The bank is the ideal place for your money; they will keep it safe from being stolen, after all. And no bank is going to be more secure than the Bank of Hamburg, because they have just introduced a brand new system to their premises which makes it impossible to break in and get away with any amount of valuables. In theory, at least. The mastermind behind this latest technology is American Joe Collins (Warren Beatty), and he has plans of his own which concern deposits left in the bank's new vault: what if there were certain amounts of currency left there which, if stolen, their owners could not go to the police to get them back?
That's the title, $, and that's the way it appears on screen at the start, a large, gold dollar sign hoisted over Hamburg's docks by a crane. This both sums up the too-clever nature of the storytelling and equally the great novelty of the approach. This being the seventies, filmmakers were unafraid of taking the more experimental stylings to their supposedly straightforward and mainstream plots, and so it was with writer and director Richard Brooks here. And in truth, for that first hour all that fast cutting and refusal to spell out precisely what is going on does this thriller few favours.
What is actually happening, as far as you are allowed to ascertain, is a bank heist staged by Collins where he will steal the contents of three safety deposit boxes belonging to three lots of shady characters: U.S. military man Scott Brady, Las Vegas money launderer Robert Webber and decidedly sinister gangster and hitman Arthur Brauss. All of their boxes contain illegal gains, and if Collins pulls off his scheme, they will not be able to speak up about the theft to the authorities due to their criminal natures. However, the manner in which this is conveyed is obscure at best, and many viewers may find their attention wandering.
But I'm here to tell you, stick with it, because there's an excellent caper movie struggling to get out of Brooks' overembellished technique. What he is doing with all this muddle of an opening half is the equivalent of carefully placing his pieces on a chessboard so he can go for the eventual checkmate, so Collins' relationship to prostitute Dawn Divine (Goldie Hawn) is revealed to be one of partners in crime as she has been sleeping with the potential victims so he can get all the information he needs through her. Things really start to come together when we reach the heist, and although it has been too long in coming, it's worth the wait.
Collins contrives to get locked in the vault with a supposed bomb (it isn't, he has simply ordered Dawn to phone in a convincing threat) and even though there is a security camera panning over the room (good thing he didn't install two of them for each side, isn't it?) which is being monitored, he manages to relieve the boxes of their valuables, including a bottle of what he takes to be champagne. It is here that the viewer sits up and notices this is getting good, and not simply coasting on the charm of Beatty and Hawn, for what the grand finale consists of is a masterful chase sequence lasting a good half hour if not more with Collins on the run and his plans not going so smoothly as he had hoped now the money has been liberated. With such weird and striking business as Dawn enjoying an orgasm at the thought of being rich or a pursuit over an unsafe frozen lake, $ is not quite funny enough to be a riproaring comedy, but it is engagingly quirky and rewarding... you just have to get past that first bit. Groovy music by Quincy Jones.