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'Bank Job,' 'Miss Pettigrew': Old Forms, Well Turned

This weekend, Hollywood's biggest movie release is set in 10,000 B.C. But two other "period" movies strike me as more interesting. Both of them play with movie styles that have mostly gone out of fashion.

The Bank Job, for instance, takes a nugget of fact — a 1971 robbery that became known as the "walkie-talkie bank heist" — and tunnels with it, straight into a kind of fiction that used to be popular in the '50s and '60s: the serious "heist" movie.

More recently, you see, heists have tended to be caper comedies, with just a bit of suspense. (Consider Ocean's 11 and its sequels.) This one makes nods in that direction, but what gives the movie its kick is what made the real crime remarkable at the time: The robbers posted a lookout. And he had — back in the days before cell phones — a big, clunky two-way radio.

Now, the robbers figured this gave them an advantage: They could see the police coming if the heist went wrong. What they didn't figure on was that a ham-radio operator would hear them and inform the police.

Director Roger Donaldson and his writers take a long time to set all this up, and most of the setup (and even the robbery itself) isn't nearly as sharply paced as the mad dash that happens after the heist. But if The Bank Job rarely feels terribly urgent, it's still fun — and in a pleasantly old-fashioned way.

Frump Meets Showgirl; Vintage Comedy Ensues

Older-fashioned still is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a 1930s mistaken-identity comedy in which no one is quite who she appears to be.

Not Guinevere Pettigrew, the prim, frumpish nanny played by Frances McDormand, who's living on London's answer to Skid Row when she takes a social-secretary job she's not remotely qualified for. And certainly not Delysia LaFosse, the ditzy showgirl who hires Miss Pettigrew almost entirely for effect. Delysia, played by Amy Adams, delysias-ly, is all about effect.

Now, in a '40s comedy about a frump and a showgirl, the frump must bloom and the showgirl get shown up. The only real question is how long it will take after they shed their false pretenses for the men in their lives to realize how splendid they are.

There are rather a lot of men in Delysia's case: She's juggling the attentions of a theater producer she's sleeping with, a nightclub owner she's living with, and a seriously frustrated pianist who actually loves her. ("I want the ice-pick for murder," he growls in one particularly fraught cocktail-making moment.)

Nothing in director Bharat Nalluri's credits, which include TV's Tsunami: The Aftermath, suggests he'd be someone who could, say, channel Blake Edwards' timing or George Cukor's fashion sense with any success. But he proves clever in harking back to the sort of Hollywood comedy where cocktail parties passed for plot devices.

That sort of film needs grounding these days, something Frances McDormand helps with. Just watch her face when the sound of bombers draws partygoers to a balcony, reminding you that the Blitz will soon dim London's lights.

But that's another day. Miss Pettigrew is about comic effervescence, and with McDormand — and Adams — on hand, it proves a vintage form can still have a certain fizz.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.