The heist always goes wrong, part 1: ten of the best heist movies ever made

asphalt01I love a good heist film.

I love the genius and intricacy of their plots and the variations they come in, whether it be the all star team assembled for a job or the desperate ex-cons trying for one last score.

But most of all I love them because of the golden rule of all good heist films – for whatever reason, the heist always goes wrong.

What do you need for a good heist?

You need a plan for actual heist itself, the getaway, and moving, storing and fencing whatever it is you’ve stolen. The more complicated the plan, the more likely it is that something will go wrong.

You need a crew of people; one man or woman alone cannot do a heist. This introduces the human element and all the problems that come with it, the greed, suspicions, jealousies and uncertainties.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about what my top ten-heist films would be and the following list, in no particular order, is it.

The robbery itself is almost immaterial to how I rate a good heist film. What I like is the context and atmosphere in which the heist takes place and inevitable problems that arise after it’s been pulled off. And the darker and more broken things get, the better the film is in my book.

I have not included caper films. While I enjoy a good caper film, like The Hot Rock (1975), The Italian Job (1969) or any of the Oceans 11 films and their sequels, I don’t consider them heist films in the pure sense of the word because of their emphasis on comedy and the fact that the criminals often get away with it.

In a good heist film, the heist always goes wrong.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

In a crowded field of classic noirs, including Criss Cross (1949), Armoured Car Robbery (1950) and Crime Wave (1954), just to name a few, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is the granddaddy (or grandmother) of film noir heist movies. Sterling Hayden plays a criminal fresh out of jail that wants to stage a million dollar burglary. He recruits a gang of suitably flawed and unstable individuals to pull it off. Everything starts off promising and then slowly falls apart. The film that established many of the key features of what later went on to be called heist films.

the-money-moversMoney Movers (1978)

Two security guards plan to rob the armoured car service they work for. But things get very complicated when a criminal boss who wants a share of the action discovers the scheme. Starring a who is who cast of local Australian actors from the seventies, director Bruce Beresford executes the classic noir theme of the paper-thin line between good and bad. Added into this mix are some uniquely Australian characteristics, including a strong riff on class relations and big business corruption in the seventies.

Adapted from the novel of the same name, like a lot of films from the Ozploitation period, Money Movers completely flopped when it was released in 1979. This is a pity because Money Movers is proof Australia could knock out heist movie as hard-boiled and multi-layered as anything made internationally.

across-110th-streetAcross 110th Street (1972)

Another exceptional heist film that did badly upon release, it was too violent and, arguably, too black for mainstream US audiences. Across 110th Street is a complex and brutally unflinching portrayal of what happens when two black men who believe they have nothing to loose steal $300,000 in mob money and gun down several made men and bent bops in the process.

Similar to movies like Detroit 9000, made a year later, Across 110th Street is part hard-boiled heist film and part Blaxploitation picture. Great action sequences stand side by side with a complex portrayal of racial politics in seventies New York. The latter is best symbolised by the relationship between the old school cop on the take, Anthony Quinn, and his university educated up and coming black colleague (Yaphet Kotto) who wants his job.

coyleThe Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Does this film even need an introduction? Of the crime films to come out of the United States in the early seventies, it’s hard to think of one that’s tougher and grittier than the 1973 neo-noir, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Set in Boston’s criminal milieu, The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no frills depiction of desperate men doing whatever they have to do to stay one step ahead of each other and
the law. And none of them is more desperate than Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle (Robert Mitchum). A 51 year-old ex-con, a gun runner and Christ knows what else in his criminal career, Coyle’s got a wife, three kids and the prospect of a three to five year jail stretch for being caught driving a truckload of stolen whisky. Coyle will do anything to stay out prison but all he’s got to trade is information, in particular, information on the identity of the gang that has been pulling off a series of audacious bank robberies.

