You know how it goes. The mastermind emerges from the underground, schemes an entertainingly complex and clever scheme, finds his – almost always his – expert hired hands to carry out said entertainingly complex and clever scheme, lays it all out for them and for us. They go do the heist, unexpected bumps in the road threaten to knock everything off course, and we wait to see whether they get away with the loot.
Since they grew out of film noir, heist movies have been one of film's most enduringly excellent genres. Since day one, they've had an absolutely platinum-plated structure, and the great thing about such a solid skeleton is it gives writers and directors a great platform to subvert and innovate while knowing that however far off base they go, it'll be there to keep things moving in the right direction.
There's something deeper than that at work though. In the Sixties, a campier, more playful sensibility in films like Basil Dearden's The League of Gentlemen invited us to allow ourselves to be charmed by the roguish, charismatic schemers liberating cash from people who could afford it. The thieves became the clever ones, the funny ones, the wry, snappy, stylish ones; the law and the guy being ripped off were out to stop their – and our – fun.
That's why it endures: there's an element of wish fulfilment in every heist film, or at least the fun of dissecting where it went wrong, and how you could pull off your own perfect job.
The Town (2010)
Ben Affleck's sophomore directing effort is arguably his very best, exposing the underbelly of Boston's Charlestown via the story of a gang who don nun masks to rob banks, eventually setting their sights on the big bucks at Fenway Park. Their efforts are compromised when Affleck's character falls for the bank manager they tie up on a job, leaving him torn between the prospect of escaping the town he's trapped in and the childhood friends who won't let him go so easily.
Jackie Brown (1997)
The only film which Quentin Tarantino has adapted from another writer's work, this Nineties classic more than holds its own against the director's other films. Starring Pam Grier, Jackie Brown is a riff on Seventies Blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown, in which Grier also starred. After being caught smuggling gun money on a flight, the film's titular air hostess is forced to choose between keeping quiet and doing time or busting her arms dealer boss and cooperating with the police.
A modern classic of the genre, Ryan Gosling's killer jacket and the scintillating soundtrack made Drive a cultural moment that everyone was talking about. In it Gosling plays a getaway driver slash stuntman who falls in love with the wife of a criminal – an excellent Carey Mulligan – forcing him to reevaluate his criminal allegiances. The violence is dialled up to eleven, especially in one almost unwatchable lift scene, but the more tender moments are equally memorable too.
Layer Cake (2004)
Best known for being the screen performance which reportedly nabbed Daniel Craig the job as 007, Matthew Vaughn's portrait of England's seedy criminal underworld is nostalgic hit of Noughties excess. Craig is on fine form as a drug dealer who wants out and is forced into two daunting tasks by his unimpressed boss, and who could forget Sienna Miller's dancing in one of the best nightclub scenes in cinema history.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Sexy Beast is a work of British cinema history in which a mobster tracks down a former employee to force him out of retirement. Ray Winstone is on fine form as Gal, the laidback ex-criminal who just wants to be left to chain smoke around his shiny swimming pool, and who gets pushed over the edge by his maniac boss in a moment of passion. Sexy Beast functions like a play in two acts: the first setting the scene of the Spanish paradise being invaded, and the second the heist that threatens to bring Gal and his life down. It also features, for our money, Ben Kingsley's most iconic role. Everything from the calamari starters to the villa decor to the short-sleeved shirts is pure 2000.
Heat might not have been recognised at the Oscars, but the 25 years since its release have seen Michael Mann's crime thriller cemented as the classic of the genre. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino are a formidable pair in this story of a detective trying to catch a seasoned criminal pulling his very last heist. Mann spent nine months shadowing an LAPD officer every Friday and Saturday night in the run up to Heat, responding to calls across the city to get a taste of what the crime there really looked like. The result is a film which exploits every hidden corner of the city in a relentless game of cat and mouse.
Logan Lucky (2017)
Steven Soderbergh, the 'master of heist' behind the Oceans trilogy, is at the helm for this dark crime comedy about two men trying to steal their way out of middle of nowhere America. The story follows the Logan brothers, – played by Adam Driver and Channing Tatum – who plan an elaborate scheme to rob a racing circuit in North Carolina, and the tangled web they get caught in through trying to evade the FBI. It also showed, before he did so in Knives Out, that Daniel Craig does funny very well indeed.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The film which did confusing flashbacks and tricks with time before Nolan was at it, and the story which made Keyser Söze a name to be feared, The Usual Suspects is a mysterious thriller which pulls you into a confusing maze. In the wake of a deadly siege on a burned-out ship which leaves 27 dead, just two figures are left to piece together what happened: the problem is how much you can believe of what they tell you.
