Casing 'The Town': Our All-Time Favorite Heist Movies

by Oliver Lyttelton
September 17, 2010 5:27 AM
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Ever since 1903's "The Great Train Robbery" virtually invented cinema as we know it (the first use of cross-cutting, camera movement and on-location shooting), film and the heist picture have been inseparable. Maybe it's the escapist appeal of the outlaw, maybe it's people's hatred of banks, or maybe it's that act of stealing things that don't belong to you that is intrinsically cinematic, but the form has been consistently popular for over a century now.

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.

Blue Collar” (1978)
Gripping, quietly intense and tragic (this writer was totally depressed after watching it), Paul Schrader’s 1978 directorial debut (just two years after he penned “Taxi Driver”) is an incredibly underrated and underseen effort in the spotty filmmaker's body of work (we’ll qualify that momentarily). Whether written or directed (or in this case both), Schrader’s 1970s work ("Rolling Thunder," "Obsession," "Hardcore"), was almost always preoccupied with the post-Vietnam/post-Nixon American decay and this preoccupation was perhaps never better exemplified than in “Blue Collar.” Starring Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Koto and, in a rare dramatic turn, Richard Pryor, the film centers on three disaffected Detroit auto workers who, fed up with their low wages and maltreatment from their ineffectual union and bosses, hatch a plan to rob their union’s safe. A botched effort from the get-go, the plan begins to quickly unravel when the trio uncover the labor organization’s illegal loan-lending operation and the anxiety builds from the mounting criminal investigation. Schrader’s early films were all seething with almost uncontrollable outrage and fury, that likely had something to do with his repressed Calvinist upbringing, but never has a heist picture felt so vitriolic in its inception and then heartbreaking in its demise. The film also stars Ed Begley Jr. and boasts a score by the venerable Jack Nitzsche.

"The Getaway" (1972)
Based on a novel by the poet laureate of hard pulp Jim Thompson, directed by feminist favorite Sam Peckinpah, and starring a Steve McQueen firmly in the midst of a cocaine-soaked marriage breakdown, "The Getaway" rises out of a dense fog of testosterone: it doesn't get any more boys-night-in than that. Ali McGraw (somewhat miscast, to occasionally charming effect) uses her wiles to free husband "Doc" McCoy (McQueen) from prison. After a botched bank-robbery, the bickering pair go on the run with the loot, pursued by cannon-fodder cops and a variety of goons, lead by the astonishingly repellent and malevolent Rudy (Al Letteria). Perhaps inevitably, it all culminates in a bloodbath in El Paso, and a tender reconciliation for the then real-life lovers. This is by no means top-tier Peckinpah; both he and McQueen were desperate for a no-nonsense hit after the commercial failure of "Junior Bonner" (1972). Nevertheless, all the staples are there -- stunningly edited montages, patented slo-mo bullet ballet -- and "The Getaway" is a solid, straight-ahead action flick that's always fun to wander into the middle of on late night T.V. Possibly not Robert Evans' favorite film though...

"Bob Le Flambeur" (1956)
The significance of "Bob Le Flambeur" cannot be overstated. Alongside "Rififi", it represented the birth of a new school -- a sensibility that was equally American and French, and managed the rare feat of being both shamelessly derivative and palpably new. Shot on a shoestring around the streets of Paris, often utilizing natural light and DIY hand-held techniques, Bob is also the clear precursor to "A bout de souffle" and the whole ethos of the New Wave. It could easily have been just another riff on Huston's heist movie bible "The Asphalt Jungle," but instead Melville utilizes the basic 'Jungle' structure to develop a wry, comedic study of a character and his milieu. As such, Roger Duchesne's titular anti-hero is one of the screen's earliest and best explorations of the compulsive gambler, for whom risk is a way of life, an existential vocation. For this reason, Melville's film is better understood as undermining its genre expectations, as an anti-heist movie in some regards. But it goes beyond genre to become many things - a poetic hymn to Paris and the lives of its marginal, nocturnal denizens, a classical elegy of bygone chivalry and honor in a twilight world, and a wry exploration of the inexplicable operations of chance, as seen through the eyes of a soulful gambler. A key formative work from one of the crucial architects of the heist picture.

