While it's never really gone away, and probably never will, the past few months have seen a brace of new entries, from the sublime ("Inception," which despite its sci-fi trappings is really a good old-fashioned caper movie) to the ridiculous (Hayden Christensen and his eminently punchable pork pie hat in "Takers"). Ben Affleck's "The Town" hits theaters today, and while it's a character piece about bank robbers in the mean streets of Boston, it's built around three gripping and well-executed heist sequences among the best we've seen in a long while. In honor of that film, we've put together a list of our favorite heist movies; the ones that dazzle us every time we give them a spin.
Some of the films we discuss are showing at the Film Forum on West Houston Street in an excellent series of double bills from October 1-21, so if any New York readers are unfamiliar with these titles, you should definitely check it out. The rest of us will just have to fill up that Netflix queue...
The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951)
Not every film can say that it gave birth to an entire sub-genre, but the heist comedy, seen since in everything from "To Catch A Thief" to "Bottle Rocket," didn't really exist before 1951's "The Lavender Hill Mob." One of the very best of the Ealing comedies, it stars Alec Guinness as a timid bank clerk (in a great, Oscar nominated performance) who comes up with a plan to steal gold bullion from his workplace. Teaming with a group of unlikely crooks (Stanley Holloway, Alfie Bass and the great Sid James), they work out that they can smuggle the bullion to France and melt them down, disguising their loot as souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower. Like a comic take on Kubrick's "The Killing," the heist goes off without a hitch, but it all falls apart in the aftermath, as a misunderstanding sees the statues sold as actual souvenirs. It's strangely gripping -- the film was originally conceived as a straight drama -- and director Charles Crichton (who at the age of 78 would direct another British heist comedy classic, "A Fish Called Wanda") had one of the surest comic hands in the business, but what's impressive is the level of pathos that Guinness and Holloway generate: you will want the group to succeed, and considering it's a comedy, the ending is deeply moving. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Audrey Hepburn too.
"The Thomas Crown Affair" ( 1968)
Norman Jewison's heist caper/romance hybrid is a dazzling, irresistible slice of '60s pop escapism, shot through with a subtle undertow of dark cynicism. Steve McQueen is the eponymous anti-hero, a laconic, thrill-seeking millionaire who orchestrates an audacious Boston bank robbery -- largely out of boredom. Faye Dunaway is his foil Vicki Anderson -- an only-in-in-the-movies insurance investigator via the Milan catwalk and cover of Vogue. All kinds of stylish cat and mouse shenanigans ensue, including the justifiably infamous "erotic" chess contest, which Jewison stages as a baroque, almost psychedelic set-piece. It's easy to view Crown simply as an orgy of hedonistic wish-fulfillment, and on these terms alone, the movie really pops off the screen. Jewison's direction is a giddy, propulsive bag of tricks - the editing is brisk, witty, and punchline-orientated, the soundtrack eclectic, and the use of split screen truly gratuitous. Glamor and expensive toys abound. However, this caper is not without a certain darkness -- Jewison envisioned Crown as a romance between two empty, narcissistic souls, a "love affair between two shits" -- and a certain melancholy creeps in as the pair realize the degree to which they are trapped in their own cynical self-regard. Thomas Crown has wealth and respectability, but he feels a constant need to take risks and buck against the system -- an oddly apt, almost autobiographical role for McQueen. John McTiernan's remake isn't bad either, but not a patch on Jewison's original.
“The Hot Rock” (1972)
Penned by two-time Academy Award-winning writer William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid,” “All The President's Men”) and employing a jazzy, bongo-laden score by Quincy Jones, Peter Yates’ eighth feature-length directorial effort is a product of its era and could be considered a quintessential ‘70s picture insofar as it's characterized by many touchstones of that period; a laconic, talky rhythm, a dry, comedic wit and a matter-of-factness that typified the decade in American cinema. Starring Robert Redford, the always superb and underrated George Segal, character actors Ron Leibman, Moses Gunn, and comedic legend Zero Mostel, “The Hot Rock” was actually labeled as a comedic caper during its release, but its humor is fairly understated by today’s standards. However, it is undeniable that the film has a loose and breezy tone which makes it effortlessly watchable. Compared to some of these other stone-cold classics, Yates' picture could seem a little slight here, but it’s perhaps an important low-key template that others would follow; most significantly in Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” -- whether he actively knew it or not.
"Ocean's Twelve" (2004)
Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven," is an elegant, entertaining piece of work, one of the few remakes that tops the original. But it's sequel, 2004's "Ocean's Twelve," is the film buff's pick of the trilogy: a looser heist flick that's pure pleasure from start to finish. Indebted to films of the European New Wave, it's one of Soderbergh's most formally experimental pictures, and watching him get away with it in a studio tentpole is all the more thrilling. Yes, the Julia-Roberts-plays-a-character-who-plays-Julia-Roberts scene at the end is a little smug, but for the most part it's an ingenious, enjoyable picture, and one that doesn't deserve the critical evisceration it received on its release: indeed, it's become something of a Playlist favorite as the years have passed. And as a heist movie, it's unmatched in the last decade, with a number of setpieces (most notably the Vincent Cassel capoeria sequence, introduced at the suggestion of the actor), which beats anything in the likes of "Takers."
"Inside Man" (2006)
Until he bottled it with "Miracle At St. Anna" (although even that film has its defenders here), Spike Lee was on quite a run in the middle of the aughts. "The 25th Hour" was one of the best films of the decade, and "When The Levees Broke" was one of the better documentaries. In between those two, he delivered easily his most mainstream film to date, the heist picture "Inside Man." While it initially looked rather generic, it proved to not only be an effortlessly entertaining film for grown-ups, but also proved to be a Spike Lee Joint through and through. While the plotting was admittedly far-fetched, the central heist conceit was suspenseful and unpredictable, and the cast were uniformly terrific, clearly having the time of their lives: Denzel Washington sleazy, loose and likable, Clive Owen steely, wry and mercenary, and Jodie Foster giving perhaps the best performance we've seen from her in a decade, in the kind of role she rarely takes these days. And that's without mentioning Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Plummer, or the typically vibrant New York ensemble Lee collected. It's also unexpectedly and consistently hilarious, shot with a 70s-inflected, Lumet-esque flair and style and an NYC picture through and through.