Baby Driver (2017)
A former getaway driver is blackmailed to take part in a job, or else his girlfriend will be hurt, but things go very wrong when their arms dealers turn out to be undercover officers. A gem from Edgar Wright, the cult director behind Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver is a high octane chase which barely lets up, as well as featuring a very strong soundtrack behind all the screeching brakes.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Six anonymous criminals known only by pseudonyms (Mr Pink, Mr White, etc) attempt a huge diamond steal together, only to have the police show up and sow suspicion about who ratted them out. Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen are especially excellent in this cult heist film which is threaded with paranoia and rising tension. Tarantino's first, and still his very best, don't @ us, Reservoir Dogs is a film which has left its fingerprints on all of the heist stories which came after it. A bloody, maniacal laugh, set to the jaunty music of Stealers Wheels.
Christopher Nolan's thoughtful crime story did for the heist genre what he went on to do with Tenet for the sci-fi genre, and it's a testament to how complicated the latter is that Inception has aged as relatively straight-forward to follow. The film follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) a criminal who steals information by entering his victim's dreams in a realm in which five hours of real time accounts for fifty years in the dream world. Presented with an offer he cannot refuse, Cobb must perform an inception on his competitor's ill child in order to have his criminal past wiped clean.
Quick Change (1990)
Bill Murray's jaded Grimm executes the perfect heist along with his girlfriend and accomplice. It's beautiful, it's ingenious, and it nets him a million dollars. Now all he needs to do is jump on a plane and – finally – get out of New York. It's the getaway where things get sticky though. Missing street signs, muggers, paranoid tenants, fires, cab drivers and mobsters all conspire to stop the three thieves from making their flight, but there's still a chance they might get out of the city scott-free.
Michael Mann's feature debut casts James Caan as the closed-off, emotionally cold jewel thief and former convict Frank, who's increasingly torn between his (extremely dodgy) businesses and his yearning for a normal family life with his new partner Jessie. Frank's life is one of double-crossing, triple-crossing and occasional quadruple-crossing, which is really starting to get him down, and he's ready to get out. Until – of course! – there's one last big score to snag. If you like your heists satisfyingly accurate to life, Thief is your film. The Tangerine Dream soundtrack is a belter too.
The Killing (1956)
The first of Stanley Kubrick's mature films is a tightly wound and rock-hard-boiled noir thriller built around experienced crim Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, later to become Dr Strangelove's Jack D Ripper) swinging at one last job to set himself up for life. There's $2 million waiting to be swiped at a racetrack, and he pieces together an unlikely crew to do it: a corrupt cop, a sharpshooter, a bookie, a bartender, and a pro wrestler. Clay's wife Sherry is pretty sick of Clay's schemes not delivering her the riches she was expecting, and sets up a competing heist to get the cash from him.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
This one minted so many bits of the heist movie narrative that it's hard to imagine the genre without it: a hand-picked crew of specialists pulled together by a newly liberated mastermind; the big scene where the brilliant plan is outlined; a vault they said couldn't be broken; an invisible security system to be broached; and a gradual unravelling of the plan which tests the accomplices' allegiances. With its hard-boiled script and heavy shadows it's a descendent of noir crime thrillers, and the very young Marilyn Monroe appears, too. She was initially turned down for a small role as a lawyer's mistress, but the way she flounced out convinced director Jack Huston to call her back: she was, he said, "one of the few actresses who could make an entrance by leaving the room".
Ocean's 11 (2001)
Well, obviously. The starriest of starry ensembles – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Lennox Lewis, Don Cheadle's sub-Dick Van Dyke cock-er-nee chewing – get together for Steven Soderbegh's update of the 1960 Frank Sinatra vehicle, intending to empty the vaults of not one, not two, but three Vegas casinos on the same night, using the heavyweight title fight as their cloak and a Chinese acrobat as their dagger. There's not much to be said about it that hasn't already been said, other than that it's probably the film which birthed the Brad Pitt second act, where he looked like a Robert Redford-esque classic leading man: laconic, wise-cracking, and usually with a burger in hand.
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"Out of the worst crime novel I ever read," Francois Truffaut said of Rififi, "Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen." Its greatest sequence, the half-hour robbery set-piece which is entirely dialogue- and music-free, remains an staggering heist in itself, a daring bit of surely-they-won't-get-away-with-it bravado which gets away clean every time. Dassin seems to be winkingly saying that he, the hand on the camera, is as much a master of misdirection as the reprobates trying to steal the jewels from a Parisian dealer's apparently impenetrable vault.
Steve McQueen's classy thriller follows four women whose husbands died at the hands of police during an attempted heist as they attempt to settle their sadly exploded partners' debts. To pay back $2 million to a crime boss the husbands had ripped off, they plan to make off with $5 million using a plan from one of the deceased's notebooks. Led by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon, Widows is a sparky, intelligent and urgent film whose heroines aren't just out for a laugh – they're just trying to survive.
