Heists have featured in cinema from the beginning, right from the locomotive stick-up that features in the world’s first western, the pioneering 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.
Yet the heist movie as we now know it, followed by its comedy cousin, the caper movie, didn’t emerge until the turn of the 1950s, when the three-act structure began to divide up the preparation, execution and often disastrous aftermath of ill-judged scores in fatalistic film noirs such as Criss Cross (1949) and, especially, 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle.
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These set a template for the heist movies to follow, through the cool 60s (The Thomas Crown Affair), gritty 70s (The Getaway) and beyond. They may have moralistic roots in the mid-20th century Production Code era, when censorship insisted that lawbreakers never got away clean, but something about the subgenre has proved enduringly popular.
Recent years have yielded a bumper crop. We’ve seen the heist movie hop from Germany (Victoria) to Georgia (Baby Driver), from Trump country (Logan Lucky) to glamorous Tinseltown (Drive). They’ve centred on the young (American Animals, The Bling Ring), the old (The Old Man and the Gun, King of Thieves) and, in a refreshing change of pace, the entirely female (Ocean’s 8, Widows). For whatever reason, tales of bold underdogs stealing from The Man have, in this time of economic uncertainty and anti-establishment sentiment, become all the rage.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Director: John Huston
Disparate criminals assemble and scheme to get rich quick or just ‘get out from under’ with one final, high-risk score; a state-of-the-art security system is deftly conquered, before a rogue element threatens the plan’s ultimate success; finally, a violent unravelling relieves our crooked heroes of any ill-gotten gains. Such genre conventions would be cemented in further heist classics of the period like Rififi (1955), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1957), but the heist movie we know and love starts with The Asphalt Jungle.
This is unmistakably a John Huston film, though much of what’s characteristically Huston about it has gone on to shape the subgenre: soft-hearted brutes as protagonists, failure as a consequence of hubris, acts of defiance carried out by a group of (almost exclusively male) outsiders. Studio head Louis B. Mayer said the film was “full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things”. Mayer didn’t think that a compliment; the filmmakers who subsequently took the Huston blueprint and ran with it in their own heist dramas evidently disagreed.
Director: Jules Dassin
Declared “the best crime film I’ve ever seen” by François Truffaut on release, Jules Dassin’s Rififi remains one of the subgenre’s gold standards. The heist sequence alone is still the one by which all others are measured: taking a cue from the almost score-less The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi’s midnight-till-dawn raid is soundtracked only by nerve-wracking silence, along with the intermittent squeaks and thuds of a hard-faced crew meticulously cracking a Rue de Rivoli jewellery store.
This 30-minute scene is the diamantine centrepiece of Rififi, but what surrounds it is a crackerjack Gallic noir, rendered especially tough and cynical by its director-star. Making his first ever appearance before the camera and – more pertinently – his first behind it since being blacklisted out of McCarthyite Hollywood in 1949, Dassin makes his safecracker Cesar one of the first of Rififi’s heroes to buy the farm, executed by his colleagues in a confrontational POV shot: Dassin shooting Dassin.
Bande à part (1964)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Even while the heist subgenre was in its relative infancy, Jean-Luc Godard was deconstructing it. Bande à part’s crooks, Franz (Sami Frey) and the amoral Arthur (Claude Brasseur), are man-children playing at being movie gangsters. Their target is small potatoes: a suburban safe containing the savings of a middle-aged Parisian woman, her dreamy niece Odile (Anna Karina) having mentioned a stash of money to Franz in passing and inadvertently become the film’s mastermind.
Where so many of the great heist movies are tightly plotted, Bande à part dawdles. A love triangle forms through frolics at the Louvre and impromptu café dances. Plot waits as Godard permits himself to play, with characters pausing to recap the movie for latecomers and momentarily muting the film with a proposed “minute’s silence” – radical choices in what is one of Godard’s most conventional pictures.
Le Cercle rouge (1970)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Opening like his previous crime film, Le Samouraï (1967), with an invented Eastern proverb, Melville’s penultimate work has a similar propensity for mythmaking. Philosopher-criminals and unstoppable cops collide on lamplit French streets, as newly-released con Corey (Alain Delon), informed by a bent prison guard on his last day inside of a potential score at a Paris jewellers, partners up on his way to the job with an escaped prisoner (Gian Maria Volontè) who just happens to have hitched a ride in Corey’s car.
Delon’s laconic antihero takes all these absurd coincidences in his stride, as if aware he’s serving a plot, his function only to deliver the action and methodically suspenseful climactic heist that the director needs. A serial heist movie maker, Melville did more than any other director to infuse the crime genre with a sense of cool, but by Le Cercle rouge – narratively austere and shot in a rainy-Sunday colour palette that’s almost monochrome – his style had been stripped to something approaching religious in its asceticism.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director: Sidney Lumet
In the decade of the decidedly un-glamorous Hollywood heist – in 1978 alone there was Straight Time, Blue Collar and The Silent Partner, rather distant cousins of snappy American capers of yore – Sidney Lumet gave us the era’s most hopeless thieves of all. In over their heads from the moment they waltz into a New York City bank brandishing rifles concealed in gift wrapping, burned-out Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal’s (John Cazale) fatal flaw isn’t that they’re incompetent, but that they care too much about people to have ever made successful criminals.
