Classic Film Catch-Up: Eight Heist Flicks That Will Steal Your Movie-Loving Heart

There's no better time to catch up on cinema's seminal works, and we're diving into the best of the heist flicks, from The Sting to The French Connection.

by | May 29, 2020 | Comments

Our new Classic Film Catch-Up feature connects you with classic films to put on your watchlist – beloved favorites and hidden gems alike. With more time at home, there’s no better opportunity to finally watch these titles that helped define cinema as we know it.

(Photo by Universal Pictures)

The current situation of social distancing has many of us thinking of ways to maximize the time we spend at home. We’re also eating several times a day and annoying our pets, but being productive does cross our minds from time to time. Puzzles, long-abandoned books, craft projects, and New Year’s resolutions have suddenly jumped to the top of our to-do lists. In the RT comments, many of you have shared how you’re catching up on classic films, and we happen to agree that now is the perfect time to increase your classic film viewing.

Concentrating on films released before 1980 (both well-known titles and hidden gems), we’re producing new guides to essential classic films curated by theme, filmmaker, actor, genre, or style – all for your classic catch-up needs. Want to see our picks for the best French farces? How about a curated list of Fresh picks from Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, or Billy Wilder? As well as curating watchlists, we’re breaking down the films, telling you where you can watch them, and giving you some more recent and/or well-known films the classics might remind you of so you can gauge which movies are right for you.

This week in the Classic Film Catch-Up, we’re breaking out with heist films. Long cons, strong-arm jobs, and bank heists from professionals and amateurs alike have a long history in film, and that history has given us some of our most celebrated performances and cinematic stories. From Melville and Friedkin to Kubrick and  Soderbergh, many beloved filmmakers have made a mark on the heist flick genre, which came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In truth, we could make a list solely comprised of films from that time period, and it would still be quite spectacular, but we did include a few from decades prior.

With hundreds of titles to choose from, iconic films like The Great Escape, Ocean’s Eleven, and lesser-known gems like The Silent Partner failed to earn a spot on our list, but are still definitely worthy of a revisit. For our list below, though, we tried to find diversity within the genre, intermixing confidence schemes with bank jobs and heist comedies with gritty noirs. Each entry is unique, but they work within a shared formula: get a crew, plan the job, and do some nefarious things to take something without anyone finding out. Read below to see our list of classic heist films.

Got another favorite heist classic you’d add to our list? Have a suggestion for a future theme or classic film to feature in the column? Let us know in the comments. 

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) 96% 

What is it? The true-life tale of a man who storms a Brooklyn bank for a day-time robbery, and everything that can go wrong does.

Why you need to see it: A frequent choice in our Five Favorite Film series, this dramatic and at times hilarious tale of a bank job gone awry from Sidney Lumet showcases one of Al Pacino‘s greatest performances. Trying to get enough money for his lover’s sex-reassignment surgery, Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) tries to rob a bank, and everything after that goes from bad to worse in what many consider to be one of the best films from the ’70s. One of the highest-grossing movies of its year and a critical hit, Dog Day Afternoon was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actor, which Pacino didn’t win. Twenty years later, he would finally take home a golden statuette for The Scent of Woman, but his turn here alongside his The Godfather co-star John Cazale gives us, according to critic Roger Ebert, “one of the most interesting modern movie characters.” Check it out for the verbal sparring and Pacino’s acting, and its re-watchability is unmatched – you’ll find new favorite moments each time you see it.

Watch it if you like: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, A Simple Plan, Reservoir DogsFargo.

Where to watch: Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

The Sting (1973) 94% 

What is it? A young conman attempts to pull off a large-scale confidence scheme against the man who killed his partner, aided by a veteran fraudster.

Why you need to see it: It’s a movie with Robert Redford and Paul Newman – do you really need anything else? If by chance you do, The Sting is a must-see ‘con film’ and one of the best examples of a perfectly balanced heist comedy. Redford and Newman’s undeniable chemistry is the main draw here, but the mini-course on the language of large-scale confidence schemes serves as a welcome bonus. The original Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, and Going in Style all have modern-day remakes that were received to varying critical and commercial success but, this Depression-era masterpiece from George Roy Hill is thought to be inimitable. (Check out the laughable The Sting II if you need further proof). A box-office smash which re-teamed Redford and Newman just four years after the iconic Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, the film took home six more Oscars, including Best Picture.

Watch it if you like: Ocean’s Eleven, Matchstick Men, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Logan Lucky, American Hustle, Now You See Me.

Where to watch: Stream now on the Starz app. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

The French Connection (1971) 97% 

What is it? A group of narcotics detectives track and try to intercept a large supply of heroin.

Why you need to see it: On a list of quintessential ’70s cop films, The French Connection would invariably rank high, so we understand if you’re surprised to see it here on a list of heist films. Yes, the film follows a group of detectives as they try to get the ‘bad guys,’ but with the exception of the players (among them leads Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) all the elements of a heist are there: A group of professionals come together and concoct an elaborate plan to ‘steal something’ from someone without them knowing – that’s a heist movie any way you slice it. Bonnie & Clyde is thought to be the first film of the ‘New Hollywood’ movement – a period in American cinema which ushered in a new crop of dynamic young filmmakers and during which the modern-day blockbuster was born – but The French Connection solidified this new shift in filmmaking and film marketing. Featuring one of the best car chases in the history of film, William Friedkin‘s cop thriller is gritty, fast-paced, and completely unlike any police drama that came before it. Hackman is electrifying as the short-tempered, boozy bigot ‘Popeye’ Doyle, and was the rightful winner of the Best Actor prize in 1972, which came alongside four more wins for the film, including Best Picture.

