Playing out like a guns-blazing origin story for every jailhouse drama and prison-break thriller out there, the heist movie is a thread you can pick all the way back to Hollywood’s golden age. Filled with tough guys, grasping palookas, dime-a-dance dames, double-crossing fences and shady masterminds, they cut us adrift in murky worlds where good and bad are often interchangeable. Thanks to minds as devious and elastic as Goldfinger, Gruber and Cobb, great caper movies have given us a few pointers on honing the ultimate raid. Should you ever decide to take down the Bank of England - and we’re not recommending it – here’s our ten-step homework guide to mastering this most noir-tinged of genres and avoiding common pitfalls…
Tagline: “The city under the city”
There are two basic rules in the movie heist business: never tell anyone it’s your last job and never ever go along with a plan formulated in prison; if the planner was that smart they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. Sadly, crooked attorney Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) forgets both when he helps newly-freed mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe) recruit a group of heistmen to knock off a Midwestern jewellers. The plan isn’t as showstoppingly brilliant as Doc would have it – blowing a hole in the store wall and making off with the ice is hardly Inception – but noir genius John Huston isn’t as interested in the raid as the fate of its participants. Strongarm-man-with-a-heart Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a whole mess of contradictions, is our roughhouse guide through an underworld filled with double-crossing, betrayal and whisky glass fatalism. You know it’s not going to end well, but you can’t help riding shotgun anyway.
Iconic moment: The robbery a blood-stained success, Handley and Doc turn up at Emmerich’s house expecting their money. Instead they find he’s brought some muscle of his own.
What to quote: “After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.”
Pub trivia: Joseph Mankiewicz spotted the young actress impressing as Emmerich’s mistress and cast her in All About Eve. Her name? Marilyn Monroe.
Further reading… La Citta Si Difende (1951), Rififi (1955), Un Maledetto Imbroglio (1959), Heist (2001)
Tagline: “A Los Angeles crime saga”
Like most great heist movies, the central robbery in Michael Mann’s underworld epic is only the thunderous tip of a much deeper drama. Rich characterisation lends emotional gravitas to go with all the kaboom-y bits. The two men who cast the longest shadow – cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) – are as much driven as they are trapped by the dangers of their jobs. But all 18 – count ‘em – central characters populate a blue-tinged City of Angels with relatable struggles that make sure we’re completely invested in them when the shooting starts – and what shooting. With ex-SAS man turned consultant Andy MacNab providing military realism, regular Mann DoP Dante Spinotti behind the camera and most of central LA at a standstill, the abortive heist explodes into a firefight so ferocious it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Saving Private Ryan. Complex and propulsive, Heat is a heist movie for the ages.
Iconic moment: That café meeting, the most famous skinny mocha frappuccino in movie history.
What to quote: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Pub trivia: While Heat shares characters and plot with Mann’s 1989 TV movie, L.A. Takedown, Xander Berkeley is the only actor to appear in both.
Further reading… Dillinger (1973), Ronin (1998), Public Enemies (2009), The Town (2010)
Tagline: “No place to hide… Nowhere to run…”
If the term ‘noir’ makes you think of men in raincoats shooting at each other in between downing slugs of bourbon, you probably grew up watching the same movies as Jean-Pierre Melville. The French director’s influences, from Raoul Walsh to John Huston by way of Dashiell Hammet and his local mac shop, are melded together with a large slug of Gallic élan in this bleak 1970 heist caper, Melville’s penultimate film and one of his best. It brought together ex-con Alain Delon (redefining cool despite balancing what appears to be a caterpillar on his top lip), violent wildcard Gian-Maria Volonté and ex-police marksman Yves Montand as a band of wanted men planning one final hit. The line between good and bad guys is as grey as the Parisian alleyways and sparse countryside in which they operate. The heist itself is planned partly in a ‘20s-style Parisian speakeasy, giving it the feel of a trenchcoated throwback. Homage it may be, but it's executed with all the precision you’d expect from Melville, a master of the genre. In a word: magnifique.
Iconic moment: The heist itself, like a hardboiled version of The Pink Panther, sees Delon and Volonte break into the jewellers through a bathroom window, cosh the guard and clean the place out, before walking out the front door bold as brass.
What to quote: “All men are guilty. They're born innocent, but it doesn't last.”
Pub trivia: The title comes from a Buddhist quote made up by the director: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.”
Further reading… Topkapi (1964), Bob Le Flambeur (1956), Sexy Beast (2000)
Tagline: “Anything can happen during the dog days of summer. On August 22nd, 1972, everything did…”
Exhausted by the shoot for The Godfather 2 and wary of playing a gay character, Al Pacino initially passed on Sidney Lumet’s leftfield heist movie. But when Dustin Hoffman expressed interest in taking the role of true-life bank robber Sonny Wortzik, who raided a Brooklyn branch of Chase Manhattan to pay for his partner’s sex change op, Pacino threw himself back into a part with such gusto that it earned him another Oscar nomination. It’s one of his greatest performances. Along with fellow Godfather alum John Cazale, Sonny’s guileless, sweaty-browed accomplice Sal, Pacino’s character is utterly out of his depth. Tony Montana would cringe as Sonny takes on one after another of his hostages’ personal problems (“I’m dyin’ here!”), but he’s a character you truly care about. Lumet pitches the tone beautifully somewhere between thriller, domestic drama and high farce, as the pair find themselves caught in the middle of a media jamboree as pointedly satirical as another Lumet classic, Network, ever was.