With his fading looks, bad haircut and cheap clothes, Mitchum is fantastic as Coyle.  He’s supported by a wonderful group of character actors, including Stephen Keats, Richard Jordan and Peter Boyle. The story, look, the dialogue, every aspect of this one in a million film works superbly.

dog-dayDog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sydney Lumet’s best crime film, Dog Day Afternoon is loosely based on the real life robbery of a bank in working class Brooklyn. The film stars Al Pacino and John Cazale. To say these guys are first time crooks is an understatement. We know it’s going to go to shit from the moment Pacino’s character Sonny has trouble disentangling his rifle from the flower box he’s carried it into the bank in. They have arrived after the cash has been picked up, leaving only $1100 in the entire bank. Meanwhile, the bank robbers and their hostages, mainly the female counter staff are surrounded by 250 cops led by Detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning), as well as the media and several hundred on-lookers. As the police tighten their grip, Sonny decides that their only chance of escape is to use the hostages to bargain for a plane to get them to Algeria.

What I love about Dog Day Afternoon is its palpable sense of anti-establishment politics. People were not so quick to identify as economic stakeholders. This is best illustrated when Sonny, steps outside the bank for the first time to negotiate with the police and taunts them by shouting “Attica, Attica” – a recent real life prison riot in which 39 inmates were killed – getting applause and black power salutes from the crowd.

un-flicA Cop (Un Flic – 1972)

A Cop is Jean Pierre Melville’s last film and, in my opinion, has been unfairly compared with his 1970 effort, The Red Circle (Le Cercle Rouge). A gang of criminals commit a bank robbery in a small French town in order to finance a much bigger heist. But they are ultimately thwarted by efforts of the cop in charge of the investigation (Alain Delon) and the duplicitous girlfriend of the gang leader (Catherine Deneuve).

A Cop is a solid heist film without the pseudo philosophical padding that accompanies the story in The Red Circle

the-splitThe Split (1986)

Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates and Donald Sutherland star in this film version of Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake’s book of the same name.

Brown is terrific as a professional thief (called McClain in the film) who masterminds the robbery of the gate takings for a major football game. But it all goes pear shaped when he stashes the money in his girlfriend’s apartment (Diahann Carroll). She is murdered and the money stolen by the sexually frustrated landlord (James Whitmore, who was in Asphalt Jungle). Meanwhile the rest of the gang think McClain has taken it.

thiefThief (1981)

James Caan plays Frank, a career thief wants to settle down with his girlfriend (Tuesday Weld) and their adopted child. In order to fund his retirement, Frank reluctantly agrees pull a complicated robbery for an elderly crime boss (Robert Prosky), but instead finds himself pulled deeper into a life of crime as well as the subject of some very unwanted attention by a group of corrupt cops.
Frank’s reaction when he finds himself trapped both prefigures and takes an incredible step further Robert De Niro’s famous line in the 1995 film, Heat: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

The film, directed by Michael Mann, is incredibly realistic. The burglary tools used by Frank and his gang are not just props; the cast was trained to use them. A number of former cops and criminals also served as technical advisors.

robbery-1967Robbery (1967)

The Brits have done some great heist films. Contenders for the best one include The Bank Job (2008), Sexy Beast (2000), Basil Dearden’s delightfully bent The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Joseph Loosey’s 1960 film, Criminal.

In the end, my pick is Robbery, made in 1967 by Peter Yates (who went on to make The Friends of Eddie Coyle). Robbery is a lean, mean, unsentimental dramatisation of the great train robbery. It starred Britain’s answer to Lee Marvin, Stanley Baker, as an tough criminal trying to put together a crew and organise the robbery at the same time as his marriage to Joanna Pettel is falling apart and the police led by Inspector Langdon (James Booth) are on his case. Hardly a whiff of the swinging sixties here. Instead, the action takes place in shitty garages, underground car parks and bleak railway sidings. A riveting film.

the-killersThe Killers (1964)

And talking about Lee Marvin, last but not least is the 1964 version of The Killers. While the structure is similar to the 1946 noir, director Don Siegel mixes things up by making the lead killer, played by Marvin, the one obsessed with finding the truth about a washed up racing car driver, Johnny North (John
Cassavetes), and his involvement in a mail van robbery that reportedly netted a million dollars. Filling out this cast to die for is Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan.

Made for TV but deemed by the network too violent to air, Seigel’s film is turbo charged piece of pulp, its visual harshness in stark contrast to the luxuriant, almost tactile feel of the black and white version.

These are my top ten picks. What do you think?


