The success of any worthwhile heist – as in filmmaking – lies in the precise execution of a well conceived plan. As a study of change over time, heist cinema offers tantalizing images of passionate desire, sparkling luxury, and caustic violence all at once. The moral murkiness of the characters in these films give them carte blanche to behave outside the boundaries of law, allowing filmmakers to prod at previously held conceptions about victimhood and institutional justice.
As we celebrate Michael Mann-uary month being extended through February, consider this list of some of the best in heist cinema.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Long before Neil McCauley and his crew made off with $12 million from a downtown Los Angeles bank, an unnamed posse of bandits descended upon a rural train station for a stick-up in Edwin S. Porter’s silent western, The Great Train Robbery. Emboldened by the successful trick photography of Georges Méliès’ fantasy films in Europe, Porter sought to produce a film with a sustained story that could attract audiences to his theaters in the States. The result was an American classic and proto-heist film from which most others (including on this list) descend from.
A one reeler clocking in at under 15 minutes, The Great Train Robbery begins expediently: a member of the posse breaks into a railroad station and hijacks the telegraph, luring the titular train into danger. Absent any modern procedural elements normally associated with the heist picture – the case, the planning – the film’s in-medias-res structure still concentrates a high amount of action within its runtime. It is, after all, the same film in which a man dances while his feet are being shot at.
Gun Crazy (1950)
“We go together, Annie. I don’t know why. Maybe like guns and ammunition go together.”
Before Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde, there was Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy. Carnival sharpshooter Annie Starr, and a firearm obsessed young man, Bart Tare, strike up a whirlwind romance that quickly devolves into a crime spree after they lose their jobs and burn through their savings. In a now famous shot that shows an entire bank robbery from the vantage point of the getaway vehicle (reportedly only requiring a single take), Gun Crazy wears its b-movie reputation as a badge of honor. Even its blood red poster anchors the noirish imagery in pure exploitation territory, setting a stylistic precedent of what would come in heist cinema later in the century.
This setup of star crossed robbers could easily be reduced to a Reefer Madness–style PSA, but working from a script by the then blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, Gun Crazy preserves the ugly complexity of its characters over empty moralizing about crime and punishment. The black and white photography is rich and graphic, alternating between clear views of the young lover’s faces, and the instruments of death they wield.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
“He might’ve done it. His body functions might’ve done it. But, he, himself, he didn’t do it.”
The heist film as a chamber piece and zeitgeist-y epic, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon turns its ripped from the headlines story about a bank robbery, back into a film about the intersection of crime and mass media. As the film’s opening titles and verite imagery lifted from the streets of New York inform us: this is a true story. Al Pacino’s Sonny Kuzik leads a trio, and then a duo, that sticks up a local Brooklyn savings bank for all its money in what should have been a simple job.
Leaving the planning of the heist off screen, Lumet protracts the indeterminable start and end points of the actual “heist” moment into infinity, as the robbery awkwardly devolves into a hostage situation lasting throughout the night. Pacino, tip-top as ever here, is still second chair to an august performance from the late John Cazale as the ever-reliable Salvatore. The chemistry between the two offering a screwball reprieve from the harrowing trajectory their characters find themselves in.
Point Break (1991)
“The correct term is babes, sir.”
Before entering prestige territory as the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director in 2009, Kathryn Bigelow directed one of the most indelible action thrillers of the 90s with Point Break. Where the more austere The Hurt Locker composed its Jordanian landscapes around the striking appearance of soldiers in bomb disposal gear, Point Break costumes its California surfer characters in masks of former presidents, as they rob banks around Los Angeles in 90 seconds or less.
Like other films on this list, Point Break is not centered around any one heist in particular, but rather the intricate fabric connecting many heists. Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah character must believably help out during the execution of each robbery (and he does), but much of the film’s tension also grows out of the moments between heists, when his true identity as an FBI agent might be sniffed out by Patrick Swayze and his crew of beefcakes.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
“I can say I definitely didn’t do it because I know what I did or didn’t do. But I cannot definitely say that about anybody else, ’cause I don’t definitely know.”
