do with the masterminding of a bank heist by a bank executive, except that this film does not concentrate on the unforeseen ironical twist that is so central to Seven Thieves; and Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut, 1960), a moral tale of a soft-headed brother who drags his brother into the underworld of crime. In Father Brown (aka The Detective, Robert Hamer, 1954), Alec Guiness, playing the role of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, spends his time running after an art thief who, curiously enough steals paintings for his love of art, not profit. The thief’s contention is that art belongs not so much to he who owns it, but rather to he who enjoys it. Chesterton’s social commentary is never more subtle, yet poignant.
In Father Brown, the dominant theme is one of resentment, such as is the case in Seven Thieves. The professor is an old man who understands that time is the universal equalizer. He plans the heist as a last chance to perform a task that seems consistent with his vision of life. Heist films that maintain motives other than mere profit are always more appealing because they justify the actions of the characters on what appear to be more “humanitarian” and loftier terms. Some critics have described this genre as being a cinema of cops and robbers. But when we pay attention to the better films in this genre, we notice a central and profound undercurrent that usually goes undetected by casual viewers. Action in film, while remaining a central ingredient in the development of the narrative, can only be effective as a sensual dimension. The failure of most action films is that they are only that: a saturation of action. Unfortunately, in many cases mere gratuitous action is precisely what makes a film worth the effort for some viewers, and often enough this alone serves as a strong justification for making them.
Just before the two men discuss the plan, Paul looks around the small café and witnesses a well-dressed woman sitting in a nearby table, eating while her white poodle eats from another plate. Again, this is a case of more witty and observant social commentary that, like Chesterton’s wit, falls short of ideology. This is a significant scene becomes it sets the stage for what will be another prominent theme of the film: to steal from the morally decrepit rich is, in fact, no crime at all. This is the rallying point from which the film springs, even though we get the impression that stealing at-large would not be discarded by most of these characters. For example, take the professor’s reasoning: “Look Paul, everyone’s rich and they want to be richer.” This line is enough to have some viewers rallying them on. Later in the scene he utters, “When boarding houses, casinos, insurance companies go under no one cares.” This is a case of self-justification, perhaps, yet not utterably untrue. The strength of the professor’s argument is that people do not care about the losses that a casino will have. In fact, he is counting on this bit of practical wisdom.
The German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) makes a very valid argument in his work, Resentment in the Structuring of Ethics (Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen), by suggesting that resentment comes about through a self-analysis where one sees oneself trapped in a situation that we dislike. This leads to vindication in extreme cases, but often settles as a sense of entitlement. This, too, is part of the emotional baggage that the professor carries with him. The professor is convinced that this action will only bring about laughter and rejoice from the average person. Might he not associate the casino with the people that expelled him from the university? This, he imagines, is a form of protection from both the law and accusations of immorality. But is it not immortality that he really seeks?
The motives that entice the seven characters to take part in the heist are all different and, in some respects, unique. Paul, for instance, is reluctant to accept the job, but decides to do it only in reverence to the professor, who has begged for his help for a final time. Theo needs a confidant that he can trust, but also a witness to his life. Paul’s reason for taking on the casino job is not truly made manifest until the end of the film. In his behalf, we can argue that he makes a sacrifice for the well being of the professor. Raymond, the executive secretary of the casino, who also happens to be a coward, becomes involved in order to ingratiate himself with Melanie, a nightclub dancer. Raymond’s desire for Melanie is not exactly clear, just that, like a young boy, he will do anything for the attention of a girl. While most of the other characters are doing it strictly for the money, it is a fundamental staple of the major themes of the film that the main two characters, the professor and Paul, who mastermind the entire operation, have more “profound” motivations. These are the only two characters that are not doing it strictly for the money. This, of course, leads the active viewer to the realization that cinema has a viewpoint. The viewpoint is the director’s vision, which allows for a unified meaning to flow from the narrative. The viewpoint does not have to be a grand vision of human reality, but it must move the drama along toward a definite resolution. A film like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963) embraces a form of zaniness that can only exist as cinema, and yet the characters all embody a particular take on human reality that is in keeping with some actual human types.
