California Literary Review

The Weekly Listicle: The Art Of The Heist

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August 12th, 2011 at 4:02 pm

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This weekend we see the release of 30 Minutes Or Less, an off-the-wall looking crime comedy from the director and star of the runaway 2009 hit Zombieland. Early press has been mixed to disparaging, but like its predecessor it may turn out to be more fun than we think. I have to admit the trailer promises a lot, but can the movie stay outrageously entertaining for its full running time?

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One factor working in its favor is the enduring appeal of the heist – or crime caper, if you will – in the history of film. From The Great Train Robbery of 1903, movie audiences have always been game for a good romp about guns, money, and desperate criminals.

In some cases, an entire film revolves around a single robbery, or a closely timed series of interwoven crimes. In others, a heist constitutes a single scene in what may or may not be a proper “heist film” at all. It may only serve as a catalyst or climax within a genre outside traditional crime drama. It can be either a goal or a jumping off point, and may meet with any degree of success, including none. In fact, a failed heist often serves more comic or dramatic purpose than a successful one (which generally just looks cool, and sets criminals up for a later fall). Quentin Tarantino’s breakout film Reservoir Dogs dealt exclusively with the aftermath of a heist which, though never shown on screen, obviously went very badly wrong. The robbery itself was a MacGuffin of which Alfred Hitchcock might have been proud.

The Great Train Robbery (1093, Edwin S. Porter)

This week, I join forces with Brett Davinger to chronicle some of the best heists, rip-offs, and holdups ever put on screen. So just sit quietly and keep your hands away from the phone, where we can see them. This won’t take long.

DAN’S PICKS:

The opening of Thief (dir. Michael Mann, 1981)

James Caan cracks a safe at the beginning of Thief

If you want an audience to think your star is cool, begin the film by depicting him as a master criminal at work. Michael Mann does just that for James Caan in the first nine minutes of Thief. Caan’s character is no guns-blazing bank buster. He is an expert safecracker with ambitions of making it big and staying there.

At its core, this film is a rather brutal revenge drama with many a twist and turn. However, the elegant simplicity of the opening sequence is what concerns us here. There are plenty of murders and a larger-scale heist to follow, but this bit sets a very strong mood for the events which come later. Caan is smooth, efficient, and above all quiet. In the course of the scene, there are scarcely ten words of dialogue, and yet we witness a well-organized operation from beginning to end. Music by Tangerine Dream does not hurt one bit either.

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This well-ordered precision speaks to how carefully our thief has organized his life. He fronts his career by owning a couple of local businesses, and has a family in the offing. However, when chaos threatens his plans, he must become one ruthless character indeed to regain his means.

You don’t nose in on somebody this committed to his dreams without asking for big trouble, and the methodical way in which he does his work ought to signal his capacity for planning revenge and getting the job done.

The Raising Arizona bank job (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 1987)

John Goodman and William Forsythe rob a bank in Raising Arizona

“All right, ya hayseeds! This is a stickup!”

The Coen Brothers crowned their self-proclaimed “beyond belief” comedy Raising Arizona with a delightful bank robbery featuring an infant accomplice. John Goodman and William Forsythe play the Snopes Brothers (Gale and Evelle), who have broken out of prison in order to perpetrate an epic string of bank robberies across the Southwest.

Unfortunately, they have also just kidnapped a baby from their old pal H. I. McDonough (Nicolas Cage), who has abandoned his trade of knocking over convenience store to settle down and start a family with his wife Ed (Holly Hunter), formerly of the Tempe, Arizona police. The McDonoughs, unable to bear their own, previously stole the baby from the home of local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona. Is this wacky enough for you yet?

Nathan Arizona Junior

Having come all this way to rip off a tiny little farmers’ bank, the two crooks realize that it would be bad form to leave the baby in the car, in case something should go wrong with the heist. To solve the problem, they enter with shotguns in one hand and Nathan Junior in the other. Initially disdainful of the bank’s “hayseed” patrons (that’s a pot calling a kettle black, believe me), they soon become frazzled and distracted. Gale finds the slow-talking, even-tempered Arizona yokels hard to intimidate. Evelle mistakenly blurts out Gale’s name in front of the hostages, then unsuccessfully attempts to persuade them that he and his brother are in fact “using code names.”

The scene is brief, but among the film’s most memorable. It is hardly surprising that the two knuckleheads fail to get away with either the baby or the money in the end. But it sure is fun watching them try. It is more than likely that this scene also directly influenced a similar caper from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, in which Owen Wilson leads a hilariously shaky bookstore robbery that, admittedly, ends a little better from the criminals. If you have not had the pleasure, please treat yourself to Raising Arizona at once.

The opening of The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Heath Ledger stars as The Joker in The Dark Knight

I would generally oppose the inclusion of such a recent film on a “classic” or “best of” list. I simply do not believe in rushing popular films to classic status. However, the opening bank robbery in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is a wonderfully inventive way to introduce a character under a tremendous amount of pressure – in this case, the late Heath Ledger’s cautiously anticipated incarnation of the Joker.

