As The BFI Companion to Crime rightly notes, the caper is a comic subgenre of the heist movie that borrows elements from the putting-on-a-show musical and the ‘mission-that-could-shorten-the-war’ combat film. All you need is an alluring quarry held in an impregnable bastion, a criminal mastermind with a cunning plan, a handpicked specialist crew, and an X factor that ensures something goes wrong at a crucial moment.
Tricksy camerawork, nimble editing and a jaunty score all help reel in the audience. But the key ingredient in the classic caper is the suspense created by the dent in the 1930s Production Code that meant crime could sometimes pay.
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Now available on BFI Blu-ray, Vittorio De Sica’s After the Fox (1966) was released in the middle of a golden decade for the caper picture, coming precisely a decade after the first film to include the word in the title, 1957’s The Big Caper. In Neil Simon’s screenplay, our Mr Big doesn’t have any stealing to worry about, as Okra (Akim Tamiroff) has already blagged $3m in Egyptian gold. The problem facing Aldo Venucci (Peter Sellers) is how to get the consignment to shore from a cargo ship off the coast of Ischia without arousing police suspicions.
As sister Gina (Britt Ekland) has ambitions to become a movie star, Aldo steals the cameras from the production of a biblical epic called Flight from Egypt, directed by De Sica (playing himself) and starring John Huston as Moses. Posing as neorealist director Federico Fabrizi, he hires Hollywood has-been Tony Powell (Victor Mature) to front The Gold of Cairo, a drama that includes a scene in which the locals transport bullion across the Bay of Naples.
It seems like a foolproof plan. But that’s the point of capers. No matter how meticulous the planning, fate is always ready to hurl a spanner in the works and place the entire enterprise in ribald jeopardy – as these 10 jewels of the form amply attest…
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Director: Charles Crichton
Coming a year after John Huston had formulated the heist movie with The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Charles Crichton’s Ealing classic did much the same for the caper. Screenwriting ex-copper T.E.B. Clarke had conceived the theft of £1m in gold as a serious drama and added the notion of smuggling the contraband abroad in the form of Eiffel Tower paperweights after it was suggested to him by a Bank of England employee.
Fittingly, this inside job was hatched by Henry Holland (Alec Guinness), a mid-ranking milquetoast with a rhotacism who is nobody’s idea of a criminal mastermind. His confederates are the equally bourgeois Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) and Cockney chancers Lackery (Sidney James) and Shorty (Alfie Bass), making the blag a typical exercise in cross-class teamwork that was typical of the studio. Clarke would win an Oscar for his script, while the nominated Guinness would indulge in some darker Ealing caperishness in Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers (1955).
Bob le flambeur (1956)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville was so taken with The Asphalt Jungle that he rewrote this comedy of criminal manners to incorporate a heist. Not that it happens, however, as inveterate gambler Robert Montagné (Roger Duchesne) becomes so engrossed at the tables that he forgets he has assembled a team to steal 800m francs from the Deauville casino. As fastidious in his habits as Jean Gabin’s Max in Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Bob has gone straight(ish) since doing time for a botched bank job. But a losing streak prompts him to take a tilt at the casino’s state-of-the-art safe, only for his scrupulous scheme to be betrayed by a careless word.
Melville spotted model Isabelle Corey in the Latin Quarter, and her brand of chic, callous unemotionality would become a recurring French New Wave trope. As would the jittery editing and the visual fluidity that cinematographer Henri Decaë uses to capture the contrasting aspects of Montmartre.
Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)
Director: Mario Monicelli
In lampooning Jules Dassin’s classic Rififi (1955), Mario Monicelli put a commedia all’italiana spin on the heist scenario to set the standard to which all other capers aspire. The action centres on a state-owned pawnshop and the neighbouring apartment occupied by 2 old ladies and their maid. Failed boxer Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) romances Nicoletta (Carla Gravina) to glean information, while Sicilian Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia) strives to prevent confratello Mario (Renato Salvatori) from consorting with his sister, Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale). With street photographer Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni) nursing a broken arm and pickpocket Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane) obsessing about food, there’s no wonder veteran safecracker Dante Cruciani (Totò) opts out.
Buoyed by Piero Umiliani’s infectious jazz score, the storyline meanders through genial digressions before chronicling the catalogue of errors involved in the eventual robbery. It all made Monicelli’s film so popular that it became the first caper to get its own sequels: Fiasco in Milan (1959) and Big Deal after Twenty Years (1985).
Director: Jules Dassin
Having refined the heist movie in Rififi, Jules Dassin ribbed it in this conscious bid to take the caper out of the noir shadows and into the Technicolor Aegean sunshine. This is all the more apt, as the screenplay was adapted from Eric Ambler’s novel The Light of Day, although the scenario departs significantly from the source. Here narrator Arthur Simpson is relegated to a secondary role, as Swiss mastermind Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) devises a plan to help Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) obtain Sultan Mahmud’s emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
As Peter Sellers refused to work with Schell, he was replaced by Peter Ustinov, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for his splendidly seedy display as a small-time hustler roped into lowering a “human fly” (Gilles Ségal) into a gallery with an alarmed floor. “It’ll all be this easy, Arthur,” Harper assures him on the rooftop. Famous last words.