It is my experience that in watching films there should be some directed meaning – a stylistic coherence, though not necessarily a moral that organizes the visual and sensual experience that is cinematic art. Simple cohesion will do. After all, one of the main demands that most people make of cinema is that it offer a unified vision of a particular angle of human reality. Unfortunately, most films come across as a barrage of images whose sole justification is the killing of time. Granted, that this sort of movie is and always has been in regular demand by the mass audience of moviegoers, but it is viewpoint that sets artistic films from the average sensual/moving pictures formula.
Paul only undertakes the job because Poncho (Eli Wallach) convinces him that the group is “to gamble with higher stakes than the casino is used to seeing”. They are banking on a blitzkrieg technique, an assault on reality so remarkable that the traditional “It can’t be done” that the casino has come to expect will prove to be its greatest weakness. But complimentary to this methodical and calculated risk we may add that Paul has done a thorough background check of the other five, excluding the professor, whom he knows intimately. It is a rather interesting anecdote to mention that the degree of rigorous preparation that goes into this heist will effectively disqualify the average common thief. For one, we see that the professor has planned the whole operation for an entire year. He has secured detailed maps of the inside of the casino as well as the schedule of the intricacies of its day-to-day operation. The heist is to take place on the night of the governors’ ball and, as Theo intuits, “the casino will be too full and busy” to look for our kind. For instance, he makes sure that the Baron von Roelitz, whom they are to impersonate, will be in Brazil taking care of oil business at the time of the heist. They purchase a Rolls Royce and paint the Baron’s code of arms on the doors. Later, Poncho who impersonates the Baron, throws a temper tantrum as the wheelchair-bound Baron is known to do. When the professor asks if perhaps Poncho is not overdoing it, Paul replies: “You ever heard of a millionaire being thrown out of a casino because his manners were bad?” Seven Thieves exploits the folly, hypocrisies and half-truths of a number of human relationships.
The viewpoint of this film, which is also a strong observation of human existence, is founded on the overall understanding that the regular casino goers are not exactly moral agents themselves. This is best exemplified in the scene when a tuxedo-wearing gentleman who is a guest at the governors’ ball recognizes Melanie from previously having seen her dance in a nightclub. The message here might suggest that perhaps like attracts like. The interesting implication is that to reveal Melanie’s profession would also mean to give away the veneer of this particular gentleman.
Perhaps much can be read into a character or situation in most films. However, in Theo’s particular case, we are left with the distinct impression that dreams and the will that is required for their attainment are central ingredients in our drive to live. Consider, for instance, the professor’s desire to “make the world gasp a little” and contrast it with the panache of Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) in Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966) when asked if perhaps he didn’t think that spectators come to the race to see someone get killed, to which he replies in the affirmative, but that he must nevertheless race in order to put life in proper perspective. Furthermore, take this attitude and couple it with the anxiety felt by Guido (Marcelo Mastronianni) in Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) in trying to reconcile his artistic vision with the pressure exerted on him by the producer. What one is left with in these instances is the inner vision of a will that refuses to become calcified.
There seems to be an existential buffer zone of inner mystery that some characters must possess – this, regardless of their appearance in novels or film, if the character is to be believable. Reading too much into characterization of any type often serves to destroy the conventions of the on-screen character, while it is perhaps the power of film to allow a character to be showcased in its purity. In other words, there exists a sphere of interiority, which in fiction, as is often the case in life itself, must remain impenetrable. This sacred space cannot be violated by overindulgent analysis and “theory”.
This existential longing is beautifully placed on display at the end of Seven Thieves, when the job is successfully completed and the professor dies of a heart attack in the back of a delivery van. The truly human impact of this scene, if not of the entire film, is realized when we find out from Paul that the professor is his father. This is one of several memorable scenes in this film. At this point, the question of immorality is effectively juxtaposed with that of immortality. This latter theme takes precedence at the end of the film, but its centrality to the film is rendered from the very start. Because the professor has such a strong desire for avenging the wrongs that he has suffered, some may come to question his moral makeup. From the start, what we know of the professor is very little indeed: his having lost his teaching position as a chemist. Is this enough for us to take a moral stance on his entire life? Clearly the casino owners will think so.
