Written and directed by Richard Brooks, 1971’s Dollars is a weird, freewheeling genre mash-up — part heist flick drama, part screwball character comedy. Parts work, parts don’t, but it’s still an instructive watch, if mainly to suss out how genre filmmaking has changed over the past 35 years.
A Nebraska-born con man working abroad in Hamburg as a security consultant, Joe Collins (Warren Beatty, sporting a Rod Blagojevich-esque helmet of hair) crafts a plan for a bank heist with ditsy hooker Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn), whose line of work puts her in contact with a shady, money-skimming army sergeant (Scott Brady), a German drug dealer/assassin (Arthur Brauss) and a Vegas mobster (Robert Webber), among others. Operating under the assumption that criminals can’t squeal to the cops if their ill-gotten gains suddenly go missing from a safety deposit box, Joe concocts a scheme by which he and Dawn target only the secret stashes of the aforementioned crooks. After Dawn phones in a fake bomb/theft threat, Joe locks himself in the bank’s vault and deftly avoids the timed, oscillating security camera, emptying a trio of safety deposit boxes into one opened by Dawn, who arrives to empty it the next day, after news coverage of the phony foiled theft. But when these thugs realize they’ve been double-crossed, Dawn and Joe must run for their lives in order to keep the loot.
And when I say run, I mean that seriously. There’s a lot of set-up here… more than an hour’s worth of character stuff (we get to know all the marks, individually), and plenty of faux-scenic dawdling. But when the movie stretches its third act legs, it gets even more bizarre, culminating in an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods finale that finds Joe, hot suitcase in hand, fleeing through snow on foot, in car and in train. This sequence goes on forever, to absurdly comic lengths. Perhaps this is part of some subtextual point, running parallel to the movie’s character-based comedy, but given that overall Dollars treats the heist stuff rather seriously this seems somewhat doubtful.
Brooks, a 1961 Oscar winner for Best Screenplay for Elmer Gantry, crafts a nice character for Beatty, and has a deft touch with dialogue to boot. There’s some tart double entendres about “boxes,” and the film may be — I’m not totally sure — the original source of the infamous, frat-friendly quote, “One thing that doesn’t belong in her mouth is words.” But Dawn Divine is thinly sketched, and Hawn’s portrayal — distractably flitting to and fro — is overly broad and not rooted in any recognizable choice of character or background. Joe and Dawn’s motivations are parceled out in big, manic monologues, and the film feels flimsy when it tries to milk Dawn’s angsty doubt for comedy. (Terrible ADR in a couple scenes sure doesn’t help, either.) Things work a lot better, and feel more natural, when Brooks is trading in small, telling details, like a nervous bank employee slipping a cigarette into his mouth the wrong end first, or Joe concocting an at-moment’s-notice fib to get out of some unanticipated questioning. One thing’s for sure — Hollywood heist movies, like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s series, have gone slick, and grown much more convoluted. But there’s a plenty rich screen history of cracked, cocksure slightly eccentric grifters and white-collar smooth operators, as Dollars proves.
Housed in a regular Amray plastic case, Dollars comes to DVD presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby digital English and French audio tracks, and optional subtitles in both languages as well. The billed supplemental extras here are pretty slight — they amount to the movie’s theatrical trailer and a minute-long “Martini Movies Collection” (the banner under which this title was released) promo clip that ends with a martini recipe. To purchase Dollars via Amazon, click here. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)