The Art of the Score: Spike Lee’s ‘Inside Man’

Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist Film

Welcome to “The Art of the Score,” a monthly Vague Visages column about the best heist movies ever made. Be warned — there will be spoilers. The second film we’re casing is Spike Lee’s series of prizefight face-offs, Inside Man from 2006. Dalton Russell (the laser-focused Clive Owen) has, in his own words, “planned the perfect bank robbery.” Why? The answer is simple: because he can. The “rub” (or the how) sees us dive into a Manhattan Bank owned by Arthur Case (the enigmatic powerhouse Christopher Plummer), whose shameful secret is hidden in an unregistered safe deposit box. Russell and his crew occupy the tactical nightmare of a bank. Detective Keith Frazier (the crafty and perceptive veteran Denzel Washington) and his partner Detective Bill Mitchell (the perfect harmony to Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor) work with Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe) to negotiate the safe exchange of hostages by meeting the crew’s demands. While Det. Frazier starts to slip on deadlines to agitate action, he’s interrupted by a Mayoral order: let Madeline White (the intelligent and incisive power broker played by an arguable career-best Jodie Foster) enter the negotiation. Det. Frazier senses there’s a game afoot, and he’s not going to let these other tacticians dictate the fight. The initial critical reception for Inside Man found positives in Lee embracing genre, elevating archetypes and finding a poetic rhythm to Russell Gerwitz’s screenplay. The critical titan Andrew Sarris relished Foster’s Madeline White, calling her the “fearlessly feline fixer striding on her high heels and her high horse into one supposedly perilous situation.” Inside Man remains one of Lee’s highest-earning films to date, scoring a worldwide theatrical gross of $184 million.

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Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist FilmThe few tepid responses, including Australian stalwart David Stratton and the master Roger Ebert, cited Inside Man’s meandering quality; a film that reaches for the supremacy of heist movie canon like Dog Day Afternoon and Heat but gets outclassed. Though, in both of those less than favorable reviews of the film, the critics call out what ultimately continues to elevate and age Inside Man like a slice of Sal’s Pizza — Spike Lee. Like Sidney Lumet before him, Lee has an unparalleled vision for the socio-cultural melting pot of New York City. The filmmaker vividly paints this nexus of the American experience — the suffocating proximity of class disparity, a multi-ethnic populace with a collective capacity to mind their own business, and this hive mind enunciation of collective doubt of the generational wealth’s legitimacy. Released in 2006, Inside Man is set in the epicenter of the world’s seismic racial shift. Lee finds ways to authentically commentate on American racial politics and a modern history defined by systemic bigotry. (A Seikh confused for an Arab terrorist states, “I’d rather die an old bigot than a handsome young corpse.”)Inside Man takes place in Dog Day Afternoon’s territory, so much so that Lee casts Marcia Jean Kurtz as a hostage, a gesture that at the time was received as glib but on repeat viewings continues to address the elephant in the room: the flawed logic of outlandish demands for the safe return of hostages. Kurtz, of course, played Miriam Douglas in Dog Day Afternoon, a bank teller in a green dress who tells Al Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik that the loot they were expecting has been collected. This is America — the police are ACHING for a chance to turn your brutal defiance into an opportunity to gun you down. Lee even went as far as to commission a Grand Theft Auto knock-off video game to address an emerging generation of gamers being conditioned for self above others. In a world where 50 Cent dominated pop culture, life was redefined and incepted in the catchiest hip hop catch cry. Inside Man balances Geoffrey Chaucer (“murder will out”) and Kanye West (the “Gold Digger” ringtone) with equal reverence. Thanks to streaming, Inside Man continues to be ripe for discovery and revisitation. In a recent recommendation for Vulture, Hunter Harris wrote “I cannot stress enough how much this movie absolutely rules. It’s slyer than a typical cat-and-mouse story, where one man nips at another’s heels. It’s more complicated than a pair of fraternal twins on different sides of the law.”

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Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist FilmFrazier is a negotiator whose style, swagger and aggressive manner screams “swinging dick.” A frequent Lee collaborator, Washington finds a way to drape thorny integrity with overconfidence posturing and constantly re-negotiated authority. It’s a character and a performance seething with passive aggression that predestines a duping. Ejiofor’s Det. Mitchell is suitably in protege mode during Inside Man, with his supportive cross-examination and stern face aligned with Frazier’s demeanor.The year 2006 was peak Clive Owen. The stricken, unwitting hero Theo of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and the piercing and penetrating Dalton Russell of Inside Man are the highlight performances of his career. Owen’s calculated and soothing lilt, genuine humor and unerring nerve hypnotize from the first dolly zoom until the last getaway.With the controlled and compliant Carlos Andrés Gómez and Kim Director as Steve and Stevie, respectively, Lee and Gerwitz hint that James Ransone’s Steve-O will go full self-destructive Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire and derail this entire exercise. However, this maneuver is more about reflecting the reality of the immense emotional pressure of actually undertaking this whole plan. Dafoe as Capt. John Darius gives one of the most withdrawn and reserved performances in his entire body of work. In the opening exchanges, he’s peak pencil pusher, containing his voice, range of motion and the elasticity in his iconic face. Plummer’s Arthur Case wants the world to see a philanthropist, the gracefully ageing generous wealthy figure. When he encounters Det. Frazier in the command center for the first time, he’s positively doddering. Behind the scenes, though, Plummer sharpens his gaze like one would crank a microscope lens into focus. Case’s blue eyes glimmer — money is no object to maintain the public character that he’s built atop the rotting truth of his wealth creation. Foster’s Madeline White is reverentially deployed in Inside Man. Lee looks at Foster like royalty, and White, in name and manner, is like Teflon: unblemished after decades of buying property when there’s blood on the streets. Her most significant currency is the leverage she holds with people in power that have employed her services to attain access to the highest levels of social strata. You can see that Neil Blomkamp attempted to recapture this magic by making Foster a gatekeeper to Elysium only six years later.