"The Driver" (1978)
The Walter Hill of the late 1970s/early 1980s was a complete and utter bad-ass. Movies like "The Warriors," "Southern Comfort," "48 Hours," and "Streets of Fire" set aesthetic standards and packed some serious testosterone punch, so it’s sort of sad that his recent theatrical output has been so lame-duck ("Supernova," "Undisputed"). Hill’s manly style came into focus with 1978’s "The Driver," a lean and mean car-chase/heist film with a quietly forceful performance from Ryan O’Neal as the titular character at the center. O’Neal’s nameless character steal cars which he then drives during robberies and which often lead to elaborate and well-staged car chases. Bruce Dern is the dedicated cop trying to track O’Neal down who’ll stop at nothing to get his man. As far as the plot goes, it's fairly standard stuff. But what Hill has always excelled at is showcasing men in violent action, and "The Driver" is no exception. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (the brilliant "Bronson," "Valhalla Rising") is about to start filming his getaway driver opus, "Drive," with Ryan Gosling, which seems like it'll nod heavily to this; will it be the equivalent of this Walter Hill classic for a new generation?

"City On Fire" (1987)
An undercover cop infiltrates a ring of diamond thieves only to see their latest diamond robbery go wrong. Sound familiar? No this isn’t a Hong Kong remake of “Reservoir Dogs.” Released in 1987, this taut action filled Hong Kong suspense film not only thrust its director, Ringo Lam, onto the map but also teamed Chow Yun-Fat with 1970’s Shaw Brothers contract player Danny Lee for the very first time (the two would later reteam to great effect in John Woo’s seminal “The Killer”). The film is marked by stylish action scenes that would make Sam Peckinpah proud as well as a myriad of indelible shots; The film’s memorable shot of light streaming through a bullet riddled warehouse, for instance was homaged/lifted by Robert Rodriguez for his ending to “From Dusk Til Dawn.” Yun-Fat gives one of his most nuanced performances as the conflicted hero caught between his professional commitments and personal ties, while Danny Lee is excellent as the ringleader of the diamond thieves who slowly warms to the new arrival. Despite some scenes from “Reservoir Dogs” uncannily resembling a few scenes from “City on Fire” and the two films generally sharing a plot, Tarantino maintains ignorance. When asked about the resemblance between the two films, Tarantino reportedly quipped he “was dying to see [“City on Fire”].”

Straight Time” (1978)
Yet another undersung ‘70s classic, Ulu Grosbard’s “Straight Time” featuring a fantastic turn by Dustin Hoffman as an ex-con trying to go... (wait for it) straight, is one of those loose, laconic, but brisk, me-decade pictures, chalk full of limber moments that feel like they’re made up on the spot. Also starring a young and comely Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Harry Dean Stanton, M. Emmet Walsh, and Kathy Bates (how about that for a killer cast), Hoffman plays Max Dembo, a release thief trying to make it out on the outside, but constantly hounded by his tough prick parole officer (Walsh). He meets a young girl (Russell) who tempts him to stay on the up and up, but it doesn’t last and soon the shoot-from-the-hip con is planning another elaborate jewel heist with his pals. Co-written by Alvin Sargent ("Paper Moon," "Ordinary People," the Sam Raimi "Spider-Man" films) and Jeffrey Boam ("The Lost Boys, "The Dead Zone"), true-crime geeks might know it best as the picture based off real-life criminal Eddie Bunker’s “No Beast So Fierce” (Bunker also co-wrote the screenplay). He’s known for playing Mr. Blue in Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” and, like Danny Trejo, is recognized as a true-life con icon in cinema. Incidentally, Trejo and Bunker first met in Folsom State Prison. Michael Mann also reportedly contributed to the script in an uncredited capacity. Suffice to say the film has a major crime pedigree and is a must-see deeper cut in the heist film genre.

