Opportunity Cost

I watched 2 films about criminals.

The Criminal (1960) begins with some poker faces. Murray Melvin is playing against Patrick Wymark and a slightly posher actor.

Of course they’re only playing for matchsticks, as they’re in prison.

The mournful theme song “Thieving Boy” by Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth plays as we enter this society of captives.

On this wing the big guy is Johnny Bannion, played by Stanley Baker. He’s trying to play it cool as he’s coming up to the end of his sentence.

The word in the wing is that young Kelly (played by Kenneth Cope) has been sent down and will be joining them. Bannion doesn’t want any trouble to mess up his release as he’s got a big plan for a job to pull as soon as he’s out in the world again.

Of course the Governor is a hand-wringing liberal ninny who reads the New Statesman and is easily played by the rather dodgy warder Barrows, played by Patrick Magee.

But Bannion stays calm and gets his release. Immediately he’s met by Mike Carter (Sam Wanamaker) who will put him in touch with the backer he needs to organise his new job.

Back at his old flat, which has a fascinating selection of nudey female images over every available bit of wall space, there is soon a party swinging along and the crew for the big blag is coming together. But also Johnny has trouble with his women – there’s an old girlfriend Maggie who misses him, and she resents the new girlfriend Suzanne who is being told she’s his new life partner.

The team is assembled, including a young getaway driver who is rather awestruck at this great man of London gangland wanting to hire him. He has to be told firmly that there’s nothing great about spending years in prison, you’re not really a big force and even if you could get a cell to yourself it would just make the time go even slower.

But there’s a racecourse to be robbed, and our boys do the job cleanly and well.

Trouble is that Johnny gets impatient. Instead of keeping all his new cash buried out in the middle of a field next door to nowhere, he has to pocket a big note and try to spend it in his new life with Suzanne. Scotland Yard trace the note to the robbery, and he’s back inside. But this time he’s on the other wing, ruled by the Italian mob ruled by Frank Saffron.

The face in the middle is young Tom Bell, playing an Irish inmate put in a cell with Bannion and soon knocked out by him.

Saffron arranges an elaborate scheme to get Bannion on a transfer to another prison, so he can be lifted from the van in transit. But when the challenge comes to secure the old loot, he finds he can’t trust many people close by.

This frightened old Catholic boy ends his life begging the Lord for mercy, his only worldly consolation being that no one else is likely to find exactly where he put the treasure (an early version of the Fargo conclusion). Being a big tough guy isn’t the best life, as he already realised. You’re already in a trap in this world where the money is marked and tracked and everything worth doing is going to be recorded. Bannion should be in some sort of institution, even if it isn’t prison, since he can’t function for long outside of one.

A completely different world, perhaps, in Emily The Criminal (2022). We start with Emily (played by Aubrey Plaza) facing a job interview.

The interviewer notes that she has something on her permanent record, and invites her to explain, saying that he has not had a full background check done. Emily volunteers that she has a DUI for being the driver bringing some friends home from a concert. Her interviewer then reveals he does in fact have a full background check, and he knows that she was charged with assault whilst at college.

Emily can’t get over the bluff that was testing her honesty, and gets sweary and angry. It is explained to her that honesty is essential for an office job working with medical records, and she explains she has $70,000 student debt to deal with, before walking out.

Just like Johnny Bannion, there are no flashbacks or sentimental justifications drawn from Emily’s prehistory. We just have to take it that she did something that put her on a course to where she is now. She was born in New Jersey and is now on the West Coast. After having to quit college she went to art school and wanted to get in to graphic design or illustration but those aren’t easy careers to start with no finances. So now she’s in the gig economy, delivering food and getting harassed by a boss who insists “this isn’t a Union shop”.

One of her co-workers passes her the phone number of a vague job opportunity called “Dummy Shopper”.

Meanwhile her old college mate Liz is telling her about her amazing job in an ad agency and how she can definitely get her some sort of break there.

But still she goes to Dummy Shopper, and seems to be the only white woman in a store room full of guys who seem to know the game here already. You turn up, get photographed, and then Youcef and Khalil supply you a bogus ID and a some stolen credit card details and send you out to buy whatever they need, which today happens to be big flat screen TVs.

So Emily does her first score and it goes as they told her it would.

There is a corny predictable moment of a security guard pursuing her at the last moment… because of the cap she nervously picked up and forgot to put through the checkout. Emily of course quite likes receiving fat envelopes of paper money and immediately signs on for the next job, which is a tougher mission with a time limit to make the getaway before the guys selling the car realise the payment bounced.

Emily is of course out of her depth, but she adjusts quickly. Of course she is silly and privileged compared to the other recruits to Dummy Shopper. Youcef regrets getting involved with the dumb bitch when she gets too greedy lifting and shifting products too often, after he showed her how to do the trick of printing a fake card from real account details taken off a website (presumably some “dark web” site, I don’t know about those things).

Liz finally comes through with a chance to interview at her ad agency. Her boss (played by Gina Gershon) is keen at first, but when Emily learns it’s only going to be an unpaid internship for the first 6 months she throws another rage, and gets a lecture about her generation being lazy and entitled. There is a nice little stand-off between Generation X and Millennials at this point. It’s hard not to agree with the 2 interviewers who have been unimpressed by her, but Emily has been on a journey to get tougher and harder about fighting back. And so it happens that she rallies Youcef to hit back at the mutual enemy who ripped them both off. This time, the loot is reached and secured, but all the tough guys are taken down.

In all the discourse about “restoring masculinity” what seems to get lost is the sense that those old tough guys were having trouble hanging on even in the old days, unless they could be penned in to a zone where they only had to respect each other, which would be a dwindling section of an economy that didn’t need them too much. Meanwhile in the quasi-carceral economy of debt-slavery it seems to be an advantage to not be held down by any sense of male identity and ranking between brothers. It’s Emily with her fast drawing skills who could sketch out the lines of each new situation and see where to take the fight. Different characters, different paths to take, all with different opportunity costs.

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