14 February 2006 | theowinthrop
Dismal Vehicle for Zero, but Claude Atkins does very well
Zero Mostel managed, after being blacklisted in the McCarthy period, to climb back to his place as one of the leading stage personalities of his day. UlYSSES IN NIGHTOWN, RHINOCEROS, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF made him a Broadway immortal. The film versions of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED and THE PRODUCERS showed he could have been one of the great screen comedic actors. Then, came GREAT CATHERINE and THE GREAT BANK ROBBERY, and Zero soon was seen as good as support but not in leads. He would have other screen highlights in the future (THE HOT ROCK, THE FRONT), but the possible great film career was screwed up.
As Reverend Pious Blue, Zero was supposed to be the head of a gang masquerading as revivalists, but actually a criminal gang planning to rob the bank owned by Big John Anderson (who is also the town Mayor). The gang includes Kim Novak and John Fiedler. The trouble is that others are considering a bank robbery: Claude Atkins, the film's stereotypical (?) bad man, and a gang of Mexican bandits led by Akim Tamiroff and Larry Storch. There is also a hero, who is romancing Kim, played by Clint Walker. These various elements, which also include Atkins' sidekick Elisha Cook Jr. and Ruth Warwick, simply do not jell. There are moments that are amusing, but more that are simply stupid. The robbery itself is not as good as the destruction of the theater by Zero, Gene Wilder, and Kenneth Mars in THE PRODUCERS, and that sequence only took five minutes of film (originally - now it's been cut to three minutes). The most notable point about it was the getaway (in a balloon).
But there was one bright spot - not Zero but Claude. Atkins was always a good actor, usually as heavies (even in INHERIT THE WIND he was the fundamentalist reverend who turns against his daughter for supporting Bertram Cates). Another typical role was in THE DEFIANT ONES, when he is the man who would turn Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis over to the Sheriff (Theodore Bickel) because of his racism. But in this film he was allowed to be unique. He is the most moralistic gunfighter I know of in film. Every time he faces one of the questionable characters in the film, he starts referring to them as "scum" or "scum of the earth". It becomes like a moralistic mantra. He is a man with a hot temper, as Cook discovers to his cost, but he can show a nice sense of remorse afterward. His over-the-top moral bad-guy is the best thing in the film. As a result watch it for that. But otherwise it was a dismal failure for everyone else involved.