Total Recall

Steal These 11 Heist Movies

Caper flicks more than worthy of getting your hands on.

by | March 5, 2008 | Comments

“There’s something quite fascinating with crooks, and criminals, and all things against the law,” Jason Statham said inour RT interview, “It’s a fascination that will never, ever die.” After a series of martial arts flicks, Statham returns to his petty crime roots with The Bank Job, opening this Friday, starring as a man over his head in the real-life 1971 robbery of safety deposit boxes. The film itself is a throwback to the gritty heist flicks of decades past, a stark difference to the frothy genre efforts that have dominated the scene as of late (like The Italian Job or the Ocean’s remakes). But the heist movie continues to survive not because of our obsession with the slimeball anti-hero, but also the genre’s ability to convincingly morph into areas like comedy, action, and horror. In this week’s Total Recall, take a look at a some of the many masks the heist movie can wear.

Mission: Impossible (1996, 67 percent on the Tomatometer)

The Job: Framed for his team’s ambush, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes on the run, assembling a new crew to steal the list of C.I.A. undercover agents in exchange for the real mole’s identity. Released during the summer of Independence Day and Twister, directorBrian de Palma bucked the blockbuster trend by making a thriller long on plot and intentionally muddled storytelling. “Destined to satisfy the thrill junkie and the sophisticate alike (Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee),” de Palma consistently keeps the audience on their toes, especially with an outrageous late-game twist that had the TV show fans crying foul.

The Payoff: Mission: Impossible‘s most memorable sequence features Ethan’s descending into a C.I.A. computer room. Re-envisioning Rififi for the espionage age, it’s a tense, blisteringly silent caper.

The Score (2001, 75 percent)

The Job: Criminal mastermind Max (Marlon Brando) lures his safecracking colleague Nick (Robert DeNiro) into a high stakes score that’ll let them retire from crime for good. His inside man Jackie (Edward Norton) has found his way into a job at the Montreal Customs House as a janitor – a physically handicapped janitor – all to procure a “priceless” Scepter in lock at Customs. Director Frank Oz reportedly struggled with Brando, who couldn’t take him seriously given his past life as Miss Piggy. Kenneth Turran of the LA Times wrote, “The Score will remind you of classic caper films of the past, and that is a good thing.”

The Payoff: Great performances by three generations of method actors are real highlight. Norton has gotten a lot of the attention, particularly the moment when he drops his dog and pony show and pulls a gun on his coworkers in the Customs House.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, 100 percent)

The Job: A gang of crooks takes a subway hostage, threatening to kill a person a minute unless the city delivers them a cool mil. As a transit cop (Walter Matthau) negotiates with the leader, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), he ponders just how they plan on getting away trapped underground. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three moves along confidently, showing not just the crooks’ point of view but develops Matthau’s story as he plugs away at the control center, along with scenes at city hall as they struggle to deliver the sack of money on time. Director Joseph Sargeant never lets his foot off the tension (and the comedy), with the movie coming off as a gritty love letter to the Big Apple: “There’s a skillful balance between the vulnerability of New Yorkers and the drastic, provocative sense of comedy that thrives all over our sidewalks,” write New York Times‘ Nora Sayre.

The Payoff: “Gesundheit.” (Trust us, you’ll get it once you watch it.)

Scarecrows (1988, no Tomatometer)

The Job: Mercenaries successfully loot Camp Pendelton for $3.5 million, but get trapped in a forest filled with scarecrows. This, like Reservoir Dogs, is a heist movie that’s all aftermath. And whileTarantino takes that opportunity to deconstruct the genre, Scarecrows directorWilliam Wesley goes for flat-out horror instead. What follows is one long night as the men and women are individually sliced up and zombified by walking straw men. Cult horror movies almost always have their reputations precede them but Time Out‘s Derek Adams calls it “reasonably well put together, and features some stomach-turning grisliness.”

The Payoff: One zombie encounter shows off amazing gore wizardry; after the victim becomes an involuntary organ donor, he gets filled with straw and hundreds of dollars.

Bottle Rocket (1996, 78 percent)

The Job: Three twentysomethings (Owen andLuke Wilson, Robert Musgrave) plan to crack open a warehouse’s safe while the place is unoccupied. Unlike most heist movies, Bottle Rocket‘s thugs are motivated by something most of us can empathize with: the suburban malaise. Of course, we usually respond to listless emotional drainage by skateboarding or picking up the drums, not robbing cold storage facilities. Regardless, as Jam! Movies‘ Liz Braun sees it, Wes Anderson‘s first feature is “a beautiful, little film with an uptempo heart.”

The Payoff: The surprising final shot. Owen Wilson’s hangdog expression is that rare instance where Anderson’s bubbleworld of adolescent love and whimsy is punctured by that small inconvenience we call reality.

Topkapi (1964, 83 percent)

The Job:Peter Ustinov stars as Simpson, a small-time Athens-based hood that becomes entrenched in a plan to steal a jewel-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. While transporting supplies for the job across the border into Turkey, Simpson is stopped by authorities, who mistake the weapons in his car as part of a plot to stage a coup against the government. He’s subsequently enlisted as a mole to foil the plot, even as he becomes a more integral part of the caper. Directed by Jules Dassin, Topkapi may lack the heft and menace of his groundbreaking gangster film Rififi. Still, it’s an enjoyable, swingin’ affair that inspired not only the Mission: Impossible TV series but a real life jewel heist in New York City shortly after the film’s release. “It’s fun, light hearted, smart and wildly entertaining,” wrote Ryan Cracknell of Apollo Guide.

