As readers of this site know, I love a good heist film, the ingenuity of their plots and the variations they come in, whether it be the all star team assembled for the job of a life time or a group of desperate men and women trying for one last big score.
Everyone can name their favourite heist films and, for the most part, it is usually the big name titles such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and the French classic, Rififi (1955). Indeed, I listed these and many other well know heist movies in previous posts on this site, ‘The heist always goes wrong, part 1: ten of the best heist movies ever made’ and ‘The heist always goes wrong, part 2: reader picks and other favourite heist movies’.
But what about the lessor known heist films that are great but which nobody knows about?
To celebrate the release of my second crime novel, Gunshine State, I have compiled the following list of the 10 best heist films you’ve never seen.
Operation Amsterdam (1959)
Operation Amsterdam functions as both a war and a heist film. Peter Finch plays Jan Smit, a British intelligence officer ordered to infiltrate the city of Amsterdam, which is on the verge of being overrun by invading German forces, and prevent the city’s diamond reserves from falling into Nazi hands. Upon discovering the diamonds are in a time-delayed vault, Smit, with the help of a young Dutch woman (the wonderful Eva Bartock), recruits a group of individuals to break into the vault and steal the diamonds. But getting the stones is just one challenge. Smit also has to get the diamonds and himself out of Holland, with the Nazis and their sympathisers in hot pursuit.
Payroll aka I Promise to Pay (1959)
Journeyman director Sidney Hayers (whose earlier credits include the wonderful Circus of Horrors, 1960, and Burn, Witch, Burn, 1962) helms this terrifically hardboiled British heist film in which a tough criminal gang find their plan to steal a factory payroll thrown into confusion when the factory concerned hires a state of the art armoured car to carry the cash. They decide to press ahead, with disastrous consequences. An additional later of suspense is provided by the gang’s unstable inside man on the job, the factory’s accountant, and his scheming Euro femme fatale wife, played by veteran French actress, Francoise Prevost.
A Prize of Arms (1962)
Welsh born Stanley Baker spearheaded the evolution of the British film criminal from the gentlemen thief to the more ruthless, often working class gangster. He is in top form here as the leader of three man gang trying to rob a British army payroll. One of a number of excellent crime films Baker starred in in the late fifties/early sixties, A Prize of Arms features a nail biting sequence in which the gang attempt to infiltrate a British military base without being detected and, in what must have been a first in British cinema, the use of a flame thrower as part of the heist.
Circus of Fear (1966)
Released in the US as Psycho Circus, this film is part horror/part mystery. Following the brazen robbery of an armoured car, one of the criminals stashes the proceeds in a nearby circus. In order to get the money out, the gang members must contend not only with the police investigation, but the circus’s bizarre performers, including Christopher Lee as Gregor, the deformed lion tamer, Natasha, his female offsider (Suzy Kendall), and Skip Martin as the evil dwarf, ‘Mr Big’. Complicating this further is a series of murders, for which Gregor is chief suspect.
A supposedly mild mannered retiring professor (Edward G Robinson) recruits a gang of vicious criminals (including Klaus Kinski) to rob a Rio De Janeiro diamond company. The professor’s supposedly foolproof plan comes unstuck when the gang discovers the diamond company has installed a high tech alarm system known as Grand Slam 70. The criminals must also contend with a female employee of the company (Janet Leigh) who becomes suspicious someone is trying to steal the diamonds. Some wonderful Brazilian locations and a plot full of twists and turns.
This heist bromance film made Charles Bronson a star in Europe. It focuses on two former members of the French Foreign Legion, the criminally inclined Popp (Bronson) and the largely law abiding doctor, Barron (Alain Delon). The two are reunited by coincidence in Paris, where Barron has promised to break into a safe to return some improperly removed bearer bonds. Unbeknownst to Barron, he has been followed by Popp, who wants to steal the contents of the safe. When a series of mishaps trap the two men in the building, they make a pact to crack the safe together. But can they trust each other? Worth it just for the interaction between Delon and Bronson, Farewell, Friend, also contains an incredibly tense heist sequence.
The Day of the Wolves (1971)
In a plot that has definite similarities to the 1964 Richard Stark (aka Don Westlake) Parker novel, The Score, six criminals are summoned to a ghost town in the middle of the Arizona desert by an anonymous criminal mastermind and offered a large sum of money each to rob the nearly town Wellerton. The entire town. The men are assigned numbers for their names and put through a rigorous training regime in the ghost town before embarking on the robbery. While they quickly disarm the town’s police, they don’t plan on Wellerton’s disgraced former sheriff (Richard Egan) and his wife (Martha Hyer). This made for TV film is difficult to see, which is a pity, as it pretty damn good, including a twist at the end which is very unusual for the heist film genre.
This down and dirty heist film was among the last big screen movies overseen by veteran British director, Val Guest. The head of corporate security for a diamond mining company working in South Africa, Harry Webb (Telly Savalas), suspects someone is trying to rob the operation. It is indeed the target of criminals, headed up by the mine’s own local head of security, Mike Bradley (Peter Fonda). Bradley has collected a bizarre assortment of accomplices, including Christopher Lee as a sadistic former aristocrat and O J Simpson. Not only must the gang breach the mine’s incredibly complex security systems, but complications also arise from the presence of the mine owner’s daughter, Clare Chambers (Maud Adams), who is in a relationship with Bradley. You’ll be hard pressed to find a good word said about this film, but I like it. It features good action, some wonderfully sleazy and downbeat locations, Christopher Lee as a knife-wielding villain, and Telly Savalas, who even sleepwalking through the role, is worth the price of admission.
The second of two feature films made to capitalise on the phenomenal success of the British television cop show, Sweeney, and definitely the better of the two. Sweeney 2 sees Detective Inspector Regan (John Thaw) and Detective Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) up against a brutal gang of villains, who are committing a series of daring robberies from their base in Malta. The film features plenty of action and a high body count, the latter in no small part due to the gang’s practice of executing on the spot any member who is wounded on a job, so they can’t fall into police hands.
Hackett (Columbus Short), a financially struggling rookie guard for an armoured car company, is convinced by one of his older colleagues, Cochrane (Matt Dillon), to help rob one of the trucks they guard, which is transporting US$42 million. The gang (which includes Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne and Fred Ward) successfully heist the armoured car and take it to an abandoned warehouse, but Hackett has a change of heart after Cochrane kills a homeless man who witnesses the robbery, and locks himself in the captured vehicle. An Uber masculine take on the heist film, even by the standards of the genre, Armoured is nonetheless interesting for how much tension and action it succeeds in packing into such a confined space – the inside of the armoured car and the factory.
What other little known heist films can you think of?
My heist novel, Gunshine State, is available in hard copy and e-book form on Amazon, or check out the 280 Steps site for other platforms you can access it on.