"How to Steal a Million" (1966)
William Wyler’s 1966 heist comedy is the very definition of a film the likes of which ‘they’ don’t make anymore. The frothy fun and captivating chemistry between Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (surely two of the most beautiful people to have ever lived) seems effortless, but is really cinematic lightning in a bottle, making the film a purely escapist confection that succeeds completely in its simple ambition: to entertain and nothing more. And while this is less an intricately-plotted caper movie than a showcase for Hepburn’s Givenchy wardobe, O’Toole’s amused twinkle and some neat open-top cars and upper class French locations, the heist itself, involving a faked masterpiece, a boomerang and an innate knowledge of human nature, is actually fairly inventive, even if it is really just an excuse to have our two deeply attractive protagonists confined in a tiny enclosed space for hours. That their romantic cross-purposes and well-meaning deceptions (for of course the two are also conning each other) will eventually work themselves out, is never in doubt, but while the ending might be predictable, it’s also perfectly satisfying - perhaps the film is formulaic, but this is one rare occasion where the formula totally works. It is insubstantial light-as-a bubble stuff, and if doesn’t withstand any particularly close scrutiny, well, why would you even want to delve any deeper when its surface charms are so considerable?

Bottle Rocket” (1996)
We would probably give our left nut if Wes Anderson would go back to this low-key, but brilliant style of filmmaking, but that's unlikely to happen until he mellows out with old age and gets over his stylistic tics. Either way there’s a reason why this spry, deadpan comedy about three friends who make for three completely pathetic and inept thieves is on Martin Scorsese’s list as one of the best films of the ‘90s. Forget Anderson’s later eccentric-overloaded diorama-like films, “Bottle Rocket” rests near the top of his finest work, worlds away from the chilly sterility of "The Life Aquatic" or "The Darjeeling Limited." Marking the debut appearances of Luke and Owen Wilson (and some of their best work as well), plus the now-long disappeared Robert Musgrave, “Bottle Rocket” is more a film about friendship and naive dreamers than it is a traditional heist picture, but that’s perhaps what makes it so brilliant. Born out of Tarantino-wannabe-isms, fortunately, by the time ‘Rocket’ hit the screen it was entirely something unto itself (and was rewarded as such by being routinely ignored by theatergoers). Full of charming, low-lit subterranean comedy, the picture also doesn’t scrimp on its actual heist either and features a too-funny climax that depicts these fools botching their tightly-planned scheme (“I don’t have it, I lost my touch,” Kumar hilariously intones). Subdued, witty and droll, “Bottle Rocket” is a tiny gem.

"Touchez Pas au Grisbi" (1954)
Apologies to Marcello Mastroianni and George Clooney, but one of the most suave and debonaire gentleman to ever grace the silver screen was French actor Jean Gabin. Best known to cinephiles for his 30s and 40s films with the great Jean Renoir, Gabin was a big star then, but had a rough couple of decades, until this film put him back on top again. In Jacque Becker's thriller (translated "Don't Touch The Loot") Gabin stars as an aging gentlemanly hood who wants to retire while the getting's good and thinks that's the plan after a successful gold bullion heist. However as most of these stories go, getting into the game is easy, leaving it is much more difficult. Soon he learns another rival gangster and brutal crime boss (Lino Ventura, who'll pop up again shortly) has heard about his score from his girlfriend, a comely lass played by a then-very young Jeanne Moreau. Ventura’s ruthless crime boss gives Gabin a choice to give up the cash or die, and what ensues is a tense game of cat and mouse. 'Touchez' can be talky and slow-going, but the second half ratchets up the tension as the stakes are raised and friends are kidnapped, and the explosive finale contains an aces action sequence that is thrilling for its time and still completely engaging. Michael Mann is surely a fan, as you can feel this film's influence throughout his career.