Famously, Quentin Tarantino’s color coded debut Reservoir Dogs, does not depict the diamond heist at the center of its plot. The heist instead becomes a structuring absence – like the contents of Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or Charles Manson in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – that hangs in the negative space of the film’s primary narrative, enriching the text overall and, underscoring the limits of memory once the juice is flowing.
Set against the hourglass of a bullet to the stomach, Reservoir Dogs keeps its story within the temporal and physical conditions of waiting for the heat to die down, as the surviving crew lay low in the aftermath of a simple job gone awry. Central to this is the suggestion of a rat on the inside, sending everyone scurrying into accusatory spirals. Tarantino does break away in flashback to show elements of heist’s planning and (eventual) disruption by authorities, but, like Dog Day Afternoon, the film is more committed to heightening the mania within a single space ad nauseam until cathartic, bloody release than anything else
“We want to hurt no one. We’re here for the bank’s money, not your money. Your money is insured by the federal government, you’re not gonna lose a dime. Think of your families, don’t risk your life. Don’t try and be a hero.”
There’s a reason that this is the line that precedes the climactic, explosive, and relentlessly tense centerpiece heist of Michael Mann’s Heat. Spoken out to a terrified bank crowd by Neil McCauley – played by Robert de Niro – it is this foundation of humanism that undercuts this entire sequence, especially as it explodes onto the streets with a shocking amount of casualties and perhaps the loudest gunfire ever captured on record. But for as much as Mann makes it clear of the stances between Neil and his opponent – Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna – and whether they are truly one and the same, he provides equal clarity to his stance on every possible U.S institution keeping its people permanently grounded and unable to progress.
Within a single line, the character of McCauley transcends light-years past the surface-level archetype of the cinematic bank robber; acting on his elaborate robberies as if it was an act of justice against the false virtues provided by The American Dream, all thus rendering the violence that immediately follows even more senseless; only given necessity by Mann’s unspeakably exquisite eye for intersecting realism, humanism, and the tragedy bridging the two. –– Austin Jaye
Bottle Rocket (1996)
“Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers – can you see how incredible this is going to be? – hang gliding, come on!”
Amidst the crime film renaissance of the 90s, was Wes Anderson’s highly comic debut feature, Bottle Rocket. Starring the then unknown Wilson brothers, Owen & Luke, the film is composed of two heists and a break-out, committed by friends Dignan & Anthony. The pair are approaching thirty, with neither showing a lot for it, their turn to a life of crime driven by a commitment to a 75-year plan following Anthony’s discharge from a voluntary psychiatric unit.
Anderson’s trademark visual ostentation is quite subdued here, but still no less evocative of what would recur in his later work: shots of fonts and typeface, use of slow motion, Owen Wilson. But Bottle Rocket’s crime film cred is mostly bolstered by its inclusion of the one-and-only James Caan, twenty-five years removed from his turn in Thief, as criminal mastermind Mr. Henry, who teaches the brothers a very valuable lesson about being a criminal.
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
“Having sex or boosting cars…Um, oh! Well, uh…How about having sex WHILE boosting cars?”
The Frida Cinema’s own patron saint, Nicolas Cage, followed up his run in the late 90s of Snake Eyes, 8MM, and Bringing Out The Dead, with a remake of the high octane car chase thriller from 1974, Gone In 60 Seconds. Starring alongside Angelina Jolie and Delroy Lindo, Cage plays reformed car thief Memphis Raines, who has put the “life” behind him. Memphis stands in contrast to other career criminals on this list, as well as his own brother Kip (Giovanni Ribisi), who continues to recklessly boost cars for the leader of an international gang, Raymond Calitri (a pre-Dr. Who Christopher Eccleston).
Memphis reluctantly returns to his old ways after Kip runs into some trouble, again varying the “one last job” trope – and what a job it is. A heist film for car enthusiasts, Gone In 60 Seconds descends a list of 50 classic cars, from Porsches to Aston Martins, that must be stolen in 48 hours, else Kip be executed by the dangerous Calitri. What follows is a concatenation of vehicular heist portraiture, set against Los Angeles’ intricate network of highways and suburbs that separate getting caught, and getting away.
