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Heist Movies: A 20-Year Stretch

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released
Not released

Peruse any film schedule and you'll find a heist movie or two. Slickly plotted to guarantee tense action, edgy wit, character clashes, treachery, and last-minute hitches, they have a cool cachet that attracts big name actors and directors. Moreover, they provide irresistible escapist entertainment, whether crime pays or not. So, let Cinema Paradiso guide you through the rogues' gallery that helped establish this enduring sub-genre in its first two decades.

It all starts with a plan. Usually a man with a plan. A crook. Not just any old villain, though. A criminal mastermind who thinks big. Gold bullion. Uncut diamonds. Payrolls. Casino safes. Deposit boxes. The stakes are high. He'd do it alone if he could. But he needs a crew. Hand-picked. Best in the business. And that's where the problems begin...

The Best-Laid Plans

Of the many rules imposed upon cinema during the silent era, one of the most fundamental was 'crime cannot pay'. As audiences were deemed to be highly impressionable, the authorities had to ensure that they were not led astray by what they saw on the screen. Thus, while crooks could be charismatic and cunning, they could never be seen to get away with their crimes. Censors also insisted that film-makers avoided showing how robberies were carried out, in case they gave anyone ideas.

A still from Little Caesar (1931)
A still from Little Caesar (1931)

The likes of Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar and Tom Powers (James Cagney) in William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy (both 1931) could lead the cops a merry dance, outsmart their rivals and enjoy the high life. But they had to pay the price in the final reel before the reinforcement of the Production Code in 1934 brought an end to the Warner gangster cycle and turned Hollywood's attention on to the G-men who brought the bad guys to book.

The mood changed after the Second World War, however, as a new cynicism pervaded the crime genre. Burt Lancaster typified the new breed of crook in a pair of Robert Siodmak thrillers, The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1949), which respectively drew on works by Ernest Hemingway and Don Tracy. Each contained an armored car robbery, but neither can strictly be called 'heist movies', as the core action didn't revolve around the 'big caper'. But they pushed the genre towards a format that has changed little in the ensuing 75 years.

Key to the shakedown is a Mr Big, who has identified a target ripe for knocking off. This could be an armored car, a bank, a jewellery shop or a casino. But the risks are as large as the potential rewards. So, the mastermind has to recruit specialists for his crew: a safe cracker au fait with the latest models and alarm systems; a quartermaster who can get his hands on the tools needed for the job; a getaway driver with a fast set of wheels; and a heavy, in case things get tasty. Yet, as Akira Kurosawa demonstrated in Seven Samurai (1954), there are character flaws in even the most carefully chosen group.

Everyone takes their turn casing the joint in order to record timings and routines among the staff and security detail. But there's always tension within the gang, especially when fences and femmes fatales come into the equation. Honour among thieves is a laudable concept, but it becomes a dispensable one when the chips are down and there's a bag of swag at stake. Then, it's every man (as it tended to be between 1950-69) for himself.

Fewer heist films focus on aftermaths than the planning stages, particularly if the brains behind the operation has announced that this will be his last big blag before retirement. But, as we shall see, some classic pictures have centred on blame-hurling post mortems after the foolproof scheme has backfired.

The Nifty Fifties

In Armored Car Robbery (1950), Richard Fleischer followed in the tyre tracks of the earliest Hollywood heist movies by having William Talman and his band hit a security truck on its last call of the day at the Wrigley Field baseball stadium in Los Angeles. A snooping police car throws a spanner in the works, however, and Sterling Hayden has no more luck when he assembles a crew to raid a racetrack counting office during the big race in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Adapted from Lionel White's novel, Clean Break, this masterly caper complicates things by having one of the gang betrayed by a faithless spouse, who urges her lover to hijack the heist.

A still from The Maltese Falcon (1941)
A still from The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Viewers in the mid-1950s would have known what to expect on seeing Hayden, as he had participated in the robbery that had established the sub-genre in Hollywood, John Huston's take on W.R. Burnett's bestseller, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Just as he had launched film noir with his version of Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled gem, The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston set the template for countless heist movies to follow.

Newly out of prison, Doc Riedenschneider (the Oscar-nominated Sam Jaffe) plots to break into a jewellery store in an unnamed Mid-Western city. Crooked lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) agrees to bankroll him. But Doc and cohorts Dix Handley (Hayden), Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) have no idea that they are being set up or that the cops are on to them.

