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I screened the David Bradley collection's copy of this Soviet film 'The Three-Million Caper'.
There are quite a lot of movies in which the main characters go to a lot of trouble to acquire a huge amount of money, often through theft. Most of these films are comedies. (One exception: 'Treasure of the Sierra Madre'.) Although the characters may start out working together, they eventually form rivalries, and the audience are kept guessing as to which will eventually end up with the dosh. I usually favour one character or faction over the others -- in "It's a Mad Mad World", I wanted Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett to get the money -- but I'm generally happy to see ANY of them land up with it. What well and truly irritates me is when, after all that work, NOBODY gets the money ... as in "Sierra Madre", where the gold dust is scattered to the winds, or in the original "Ocean's Eleven" where all the money is destroyed (bar the college tuition for Richard Conte's son). In 'Rat Race' the money went to charity, which might have pleased me if it happened in real life, but it seemed a cheat in a fiction movie. In 'Ghost', I couldn't blame Whoopi Goldberg's character for wanting to keep the embezzled funds rather than give them to charity.
On the other hand, in the original 'Ladykillers', I was deeply annoyed that the twee granny played by Katie Johnson got the money; I'd wanted at least one of the thieves to survive and get away with it.
Here we have yet one more version of that premise: as usual, a comedy, but this one somewhat unusual for being a Soviet silent film that filters the premise through Soviet class issues. Anatoli Ktorov plays Cascarilla, a thief of the subtype known as a 'toff': he is elegant, sophisticated and refined, preferring to rob through deceit rather than crude smash-and-grab tactics. (I rather disliked the name 'Cascarilla': it kept reminding me of 'cascara', a laxative.) The toff devises a brilliant scheme for stealing three million roubles from the vault of a Soviet banker ... and, while he's about it, to seduce the banker's pretty daughter. The plan comes off perfectly: both parts of it.
Along comes a much cruder crook: a cheap burglar named Tapioca. (Now THAT's a funny name!) Tapioca is a pudding-head, hilariously played by Igor Ilyinsky. After Cascarilla steals the money from the bank, Tapioca steals the money from Cascarilla. But their methods amusingly mirror their class differences: the theft by Cascarilla was a master heist, whilst Tapioca basically pulled a snatch job. Cascarilla is enraged to find himself the biter bit, and doubly enraged to have been outsmarted by a moron.
Tapioca is too stupid to conceal his possession of the lolly, so he's soon arrested ... and charged with the original bank heist. Cascarilla is furious when the stupider thief gets the credit for the toff's brilliant scheme ... and then Cascarilla gets even angrier when the peasantry start hailing Tapioca as a folk hero for 'liberating' the roubles from a banker.
SPOILER NOW, COMRADES. Cascarilla steals the money back, then disrupts Tapioca's trial to take credit for the original crime. He then tosses the money to the crowds assembled at the trial. The film ends with the peasantry cheering Cascarilla ... who would rather receive acclaim for his brilliance than anonymous wealth.
I disliked this movie's ending, but I'm broad-minded enough to admit that the fault might be mine rather than the film's. I disliked the resolution of 'It's a Mad Mad World', in which the stolen payroll is scattered over the heads of a crowd, with each of these people (but none of the original connivers) getting a small share. And yet, though I dislike that resolution, 'Mad Mad World' remains one of my favourite comedies. Here's a Marxist collectivist version of the same idea: I would have been happy if the film had ended with either Cascarilla or Tapioca getting the money, or both of them splitting it, or the roubles going back to their rightful owner (the bank) ... yet for some reason I was deeply angered (not merely displeased) to see the money given to the common people in this movie. Is there some genuine difference, or am I applying a double standard?
Part of the difference, I think, is that this Soviet movie filters its story through a class system that's far more aggressively wielded than anything in 'It's a Mad World' or 'Rat Race'. This Russian film demonises the banker, treating him as a bloated plutocrat and implying that the money is his personal wealth and his personal loss. One of this film's alternate release titles was 'Three Thieves' ... defining the banker as the third thief. The movie basically states that it's perfectly all right to rob the wealthy, but not all right to rob the poor. (What have the poor got that's worth stealing?) Further, this movie clearly believes that it's perfectly splendid to have the peasants keep the stolen money. But how do we know that the peasants are more honest, or in any way more deserving, than the upper classes? We don't. I've met plenty of dishonest poor people: they stole anything they could grab, and they only remained poor either because they squandered what they stole or because they lacked initiative to steal more than the bare minimum.
'The Three-Million Caper' is very much a communist film: not merely in its provenance but in its perceptions. As much as I despise communism, I want to be fair to any creative works made in that belief system. And yet, viewed as objectively as possible, this movie is no masterpiece: director-scenarist Yakov Protazanov is no Preston Sturges, and his efforts here are little better than workmanlike. I may be overcompensating, but I'll rate this movie 7 out of 10.
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