The Score (2001)
Actor, iconoclast, and style icon Marlon Brando made his final screen appearance alongside Robert De Niro, and a post-Fight Club Edward Norton, in Frank Oz’s appropriately titled heist film, The Score. Like Mann’s Thief, the film frames its story around “one last job” by Robert De Niro’s safecracker extraordinaire character, Nick Wells. Playing the all important fence, Max, Brando’s character ensures that anything Nick steals can find a buyer who won’t ask too many questions. Perhaps more typical than some other films on this list, none are so lucky as to have acting titans like Brando and De Niro sharing the same frame together for the first and only time; Marlon Brando would pass away a few years later at the age of 80.
Rounded out with a questionable performance choice from Edward Norton, The Score is an intersection of method acting styles and, thematically, the film gestures at how the incipient digital revolution of the new Millenium has already disrupted the old ways of safecracking. Everything old is not new again. Nick Wells and criminals like him must acknowledge they’re becoming obsolete.
Inside Man (2006)
“The cast attended what could be called an ad hoc cinema study class, where I screened numerous New York-set thrillers and heist films, including the classic “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, both starring Al Pacino and directed by New York director Sidney Lumet.”
Of the infinitely numerous New York-set heist movies, Spike Lee’s pulpy and mesmerizing Inside Man is responding most to the work of Sidney Lumet. It was Lumet who asserted the duty to question authority in his films, and in Inside Man, Denzel Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier follows that question down a rabbithole of puzzling motives and hidden agendas during a hostage standoff at a Manhattan bank.
Lee takes the skeleton of Dog Day Afternoon’s street set-up, and stages it on a continuum of history to explore the dark origins of New York’s (read: America’s) new financial system. Hidden histories of the wealthy and powerful. In a burgeoning new Millenium where information is currency, Inside Man imagines an heist predicated on secrets instead of cash, and a heist film based on mystery instead of action. Pay careful attention
Public Enemies (2009)
“One: never work with people who are desperate. Two: never work with people who aren’t the best. Three: never work when you’re not ready.”
Participating in no less than 12 bank robberies between 1933 and 1934, outlaw John Dillinger’s astonishing criminal record becomes a syllabus for director Michael Mann to trace the lineage of the modern gangster – and the modern lawman – in his period biopic, Public Enemies. Adapted from Bryan Burroughs’ book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34”, Mann’s two handed drama about bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the man who caught him, Special Agent Nelson Purvis (Christian Bale), has deeply symmetrical parallels with most other criminal couplings in his filmography. The Ground zero of American crime in the 20th century.
Continuing to tinker in digital photography, Mann’s primordial depiction of FBI prehistory is rendered in sharp images underscoring realism in this mythic, robin hood tale – but it’s also a concussive series of shootouts and heist sequences. From long rifles to Thompson submachine guns, Mann samples a symphony of gunfire in explosive scenes that punctuate the smaller melodramatic moments between Dillinger and his love interest Billie Frechette (played excellently by Marion Cotillard). In plunging the past for historical verisimilitude, Mann made a film oriented towards the modern ideas of outlaws and legend
The Bling Ring (2013)
“C’mon, let’s go to Paris’. I wanna rob.”
Sofia Coppola’s vision of heist pageantry takes the shape of a true story about high school teens in Agoura Hills who begin a string of break-ins across their surrounding affluent neighborhoods. Micro-heists, spontaneous, semi-organized, and with no discernible motive other than the sheer thrill becomes the modus operandi for this group of mini McCauley’s that, in real life, committed dozens of robberies between 2008 and 2009.
While Coppola allots plenty of time to pop montages of characters reveling in the spoils of their thievery (another crucial element of any heist film), it’s never condoned. Instead, The Bling Ring reiterates the tangibility of the robberies’ impact with real life victims playing a glam version of themselves in the film, victims including, but not limited to: Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, and current Screen Actors Guild nominee Kirsten Dunst. Anything but vapid, this cross section of late 2000s pop culture bears witness to the depths one can fall to when driven by superficiality
Boogie Nights, “Long Way Down” sequence (1997)
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)