34 Responses

  1. Wow, I am amazed at how many of these I haven’t seen, which is good because I have a lot to look forward to.
    How about The Score with Edward Norton and DeNiro and Brando? That’s pretty good. Speaking of Norton, have you seen Leaves of Grass? It’s a crime movie that I think has kind of slipped under the radar. It’s pretty good.

  2. Mike,
    I remember seeing The Score a while ago. Thought it was okay, but nothing amazing. I have Leaves of Grass but have not watched it. I’ll check it out on your recommendation.

  3. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about film as you are, but I have to agree completely about Dog Day Afternoon and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I thought Heat was quite good too; have you seen that?

    • Many times, Margot, and I think it is a great film. I think Thief, made a few years earlier by the same director, is much better but it is also much more hard boiled (and Heat was pretty hard boiled). Perhaps not to everyone’s taste.
      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. The Getaway–the original one.
    The Thomas Crown Affair – the original.
    The Sting – or is that a “Con” movie?

    • Bob,
      Thanks for stopping by. Definitely agree on The Getaway and The Thomas Crown Affair, especially The Getaway. I like The Sting and have really fond memories of watching it for the first time with my parents, but I’d say it’s a caper or “con” film, not a heist movie.

  5. Nice job, Andrew. You introduced me to a couple I haven’t seen before. I would have to add THE KILLING and PLUNDER ROAD to the list. Gotta get your Elisha Cook in there. And probably RIFIFI, as well.

    • Hey Jake,
      Plunder Road is one of those films I’ve wanted to see but have not been able to find anywhere on dvd. I’m not a huge fan of The Killing. I don’t know, to me it felt too much like Kubrick doing an exercise in what he thought a classic film noir should be.

  6. I’d have to add The Anderson Tapes and They Came To Rob Las Vegas. I didn’t know The Split was based on a Richard Stark novel so it immediately goes to the top of my must-see list. Also,I just saw $ with Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn for the first time in 20 odd years. It stands up pretty well. Here’s my post on heist films.

  7. Great list… but no love for Riffifi?

  8. Great list. I, too, look a good heist film. I was going to suggest Rififi as well. One of my fav’s.

  9. It looks like Jean Pierre Melville’s A Cop (Un Flic) is also known as Dirty Money.

  10. The eponymous Heist film by David Mamet starring Gene Hackman, Danny Devito, Delroy Lindo, Sam Rockwell and Ricky Jay. Twisty little tale. The airplane heist sequence superb.

  11. The tension in the botched jewellery heist in Straight Time nearly blew a fuse in my head…

  12. Dave and Mike,
    Definitely agree Straight Time could easily be on this list. I have not seen if for ages but remember it as a terrific little film.

  13. Please let me know your thoughts on Leaves of Grass once you’ve seen it.

  14. Have only seen two of the ten, so a lot to look forward to! I would vote for The Thomas Crown Affair (original version) as well, and what about ‘The Italian Job’?

  15. Someone beat me to “Rififi,” which has one of the tensest robbery scenes I’ve ever watched. After the heist, things go downhill very fast.

  16. I mean downhill for the robbery gang, not downhill for the viewer.

  17. Marina,
    I like The Italian Job but I consider it a caper film, not a heist film. A number of people have mentioned the original Thomas Crown Affair. In my view that’s definitely worth including in a list of top heist films.

  18. Great post. I’ve seen most of the films on your list and I admit to having a soft spot for Dog Day Afternoon. I concur on The Killers, too, but prefer the 1946 Burt Lancaster/Ava Gardner version: Lancaster in a singlet (often) gives it the edge over Marvin in 1964 for me.

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  20. There are a few on here I haven’t seen, but Across a 110th Street and Thief are two of my favorites. One of these days I need to find the book that “Across…” is based on. Is it any good? Not to nitpick, but as much as I love Dog Day Afternoon, I’d have to pick the Anderson Tapes over it. Well, at least Sidney cast Dick Anthony Williams (Pretty Tony from The Mack) in both. When you get a chance, check out Up Tight, which was Jules Dassin’s last American film (also co-starring Williams) and a pretty good heist flick as well.

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  22. Michael,
    Wow! Up Tight looks great. I have not read the book that Across 110th Street is based on either. I must get around to that some time.

  23. How about Topkapi? I would consider it a heist but perhaps the tone is too light.

  24. Another great British heist film: Payroll (1961) with Michael Craig.

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