Tom Jolliffe offers up ten essential heist movies…
The heist. All that intricate planning before the moment of truth and the job has to be pulled off. Through cinema we’ve seen re-enactments of true life heists, as well as plenty of fictional bank jobs, jewellery heists, from snatch and grabs to tales of elaborate planning where a team of (usually dashingly charming) ne’er do wells must each come together with their unique skill set to win the prize undetected. Occasionally things don’t go well and you end up in a situation like Dog Day Afternoon.
There’s a distinct fascination with audiences for criminal enterprise on screen. Perhaps it’s the notion of escapism, to see these daring acts committed, knowing that most of us ended our criminal exploits with sampling grapes at the supermarket when no one was looking.
There have been countless examples, but here are 10 diverse and essential heist films.
Michael Mann’s superb debut, a precursor to his latter work in Heat, sees James Caan give a career best performance as a safe cracker, who has vowed he’ll never do time again (but still takes down scores). Featuring an engrossing attention to detail and realism in the art of safe-cracking, Mann gives the film an air of authenticity rarely seen in the genre (which can often opt for fanciful). Huge drills and welding torches. It’s not glamorous, it’s arduous, long and sweaty. Caan is magnetic, and Mann’s dialogue scintillating. Then there’s great support from Tuesday Weld and an unusually intense Robert Prosky (who would later become more synonymous playing far more amiable characters). The pulsating score from Tangerine Dream works perfectly in unison with the heist sequences in a neo-noir absolutely teeming with style.
Le Circle Rouge
One of several iconic team ups between director Jean-Pierre Melville and star Alain Delon. Their collaborations were the epitome of Gallic cool. Melville had a gift for creating heaps of atmosphere from a gritty visual palette and deliberate pace and this film is one of his most iconic. Delon, spending most of his time donning a trench coat and retaining stoically badass charisma, holds the screen brilliantly and the film takes time to build up bringing together the three orchestrators of a jewellery heist. It’s a classic French neo-noir that still feels modern today and has that atypical brutality of the era in American and European cinema.
The First Great Train Robbery
Partially based on a true story, Michael Crichton adapted his novel to cinema with The First Great Train Robbery. No heist list would be complete without a good old train heist. It’s a gripping and enjoyable yarn with a great payoff with the heist itself. The film became kind of regular and essential Sunday afternoon TV (in the UK at least). It’s just one of those films that would appear every year and be easy to slip on, not least thanks to a great cast lead by Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland who make a brilliant on-screen combo.
Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Guy Ritchie has a fascination with all things heist and cockney criminal. His first film remains his most magnetic and enjoyable. There are several interlinking heist tales that end up revolving around a pair of antique shotguns. You have comedy of errors, mixed with an game cast (there’s great chemistry between Nick Moran, Jason Statham, Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng, whilst Vinnie Jones had screen presence to burn). Whilst Ritchie has kind of rejigged his formula a few times, and took no shortage of inspiration from the likes of Tarantino, this is still an iconic British gangster film jam packed with quotable lines and a killer soundtrack. It really did blow the British film industry apart in the late 90’s, and by Jove, the industry at the time needed it.
What if Jean-Claude Van Damme accidentally wondered into a post office heist and then became wrongly identified as chief suspect? That’s the premise playing out in this enjoyable art-house comedy drama which sees Van Damme playing a fictionalised version of himself. The film took festivals and arthouse circles somewhat by storm in 2008, and was released to widespread critical acclaim. The kind of acclaim completely at odds with Van Damme’s career up until that point (as predominantly a specialist of head kicks). It’s written with wry wit, in unison with a proper appreciation for Van Damme’s screen and real life persona. Van Damme isn’t afraid to send himself up either, which makes the film work, whilst there’s also heart within the film, particularly during a fourth wall breaking confessional from the man himself that breaks in during the final third. Mixing Dog Day Afternoon with a touch of Rashomon, and including a performance from Van Damme, that would have (and should) got him an Oscar nomination (if the film had been more significantly pushed in the US). JCVD is a fantastic film and sadly one which star and director haven’t quite lived up to since.