Robert de Niro's mid-Nineties second wind tends be seen to hinge on Heat and Jackie Brown, but Ronin is equally impressive. He's ex-CIA guy Sam, a mercenary who's now leading a bunch of specialists including Jean Reno, Stellen Skarsgard and Sean Bean, who are on the trail of a mysterious suitcase. Jonathan Pryce, playing an IRA operative, has other ideas though. Ronin's grittily convincing car chases still stand out, and Bean is particularly good as the out-of-his-depth weak link. He gets one of the greatest lines in his filmography too: "Almost a little bit of raspberry jam, eh!"
Inside Man (2006)
Wonderful as Spike Lee's second golden run of films has been to witness, it's slightly gutting that Inside Man stands as his last big-budget mainstream success. The heist itself comes early, and it's a complex one involving thieves dressed as decorators, an elaborate hostage-shuffling system and recordings of the dead Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. As such, it quickly turns from a howdunnit into a whydunnit, with Denzel Washington and Chiwetl Ejiofor bearing down on Clive Owen's criminal ringleader. As you'd expect of Lee, it's a superior, intelligent blockbuster of a thriller, and nobody shoots New York with the energy and wit that he does.
Set It Off (1996)
Four friends in LA (Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A Fox and Kimberley Elise) are at rock bottom, scrubbing floors together for a pittance. After a police shooting, they decide to take their destinies into their own hands, robbing a string of banks with some insider info and stacking up a pretty gigantic wedge apiece. But after they're double-crossed, they're drawn back in for one last hoorah. F Gary Gray's film feels fresh still, and though the first half hour is a little up and down, things quickly kick into gear.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
At the outset of Sidney Lumet's film, Al Pacino's gang look like the kind of take-no-prisoners bruisers common to the heist genre. But then, almost immediately, their plan completely falls to pieces. They're no kind of criminal outfit. They're a rag-tag bunch of misguided chancers. Over the course of 12 hours, Pacino's Sonny accidentally becomes a counterculture folk hero while trying to get money together for his lover's gender-affirmation surgery and gradually losing his marbles as he keeps multiple plates spinning.
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Every British heist film which followed The Lavender Hill Mob owes it an enormous debt. The charming, urbane mastermind character probably hit its absolute peak with Alec Guinness's Henry Holland. Sitting in a Rio de Janeiro bar, he recounts a big job he did in London. Holland has been an honest John for 20 years, looking after gold bullion deliveries, until a long-brewing plan to make off with some finally finds its last missing piece. It's an Ealing Studio lark, but viewed 70 years later, there's a darker undercurrent too. Like other British post-war crime thrillers like Night and the City, the location shooting in London shows not a triumphant victor of war, but a bomb-site city still dragging itself, disfigured and sad, out of the rubble.
Even before the Wachowskis made The Matrix, they were bending the rules. Their debut feature takes a pulpy heist set-up and runs with it, and much like The Matrix, it's now far more obvious that the Wachowskis laced the whole thing with allusions to the lesbian and trans experiences. Bound riffs on the traditional gender roles of the heist genre, casting Gina Gershon as Corky, the archetypal hard nut seduced by Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and convinced to steal from her mob boss boyfriend. Corky and Violet are constantly underestimated by the men around them, and the directors later said that everyone in Bound is fighting against the "sort of trap that they were making out of their lives". It's a stylish, confident opening to a brilliant filmmaking career.
Dead Presidents (1995)
This is one of the films which plays most freely with the heist structure. Unusually, we start at the aftermath of the job itself, with burning dollar bills and a sense that everything has spun out of control, before whipping back to 1968 to explore exactly how these men came to be so desperate that they had to hit a bank.
The Hughes Brothers's direction is expressive and comes with an emotional wallop – there's an especially extraordinary jump cut which takes Larenz Tate's Anthony from sprinting across back yards in the Bronx to sprinting through the jungle of Vietnam. It's about a lot more than just the job – and turns a heist film into a treatise on how America mistreated Black veterans and communities after their return to an ungrateful nation.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)
Walter Mathau is the bored, grumpy Lieutenant Garber, who finds the tedium of the New York Metro office shattered when a group of identically dressed and heavily armed men steals a subway train. The gang, led by Robert Shaw's icily psychopathic Mr Blue, want a million dollars. How do they plan to get away with the money from hundreds of feet under the city? Garber and his men's bone-dry wit puts you solidly on their side, but it never undermines the film's slowly ratcheting tension and the casual brutality of the hijackers. It's incredibly light on its feet, full of character, and the funk soundtrack really, really kicks.
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