"The Spanish Prisoner" (1997)
For his fifth directorial effort, David Mamet returned to the world of ruses and confidence men. This time around the mark is Joe Ross (the always-underrated Campbell Scott), a brilliant but naive inventor of the “Process,” a vaguely defined formula which is supposed to predict global markets and, understandably, is worth a fortune. Ross works for Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) who promises Ross a big payday is in store as soon as he can sell the “Process.” While in the Caribbean for a meeting with potential investors, Ross meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin, shortly before the beginning of his “acting to fund my contemporary art collection and banjo career" period), an insouciantly wealthy stranger. The two meet once more in New York and a friendship ensues. It is at this point that any more of a plot summary would do a disservice to Mamet’s twist laden script. Interestingly, Mamet decided to shift his usual settings: instead of spending their time in smoky poker lounges and bars, the film’s characters find themselves in country clubs and exclusive eateries, with daytime exteriors taking the place of the dark nighttime alleys of previous Mamet films. While maintaining the familiar Mamet staccato, the characters speak in an affected and polite tone (the film earned a PG rating so the F-bombs of “Glengarry Glen Ross” are nonexistent). This change only serves to highlight one familiar lesson from the film: things are not always what they seem. And for fans of “The Wire” keep your eye out for a brief appearance from the inimitable Senator Clay Davis.

"Thief" (1981)
The “one last job” genre is almost as old as the medium itself, but since Michael Mann’s “Thief,” all filmmakers attempting to explore such a trope haven’t been able to reach the same heights. James Caan is the eponymous schemer, all elbow-grease and machismo, who finds it hard to rely on rocky alliances when he desperately searches for an exit sign out of his profession. When people are trying to muscle a young, barrel-chested James Caan out of a decent living, you know you’re dealing with some bad dudes. Mann’s classic thriller is a slow-burn, up until a violent climax straight out of the Mann playbook, filled with bad ass masculine histrionics, but an indelible sadness as well. It hasn't dated as badly as some of Mann's work in the 1980s either (this means you, "Manhunter"), and is still one of his very best pictures.

"Classe Tous Risques" (1960)
Capable in heartless gangster roles, icy cops or sympathetic crook parts, the versatile Lino Ventura (see above) once again stars in Claude Saudet's "Classe Touchez Risque," arguably a more tragic and emotional gangster heist film than many from this, sometimes matter-of-fact mien era. Playing a one-time crime boss wanted in his native France, Ventura's Abel Davos character decides to return once more to see his family. A young associate cum up-and-coming thug (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is sent to help him make the trip across the border and the two bond, especially as the younger man knows the older man by his impressive reputation. While Belmondo does play a faithful liege -- the picture is sometimes described as being about their relationship -- the law eventually catches up with Davos which makes for heartbreaking circumstances for his wife and children (which in a sense makes it a lonely one man show). An ever-watchable and absorbing picture, director Claude Sautet is not well known outside this one, but his 1978 picture, "A Simple Story," starring Romy Schneider, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

"Le Cercle Rouge" (1970)
With so many potential entry points into a heist story — the moment the plan goes wrong, the meeting of the protagonists, the hatching of the plot — it’s just one of the perversities of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge” (a name taken from a Buddhist quote, faked by the director) that he chooses to start his film miles away in time, space and mood, from the scene of the crime. But the odd, spartan pleasures of his off-kilter approach — two of the gang meet due to a stupendous, belief-defying coincidence; the third refuses his share of the profits; their policeman adversary pursues them relentlessly, yet we also twice see him come home, run a bath and talk to his cats — exert their own compelling power. Well, it’s either that or Alain Delon’s cheekbones. In any case, by increments, we come to root for the taciturn trio (quite aside from the bravura 25 minute-long no-dialogue heist sequence, there is astonishingly little chat from our antiheroes) right up until their inevitable comeuppance. That this happens not through the internal betrayals that usually cause movie crime gangs to unravel, but instead it is their loyalty to each other, is Melville’s coup de grace: by then our sympathies have so been twisted that we side entirely with these killers and thieves against a world that seems far more duplicitous and ignoble than they are. John Woo came close to directing a Steven Knight-penned remake, but it fell apart -- probably for the best.