Ledger and Nolan’s version of the character turned out to be a smash hit, but the secrecy surrounding the movie’s prediction left us wondering until the very last moment just what a 21st-century Joker had to offer. In fact, the first sequence is a further tease, as we barely even see the Joker in the wake of his first killing spree. However, his actions are undeniably the work of a deranged and ingenious prankster.

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This heist deftly establishes the ruthless imagination of the Joker without having to show him at full speed until later. Operating with a team of accomplices unaware of his identity, he systematically exploits their skills and offs them one by one, until he is able to infiltrate the bank itself and assure his solo escape, without any troubling associates left to betray him or ask for a cut of the money.

William Fichtner also supplies a great cameo as an ill-fated bank official, who may be tough but is not quite tough enough for the ultimate supervillain. The grandiose, graphic-novel scale of this heist juxtaposes surprisingly well with the grim naturalism of Nolan’s Gotham City. Besides, it is just a really neat scene that foreshadows the mayhem which Batman will soon be battling.

Dog Day Afternoon (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1975)

Al Pacino and John Cazale try to rob a bank in Dog Day afternoon

The late Sidney Lumet directed a lot of great drama, including 12 Angry Men and Network. Even when dealing with serious subjects, he often tackled subjects with sly satirical undercurrents, and even branched into full-blown dark comedy on occasion (who remembers Deathtrap? Dog Day Afternoon is caught somewhere in between, and is even more poignantly hilarious for having been based on a real-life bank robbery attempt.

Released a year after The Godfather Part II, the film features Al Pacino and John Cazale as criminals on a much less prestigious scale than the brothers Corleone. Sonny and Sal are a couple of two-bit hoods with a half-baked plan to walk in and rip off a bank, nice and easy. However, the plan starts to unravel mere minutes after they pull their guns. Their accomplice chickens out and flees the scene. Then, they discover that bad timing has landed them in a bank with virtually no cash on hand.

Stuck with a load of hostages he does not wish to shoot, Sonny unwittingly attracts the attention of the police. His subsequent attempts to get bystanders to side with him against the cops only get him in bigger trouble. Charles Durning appears as a police detective fighting to keep a lid on the powder-keg standoff. Eventually, a very young Lance Henriksen must step in on behalf of the FBI.

Charles Durning co-stars as a police negotiator in Dog Day Afternoon

It would be no fun to spoil Sonny’s motivation for the robbery, which is far less conventional than the average crime movie (especially at the time it was made). Suffice it to say that Sonny’s management of his personal life and relationships is on par with his ability to mastermind a heist. Each emerging fact makes him a more pitiable character. He is an everyday loser who swam in way over his head. However, given his emotional instability and limited intelligence, he has the best of intentions.

As bad luck and poor planning make things increasingly worse for Sonny and Sal, a clear dilemma emerges. Should the police let them get away out of pity, or shoot them both out of mercy? Somehow a mere arrest does not do justice to the cluster-“you-know-what” they have created. Dog Day Afternoon is a gripping, sometimes agonizing exercise in futility for its would-be crooks. In that sense it is really more “anti-heist” than heist, but on a purely structural level there are few other crime films with such focus. Every minute of screen time revolves directly around a single criminal attempt.

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For me, the genius of this movie comes down to a single moment. The wild energy of Al Pacino’s first move, pulling his gun in the bank lobby, jars the movie into action. These bizarre few seconds tell us everything we need to know about Sonny. He is desperate, nervous, and a little bit nuts. Can he intimidate everyone else into going along with him, just to avoid getting hurt? Well… we’ll have to see.

BRETT’S PICKS:

The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

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No, I’m not referring to the dreary, sweater-clad, directionless, unsatisfying, senseless AMC show, which I still hate (or, to put in Detective Holder speak, “that show be whack and buggin’, moms. Word.”), I’m talking about Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film-noir classic, The Killing.

This movie, which immediate preceded Kubrick’s World War I masterpiece Paths of Glory, might sound like your typical heist noir. Career criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden, who would later work with Kubrick again in Dr. Strangelove) is about to embark upon his last heist: stealing money from the counting room at a horse track and forms a crew.

His gang consists of track employees, a crooked cop, and a boxer and a gunman who will cause diversions at the time of the robbery. (In one of the crime’s most interesting facets, the gunman (Timothy Carey, next to appear in Paths of Glory) plans to shoot the favored horse with a rifle from outside the track.) Meanwhile, one of the accomplices has a hen-pecking wife forever angry at his lack of wealth or ambition. When he tells her about the job, she tells her lover, a mobster, to steal the money afterward so they can run away together.

Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956)

The clown mask serves as the disguise for these heisters.

In a tactic adopted by many filmmakers (including Quentin Tarantino) since, the heist is told from different angles in a non-linear fashion. Each element of the crime receives its own “story,” while a narrator helps us keep actual time.

Needless to say, the heist goes bad, and Johnny is the only one to emerge relatively unscathed. That is, until a yappy dog at an airport mangles his escape.