The acme of 50s heist movies, this timeless classic not only features a young Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich's mistress, but also the line that neatly sums up the rationale behind the entire genre: 'After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.'

Imitation is the sincerest form of box-office opportunism and the decade saw several films follow Huston's formula. Many of them have slipped into the margins of Hollywood history, but Cinema Paradiso users have a clutch of classics one click away from their doormat. Take Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential (1952), which sees Preston Foster seek to ambush an armored car with a florist's delivery van, while four college students plot to switch a cash cart at a Nevada casino in the same director's take on Jack Finney's pulp tome, 5 Against the House (1955).

Aspiring racer Mickey Rooney is duped by some bank robbers into speeding a getaway car over some treacherous terrain in Richard Quine's Drive a Crooked Road (1954), while the bank job executed by Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish impacts upon several residents in a copper mining town in Richard Fleischer's Violent Saturday (1955). Another trio set their sights on an upstate bank in Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). However, in this seething adaptation of William P. McGivern's novel, ex-cop Ed Begley pays the price for teaming bigoted thief Robert Ryan with Black gambling addict, Harry Belafonte.

While this heist picture reflected the racial themes explored in Stanley Kramer's prison break classic, The Defiant Ones (1958), British heist movies of the decade put a comic slant on criminous chicanery. Two of Ealing's most inspired comedies centred on heists. The chameleonic Alec Guinness called the shots in both, as Bank of England clerk Henry Holland smuggling gold ingots as Eiffel Tower paperweights in Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and as Professor Marcus heading an amateur chamber orchestra as cover for a raid on a security van at King's Cross Station in Alexander Mackendrick's The Lady Killers (1955).

When Tom Hanks took on the supremo role in Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ladykillers (2004), he assumed the name Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr. His plan is to rob a floating casino by digging a tunnel through the basement of the riverside home owned by landlady Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall). But the quartet in Lewis Gilbert's The Good Die Young (1954) have a less intricate scheme. They simply plan to steal used banknotes from the post office where disgraced war hero Laurence Harvey's mistress works. The fallout proves murderous and getting away with half a million in withdrawn notes after tunnelling through the back of a compartment seat on the London-Edinburgh express turns out to be no cakewalk for Lee Patterson and his crew in Compton Bennett's The Flying Scot (1957).

Unsurprisingly, given its links to Poetic Realism (see the Cinema Paradiso article), French cinema took to film noir with alacrity, initially with such twisting tales of underworld treachery as Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). Jean Gabin and René Dary commit the off-sceen bullion heist that sets the wheels in motion. In Rififi (1955), however, Jules Dassin shows every last second of the robbery that takes Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), Jo le Suédois (Carl Bohner), Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and César le Milanais (Dassin) through the floor of an upstairs apartment and into a Mappin & Webb jewellery shop.

A still from Topkapi (1964)
A still from Topkapi (1964)

Dassin so detested Auguste Le Breton's source novel that he expanded the heist to 30 silent minutes in order to pad out the remaining material. 'Out of the worst crime novel I ever read,' critic-turned-director François Truffaut once wrote, 'Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen.' He would repeat the trick with Topkapi (1964), a nailbitingly suspenseful robbery that follows the efforts of Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell), Cedric Page (Robert Morley), Giulio (Gilles Ségal) and Arthur Simon Simpson (the Oscar-winning Peter Ustinov) to lift Sultan Mahmud I's emerald-encrusted dagger from an impregnable museum in Istanbul.

Earning Dassin the Best Director prize at Cannes, Rififi spawned several low-budget knock-offs, including Rififi in Stockholm (1961), Rififi in Tokyo (1963), Du rififi à Paname (1966), and two versions of Rififi in Amsterdam (1962 and 1966). Indeed, such was the word's cachet (which loosely translates as 'rough and tumble') that Charles Guggenheim and John Stix's The Great St Louis Bank Robbery (1959), with Steve McQueen, was alternatively known as Rififi in St Louis.

Such was the popularity of heist movies in France around the time the nouvelle vague was rewriting the cinematic rules that major stars like Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon frequently carried out master plans for directors like Henri Verneuil, a master of film noir who should be much better known in this country for pictures like Any Number Can Win (1963), Greed in the Sun (1964) and The Sicilian Clan (1969). Perhaps the coolest heist of the era occurred in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964), as Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey (fresh from their dash around the Louvre) break into the Joinville villa where Karina lives with her aunt.