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950)
John Huston’s 1950 noir may be better known now for the films it influenced (at least half the titles on this list, notably “Rififi”), and for an early luminous performance by Marilyn Monroe, but the film, creaky though it is in places and marred by some didactic, moralistic dialogue, is still a compelling piece in its own right. The narrative arc, (a man has a plan, gets a gang together, pulls off a heist, only to have chance and human nature foil the scheme) has become pretty much the heist film template, but details like the corruption of the police force and the careful characterizations of the gang members keep the proceedings fresh. And while censor-friendly debates on the nature of criminality abound, it’s clear where Huston’s sympathy actually lies; it is power, not lawbreaking, that corrupts here, so the only people with any sort of a code are those on the very bottom of the food chain: Sterling Hayden’s petty hood; the girl who loves him; the hunchbacked getaway driver and the safe-cracking family man. Disgust is reserved for those further up the hierarchy, whose degenerate desires eventually thwart them (both the mastermind and the front/fence character - a suave Louis Calhern - are undone by their interest in young nubile girls), while Hayden’s Dix is rewarded for his staunch, if misplaced loyalty, and perverse nobility, with the kind of tragic, theatrical, poetic death; the greatest honor a movie criminal in oppressive ‘50s America could hope for.

"Les Deuxieme Souffle" (1966)
Talk about the Jean-Paul Belmondos and Alain Delon's all you like, but perhaps one of the true greats of the French crime era is the undersung and wonderful Lino Ventura (that man again...) who also had major roles in several other Jean-Pierre Melville pictures. While not as engrossing as Melville"s "Le Samourai" or "Le Cercle Rouge" (nor arguably as engaging as the Melville-helmed crime thriller before it, "Les Dolous") "Second Wind" (as it's known in its English translation) is absorbing, if a tad sprawling for its 2 1/2 hour runtime. Opening with a breathlessly silent escape from prison, the film follows Gu (Ventura), short for Gustavo, trying to leave the country, but not before he can find his love Machouche (Christine Fabréga). Naturally, he needs to pull off one-more job (isn’t it always one more?) to save enough scratch so he and the girl can flee with comfort to a tropical paradise. Crooked cops (and one particularly sadistic detective played by Paul Meurisse) don’t make it easy though, and take Gu in on bogus charges, beat him and scheme into making it look like he’s ratted out the rest of the crime world and his accomplices in the bloody and violent Brinks van bank heist they pulled off earlier. Seen as a traitor, Gu escapes police captivity and then does what he can to clear his honor, but quickly learns thieves and honor don’t generally mix well. The recently deceased Alain Corneau attempted to remake the film in 2007 with Daniel Auteuil, Monica Belluci and Michel Blanc, to no great effect.

"Heat" (1995)
How many damn reviews and articles on this movie have basically fixated on it being the first on-screen pairing between Pacino and De Niro? Fair enough, it's a big enough deal and all, but "Heat" is a grand, complex ensemble piece, and the big Method meet and greet is only one part of its polished clockwork. This ensemble effort extends well beyond the cast: between them, lenser Dante Spinotti, composer Eliot Goldenthal, and director Mann have woven a luminous dream-space out of the L.A. setting: a landscape that is both eerily beautiful and glacially lonely and dehumanized. Mann's directorial chops are at their peak: the immersive, kinetic fire-fight in downtown L.A., boasting a miraculous, roaring sound-design, is probably the most important single piece of action choreography since Peckinpah reinvented the form. The script is dense and nuanced, exploring gang/familial relationships, perennial male/film noir anxieties regarding emotional commitment, and nailing a certain work-as-identity ethos that was very prevalent in the twilight years of the American Century. The cast are uniformly outstanding. (Does Al go OTT? Well, yeah, to a certain degree, but it mainly works in context of the character, and in contrast to De Niro.) "Heat's" influence continues to gather steam - "The Dark Knight," video games like "Kane and Lynch," um, "Takers" - and its status is pretty much cock of the walk as far as contemporary heist flicks go.