By the time Sonny has sent a nervous third accomplice home and ensured the comfort of the staff of the bank he’s robbing, an army of cops and reporters has got the building surrounded. Over the course of one sweltering evening, both Sonny and poor, dim-witted Sal – who answers “Wyoming” when asked which country he’d like to flee the botched robbery to – are doomed to become playthings to gung-ho US law enforcement and spectacles to a media ravenous for lurid content.
Director: Michael Mann
Michael Mann would make bigger pictures about bigger scores, but arguably the filmmaker’s finest heist movie remains his first. A career-best James Caan plays Mann’s prototypical Melvillian master criminal, Frank, a solitary tough guy who only interacts with other characters to talk shop and hurries through a romance with Tuesday Weld with the speedy efficiency of his latest job. This is a diamond grab that will set Frank up for retirement, providing Robert Prosky’s horribly avuncular crime boss agrees to pay what’s owed.
It’s perfect debut material for a filmmaker already fixated on detail and order. As with many of the Mann antiheroes who would follow, Frank’s own happiness comes second to his obedience to a strict professional’s code: he’s prepared to set fire to his entire life – literally – if that’s what it takes for him to do what’s honourable in a Peckinpah-esque final act. Tangerine Dream provide the score, industrial electronica for a protagonist whose life is machinery and methodical process.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Eschewing a heist that – after decades of foiled capers – audiences would expect to go wrong anyway, Quentin Tarantino’s airtight debut leaves only the planning and gruesome aftermath. What interests Tarantino, so limited budget-wise that depicting Reservoir Dogs’ action-packed diamond robbery was never an option, is how relationships are tested when the cinematic excitement of prepping a raid for a group of play-fighting, pop culture-quoting crooks gives way to the horror of the plan’s failure.
Borrowing liberally from other films – the undercover-cop-infiltrates-robbers-circle plot is City on Fire’s (1987), the colour-coded criminal aliases come from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) – Reservoir Dogs’ originality lies in its gloriously rhythmic dialogue and testosterone-fuelled characters, from Harvey Keitel’s paternal career crim to Michael Madsen’s psychotic ex-jailbird. Tarantino’s movies since have been accused of flirting with misogyny, but Reservoir Dogs is a full-on skewering of the male, given to meltdown when yanked out of a macho fantasy and confronted with mortal reality.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Where American heist movies have tended to play it serious, their British counterparts have often skewed comedic. Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, well removed from the likes of The Italian Job (1969) or A Fish Called Wanda (1988), is a noteworthy exception. Glazer treads the well-worn ground of the ‘one last job’ film, but in forcing ex-con Gal (Ray Winstone) out of sunny retirement on the Costa del Crime into a London vault break-in, the filmmaker takes unsettling and bizarre turns.
Awash with the cheap glamour of the British underworld circa 2000, Sexy Beast finds room for high-society orgies, uzi-toting bunny rabbits and the sight of Ray Winstone sizzling in the Spanish sun to the sound of The Stranglers’ ‘Peaches’. There’s still humour here, but it’s of the blackest variety, most of it coming courtesy of an Oscar-nominated Ben Kingsley. His yapping sociopath Don Logan is a man devoid of either humanity or a social filter, excruciatingly demonstrated in the profanity-laden long weekend he spends at Gal’s villa attempting to bully him out of retirement.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Channeling flash, lighthearted crime movies of the 1960s, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Rat Pack vehicle Ocean’s 11 (1960) is executed with such panache it invites the refrain ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’ – when in truth they never really did. Stylistically kaleidoscopic, Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven casts as close as possible to modern-day equivalents of the Rat Pack – George Clooney as Sinatra, Brad Pitt as Deano – while also upping the ante with an impossible heist in a high-tech labyrinth of a Las Vegas casino.
For Danny Ocean (Clooney), the job is about getting revenge on panto villain casino boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), but his crew largely sign up just for the fun of it, bored of stable lives living off retirement riches and teaching celebrities how to play cards. There might be a comment here on man’s need to risk and struggle in order to feel alive if Ocean’s Eleven weren’t so determined to be throwaway, a film that in the director’s own words “has no desire except to give you pleasure from beginning to end”.
Director: Christopher Nolan
In the current decade, the American heist movie has supersized. New franchises like Ant-Man and Now You See Me, along with the latest instalments of the Fast and Furious and Mission: Impossible series, have given rise to increasingly outlandish, ever more massive scores. The most bombastic heist flick of the decade so far has to be Christopher Nolan’s Inception, an epic-scale adventure of dream thieves and collapsing mindscapes that takes the caper out of the real world and into the realm of awesome science fiction.
Hired by a mysterious corporate client (Ken Watanabe), Leonardo DiCaprio leads a team of psychic burglars in infiltrating the mind of a Big Energy heir (Cillian Murphy), where natural laws of physics don’t apply and action sequences mix Bond with Dalí. Ever ambitious, Nolan takes the pared-back, noirish roots of the heist flick and from them grows a colossal blockbuster about time, loss, memory and the unlimited potential of modern moviemaking.