Without question, however, the master of the Gallic heist flick was Jean-Pierre Melville, who had been due to direct Rififi before he stepped down to help out Jules Dassin, who was struggling to relaunch his career after having been blacklisted during the House UnAmerican Activities Committee's investigation into Communism in Hollywood. Anticipating a number of new wave gambits, Bob le Flambeur (1956) is a debonair thriller that centres on Bob Montagné (Roger Dechesne), whose losing streak at the tables prompts him to recruit a crew in a bid to snatch 800 million francs from the casino at Deauville. Just as Fate shines on him, however, he's deserted by Lady Luck.

Mischievously tinkering with the conventions of the heist film, Melville returned to the sub-genre with Le Deuxième souffle (1966), in which Lino Ventura covets some platinum bars, and Le Cercle rouge (1970), which concludes with its own 30-minute silent heist sequence, as Corey (Alain Delon), Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) and Jansen (Yves Montand) attempt to stock take a Parisian jewellery store.

The most inspired variation on the theme, however, was Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), which hilariously depicts a bungled attempt to burgle a Roman pawn shop. With its jazzy score by Pieiro Umiliani, the charade is led by Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a boxer who not only steals the idea for the caper from jailbird Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto), but who also borrows gang members Mario (Renato Salvatori), Michele (Tiberio Murgia), Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni) and Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane) to carry it out. Only they conspire to make a right Horlicks of it.

Neither of this wonderful romp's sequels, Nanny Loy's Fiasco in Milan (1959) nor Amanzio Todini's Big Deal After Twenty Years (1985), is currently available on disc in the UK. This is infuriating, as they would be snapped up by Cinema Paradiso users, who know a good film when they see one.

The Shifty Sixties

Over in Blighty, Wolf Rilla remade The Asphalt Jungle as Cairo (1960), with George Sanders in the Sam Jaffe role and Richard Johnson as the small-timer previously played by Sterling Hayden. But, when it comes to British heists in the 1960s, the scene is dominated by the Great Train Robbery of 8 August 1963, which saw a gang of 15 steal £2.6 million from a Royal Mail train travelling from Glasgow to London. The events have been recalled in such features as Peter Yates's Robbery (1967) and David Green's Buster (1988), TV series like Mrs Biggs (2012) and The Great Train Robbery (2013), and the documentaries Ronnie Biggs: The Great Train Robber (1974) and Chris Long's The Great British Train Robbery: A Tale of Two Thieves (2014).

A still from The Great Train Robbery Series (2013)
A still from The Great Train Robbery Series (2013)

Stanley Baker plays the gang boss who plans the train heist in Robbery. But he had form, as he had also taken the title role in Joseph Losey's The Criminal (1960), in which he had masterminded a £40,000 racecourse robbery before finding himself behind bars with the very crooks he had chiselled to get hold of the loot. Baker was at it again in Cliff Owen's A Prize of Arms (1962), which sees him teaming up with Tom Bell and Helmut Schmid to pose as soldiers in an effort to infiltrate an army pay unit and lift the £100,000 intended as wages for the members of an expeditionary force.

The getaway proves the undoing of Michael Craig's gang in Stanley Hayers's Payroll (1961), leaving widow Billie Whitelaw and spurned lover Françoise Prévost to come after the £50,000 snatched from a security van. Trucks are also the target for Ferdy Mayne and his gang of hijackers in Crossroads to Crime (1960), the only live-action feature to have been directed by Gerry Anderson, whose puppetry achievements are celebrated in the multi-directored This Is Supermarionation (1969) and Steven La Rivière's Filmed in Supermarionation (2014).

With Christmas only two days away in Quentin Lawrence's Cash on Demand, André Morell's urbane crook hasn't the inclination to go charging around after nickel ingots. Instead, he calmly informs bank manager Peter Cushing that his wife and children have been kidnapped and will be harmed unless he helps Morell steal £93,000 from the vault. Back Stateside, Vic Tayback and Donald Woods would put a similar plot into action with banker Johnny Cash and wife Cay Forrester in Bill Karn's Five Minutes to Live (both 1961).

In a twist on the heist theme, Derren Nesbitt and his cohorts have to break back into the vault that they have just robbed in Vernon Sewell's Strongroom in order to rescue trapped bank manager Colin Gordon and his secretary, Ann Lynn. Sympathy for a victim also plays a crucial role in J. Henry Piperno's Ambush in Leopard Street (both 1962), as James Kenney begins to have feelings for mousy secretary Jean Harvey after brother-in-law Michael Brennan persuades him to date her to ascertain inside information on a diamond shipment that is being planned by the jeweller for whom she works.