The Payoff: When the heights-averse Simpson scales the palace as part of the heist, its not just a suspenseful, dryly comic moment; the scene also provides a breathtaking view of scenic Istanbul.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, 76 percent)

The Job: While most thrill seeking businessmen get their kicks sky diving, mountain climbing, or from good old-fashioned booze, Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) masterminds bank robberies. Of course no one suspects him of the crime but since those banks need their money, they hire an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) to find the perpetrator and see him to justice. Laughing in the face of all the powerful men who underestimate them, Dunaway’s investigator and McQueen’s criminal-businessman are made for each other. At the height of their respective careers, TV Guide wrote that “McQueen is charming, reads his lines well, and shows that he isn’t just another short actor with an interesting face.”

The Payoff: You can’t help seeing some commentary about the exploitation of workers in this movie, with criminals for hire suffering gunshot wounds while their boss laughs like he lost some replaceable toy soldier. For all the strange economic commentary and nods to women’s liberation, the film’s greatest highlight is its aggressively self-aware editing. You haven’t seen split screen until you’ve seen this score.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1977, 83 percent)

The Job: After a heist on government-controlled casino nets them only high-quality counterfeit bills, Arsene Lupin III and his sidekick Jigen travel to the bills’ country of origin: Cagliostro, which also happens to hide a massive treasure the two can pilfer. Hayao Miyazaki’s reputation as Japan’s Spielberg can be witnessed here: Miyazaki softens the Lupin character (usually a bit of a cad in the manga and other media) and gets him invested in a love story with the Cagliostro princess, creating a movie that’s as much a romance as it is a mystery and caper flick. The Castle of Cagliostro is filled with “high adventure, stylish jazz grooves, and archetypal characters,” writes’s Marc Fortier, “In other words, Cagliostro is a film first, and an anime second.”

The Payoff: It’s all in the details. Though Miyazaki shows a knack for action sequences even at this early stage (this was his directorial debut), equally impressive is his devotion to scenery and early 20th-century European architecture. Fortunately, we get further glimpses of this wondrous perspective in films like Porco Rossoand Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Bob Le Flambeur (1955, 96 percent)

The Job: When it comes to making gritty, morally knotty crime flicks, nobody did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville, helmer of such classics as Le Doulos, Le Samourai, and Le Cercle Rouge. But Bob Le Flambeur (aka Bob the High-Roller ), Melville fashioned a heist film of uncommon suspense and depth of feeling. Roger Duchesne stars as Bob, a smooth middle-aged gambler and gangster who has earned the respect of both the underworld and the cops. After a string of big losses, he sketchily decides to rob the Dauville Casino, gathering a group of less-than-expert thieves to pull off the job. That the plan isn’t foolproof is the least of Bob’s concerns; his understudy-in-crime (Daniel Cauchy) and the object of their desire (Isabel Corey) pose a combustible risk as well. Bob Le Flambeur exerted a powerful influence on both the burgeoning French New Wave and the Ocean’s pictures. “Melville mixes an old-fashioned sureness of storytelling with some remarkably frank and modern touches of evil, sensuality and foreboding,” wrote Shawn Levy of the Oregonian.

The Payoff: Even if we can see where it’s headed, Bob Le Flambeur remains satisfying because of Bob’s unwavering charm; he may be a crook, and he may be at the end of the line, but doggone if we don’t like the guy.

Small Time Crooks (2000, 66 percent)

The Job: Two inept New York citizens who should know better (Woody Allen and Tracey Ullman) assemble a crew to dig under a bank while using a cookie store as a front. Stuffed with one-liners and zany slapstick, it’s Allen’s welcome return to the territory of his early 1970s days, and is virtually a spiritual sequel to his first feature, Take the Money and Run. One of the director’s first box office successes in America in over a decade, Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid called Small Time Crooks “a return to good laughs and good fun.”

The Payoff: The movie’s bizarre second-act plot turn. The cookie store turns out to be more successful than the bank job, catapulting the crooks into the upper echelons of society. Naturally, enterHugh Grant.

Heist (2001, 66 percent)

The Job: After getting caught on camera during jewelry store robbery, Joe Moore (Gene Hackman) is going to have to go into early retirement, but not until he completes (say it with us…) one last job. While the story of a thief taking on one final job isn’t new, Heist is memorable for few reasons, not the least of which is the solid cast (Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito, and Sam Rockwell). But the key element of Heist is the script from writer/directorDavid Mamet. The combination of the cast, the script and the direction led The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington to say “The cast is brilliant, the plotting ingenious, the dialogue incendiary.”

The Payoff: As with any Mamet script, the dialogue often steals the show. And Danny DeVito may have the best line in the whole film: “Everybody wants money — that’s why they call it money!”

Authors: Matt Atchity, Timothy Mead Ryan, Sara Schieron, Alex Vo