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Never has the word ‘marvellous’ been spoken with more hushed awe than in William Wyler’s glossy Parisian romcap. However, Peter O’Toole’s party trick with a magnet, a key and a piece of string is worthy of some lovestruck appreciation from Audrey Hepburn, who has mistaken him for a cat burglar and coaxed him into stealing the Cellini Venus on display in the well-guarded Kléber-Lafayette Museum. The dual twist, however, is that O’Toole isn’t a thief and the statue isn’t priceless at all, but a fake carved by Hepburn’s grandfather that will expose her art collector papa (Hugh Griffith) as a charlatan if it’s subjected to expert scrutiny.
Harry Kurnitz’s screenplay piles up the convolutions to toppling point. But the more implausible the plot gets, the more irresistible the blue-eyed, ruggedly debonair O’Toole and the short-haired, Givenchy-attired Hepburn become, as they bide their time in a cramped cleaner’s cubbyhole in veteran Alexandre Trauner’s impeccably designed gallery.
The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Having started out as a pastiche of the hard-boiled heist, the caper became the preserve of Hollywood’s beautiful people during the swinging 60s. Michael Caine had played his part opposite Shirley MacLaine in Gambit (1966). But, as Cockney crook Charlie Croker, he was front and centre as director Peter Collinson attempted to scuff the glamour with a bit of Brit grit in The Italian Job, a cult classic whose status has been reinforced by new generations joining the laddish Self-Preservation Society to obsess over Croker’s swearing and Quincy Jones’s anthemic ‘Getta Bloomin’ Move On!’
Some aspects of Troy Kennedy Martin’s screenplay have dated, notably the leering antics of computer expert Professor Peach (Benny Hill). Once the $4m in gold has been snaffled, however, and the red, white and blue Mini Coopers start buzzing around Turin’s landmarks, it’s impossible not to become engrossed, right up to the cliffhanging denouement, in the greatest getaway scene in screen history.
The Hot Rock (1972)
Director: Peter Yates
While writing the 1970 novel that inspired Peter Yates’s undervalued caper, the prolific Donald E. Westlake realised the narrative was too jocular for his usual pulp hero, Parker. So it’s the new character of John Dortmunder who must overcome the obstacles complicating the theft of a large uncut diamond from a Brooklyn museum. George C. Scott was in line for the role, with Robert Redford being considered for Dortmunder’s brother-in-law, Andy Kelp. But George Segal struck lucky when Redford was upgraded. Their bickering banter roots the increasingly unlikely convolutions outlined in William Goldman’s masterly screenplay in a sort of recognisable reality, after Dr Amusa (Moses Gunn) hires them to restore the Sahara Stone to his unnamed African nation.
Each new drawback is tackled with insouciant ingenuity to the strains of Quincy Jones’s cool jazz score, despite the machinations of Abe Greenberg (Zero Mostel), the lawyer who wouldn’t recognise a scruple if it came with a letter of introduction.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Director: Jim Henson
It’s safe to say that no other caper movie features Miss Piggy in a pastiche of golden age Hollywood swimming star Esther Williams. But this is only one of the distractions served up by Jim Henson before an attempt is made to lift the Baseball Diamond from the Mallory Gallery. Topkapi alumni Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov crop up in cameos alongside the late Diana Rigg as the owner of the gem coveted by her shiftless brother, Charles Grodin. However, said brother fails to take into account identical twins Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear, the ace reporters in London to cover Rigg’s fashion show.
The musical numbers are more intricately staged than the actual blag, but there are plenty of genre jokes, such as the cross-cut checklist sequence, in which Grodin and his model sidekicks ready their computer deprogrammer, portable detonator and radar gun, while the Happiness Hotel crew pack a whoopie cushion, a yoyo and a bag of chickens.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
Director: Wes Anderson
Expanding his 1993 short of the same name, Wes Anderson took the caper back to its roots in a first feature that also marked the debuts of acting siblings Owen and Luke Wilson. They excel as lifelong pals Dignan and Anthony, who embark upon a 75-year heist plan, despite lacking the criminal credentials to survive on Madonna Street.
Following a trial run in Anthony’s family home, the duo and getaway driver Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) lay low in a motel after taking down a bookshop. But, while Anthony falls for Inez the maid (Lumi Cavazos), Dignan keeps his eye on the prize, which turns out to be the safe at the Hinckley cold storage facility. The staggering ineptitude of the robbery is made all the more hilarious by the low-key pantomimic playing and Anderson’s laconic detachment. He would return to the form in quirky style with the CGI Roald Dahl animation, Fantastic Mr Fox (2009).
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Four decades after Lewis Milestone put the Rat Pack through their paces in Ocean’s 11 (1960), Steven Soderbergh returned to Las Vegas with another stellar crew to take a fresh crack at the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand. All three casinos are owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), who made the mistake of dating Tess (Julia Roberts), the ex-wife of gentleman-thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney), who intends making him pay to the tune of $160m.
The line-up might have been even more intriguing had Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) not prevented Owen and Luke Wilson from playing the Malloy twins. But the casting dynamic ticks over as smoothly as the Ted Giffin screenplay, which presents the outfit as everyday superheroes with roguish powers. Soderbergh completed a trilogy with Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) before Gary Ross took things in an all-woman direction with Ocean’s Eight (2018), starring Sandra Bullock as Danny’s sister, Debbie.
Originally published: 17 September 2020