Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sneaky Cinema Standouts: Top 5 Heist Films

Like the proverbial velvet bag of precious stolen jewels, getting a grasp on exactly what constitutes a heist film is more slippery than one might imagine. Since the first luckless thieves with ambitions too big for their britches stumbled upon the ultimate score in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the heist movie has thrived as a sub-genre of the crime film, one that is nearly universal in its concept (are there any places where people don’t steal shit?) and which found a particularly comfortable home in French cinema, becoming one of America’s most influential cinematic exports.

But qualifying a heist film as a pure heist film is messy business – and we all know the key to a successful score is precision. A true heist picture is about process, not success. Planning, preparing, practicing – and let’s not forget double-crossing – are the essential elements of a memorable heist movie. Sometimes, this process reveals itself as well-paced foreplay, building up to a climactic procedural (which usually goes wrong).

Alternatively, the pre-thieving can also be used to conceal preparatory information as a mystery, keeping the audience in the dark before sneaking up and slyly saying, “You’ll never guess what I just did.” The forethought is the fetish in the heist film, regardless of the time of revelation. It is a genre of curiosity (Who? What? When? Why? Where? How?), with varying emphases on each query and varying proclivities for depicting desperation, humor, betrayal, existential tragedy, and, most of all, absolute cool.

I tried to maintain a good mixture of iconic classics, revisionist works, and modern standouts in my list, so there should be something for everyone. If you don’t find your favorite amongst the following then either A) I haven’t seen it, or B) I don’t like it quite enough – either way, you should leave a comment and rep for your most beloved burglars.


1. The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville [Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxième soufflé (1966), Le Cercle rouge (1970), Un Flic (1972)]
Okay, so I’m cheating a little bit with my first pick. If I didn’t, this list would be unfairly overpopulated with films from the master of heists: proto-French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. With deftly defined archetypal characters and a unique stylistic flair, Melville created a collection of the most influential heist films, working in the genre more frequently than any other filmmaker (though Soderbergh may overtake him). Melville’s laconic, no-nonsense heroes – played by the likes of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo – confront their criminal missions with an almost religious solemnity and seriousness. His films are imbued with a quiet intensity that churns in crescendo just below their calm, collected surfaces, boiling over during dramatic robbery sequences.

Melville’s most celebrated heist films are Bob le flambeur and Le Cercle rouge, and deservedly so, as they are certainly his best. The great director’s stamp on the genre is undeniable: Bob le flambeur has been remade by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief (2002) and was heavily influential on Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature, Hard Eight (1996), while Le Cercle rouge is in the process of being remade by Hong Kong director Johnny To with a cast featuring Liam Neeson and Orlando Bloom – preserving Melville’s larcenous legacy.

A lasting influence on the films of the French New Wave and many others, including the next movie on this list, Melville’s oeuvre represents the absolute apex of the heist genre.

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Perhaps most noteworthy about Tarantino’s much revered post-modern robbery-gone-haywire flick is that it is a heist film in which the actual heist is omitted. An undercover cop amongst the ranks of a group of would-be thieves (referred to as Mr. White, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, etc.) foils their diamond robbery, leading to a bloody whodunit clusterfuck that involves the surviving members of the group attempting to piece together what went wrong while hiding out from the police in a warehouse.

A non-linear film with loads of flashbacks and a decidedly elliptical mode of storytelling, Tarantino’s oddly-titled masterpiece is a violent, stylish, witty movie in which the big job is invisible and the preparation is presented after the failed robbery, filling all of the detailed planning, particularly that of the undercover policeman, with an inescapable sense of doom.
A cultural cornerstone as memorable for its lengthy discussion of tipping waitresses as it is for its infamous ear-slicing scene, Reservoir Dogs is a film whose freshness and energy is still palpable over 15 years later.

3. Rififi (1955) dir. Jules Dassin
Directed by then-blacklisted American filmmaker Jules Dassin after having fled the U.S. for France, Rififi is a seminal heist movie that established many of the tropes that would come to be associated with the genre: the rag-tag team of specialized experts, the use of exact models and practice rooms to hone efficiency, the commitment to pulling off “one last job,” and the breathlessly tour-de-force breaking-in sequence.