Poster for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956)

Old movie posters were practically a trailer in themselves

What differentiates The Killing from so many other noirs is its excellence. In this early film, Kubrick already proves himself as several cuts above the majority of directors working in Hollywood during that time. Although dark and bleak, The Killing doesn’t subscribe to all of the aesthetic standards you’d expect in 1950s noir, nor is it reliant on that “style” that plagues many older films for modern audiences. Almost 55 years old and very low-key, The Killing remains one of cinema’s best and most lasting crime dramas.

The Italian Job (dir. Peter Collinson, 1969)

Poster for The Italian Job (1969)

The bizarre American poster for the car-centric heist film

Forget about 2003’s hypercharged remake, the original The Italian Job is a classic 1960s British caper. It is a definitive example of the genre, complete with the colorful look and wry humor you’d expect and want in a 1960s-heist film, along with a Quincy Jones score and a Matt Monro-sung theme.

Michael Caine, at his most charming and suave, stars as Charlie Croker, an ex-con looking to rob $4 million in gold from an armored transport in Turin. An original attempt at this endeavor aroused the ire of the Italian Mafia and left one of his cohorts dead due to the destruction of a Lamborghini via bulldozer, but he remains interested in completing the task. For funding, he turns to imprisoned crime lord Mr. Bridger (played by renowned playwright Noel Coward) by breaking into a prison bathroom to ask for money. Like the remake, Croker also needs a computer expert to cause a traffic jam, and his IT genius is the sexually obsessed Professor Peach played by Benny Hill of Benny Hill Theme fame.

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WARNING: This clip contains ridiculous amounts of spoilers.

The heist itself is a very amusing, full service sequence that features one of the movies’ best car chases. Red, white, and blue Mini Coopers play an important role in the get away as they go up and down stairs, across roofs, and through sewer systems. Aston Martins and Jaguars also function as distraction/get away vehicles.

Eventually, the gang makes it to a bus that will take them out of Turin and into the safety of Switzerland. When it looks like they’ve made their escape, with the accomplice cars destroyed and the gold resting comfortably in the back, the bus hits a skid leaving it (and the crew) teetering off the edge of a cliff; the weight of the gold, counterbalanced by the weight of the criminals. And this is how the film ends, with leader Charlie pondering a new scheme to save their lives (and the gold) as the cast-sung “Getta Bloomin’ Move On” plays over the credits.

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The film itself has remained consistently popular over the past 40 years. Caine’s line “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”was voted by British film fans as the greatest one-liner in a 2003 poll, beating out Rhett Butler’s “Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give A Damn.” And a 2008 contest held by the Royal Society of Chemistry asked scientists to come up with a viable solution to the cliffhanger ending not involving helicopters.

A Fish Called Wanda (dir. Charles Crichton, 1988)

Poster for A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Unlike the previous two films, this one starts with the crime and focuses on the aftermath. Despite A Fish Called Wanda being a comedy, it presents a very professional heist (a bank robbery for diamonds), one performed by four individuals: Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Otto (Kevin Kline), Ken (Michael Palin), and Georges (Tom Georgeson). Soon after, the gang betrays Georges, and his lawyer, Archie Leach (John Cleese), finds himself involved in the case.

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This superbly written English comedy (script from Cleese; story from Cleese and Crichton), received much acclaim for its four main characters. The miserable Archie plays to Monty Python‘s John Cleese’s greaters strengths as he embodies the straitlaced and on-edge attorney forced to deal with his feelings for seductress Wanda and his horrible wife Wendy. Fellow Python-alum Michael Palin participates in the film’s best running gag where, as the stuttering animal lover Ken, his attempts to kill an elderly witness lead him to accidentally and comically destroy her three beloved dogs, causing him great guilt, depression, and physical pain. The major standout, however, is Kline (who won an Oscar for his performance) as the ‘weapons-expert’ Otto, a self-proclaimed intellectual who believes the main tenet of Buddhism is “every man for himself” and represents the worst of American jingoism (“We didn’t lose Vietnam. It was a tie!”).

Goodfellas (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1990)

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Although there are many elements to Goodfellas that are worthy of being discussed, examined, and reminisced, I am going to focus on one for this Listicle: the Lufthansa heist, which is the only “real” heist on my list. Although primary character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) does not participate in the event, nor is it seen on screen, it’s nevertheless one of the most significant parts of the film.

Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas

Jimmy! Jimmy!

In 1978, a gang led by Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) robbed John F. Kennedy Intentional Airport in New York. Although successful, problems immediately emerge. For starters, the driver Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson), instead of disposing of the getaway vehicle, got high, went to his girlfriend’s house, and “by the time he woke up, the cops had found the truck. It was all over the television. They even said they came up with prints off the wheel. It was just a matter of time before they got to Stacks.” This, of course, causes Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, in an Academy Award-winning performance) to execute him.

The rest of the crew fared only slightly better. Despite warnings by Jimmy and Tommy not to spend any money until the heat died down, few listened. Some bought cars, some bought fur coats for their wives, nobody played it safe. And Jimmy understood what needed to be done.

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