Another brother-in-law (William Lucas) is added to the strength when ex-con John Rutland plots to break through a bombed-out house into the basement of a bank in Norman Harrison's Calculated Risk. However, the gang didn't anticipate stumbling across an unexploded bomb. Dyson Lovell similarly didn't anticipate that girlfriend Janine Grey would be knocked out during the raid on her Hatton Garden diamond exchange in John Gilling's Panic (1963). But her disappearance following a bout of amnesia threatens Lovell's getaway plan.

The need to beat a hasty retreat also plays on the mind of would-be mastermind Dave King, as he lines up a bank robbery in Michael Truman's Go to Blazes (1962). His hopes of scarpering in a stolen fire engine are, however, jeopardised by cash-strapped boutique owner, Maggie Smith, who has a slippery scheme of her own. Couture and uniforms also have their part to play in Cliff Owen's The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), as faux fashionista Peter Sellers takes exception to Bill Kerr's Aussie gang committing felonies while disguised as London bobbies.

A still from Ocean's 11 (1960)
A still from Ocean's 11 (1960)

A similarly urbane wit ran through a British heist movie that proved to have had the same game-changing effect on the sub-genre as an American counterpart. The films in question are Basil Dearden's The League of Gentlemen and Lewis Milestone's Ocean's 11 (both 1960), which each opted for the all-star approach to the gang blag.

Adapted from a novel by John Boland, the former sees cashiered officer Jack Hawkins assemble a crack team of army specialists to steal around £1 million from a London bank. Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Nigel Patrick and Roger Livesey are among the recruits in a film that combined suspense with knowing humour that contributed to the 60s vogue for crime capers (with the amdram rehearsals for R.M. Sheriff's Journey's End, for example, alluding to the musical dalliances in The Ladykillers).

The same sly wit characterised Ocean's 11, which reunited Frank Sinatra with Rat Pack pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford. Once again, disgruntled servicemen are behind the heist, as veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division scheme to launch a simultaneous raid on five casinos in Las Vegas (including The Sands, in which Ol' Blue Eyes had shares). He hoped lightning would strike twice with Gordon Douglas's Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). But the British Invasion meant that Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Bing Crosby now looked like somebody's uncle rather than the personification of cool.

When he came to rework Milestone's scenario as Ocean's Eleven (2001), director Steven Soderbergh copied the big-name casting strategy by teaming George Clooney with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. They joined forces again in the even more stellar Ocean's Twelve (2004), while Al Pacino signed up for Ocean's Thirteen (2007) before Gary Ross pulled off a coup of his own by landing Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway. Mindy Kaling. Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna and Helena Bonham Carter for Ocean's Eight (2018).

Back in the Swinging Sixties, audiences swept along by the social changes that came with Beatlemania and the pop boom readily took to capers in which charismatic rogues stole from institutions associated with the established order. Hollywood responded by glamorising the crooks and setting the robberies in chic locations to show off the film industry's switch from monochrome to colour. Thus, Paris provides the backdrop for William Wyler's How to Steal a Million (1966), in which Audrey Hepburn hires cracksman Peter O'Toole to steal a statue from a high-security museum to prevent the powers that be from discovering that it's a forgery made by her father, Hugh Griffith.

A still from The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
A still from The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

Romantic tension also rears its head in Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), as insurance investigator Faye Dunaway (who had robbed banks for fun with Warren Beatty in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) tries to recover the $2,660,527.62 stolen from a Boston bank by a gang of four complete strangers controlled by an unseen mastermind. Dunaway strongly suspects that playboy Steve McQueen is pulling the strings, just as Rene Russo is convinced that Pierce Brosnan is responsible for a spate of art thefts in John McTiernan's The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), in which Dunaway cameo'd as Brosnan's therapist.

The distraction sequence involving bowler-hatted figures similar to the one in René Magritte's painting, 'The Son of Man', finds an echo in Bernard Girard's Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), as James Coburn seeks to use the arrival of the premier of the Soviet Union to draw eyes away from the bank at Los Angeles International Airport. There are two diversions for the price of one in Vittorio De Sica's After the Fox (1966), as Okra (Akim Tamiroff) uses a girl in a bikini to deflect gazes away from the theft of $3 million in gold bullion, while Aldo Vanucci (Peter Sellers) poses as neo-realist director Federico Fabrizi in order to stage a film shoot to prevent the Italian police from realising that his extras are actually smuggling two tons of gold bars from a boat moored off the fishing village of Sevalio.

