A Man Got To Be Invisible: Heist

'Heist' characters Pinky (Ricky Jay), Joe (Gene Hackman) and Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) in the film's opening scene.

‘Heist’ characters Pinky (Ricky Jay), Joe (Gene Hackman) and Bobby Blane (Delroy Lindo) in the film’s opening scene.

When I’m out doing my thing, I like to be invisible. Man got to do his work, then he be invisible.” -African-American professional burglar, 1981, ‘In Their Own Words; Criminals on Crime’.

The opening lines of dialogue in David Mamet’s Boston crime film “Heist” reveal everything that you need to know about the rest of the film. In a testy exchange while getting their morning coffee, two men quibble over people’s motivation in life. The first man stakes his claim on money; the other man believes in love. The first man, played by Gene Hackman, initially seems to agree, saying, “Well, they’re right, too. It is love,”- before twisting the knife- “Love of money.”

In true Mamet fashion, a few slippery sentences manage to encapsulate the core message of what he intends to show you. Mamet’s two enduring themes continue in ‘Heist’: the desperate extremes to which men take their vocations, and how those vocations are often illusions evoked from their own, and others, trickery. In ‘Glengary Glenn Ross’, these themes destroy a cabal of shady real estate brokers trying to outvie each other for another day of survival; in ‘Homicide’, Mamet similarly destroys a detective torn between his vocation and a desire for ethnic recognition. Over and over again, Mamet has written scripts about how desire is dangerous- dangerous to a man’s ability to think clearly (Oleanna), dangerous to the completion of his professional goals (Ronin), dangerous to his life (Redbelt). In Mamet’s worlds, men who desire nothing are the safest, but Mamet’s worlds are built to trap men into accidently coveting what may not really exist.

Like most Mamet plots, the narrative of ‘Heist’ is thin: a group of thieves break into a jeweler’s and inadvertently are caught on camera. Joe (Gene Hackmen), the ringleader of the group, is an enigma who uses the other members of his crew to act in his stead. Blane (Delroy Lindo) is the hot-blooded, excitable ex-boxer and muscle; Pinky (the late magician Ricky Jay) is the misdirection and bait; and Fran (Rebbeca Pidgeon) is the insider and spy. Joe moves his team around as he likes, but rarely works with them; when we see him on the job, Joe gives himself tasks that don’t rely on anyone else. When their heist goes wrong, Joe’s lifestyle is disrupted, as his shylock Micky (played wonderfully by Danny Devito, who chews through scenery) saddles Joe and his team with his subtly cruel and deliberately provocative nephew, Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell). In order to recoup his losses to Micky, Joe must pull off the robbery of a shipment of gold on board an aircraft, and must accept an outsider working with his crew.

There is where the competition between vocation and desire enter ‘Heist’. Joe is desperate to get out of town and retire, but is unable to do so without carrying his professional work to the last ragged edge. Hackman’s character cries out his desperation several times through the film, but upon rewatching, you see that Joe never takes chances- everything is methodical and practiced, even the lies he uses to manipulate Jimmy Silk and Devito’s Mickey. The rest of Joe’s crew react with emotion and sentiment during the film, all of which lead them to disparate fates, but not Joe- for all his talk of desire, he never acts impulsively out of desire.

The crux of ‘Heist’ is that it tricks you into thinking that you are watching a movie about theft. But what you are actually watching is a trial by fire. Gene Hackmen’s Joe is obsessive about his own secrecy and who he can trust; and for a career criminal


Joe and Micky are polar opposites in character, which is the true crux of Joe’s distrust, rather than a loss of money.

planning to retire, how would he know he was safe? How many people could he allow to live? How could he push his crew, to test them to see how trustworthy they really are, given a little pressure or an opportunity to betray? The film is Joe’s test of his crew, to see how many of them give him up. Strangely, Joe somewhat admires Jimmy Silk- an oily weasel of a man- for being smoother and less obvious than the overt and obnoxious Micky, to the point where Joe not only spares Jimmy Silk, but offers him a human sacrifice- again, a choice that Joe makes to test one of his team, while trying to distract Jimmy Silk with the tried-and-true Mamet gambit of desire. For Joe, all this means nothing: if one of his crew betrays him, they weren’t worthy of his trust; and if they stay loyal, he advances his plan for completing his last big theft.

As always, Mamet’s language pops and hisses with menace dressed up in metaphor and non sequitur:

  • “I want you to be as quiet as an ant *not* pissing on cotton.”
  • “This stuff will eat your stomach lining. But at least I get to drink it first.”
  • “My man is so smooth, when he goes to sleep at night, sheep count him.”
  • “She could talk her way out of a sunburn.”
  • “Everyone needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

Mamet is sometimes credited for style over substance, but here the language of the thieves is intentional: they want to communicate without saying anything directly illegal of threatening. Joe lives and breathes through innuendo and implication, which works equally well in manipulating his team as it does in intimidating a victim. Again, the only time that Joe drops his subtlety is when he’s talking about leaving town, and you realize that this is his way of lying- when the clever bon mots stop, it’s because Hackman doth protest too much- the lack of camouflage is his camouflage. Joe talks about desire, but it doesn’t actually live within him; but he wants to appear human so that he can work more effectively.   

Throughout the film, we see Joe’s stolen gold endure a series of redirections and transformations. The gold bars are placed into boxes and transported away, only to be switched with boxes of scrap metal; then the gold is smelted down into one shape- perhaps- and then one final mutation. At the last moment, we’re not really sure where the gold actually resides. That is the metaphor of Joe the thief. Hackman’s character may have never had any intention of leaving town, but disguising his motivation set in motion a plan that devastates everyone around him except the most loyal. Joe’s plan may have been legitimate; or it could have been a ploy to weed out disloyalty; or it could have been a cynical strategy to kill off his peers so in order not to pay them their share. Any and all of these could be true, or none of them.

In the last moment of the film, Joe is still at his Boston harbor warehouse where he started. Same house, same car, and mostly unchanged. Was Joe a con man impersonating a highly skilled thief, or a thief playacting as a con man? Joe was not invisible in that you could see through him; he was invisible in that he could not be seen. His motivations, his greed, the colorful language given to him by Mamet- none of these were an invisibility cloak to be worn. Because he was never there in the first place.

About theoldsquid

Walking proof of the power of sublimation.
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