Adapted from a racy French novel by Auguste le Breton, the film follows the aging Tony le Stéphanois as he corrals a team of seasoned criminals in order to cap his delinquent career with a high-paying jewelry store send-off. A very brutal, unrelenting film, Rififi expands the novel’s short heist scene into a 32-minute, totally wordless set piece that comprises over one-quarter of its runtime. Shockingly, the safecracking and breaking-in techniques used in the movie were so effective that Mexican authorities had to ban the film in their country because so many thieves were successfully using methods borrowed from Rififi. While the film may not be the most sensational of all heist movies, its dedicated attention to realistic detail distinguishes it from nearly all of its counterparts.

4. Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) dir. Steven Soderbergh
Since 1996’s Out of Sight, Steven Soderbergh has proven himself to be the much-needed Viagra of the heist film, and his Ocean’s trilogy represents the genre’s 6-hour boner. Everything is in full effect with this trio of stealthy stories: the hugest stars, the richest pay offs, the most implausibility, the largest production budgets, the trickiest plans, and the funniest self-referential humor.

Soderbergh’s films inject 70s suaveness and outsider playfulness into the overblown Hollywood aesthetic, emitting an ultra-hip, super-sleek, often ridiculous vibe that comes across as nothing less than charming. Riffing off of the debonair cool of the original 1960 Lewis Milestone-directed “Rat Pack” flick, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, et al, epitomize the modern heist hero – always collected, always one step ahead, always keeping the audience guessing. Exercises in style and flamboyance, the Ocean’s films are not only entertaining, but also valuable in that they got the heist movie its groove back, introducing a whole generation of moviegoers to the alluring world of breaking and entering.

5. Bottle Rocket (1996) dir. Wes Anderson
A heartfelt, offbeat, independent comedy, Bottle Rocket is certainly an anomaly in the heist genre. Absurd and touching, the film is filled with characters that would go on to be mimicked and copied in numerous indie films of the past decade, while serving as a jumpstart to the movie careers of Luke and Owen Wilson, as well as whimsical writer-director Wes Anderson.

With a more hair-brained series of schemes than any other heist film in my memory (what do you expect when the plans are concocted by a mental patient and a guy who robs his parents?) Bottle Rocket presents what happens when amateurs pretend to be pros. A lighter yang to the heavy yin of 1, 2, and 3 on this list, the film pleases with its surreal silliness, expanding the dominion of the heist film from the hardboiled to the hysterical – even throwing in a bit of romantic comedy. Worthy of the praise of crime film maestro Martin Scorsese, who called it one of the top ten films of the 90s, Bottle Rocket is an essential and unusual entry in the heist film canon.

by Brandon Colvin

This article original appeared in Rise Over Run Magazine.

6 comments:

Jacob said...

I plan to watch Un Flic in the immediate future. And I anxiously await the Criterion release of Le Doulos and Le Deuxième Soufflé.

I would also like to suggest the title Welcome to Collinwood. I haven't seen it in many years, but I recall it being quite funny (and in hindsight, perhaps a parody of Rififi). Since it's been so long, I don't want to throw my full weight behind it, however I'd like to get the name out there and see if anyone else perhaps has any thoughts about it.

Jeremy Richey said...

Nice list...I would have included Michael Mann's THIEF and HEAT plus the original THE ITALIAN JOB (hell maybe even the remake which I like quite a bit) but otherwise these seem pretty spot on.

Brandon Colvin said...

I've seen WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD on DVD shelves many times, but I never knew what the fuck it was really. I suppose I'll have to check it out.

I haven't seen either of those Michael Mann films (shame), nor the original THE ITALIAN JOB, so I can't really explain why they aren't on the list, haha.

J.D. said...

What always amused me about BOTTLE ROCKET is that the characters in it seem like wannabe criminals who've watched too many heist films and think that they can pull one off. I love the scene where they go over their plans and start bickering about the gun. "He's out and you're out too and I don't think I'm in either. No gang!"

Jeremy Richey said...

Brandon,
Stop what you are doing now and watch THIEF and HEAT...Also Mann's MANHUNTER as well as THE INSIDER if you haven't seen those.
The original ITALIAN JOB is very cool...one of the best British Crime films of the sixties with an impossibly cool Michael Caine.

Jacob said...

I watched Un Flic last night. It's no Le Samourai, but few films are. My favorite Melville heist film (until I see his upcoming Criterion titles) is Bob le Flambeur.

I just checked netflix, and the only Michael Mann film I've seen is Collateral. Looks like the queue's going to get longer...

PS-Brandon, we both know that no list of heist films is complete without The Great Muppet Caper.