Classic and Not So Classic Heist Films

I’ve always loved films about major heists, capers. or to be dull – robberies. Whether the swag was diamonds and jewelry, art treasures, money, or even gold bars – whether the perps escaped in trains, planes, or automobiles – films like these have attracted me as well as millions of viewers. We can label them classic heist films or movies about The Art of the Steal if you prefer. So let’s have a look at some. There’s likely a huge list to choose from, but for brevity’s sake, let’s narrow the list down to a manageable number.

I’ll display the film posters and write a thumbnail sketch or some notes about the films,  to refresh everyone’s memory of course, assuming you might need some refreshing.

In 1955 the French film Rififi thrilled audiences not quite all over the world. Some countries banned the film as it was called a ‘master class in breaking and entering’. The story involved a huge jewel heist on Paris’s famed Rue de Rivoli. The film was directed by Jules Dassin. The film became famous and is notable for how the robbery itself was filmed. The robbery lasted about 30 minutes in film time, and was filmed without music or dialogue. Dassin himself acted in the film, portraying the safe-cracker. One might say that Rififi represented the terms low-budget production to the fullest.

In 1960, Frank Sinatra starred as Danny Ocean. Ocean gathered a group of his WWII compatriots, and they headed to Las Vegas. Their goal was to rob five casinos in one night. That film was called Ocean’s 11. Off screen, the film’s stars: Sinatra and his buddies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop were part of a group called Sinatra’s Rat Pack. These guys not only hung out together – they also worked together.

Forty one years later, in 2001, George Clooney and Brad Pitt starred in Ocean’s Eleven – also about a Las Vegas casino heist. That film led to two more sequels. Take note that the film Ocean’s 11 was such a well-known entity – that the marketing did not even have to have the film’s full title on the poster.

In 1964, Topkapi, was the story of a jewel heist from the Topkapi Palace, in Istanbul, Turkey. This film, like Rififi, was directed by Jules Dassin, an American director who was blacklisted from Hollywood. The film starred Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov, and Melina Mercouri, who would marry Dassin in 1966.

Look at the poster and you’ll see a man dangling from wires as he was lowered in. Tom Cruise, in the first (1996) of his Mission Impossible films reprised that stunt.

This blacklisting took place in 1950. Dassin would not work again as a film director until 1954 when he made Rififi.

In the 1970’s, I have three standouts. Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Getaway which starred Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, came out in ’72. Charley  Varrick, was directed by Don Siegel, who more notably directed Dirty Harry. Varrick starred Walter Matthau, and was a 1973 film. Finally, The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) which was less of a robbery than a ransom film. Both The Getaway and Charley Varrick began with bank robberies, but what the criminals didn’t know at the time was that both of these banks held a ton of unreported and undocumented mob money.

In Varrick, we saw an escape that I hinted at in the second sentence – planes – or to be specific single engine propeller planes. We saw a crop-duster in North by Northwest in 1959, then in Varrick (1973), then Matthau again used a similar plane in Hopscotch (1980). Then, as a huge and unexpected event, Charles Grodin tried to flee from Robert De Niro in a small plane in Midnight Run.

In The Taking of Pelham 123, a committed gang’s plan was to high jack a subway train. Their demand was a cash ransom to be paid by the city of New York. What made this film work so well was the well crafted and selected cast which was headed by Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, and Hector Elizondo.

Now in case you were wondering, once they had the ransom money, how would they be able to escape? It wasn’t as if you could stash the train in a parking garage somewhere. This film was also well received, and a remake starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta came out in 2009, to a decidedly less than enthusiastic reception.

While there were dozens of top-notch crime films in the 80’s, I recall one that involved a ton of money. Released in 1985, To Live and Die in L.A. wasn’t about a specific heist – rather it was about a master counterfeiter. The film starred William Petersen as the Secret Service agent and Willem DaFoe as Rick Masters, the wizard of unreal money. Petersen would go on to star in CSI on TV, and Dafoe, who began his acting career by getting fired from Heaven’s Gate in 1980, now has 106 acting credits on his resume.

This film had one of the first chase scenes that I can recall that had the cars going in the wrong direction on a one-way highway ramp. Sort of like up the down staircase only with cars instead of people in shoes.

The 90’s were loaded with Heist films. For example Heat, a film that I discussed in my Looking Back 20 Years series, had an armored car heist, a safe cracking, and a bank robbery. Since I’ve already done a full review of that one – it only gets this brief mention. And Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Usual Suspects (1995) will also be listed as among the best.

But for this post, I’ll trot out three well received but lesser known 90’s caper & heist films. First out of the chute is Point Break (1991). In this film we had a gang of surfing bank robbers, and two resolute (albeit with different styles) FBI agents. Keanu Reeves played the unforgettably named FBI agent Johnny Utah (Reeves did less well as Johnny Mnenomic  which would come out 4 years later). Gary Busey played the older, been there, done that, by-the- numbers FBI agent Angelo Pappas. Utah called Pappas an over-the-hill burnout to his face. But everyone’s favorite character was the cool and ever so laid back Bodhi played by Patrick Swayze. This film was an early effort by Kathryn Bigelow, who basically stood Hollywood on its head by being a successful woman director who did action films. There was a classic line from the film that all these years later, I can still recall. Utah has tracked Bodhi to a beach in Australia. There’s a pounding rain storm and a deadly huge surf attacking the shore. After a lengthy fight in the surf, Utah has managed to get his handcuff attached to one of Bodhi’s wrists and the other anchored to his own wrist..

Bodhi: You know I can’t handle a cage…
Utah: I don’t care. You got to go down…

The second 90’s heist film is Dead Presidents (1995).

Strictly speaking, I can include this film as it is about a bank robbery, In truth its theme is a bit broader. Directed and produced by the Hughes Brothers, Dead Presidents is concerned about returning war vets and their neglect by the US Government.