When the professor exclaims to Paul early in the film that he has no friends, it is not clear if this is entirely his fault or the result of life’s contingencies. It is a common observance that very good people usually have the fewest “friends”. Classic examples of the action/adventure genre have traditionally suffered from a myopia whereby their guiding raison d’être has been subsumed by their visual qualities. It ought not to be ignored that the level of difficulty – the plotting of events cannot be separated from the inner quality of the characters that undertake the task. This is essential in establishing a film’s logical sequencing and overall believability. The professor’s planning the heist for the duration of a year signifies that a great deal of thought has gone into the project. A heist film like Ocean’s Eleven (Lewis Milestone, 1960) can work both as entertainment and a plausible storyline because all of the men that Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) brings together are ex-army companions. This is a significant plotting device because it explains their respective level of expertise as well as the necessary human bond that they enjoy. It is a very common thread found in this type of film that it takes either fate or a malicious will in the form of an envious outsider to foil what meticulous planning and moral unison can accomplish.
The situation in Seven Thieves is different, however. As an example of frail and vitally unfounded human relations, the heist brings together a series of strangers that, even though possessing a specialized skill, they cannot respect each other, as we witness in the end. But Paul is astute and has all of the members checked out first. Thus, the initial problem of the film is not the inherent complexity of the heist itself, but rather one of trust. Poncho cannot bring himself to take the cyanide pill that the professor has created. For example, the meagre and libidinal reason for the acceptance of the project by Raymond, who is the Executive Secretary of the casino, is his infatuation with a nightclub dancer. How far this quasi-romance can keep him committed to the heist is a question that Paul and Theo entertain seriously. The close-up of Raymond’s face as he looks at Melanie dance at the club is one of a man mesmerized by an unattainable fantasy. The gleam in his eyes and his intense look speak volumes of a man that would do almost anything to secure that which he does not possess. The other characters are strictly in it for the money. Melanie lies to Paul about her past, as they sit in the casino during a trial run of the heist. Paul confronts her and tells her that he checked her out and that her parents were not what she told him. Melanie is shocked by the extent of Paul’s meticulous planning. She is also impressed. She, in fact, is desperately in need of creating a “background of decency” to her life. In an earlier exchange, after Paul accuses Melanie of bitterness she simply replies, “Not bitter Mr Mason. Just tired.” Late in the film, Melanie comes to the realization, “I used to believe that having a lot of money may let me be born again.” Her idea, of course, is that she will give up her nightclub act and shady associations in exchange for instant ladyhood.
But the social themes in Seven Thieves never deteriorate into ideological diatribe. Early in the film, we see Paul telling Theo not to indulge himself in talk about the rich people that frequent the casino, given that they too want those same riches. Paul goes through great lengths to remind the professor that perhaps his justification for the heist is not so grand. Paul does not allow Theo the luxury of justifying the casino heist to himself. Thus, when viewed carefully, we witness that the film is a quiet observation on human relations and even on life itself. Theo is a particularly interesting character if for no other reason than that he is a man who is feeling the bite of time. He is older and understands his time to be limited. Of course, age is not the sole reason for this inner “crisis”, but it accentuates it. Now, philosophically this seems rather interesting regardless of the intended direction that his longing takes. Theo’s life, like human experience, has taken a particular path that has delivered him to his present predicament. Yet, he offers some semblance of reflection – enough to warrant a second look at why he wants to undertake his desired goal. If Theo feels a certain pull on his subjectivity from the objective order of human reality, it is one that has him facing an abyss – a nothingness that up to that particular juncture in his life he had not felt or cared to entertain. Consider Gabriel Marcel’s contention in regard to Theo’s existential crisis: “I wonder if nothingness does not play a kind of intermediary and suspect role between two positions of being – an initial position and an ultimate one.” (2) Theo’s longing addresses the nothingness that originates in being – that is, from his own existence. He even tells Paul that he has the urgent need to see a friendly face. It does not take much vision to witness the death of organic forms of life all around us. And when that observer is a sentient being, we internalise and customize the understanding that we have of time. Immanuel Kant’s notion that time is the internal form of human reality seems undeniable.
