“No stupid moves: Frank Oz’s The Score” By Anees Aref

Thieves should respect their elders, too.

As The Score opens, we see a figure in a shadowed room carefully tinkering with the combination lock of a safe as the muffled sounds of thudding music can be heard from the outdoor garden party of a hefty mansion. Our man working in the shadows is Nick, a master thief who’s made a career out of being highly skilled, disciplined, and avoiding unnecessary risks. He’s also played by Robert De Niro, that lord of the screen underworld for whom the safecracker Nick is merely another painting in his rogue’s gallery of crooks. But De Niro is all cool professionalism here, just like Nick and just like the rest of this noir-tinged heist picture that brings all the pleasures inherent in the genre when done well.

Nick doesn’t believe in taking unnecessary chances – “No stupid moves…decide all that it is you want in life and spend the next twenty-five years getting it, piece by piece.” He lends this bit of wisdom to Jackie, a talented but volatile young pro looking to build his cache and played by an early career Edward Norton. Our third player is Max, played by the Godfather himself – Marlon Brando – in his last screen performance wearing all the weight (in both senses of the word) of an old legend. It’s this assemblage of film history onscreen that distinguishes The Score from other entries in the caper genre. In a sense, the personal histories of the characters onscreen reflect that of the actors playing them. The old master on the way out (Max/Brando), the veteran pro still on top of his game but at a career crossroads (Nick/De Niro), and the eager newcomer looking to make his name and overtake the old guard (Jackie/Norton).

The Score plays with the smoothness of seasoned pros doing exactly what’s needed to pull off a job. Frank Oz is the unlikely director of this caper, but carries himself nicely – the pace is tight, the mood is right, and he lets the actors claim the spotlight as the story edges towards its promised action. Gossip from the set suggested tensions between Oz and Brando during production (Oz has admitted this, at least on the audio commentary track featured in the film’s DVD bonus material), yet both deliver the goods. The scene of the action is Montreal. The French-Canadian city provides plenty of elegant atmosphere and is handsomely photographed by Rob Hahn. Howard Shore mixes jazz and suspenseful notes in his classy musical score.

Nick is looking to get out of the game, with a couple of outs motivating him. He’s got a jazz club on the side and – more importantly – Diane, played with mature allure by Angela Bassett. It’s a relatively small but key part – Nick and Diane are both at a point where they want to settle down with something reliable, “more common”, they say. We’re treated to cozy scenes in Nick’s well-furnished apartment and kitchen. A gourmet, Nick even cooks for Diane. The relationship is the emotional heart of the story – we want Nick to make it because of Diane.

But to get to the business at hand. The “score” is an antique scepter inside the Montreal customs house, valued in the millions. Jackie is Max’s inside man in the building. It’s Jackie’s score – the young blood has even created a second identity in Brian, a mentally challenged janitor inside the joint which gives him the lay of the land. There are complications involved however. Nick already doesn’t like doing jobs locally – “you always said live in Montreal, but work outside” he tells Max. “I’ve said a lot of stupid things in my life” Max replies. Above all else, what The Score gives us is the immense pleasure of watching its trio of generational talents riff off each other like a jazz trio. What a joy it is watching De Niro and Brando. It’s like watching a master and a student. Brando changed the face of acting as we know it when he exploded onscreen in the early fifties, and De Niro’s generation took the baton and ran with it. Watch De Niro listening so respectfully as Brando eats up his scenes with relish. For his part, Norton doesn’t back down from his legendary elders, he gives right back to him without going too far. A young soloist making sure you hear him without breaking the harmony.

It’s this measured quality that makes The Score so enjoyable, evoking the attitude and personalities of classic French crime flicks like the mature hero of Bob le Flambeur (1955) or the clashing band of thieves in Riffifi (1955). The Score goes about its business without fuss, letting its story unfold and its characters express themselves through their work and relationships. Nick’s relationship with Max suggests the tender intimacy of many years together. There’s an easy comradery between the pair that carries emotional layers both in the script and in the shared screen legacies of De Niro and Brando respectively. The push and pull between De Niro and Norton is great, as the wiser veteran butts heads with the young upstart. “I like your place…you have good taste” Jackie tells Nick during a visit – after the latter sent a pal over to the kid’s apartment to say hello with a baseball bat.

The world of film noir would have buildings named after these guys. Brando made an unforgettable mark on the gangster/crime/noir screen universe with his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972). It’s a character in a movie whose evolutionary ancestors go back to the Warner Bros. lots once trekked over by Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, with themes and sentiments echoing the later post-war underworld portraits of Force of Evil (1948)or On the Waterfront (1954)(indeed, Brando had ventured into the mob world early), set against a canvas as wide as that of the old Italian film maestros like Visconti or Fellini. The Godfather was as much Italian opera as it was pulp fiction.

For De Niro, the Nick character is a variation on a type he started embodying probably around 1995’s Heat. It’s a smart guy who’s great at what he does but doesn’t like to gamble. He’s a pro doing a job, in and out, clean. Circumstances and the desire for an exit force him into an uncomfortable “last job”, usually driven by a chance at romantic fulfillment. Heat, Ronin (1998), and The Score all find De Niro’s heroes in these predicaments, with conclusions ranging from tragedy, happy endings, or something in between.

Norton’s contributions to modern neo-noir cinema have been little remarked on. Films such as Primal Fear (his brilliant debut role, 1996), Rounders (1998), and his recent bravura effort Motherless Brooklyn (2019) are all memorable bits of hard-boiled storytelling featuring mean streets and characters operating on the margins, be it in the poker rooms of contemporary New York or in its mid-20th-century past, where shadowy backroom political dealings led to urban tragedies for the city’s powerless. In The Score, Norton displays his range in a virtual double role, showing villainy and nuance in equal measures as he subtly embodies the flawed ambition of the dangerous Jackie, and the gentle innocence of Brian.

The heist set-piece itself does the genre proud. Oz and crew stage it nicely as Nick and Jackie carefully evade the eyes and ears of the warehouse cameras and staff. The actors sell it. Watch Jackie as he makes Nick sweat it out while hanging in suspension above the prized vault. It’s the chip on Jackie’s shoulder that makes him take a shot instead of playing the long game. As the film races to the finish line, listen to Shore’s musical cues reach their crescendo while our heroes scramble through the Montreal streets. We get some nice double-crosses and reversals along the way. “When did you start thinking you were better than me, Ace?” Thieves should respect their elders, too.

Anees Aref is a writer on film, history, and politics based in the Los Angeles area who has published abroad as well as in the United States. He regularly contributes to Film International.

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