This 1955 action drama from director Jules Dassin is still spoken of in hushed tones by movie lovers, thanks to its centerpiece scene: a virtuoso 28-minute sequence, in which the team of thieves swipes a cache of diamonds from a jewelry shop safe, without making a sound. Director Dassin ingeniously draws us into their dilemma by playing the entire sequence in that silence – no dialogue, and more importantly, no music. Thus (as in the Langley sequence of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, which it clearly inspired) every tiny sound is amplified, creating far greater suspense than any drumbeat or screeching strings could ever deliver.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 caper flick – another that falls in the muddy waters between noir and heist movie – introduces another favorite trope: the career criminal out to make one last big score before riding off into the sunset. The long-timer this time is Asphalt Jungle’s Sterling Hayden, who puts together a crew to clean out the counting room of a racetrack. Unsurprisingly, Kubrick’s precision is a snug fit for the tick-tock tightness of a good heist sequence, and this one (with a smoothly operating team of in- and out-siders and a well-staged distraction) is a pip.
The Hot Rock
Those three films share more than taut suspense and crisp black-and-white photography. They also place their heists firmly in the second act, followed by a long stretch in which we discover there is no honor among thieves – and their characters quickly commence to betraying, double-crossing, and murdering each other, usually with no final beneficiary. The more ambiguous morality of the ‘60s and ‘70s allowed caper crooks, provided they were charismatic enough, to get away with it, which brings us to this breezy 1972 effort from director Peter Yates, and stars Robert Redford and George Segal. The clever conceit of William Goldman’s screenplay (and Donald E. Westlake’s novel) is that it’s a series of escalating capers, each one going awry and resulting in the planning of another one to set things right. By the end of the movie, the gang not only has to top itself – the filmmakers do too. And they pull it off.
Director Michael Mann has nearly as many heist sequences in his quiver as Soderbergh, from the elegant old-school solitude of Thief to the high-tech hackings of Blackhat. But the best is still the terrific sequence that comes about 2/3 of the way into his 1995 crime epic, in which the clean professionalism with which Robert De Niro and his crew have researched, scouted, and executed their bank job comes apart at the moment of their getaway, thanks to the unexpected arrival of his police nemesis, played by Al Pacino. The firecracker of a shoot-out that follows is the scene most folks remember in Heat, but the menace and intensity of that bank robbery is unforgettable (Christopher Nolan certainly seems to have taken note, and modeled the razor-sharp opening of The Dark Knight on it).
“You plan a good enough getaway, you could steal Ebbets Field.” “Ebbet’s Field’s gone.” “What did I tell you?” So says Joe (Gene Hackman), the smooth professional at the center of David Mamet’s unjustly uncelebrated 2001 action treat, and that wry exchange gives the audience a hint, early on, as to how this thing is gonna play out. Mamet has always been a bit of a games-player, in terms of the truths and deceptions of both his characters and his own storytelling, so he’s a good fit for the genre – and the ways in which he keeps fooling us, doubling back on the job and reframing its points of execution as fake-out or distraction, is delicious. But the proper “heist sequence,” a breathlessly tense tarmac theft disguised as an emergency response, is a sweet piece of work any way you slice it.
The Italian Job
Possible heresy alert: your author/heist movie lover prefers F. Gary Gray’s modestly disreputable 2003 remake to this beloved 1969 original. Or, at the very least, I prefer this version of the climactic heist sequence, in which the crew blows an armored truck right off an L.A. street, loads its gold into a fleet of mini-Coopers, and makes a thrilling escape with the help of a computer whiz at the controls of the city’s traffic system. The combination of stunt driving, surprise twists, and high-energy editing make this movie better than its reputation – and besides, it’s the first movie that proposed the notion of Charlize Theron, Action Hero, so points for that too.
Further incoming blasphemy: Fast Five is, contrary to popular opinion, a really bad movie. But! We’re not talking overall quality here; we’re talking individual sequences. And even your film editor must put aside the laundry list of complaints against Justin Lin’s 2011 five-quel to admit that, yes, that closing heist – the one with the cars dragging the vault through Rio and wreaking much havoc along the way – is pretty-pretty-pretty-prettaaaay good.
The big casino-vault caper that closes Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake of the 1960 Rat Pack flick is, it should be noted, the modern-day gold standard – it’s a terrific piece of work, assembling the expected elements (the perception of impenetrability, cons and distractions, failures and fake-outs, and split-second timing) with skill and pizzazz. But there’s also something to be said for how Soderbergh chooses not to repeat himself in the film’s two sequels – first, with the deconstructions of 2004’s Ocean’s Twelve, in which the elaborately-planned and explained caper falls apart before it’s even executed (and we later discover that the entire thing happened days before), and then with the clever twist of the job Danny Ocean’s gang pulls in 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen. The idea this time around is not to get rich themselves, but merely to settle a personal score by bankrupting a crooked casino owner (Al Pacino) on the night of his big opening, taking down the house and making a single player rich. The execution of that scheme – with loaded dice, computer hacks, a carefully timed earthquake scare, and more – is nearly as fun as the execution of the sequence, particularly Soderbergh’s on-screen running tallies of how much everyone’s taking home.
The Great Muppet Caper
Yes, really. Look, if you were born after the mid-‘70s, there’s a pretty good chance that this 1982 Muppet flick – directed, for the first and only time, by creator and lead puppeteer Jim Henson – was your introduction to the heist movie, before you even knew they were sending up the likes of Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Topkapi. Here’s what’s funny though: yes, they’re spoofing caper movies (“I got the paper towels!”), but they’re also making a pretty good one. I mean, I would’ve watched a whole movie of Charles Grodin and his crew of supermodels taking down scores. Wouldn’t you?