Martin Brest’s Going in Style (1979) is one of those inoffensive, but not particularly distinguished, little movies that come and go without leaving much of a mark. It’s very much a product of its time in that it was clearly spawned by George Burns’ renaissance after The Sunshine Boys (1975) and Oh, God! (1977). It’s also a surprisingly serious affair that was marketed strictly as a comedy about three old men—Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg—planning a bank heist to battle the boredom of old age.
The story line itself is no great shakes, and the concept is obviously pitched on the “wouldn’t it be a hoot to see three old duffers hold up a bank?” basis. (And Michael Small’s faux-jazz score attempts to stress this to an alarming degree, though I suppose it provided gainful employment to some tuba players, which is nice.) Two things about the film are frankly remarkable, however: the richness of its imagery and George Burns’ understated performance.
The film was shot by British cinematographer Billy Williams and he did a stunning job. He manages to keep the grubbiness of the New York City streets intact, but he lights his interiors with amazing care. The shots of the three main characters seated around a cheap Formica kitchen table have a depth of color saturation that is truly amazing. Nearly every face in the film is lit with loving care to such a degree that they often feel like portraits. The results are strikingly unlike just about anything in American movies from that era, and it helps keep the film from seeming as dated as it might have.
And then there’s Burns. All three men—as well as supporting player Charles Hallahan, who has one outstanding scene—are good, but Burns is revelatory here. I never quite “got” Burns solo career.To me, he was always straight man to wife Gracie Allen’s comedy. And he was splendid at that, but as a comedian on his own—well, there was a reason why he became the straight man to Gracie. Here, however, his every nuance is perfect. He’s slyly funny in a heartbreaking manner. There’s an undercurrent of true bitterness to the humor, yet it’s never mean, and there’s always an undercurrent of how much he truly cares for his two friends, especially the somewhat addled Lee Strasberg character. If for no other reason, this film should be seen—just to see how good Burns actually could be.