The film starred Lorenz Tate, Keith David, Bokeem Woodbine, and Chris Tucker. The film received mixed reviews. But I definitely remembered seeing it as I prepared this piece.

The last of the 1990’s heist films for this post is Money Train (1995). Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, and Jennifer Lopez are the high wattage headliners. This is a film about a robbery, of a cash transporting subway train, nicknamed – unsurprisingly as the ‘money train’. What is surprising is that the perps are not hardened criminals. Snipes and Harrelson play cops as well as foster brothers.

J-Lo also plays a cop. But it must be said, at the time of this film, J-Lo was not yet a brand, or a brand-name. The film was marketed as a Woody and Wesley movie. Lopez did not get an above the title billing.

While this film didn’t actually crash and burn, it was considered a major disappointment.It grossed about 35 million, but many of the reviews were harsh. Though a heist film, and a buddy film, which at the time, as well as now, is a usual formula for success, most critics said the script was lame. The critic from Entertainment Weekly called it a big, noisy headache.

Okay, one more from the 1990’s. Jean Reno as Vincent and Robert De Niro as Sam co-starred in Ronin (1998). They were hired to steal a package from a group that was hell-bent, meaning ready to die, to prevent that exact thing from happening. Something would have to give.

Vincent: How did you know it was an ambush?
Sam: That’s the first thing they teach you…
Vincent: Who taught you?
Sam: I forget. That’s the second thing they teach you.

Yeah, they are all over Europe, De Niro played an ex-US Intelligence agent, and Natascha McElhone played the tasty paymaster (Dierdre) who hired them. This film was notable for its high octane car chases as well as De Niro operating on himself to remove a bullet. De Niro played this one the same way he would play Neil McCauley in Heat.

Sam: I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of. McCauley: Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat.

Speaking of De Niro, he did a film with Edward Norton in 2001 called The Score. Norton plays Jack Teller who poses as Danny, a mentally challenged disabled person to get a job as a night-time cleaner working in the Montreal Customs House.  De Niro plays a successful heist crook, Nick Wells, who wants to take down one last score before he cashes out and gives up crime forever. Marlon Brando plays the middle man who pairs these two up. Yes, at this point in his career, Brando more resembled Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon) than he did his own younger self. Angela Bassett plays De Niro’s gf.

The film did rather well, and garnered mixed to positive reviews.

Speaking of Edward Norton – he would go on to star as the villain in the excellent 2003 film The Italian Job, which also starred Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland, Jason Statham, and Charlize Theron. This one began with a remarkably technical heist in Venice, Italy, which was followed by a double cross. The film ends in LA with a chase scene involving 18 wheeled trucks, helicopters, and those small cute cars – the Mini-Coopers.

This film was clever, smart, and exceedingly well done. It grossed 176 million world-wide and was Paramount’s biggest grossing film of 2003. Back in 1969, the original Italian Job came out. It was a British heist film, set in Turin, Italy, and compared to this newer film, although it had the same DNA plot lines – you know,  pull off a huge heist by creating a traffic jam – it was not nearly as successful as the remake. It did star Michael Caine, and it kind of became the mold, or grandfather of many, many future heist films, which is my way of saying that box office alone isn’t always the best judge of a film’s success. Then again, I’m not a film producer paying out those millions and waiting for a return on my investment.

Okay, I could go on and on with more heist films, some great, some good, and some you may not have even heard of. So why did I start this particular topic? Recently I saw a heist film from India. It showcased two of India’s biggest film stars Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone. As I said, it was a heist film, and the target was a hotel vault in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Shah Rukh played Charley and he had revenge on his mind. So he gathered his crew and they set out to make for Dubai, and for their access to the hotel, or should I call it their ‘cover stroy’ – they’d be competing in the World Dance Championships. They were more than a bit clumsy, or old, or drunkards, as well as lacking the requisite foot speed and grace. Hence the need for a top flight dance teacher – so we have the gorgeous Padukone.

Yeah, this film was over long, over-the-top, and let’s not overlook silly as well as foolish. It majorly lacked tension and drama. You just knew , no matter what – that they’d succeed. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. The title was Happy New Year, it was released in October of 2014, and for sure – except for the music, songs and dance, it would be fair to place this film in the column headed by Ocean’s 11. While not quite a remake, it could certainly be called a cousin.

But it got me thinking, as I knew, that way back when I had  seen other films called Happy New Year. In fact I’d seen two others – each titled Happy New Year and each about a heist. The oldest one was a French film called La Bonne Annee or Happy New Year. It came out in 1973 and starred Lino Ventura, who was one of France’s best-loved character actors. The film was directed by Claude Lelouch. Lelouch is most famous for directing A Man and a Woman. But this one, La Bonne Annee, was a terrific mix of a caper film with a romantic film. I can’t tell you much about it, and I can’t find a trailer. But it was good enough that it got an American remake.

That film, which starred Peter Falk, and Charles Durning was called Happy New Year, and it came out in 1987. Look at what the poster says – Falk is one in a million and three of a kind. Yup – this caper film was about jewel heists, latex masks, and crooks posing as old men shopping for expansive necklaces for younger women. The setting – Florida. By 1987, latex masks hadn’t yet hit their stride – the first Mission Impossible film would not arrive in our theaters until 1996 – so besides being a surprisingly entertaining film romp – this one, with the masks, was a kind of a novelty. Except of course if you were retired, and living in Florida in the 1980’s. If you were, then you surely remembered latex masks from the original Mission Impossible TV series.

Which means this post has almost come full circle. So let’s call it a day. By the way, I’d love to hear from you readers about Heist Films you loved or felt should have been included in this post.

2 thoughts on “Classic and Not So Classic Heist Films

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