The second nightclub scene is supremely revealing concerning the psychological and emotional condition of Theo, Paul and Poncho. When Paul looks around the nightclub, he turns to Theo and says, “You mix with some peculiar company.” Theo, using language from his previous career as a chemist, then tells him, “In an experiment like this you take human beings as we find them. Why be interested in their private life?” This exchange is particularly important not only to the film and its moral stance, but also to this genre. This is best exemplified by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in the introduction of their book, “A Catalogue of Crime”:
For the seasoned reader, tales of crime fulfil the definition that Dr. Johnson gave in another context: “the art of murdering contrary to what is often said, the pleasure is not the symbolic satisfaction of aggressive desires. The pleasure of reading crime fiction is intellectual and exploratory – the world seen under a special light.” If a more visceral emotion goes with curiosity satisfied, it is the love of making order out of confusion. The philosopher R.G. Collingwood put it simply: “The hero of a detective novel is thinking exactly like an historian when, from indication of the most varied kinds, he constructs an imaginary picture of how the crime was committed and by whom.” (3)
Paul’s reticence is manifested in his ability to rattle the other characters in order to secure a proof of their strength of character. In other words, Paul is testing them through his seemingly standoffish manner. He and the professor act as wise old men who understand the intricacies of the criminal underworld. They are both outsiders who have not come to this juncture in their lives through a natural disposition. This is very evident when Paul forces Raymond to decide if he can get them invitations to the governors’ ball. Raymond is literally seen sweating in his indecision. Paul’s practical and rigorous manner presses Poncho to reflect about the ordeal that they are planning to undertake. Poncho comes across as too sure for Paul’s liking. When Poncho challenges Paul about the nature of the job, the following exchange takes place:
Paul: “Because it has the smell of insanity.”
Poncho: “Daring is not insanity. All we need is to gamble with higher stakes than the casino is used to and to have faith in each other.”
Paul: “Cemeteries are full of people who had faith.”
Poncho: “Obviously professor your friend is a very nervous man.”
Paul: “Oh, my friend that is the understatement of the evening. I am worst than nervous. You know something glib, positive characters like you scare me.”
Paul’s meticulousness, leave-nothing-to-chance attitude is again manifest when Melanie assures him that “There isn’t any reason to worry.” To which he replies, “Oh, uh. Who’s going to guarantee it? You?” Paul’s manner cuts through the other’s optimism because he understands the complexity of the job. Later she asks him if he dislikes her. Paul answers, “You have to be conscious of people to like or dislike.”
The plot of Seven Thieves is replete with insightful nuances on the nature of irony. Equally true is Paul telling Poncho, who is passing himself off as Baron von Roelitz, and fears that he may be overacting not to worry of acting convincingly, given that the count acts badly enough to cover whatever mistakes Poncho can make. The dramatic irony that drives this film serves as a kind of catharsis, as the characters cannot anticipate their final surprise. The characters may miss the point of the ironic turn to come because they are too rooted in “reality” to necessarily realize what is about to occur. The great lesson of Seven Thieves is its ability to uncover our nuanced discernment of everyday experience. Again, I stress that we bring to and extract from drama whatever condition we deem necessary in our own existential condition.
The dramatic scope of Seven Thieves is too complicated and sophisticated to offer an in-depth synopsis here, but it is safe to say that the trouble truly begins after the heist goes off according to plan. This may seem like a cinematic anti-climax, but it illustrates the film’s ironic theme well. The gang takes the four million francs out of the casino in a false compartment of the “Baron’s” wheelchair. Theo’s existential exigency finally reaches an impasse when the heist is over and they are driving away. He cannot contain his excitement when he tells Paul: “Can’t wait until morning to see what the newspapers say.” Shortly after, his life, now seemingly complete, he has a heart attack and dies. At this point, we witness Paul crying, as it is revealed that Theo is his father.
The drama that frames the final sequences of the film has Paul becoming more stringent with his patience. The others are anxious to get their hands on their portion of the money, but Paul shocks them by revealing that the money has been serialized by the bank of France, thus effectively making the money useless to them. The fragile functional unity that the group enjoyed disintegrates. Paul’s discomfort with the other members, as well as his reluctance to take part in the heist, now takes over him. Here we see that he took part in the job solely for the love of Theo, his father.
- Georg Simmel. On Individuality and Social Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 234.
- Gabriel Marcel, translated by Stephen Jolin and Peter McCormick, Tragic Wisdom and Beyond (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 75.
- Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor Hertig, A Catalogue of Crime (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989), p. xiii.