Staying in Italy, Mario Bava squeezes three heists into Danger: Diabolik (1968), as John Philip Law and accomplice Marisa Mell steal $10 million from a Rolls-Royce, a priceless emerald necklace from Saint Just Castle (and a morgue) and a casket containing 20 tons of gold from a train - and all from under the nose of Inspector Michel Piccoli. Heists would feature heavily in the poliziotteschi crime films that proliferated in the 1970s. However, they also cropped up in Sergio Leone's spaghetti classics, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and A Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker, 1971). And Hollywood followed suit by adding Wild West heists to Sidney J. Furie's The Appaloosa (1966), Burt Kennedy's The War Wagon (1967), Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969).

The heists planned by Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) and his nephew, George (Robert Wagner), don't go according to plan in Blake Edwards's The Pink Panther (1963), leaving Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) to carry the can. But Edwards did get to stage an intricate Rififi-style robbery in a Lugash museum in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976).

A still from Take the Money and Run (1969)
A still from Take the Money and Run (1969)

With his illegible handwriting, Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen) is about as hopeless a crook as Clouseau is a cop. But he keeps striving to veer off the straight and narrow in Take the Money and Run (1969). Try and try again is also the message in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966), as the gang led by hairdresser Alfred Askett (Frankie Howerd) - which has stolen £2.5 million from a mail van (yes, that old chestnut again) - have to retrieve it from its hiding place. However, the abandoned Hamingwell Grange has just been taken over by headmistress Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan) and her delinquent charges.

Just three years after taking a bit part as a station copper in The Wrong Arm of the Law, Michael Caine was British cinema's biggest male star. So, we end Cinema Paradiso's heist bonanza with a triple bill of Caine as the embodiment of chic Savile Row savoir faire.

Time has moved on since Ronald Neame made Gambit (1966) and Shirley Maclaine's depiction of Eurasian Nicole Chang and Herbert Lom's turn as Arab Ahmad Shahbandar demonstrate that the Swinging Sixties wasn't necessarily the enlightened decade that rose-tinted nostalgia would have us believe. But the efforts of Harry Tristan (Caine) to steal an ancient Chinese statue from the Middle Eastern city of Dammutz had enough intricacy and suspense to persuade Joel and Ethan Coen to rework the narrative for Michael Hoffman's Gambit (2012), which teamed Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz.

A Desmond Cory novel provided the inspiration for Bryan Forbes's Deadfall (1968), a very grown up tale of deceit and incest that reveals how cat burglar Henry Clarke (Caine) is steered away from one mansion heist to a more lucrative venue by Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and her older, bisexual husband, Richard (Eric Portman). Such permissiveness was down to the demise of the Production Code. This had toned down screen content for 34 years and the heist movie would find a new lease of life in the 1970s (as we shall see soon in an overview of the sub-genre's second and third golden ages). But the old decade gave it a resounding shove in the right direction, thanks to Peter Collinson's The Italian Job (1969).

Scripted by Troy Kennedy Martin, this has gone down in British cult movie folklore, with its defiant theme tune ('Getta Bloomin' Move On' aka 'The Self-Preservation Society'), its use of modish Mini Coopers painted in the colours of the Union Jack, and memorable lines like 'You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!'

At the heart of it all is Charlie Croker (Caine), who has his eyes fixed on a $4 million consignment of gold bullion that the Italian government is about to convoy through Turin during a traffic jam in order to bankroll a Chinese car factory. Of course, Croker's going to need some seed money from Mr Bridger (Noël Coward), the computer wizardry of Professor Peach (Benny Hill) and the driving skills of Chris (Barry Cox), Tony (Richard Essame) and Dominic (David Salamone). Yet, even though the caper literally ends in a cliffhanger, Croker remains upbeat ('Hang on a minute, lads. I've got a great idea.')

Among its many novelties, F. Gary Gray's remake, The Italian Job (2003), takes a different route out of Venice. But it's still worth following. Why not enjoy the ride with Cinema Paradiso?

A still from The Italian Job (2003) With Mark Wahlberg And Charlize Theron
A still from The Italian Job (2003) With Mark Wahlberg And Charlize Theron
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