Watch it if you like: The Italian Job, HeatL.A. ConfidentialBullittThe Untouchables, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  

Where to watch: Stream now on the Starz app. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and  iTunes.

The Italian Job (1969) 81% 

What is it? A group of seasoned criminals fresh out of prison races through Italy trying to hijack a shipment of gold.

Why you need to see it: If you enjoyed the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, prepare yourself: where that film was serviceable fun, the original film with Michael Caine was a game-changer. Perhaps a bit too camp and brash for its time, the British heist comedy was not universally loved upon release. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby dubbed the film “technically sophisticated and emotionally retarded.” Putting aside the dated language, the film does lean into action over plot, but that does not diminish the enjoyment of watching Caine and his cockney band of thieves race around Italy in the iconic MINI Coopers. The film is worth a watch for those car chases alone.

Watch it if you like: Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Bullitt, Gone in 60 Seconds, Fast Five, Inside Man

Where to watch: Stream now on Amazon Prime Video, The Criterion Channel. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Google Play, and  iTunes.

The Killing (1956) 96% 

What is it? A long-time crook has a simple plan: one last job before he settles down with his lady love. But what was supposed to be a simple job finds the two lovers caught up in a web of deception and murder.

Why you need to see it: Though not the first to do it, The Killing married itself to non-linear storytelling in a way that was wholly unique at the time; and it was a commitment that would also turn out to be a bit too revolutionary and decades ahead audience’s tastes. Stanley Kubrick‘s third feature – but his first with a professional crew – was a headache for Paramount from the moment it was shot. Hated by test audiences, the film barely received an American release and was a commercial flop. However, contemporary critics recognized Kubrick’s audacious skill with dialogue and camera movement and heralded the film as a masterwork, and its director as one to watch. It has since earned cult-like status, and its influences can be seen in the work of Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and the Coen brothers. A taut noir, the black-and-white drama commits to the realism of pulling off the ‘perfect job.’ How the subsequent events unravel for our lead con-artist after the job is done is where we find the film’s brilliance.

Watch it if you like: Reservoir Dogs, The Killer, Chinatown, Thief, The Getaway, The Layer Cake.

Where to watch: Rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

Topkapi (1964) 90%

(Photo by Everett Collection)

What is it? A woman and her ex-lover plot to steal a priceless dagger in Istanbul with the help of a simple-minded small-time crook.

Why you need to see it: Jules Dassin‘s Topkapi is one of the best cinematic clap-backs ever filmed. In 1955, Dassin’s Rififi – which won him a Best Director prize at Cannes – set the blueprint for modern-day heist films and soon became the subject of several parodies, including Mario Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street. Tired of being the butt of the joke, Dassin released Topkapi in 1964 and, in doing so, ultimately got the last laugh as his genre send-up dwarfed all previous attempts. The comedy of the bumbling thieves who might just be inept enough to pull off an intricate robbery is only second in hilarity to the scene-stealing performance of Peter Ustinov who plays Simpson, a low-level crook caught in the wake of the larger crime.

Watch it if you like: Casino Royale, American Vandal, Dr. Strangelove, The Whole Nine Yards, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Where to watch: Stream now on Amazon Prime Video. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, and Google Play.

Second Breath (1966) 100% 

(Photo by The Criterion Channel)

What is it? After breaking out of prison, a career criminal plans ‘one last job’ to secure his retirement while a dogged police detective is in hot pursuit.

Why you need to see it: The godfather of French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville was tenacious when it came to authenticity on screen. From props to accents to his documentary style of filmmaking, his attention to detail and reality is present in every frame of Le Deuxieme Souffle. Melville’s commitment would inspire the neorealism of directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Agnes Varda. Sporting a high body count for its time, Le Deuxieme Souffle was a film that let the gangsters be gangsters. Thrilling, and dripping with suspense and violence, the film gives the audience a constant sense of unease as the characters descend deeper into the French underworld. “An intimate epic,” according to Martin Scorsese, the film was a key inspiration for his Oscar-nominated Jimmy Hoffa epic The Irishman. 

Watch it if you like: The Irishman, Miller’s Crossing, Road to Perdition, Hell or High Water

Where to watch: Stream now on The Criterion Channel app. Rent or buy on Vudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

High Sierra (1941) 92%

What is it? A seasoned ex-con must lead a group of untried criminals in the robbery of a desert resort.

Why you need to see it: The first pairing of several between Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston, High Sierra is a thoughtful bridge between the brash ’40s gangster flicks and the minimalistic crime-noirs of the ’50s. Huston and Bogart would go on to collaborate on The Maltese Falcon, Key LargoThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen; never was the power of Bogart’s appeal more on display than when framed by Huston’s lens. High Sierra is a heist film that utilizes early noir elements before they were popularized in the 1950s, and it’s distinguished by its smart twists as well as Bogart’s complex turn as Roy Earle. He is also perfectly complemented by Ida Lupino’s portrayal of the temptress gangster’s moll.

Watch it if you like: The Maltese Falcon, The Fugitive, White Heat, The Town, The Usual Suspects

Where to watch: Stream now on The Criterion Channel app. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

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