In my fiction-writing life, I am working on a project that tangentially involves heists. In my day-to-day life, I’m still not seeing my friends or going out very much due to coronavirus. As such, my wife and I have spent much of the last several weeks watching heist movies.
Heist movies are a fun genre, because you usually get to see a bunch of clever people pulling off an operation with high stakes and doing it in style. My favorite kind of heist movie, in addition to tricking the fictional subject of the heist, also attempts to trick the viewer, hiding its twists in plain sight before revealing the full scope of the operation at the end of the film. However, there are plenty of different kinds of heist movies for different kinds of viewers, and as I’ve spent a significant amount of time recently absorbing these films, I’m going to lay out five of the best ones I’ve seen, in chronological release order.
(I’m not going to mention any of the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, sequels or spin-offs. You already know about those.)
The only foreign language film on this list, “Rififi” is a French film noir about a group of thieves who attempt to burgle a secure jewelry store in Paris. It is most famous for the actual heist portion of the film, an impressive half-hour sequence shot without dialogue or music – just the quiet sounds of the team committing the crime.
One thing that I’ve found interesting about the heist movies I’ve watched is that the older they are, the more likely they are to moralize about the consequences of the thieves’ actions. Modern movies are much more likely to portray the thieves as cool as glamorous, expecting the audience to root for them to get away with the deed. “Rififi” is the most extreme example of the moralization trend I’ve yet watched, as the crew is hunted down post-heist by a brutal mobster. It’s sad, tense, and well-acted.
The Italian Job (1969)
The 2003 remake of “The Italian Job” will not be appearing on this list; outside of a good performance by Edward Norton, it is a mostly forgettable parade of cliches and actors slumming it in roles that are beneath many of them. The original “Italian Job,” however, is a gonzo heist comedy about a crew of bumbling fools and half-clever delinquents, replete with goofy music, bizarre jokes and some wild plot decisions. The remake may have Edward Norton, but it certainly does not feature a pompous prison warden who gets standing ovations from his prisoners and who pastes pictures of Queen Elizabeth on his walls.
The heist itself is fun enough – a no-good crook played by a devilish Michael Caine plans the robbery of an armored car during a busy day in Turin – but the real action is in the skewering of these selfish, stupid, vain people who believe themselves to be clever, and in the indulgent moments of filmmaking, like a too long yet just long enough car chase through Turin and the Italian countryside. And that ending! It’s simply an all-timer.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Most of the “Mission: Impossible” films are heist movies after a fashion, as most of them have essentially the same plot: secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and, in order to prove his innocence, he must steal an important object and deliver it to the real bad guy before stealing it back and saving the day. However, unlike the later (and mostly better) “Mission: Impossibles,” which go heavy on the action and stunts, the first film really does focus on the heist: a daring break-in to CIA headquarters, featuring an impressive centerpiece in which Hunt must infiltrate a secure room with all manner of pressure and moisture sensors.
That scene, ably and dramatically directed by Brian DePalma, is also notable for featuring the real Cruise at the center of the action. Cruise did a number of his own stunts for the film, and he’s continued to do so for the next two decades as the franchise has continued. Ultimately, the original, hammy, too talky “Mission: Impossible” film is most effective as a gateway into the crazier later films in the franchise (though you should skip “Mission: Impossible 2”), but that is one heck of a heist scene.
Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” is notable for placing the viewer not with the heist master (in this case, a brooding Clive Owen), but with the NYPD detective and hostage negotiator played by Denzel Washington. As Washington’s Keith Frazier attempts to deescalate a hostage situation in a Wall Street bank and figure out the strategy and motivation of Owen’s Dalton Russell, the viewer is slowly exposed to the machinations of the heist crew’s true plot, thanks partially to Frazier’s deduction and partially to drips of exposition supplied by Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster (the bank owner and his fixer-for-hire, respectively).
Washington and Owen crackle in the lead roles, and the film hides much in plain sight that pays off quite rewardingly. And, despite being made 14 years ago, it still feels very of the moment: Frazier has to repeatedly work against (and at times, acquiesce to) an impulsive police force that racially profiles hostages and itself threatens to escalate the situation. It’s a relevant reminder that people of color have been concerned about systemic racism long, long before George Floyd was killed.
Logan Lucky (2017)
The most kind-hearted and fun movie on this list, “Logan Lucky” is the latest heist film directed by Steven Soderbergh, perhaps best known for directing the “Ocean’s Eleven” remake and its two sequels. I personally enjoy this film, about a trio of siblings (Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Riley Keough) who plan a heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, even more than the best Ocean’s entries. There’s a real heart to the characters, who are given more room to breathe thanks to the smaller crew (only six instead of 11 or more).
“Logan Lucky” is a very funny movie, with a sweet undercurrent about the value of family relationships, and the central heist of the movie and its subsequent twists and turns is very good. However, my favorite aspect of the film isn’t the heist itself, but the kind of pre-heist jailbreak of two of its central figures. The sequence is pure joy to watch play out and, like the rest of the movie, it relies on the crooks’ knowledge that everyone is at least a little selfish and prideful. You just have to know how to manipulate those feelings.