"The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three" (1974)
Last year, Tony Scott attempted to remake Joseph Sargent’s seminal subway flick, but the truth is, he was beat to it by Spike Lee a couple of years ago with “Inside Man.” Like that film, “Pelham” gains its extra appeal by treating each hostage like they are an actual person, a colorful pawn in a deadly game of chess where no piece is disposable. But the peripheral players in “Pelham” are ably matched as well, by dogged clock-puncher Walter Matthau dutifully pursuing bloodthirsty villain Robert Shaw, in a cat-and-mouse competition that is fueled by playful intensity, up until that classic final shot. It's another film that Tarantino 'homaged' in "Reservoir Dogs," with the color-coded names of the thieves. Oh, and did we mention David Shire’s all-timer of a score?

"Grand Slam" (1967)
Led by Klaus Kinski, Janet Leigh and Edward G. Robinson, you should be tracking down this film based on the casting alone. But this English language, Euro production directed by the otherwise unknown Giuliano Montaldo is a lean heist flick that takes us methodically through every step of a job, from the hiring of the team of experts, through their plotting of the job and the execution which will not quite turn out as it's planned. The premise is straightforward: a retired professor (Robinson) presents the job of a lifetime to a professional criminal: the robbery of a diamond company in Brazil. With every conceivable angle covered, the job runs into a hitch when a brand new alarm system, the titular Grand Slam 70, is installed shortly before the planned heist. From there, things get even hairier. Montaldo directs with an incredibly visual eye and an utterly crackerjack sense of pacing. The film runs like a goddamn metronome jangling your nerves. But all this wouldn’t mean anything if the actual heist sequence didn’t rank among the greats; breathlessly executed as we watch the team try to outrun their eventual fate. “Grand Slam” is pretty much never mentioned in the usual lists of great heist films, but just watch this inventive, exciting and fun flick and you’ll see why it deserves to be discovered.

"Rififi" (1955)
Yes, we know. This is the grandaddy of all heist films, the one that tops everyone’s list and is name dropped constantly. But if you haven’t seen the film (and by God, you should remedy that situation quickly) don’t get suckered into thinking this is just some cinematic touchstone that everyone talks about but no one really watches. If anything, Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” remains the template and the standard, with a centerpiece heist sequence that is still yet to be topped. The plot is standard stuff: four guys target a jewelery store, plan the perfect job and things don’t quite go as planned. But Dassin’s masterstroke is the 30-minute, nearly completely silent heist (no dialogue, no soundtrack) that brilliantly throws viewers right into the heart-pounding, tension filled robbery. A masterpiece in every sense of the word, “Rififi” remains the torchbearer for the genre with very good reason.


"Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)
35 years on from its release, it's easy to take for granted how brave and ahead-of-its-time Sidney Lumet's "Dog Day Afternoon" was. Based on a real incident, it follows Sonny (Al Pacino), a Vietnam vet who, with a group of cohorts, robs a bank in order to finance his (male) lover's sex-change operation. It's remarkable for the honest, sympathetic, cliche-free way it depicts a gay character -- even now, it's rare to see a gay character like Sonny. Even then, however, his homosexuality isn't the focus -- much like "Network" (probably the only film on Lumet's CV that can top this one), the director is interested in celebrity, the way the media, and the people of New York, vilify and celebrate Sonny's plan. The handheld documentary feel is still fresh today, Frank Pierson's screenplay is kind of a masterclass, and the editing, by the late, great Dede Allen, is top of the grade. Perhaps most noteworthy is Pacino's performance: strong, vulnerable, desperate, revolutionary, masculine, feminine: you can keep Michael Corleone, this is the one we'll remember him for. The supporting cast can't be forgotten either: John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, even a young Lance Henriksen are all superb.

- Nick Clement, Andy Linnane, Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth, Tristan Eldritch, RP, Tan Nguyen

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