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Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist FilmInside Man isn’t so much a bank robbery. Instead, it is a robbery in a bank. The plan appears to be on rails because it is. Russell continues to be one step ahead, and Washington jabs and prods like a Jurassic Park Velociraptor, testing an impervious electric fence for weaknesses.The game isn’t for money; instead, it’s for the contents of a secret safe-deposit box, the record of a Faustian bargain and a stash of diamonds. The gauntlet of leaving when Russell is “good and ready” is validated in the delightful color commentary illuminating and obscuring testimony from the witnesses. The device shows that Lee and Gerwitz don’t want the plaudits for their prestige — a magician’s reveal — they instead put Inside Man in the hands of the obstacles. In principle and execution, the operation expects political interference and anticipates the fix.

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Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist FilmInside Man’s plans are airtight. The decision to see that the heist has gone off without a hitch in the film’s first act is confident and immediately elevates the attempted interventions. The “above the pay grade” and the life on the line grunt work collide like class warfare. Russell’s adjustments are layers of additional interference for the investigators. Albanian propaganda plays in bugged pizza (requiring the most delightful help from Lee veteran Al Palagonia as Kevin — the living embodiment of New York attitude — and his sultry ex turned translator, Florina Petcu’s Ilina), and Det. Frazier’s walkthrough ensures that several characters swap their toy AK-47 assault rifles to play panicked hostages, leading to the final staged hostage execution that compels police action. Russell sets out the ground rules on a metal contraption that bugs the inner sanctum of the operations; he knows more than they do; he’s planned this to perfection.

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Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist FilmThe Inside Man double-crosses don’t manifest in the crew but rather in the fallout of the heist. When Russell’s team release the hostages, this sets in motion a series of interrogations that ultimately end without a conviction. The department wants it gone — the line“bury it” by Captain Coughlin (Peter Gerety) haunts like Matt Damon’s Colin Sullivan proclaiming “Who gives a shit, it’s got a bow on it” amid a gangland shooting investigation in The Departed. The mayor, bending over for fixers, wants it resolved. Case’s bank has lost no funds, and the contents of the mysterious safe deposit box 392 are unknown. Case wants this ordeal behind him, evidenced by his praising statement to Det. Frazier and Det. Mitchell: “You keep the rest of us safe.” The double-cross is Frazier’s refusal to play by the rules of the exchange. After discovering the “James Bond shit” of the recording pen (now available on Amazon), he covers his backside by recording this extraordinary and unorthodox demand from the mayor and Ms. White, and protects his unwanted inquiry into the “riddle” with the threat of sharing this recording and illuminating the entire sordid affair.

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Inside Man Movie Essay - 2006 Spike Lee Heist FilmIn one of Inside Man’s final scenes, Foster’s Madeline White struts into the private quarters of what appears to be an exclusive Manhattan club. When an attendant warns that she is in the wrong place, she brazenly strolls through a bathroom, past showers and change rooms, and into a small barbershop. Seated in one of the two available worn leather seats is Plummer’s Arthur Case. He excuses the barber from this expected and unusual intrusion. In the fallout of the heist, it’s been determined that nothing on record is missing. The police haven’t been able to convict any of the “hostages” of guilt. Case, White and the mayor (the delightfully duplicitous and crass Peter Kybart) have exerted pressure on the New York Police Department for the unanswered questions of the investigation to disappear. Case takes this confessional exchange to press White for her instincts on the mysterious thief who secured her services. This scene is a rosetta stone for Inside Man. Surrounding White and Case is a superb selection of framed black and white photographs of classic boxing matches. This visual echo of prize fights underscores the tense exchange between two of the most talented and iconic performers in the medium. The entirety of Inside Man is a series of all-time exchanges, and Lee’s direction elevates the collisions of titans with the intoxicating stylistic poetics that command film language like promoter Don King orchestrates hype. Even Washington’s Det. Frazier calls out his name like he’s being announced like a professional wrestler walking through Madison Square Garden.Owen’s Dalton Russell spells out the philosophy of Inside Man when he manifests his destiny, walking out of the bank when he’s good and ready. Respect is the ultimate currency. Respect is hard-fought and earned. So many great fighters lose their ferocity and hunger once they ascend the mountain. The void that drives them is filled with recognition, comforts, safety. For Russell, the real prize — the Cartier ring from Case’s wealthy friends that he sold to the Nazis — is too great a burden on his conscience; the final moral compromise he’s unwilling to make to maintain respect. As Det. Frazier walks into his apartment, Lee casts the character’s silhouette over his snoring, agape brother-in-law. The modest apartment is a crash back to reality, a manifestation of the ongoing connection to the socio-cultural reality of New York City. Entering his bedroom sanctuary, Det. Frazier pauses to undertake his post-fight routine. He disrobes his equipment — a gun, a phone and a notebook. Det. Frazier eventually reaches into his pockets to discover a token of appreciation. When Russell leaves a note that says “Follow The Ring,” it is Inside Man’s last sleight of hand. Follow your instincts, and don’t forget what makes us human — “money can’t buy love.” Evil deeds stink, big Willy and the twins never let the cuffs get cold, game recognizes game. The only clean getaway is one you can live with.

Blake Howard (@OneBlakeMinute) is a writer, Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic and the Australian Podcast Award-nominated host and producer behind One Heat Minute.