This is the self preservation society…(ear worm alert). You can’t have a list of heist films and not include this iconic and persistently enjoyable British classic. Michael Caine’s role here, among with several choice lines are carved into the tablets of cinema history. You know the lines, a couple in particular. The build up, preparation and then heist itself are all fantastic. Caine, one of cinemas most charismatic and effortlessly cool performers is in his pomp here. He commands the screen brilliantly. You’ll watch and you’ll want a Mini Cooper.
Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is very much in rare company as a film which betters the original. If the original Sinatra (et al) film was teeming with star power, Soderbergh positively doubled down. It’s an absolutely enormous cast, which in particular brought George Clooney and Brad Pitt as the predominant pairing among the wider group. Consequently you get a film that’s almost impossibly cool and charismatic, with Soderbergh’s unique and romanticised style working well. He casts an adoring eye over Vegas. The heist part gets very elaborate, almost bordering convoluted but the collection of its cast, a diverse and eclectic mix (that must be said, perhaps lacks enough of a female presence, limited to a perpetually disapproving Julia Roberts) keep the film ticking over and ultimately the camaraderie seeps out from screen to audience, making you feel like a 12th member. It spawned a couple of lacklustre sequels that rested too much on personalities, whilst repeating too much. In fact Oceans 8, a somewhat maligned (from lets face it, largely male internet haters) female-centric reboot was actually a lot more enjoyable than the sequels.
When you’re Stanley Kubrick, it’s easy to have a few great films in your CV get somewhat overlooked in time. The Killing is just such an example. In many respects this film is pretty ahead of its time and certainly had a clear influence on many future thrillers which toyed with their narrative structure. Those elements seen in the likes of Rashomon are evident here, and whilst Kubrick wasn’t the first, something about the precision in which he crafts his heist story and weaves his story, had a clear and direct impact on Quentin Tarantino among many others. It’s an essential crime film and whilst Kubrick has become so iconic for his more pop culturally referenced or cult films, The Killing is one more masterpiece in his arsenal.
A testosterone charged action film that has a unique female gaze and sensibility on it from Kathryn Bigelow’s direction. Point Break, which was remade first as Fast and Furious (yeah, it’s basically a remake) and then in a rightly forgotten direct remake a few years ago, proves the difference a masters touch can have on genre fair. Point Break might have been initially dismissed as vacant, but the film has a point, and it’s a heady mix of heart pumping visceral action and stylish surf/sky diving montages as our hero (Keanu Reeves) infiltrates a gang of extreme sports enthusiasts lead by charismatic and philosophical dude-deity, Patrick Swayze. Once it’s clear Swayze is in fact behind a series of daring armed robberies, Reeves, who has almost been romanced by the magnetism of Bodhi (Swayze) has to stop him. Beautifully shot, a great soundtrack, top supporting cast and Swayze is incredible.
A post-heist heist film, this offered a unique take on the genre. What happens after a heist gone wrong? Tarantino’s debut was an instant smash and came out the blocks lauded as a masterpiece. He showed a mastery of structure control, playing with his narrative order but keeping a tight grip on the present story. It’s also still his most tightly crafted and lithe film which doesn’t venture too much into indulgence. Even his opening scene, perhaps the most irreverent part of the film has an overriding point to it, and from that indulgence on, the film kicks off and is relentlessly gripping. His first three pictures (including the underrated Jackie Brown) are still his best works, and Dogs remains my favourite. Great performances all around as a cast of established actors deliver some stellar work for a newbie, punk director who astonishingly got this made (because there are a lot of unconventional elements that would have inevitably got doors shut in his face). The post-heist hideout sequences in particular are exceptional.
What’s your favourite heist film? Let us know your thoughts on our social pages @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see.