Iconic moment: The touching conversation between Sonny and his partner Leon (Chris Sarandon), originally scripted as a face-to-face in front of a baying mob outside the bank, took place as a partially improvised phone call. It earned Chris Sarandon an Oscar nomination.
What to quote: “I'm robbing a bank because they got money here. That's why I'm robbing it.”
Pub trivia: Warner Bros. paid the real Sonny, John Wojtowicz, $7500 plus 1% of the film’s net profit for the rights to his story, money he used to pay for his partner’s sex change.
Further reading… The Anderson Tapes (1971), Quick Change (1990), Bottle Rocket (1996), Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Tagline: “The men who broke the bank - and lost the cargo!”
Ealing’s answer to Heat, Charles Crichton’s playful romp was a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the heft of the Hollywood noirs and Italian neo-realism of the time, injecting a dose of chaotic fun into a genre not always known for it. The titular mob is a non-more-English posse of mild-mannered men far more likely to throw a tea party than a stun grenade. Alec Guinness’s meek Bank of England clerk, Henry Holland, hiding behind round-rimmed glasses and underestimated by all around him, is the man who quietly hatches the perfect robbery. His eureka moment comes when new lodger Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) reveals that his foundry turns out tourist trinkets – a handy means of magicking £1m of stolen gold out of the country. Inevitably, though, their golden Eiffel Towers get mixed up with the real souvenirs and all manner of mayhem ensures. The best laid plans and all that.
Iconic moment: Through a twist of fate and some seriously improbable plot turns, the gang end up having to re-steal their own bullion from right under the noses of the police.
What to quote: “By Jove, Holland, it's a good job we're both honest men.”
Pub trivia: Not only was this Audrey Hepburn’s first big screen appearance, but Robert Shaw’s too. He pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him turn as a chemist.
Further reading… The Ladykillers (1955), The Pink Panther (1963), It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), How To Steal A Million (1966), The War Wagon (1967), The Heist (1971), A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Tagline: “27 banks in three years - anything to catch the perfect wave!”
So full of testosterone there’s not a drug test in the world it wouldn’t fail, this slug of movie adrenaline would be utterly barmy were it not based on the true-life tale of a gang who robbed their local Halifax before heading to Cleethorpes for a weekend's tubing. That it isn’t entirely loopy is thanks mainly to the ripping pace set by Kathryn Bigelow, the thrillingly visceral camerawork, and some super-smartmouthed dialogue (“Guess we must just have ourselves an asshole shortage, huh?”, “Not so far”). The proposterousness is barely noticeable as Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and a bunch of big-haired surfers confound the FBI, knock off banks and say ‘brah’ a lot. Rookie agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) is the point break on which Bodhi and his gang, the Ex-Presidents, will founder, but not before much surfing, sky-diving and robbing is done. Somewhere in all there is a complex Freudian critique of clashing super-egos and Deleuzian philosophy, but we’re darned if we can find it. And we lied about the true story bit, too.
Iconic moment: Johnny Utah chucks himself out of a plane sans parachute in hot pursuit of Bodhi and crew. Luckily it turns out he can fly as well as surf.
What to quote: “Why be a servant to the law, when you can be its master?”
Pub trivia: The ex-presidents represented are Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Gerald Ford missed the cut.
Further reading… The Getaway (1972), Inside Man (2006)
Tagline: “He knew where $50,000 lay begging to be STOLEN!”
According to James Ellroy, “the best heist-gone-wrong movie ever made”, The Odds Against Tomorrow plays like The Defiant Ones’ uglier, meaner kid brother. Director Robert Wise added a thick slaver of racial anger to the noir stylings of ‘50s crime classics to serve up a stripped-back melodrama simmering with tension and peppered with shotgun dialogue. Jazz man Harry Belafonte (who also produced under his HarBel marque) and broken-down war vet Robert Ryan are handpicked by Ed Begley’s bitter ex-cop to take down an upstate bank. Bad choice. The hatred between the two boils over from the beginning – “I’ve been handling them all my life,” spits Ryan’s racist dixielander, “he’s no different because he’s got him a $20 pair of shoes” – while Shelley Winter’s loyal moll only stirs the pot. The build-up to the heist takes us from smoky New York clubs to a wintry New York State, backdropped with skeletal trees and deserted freeways, while a taut score by the Modern Jazz Quartet builds the mood to its pulsing crescendo. An underrated slice of heist noir, we’re with Ellroy on this one.
Iconic moment: The final shoot-out in a oil refinery is a fiery homage to White Heat.
What to quote: “It's just one role of the dice. Doesn't matter what color they are so long as they come up seven.”
Pub trivia: A self-confessed Marxist, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky was blacklisted by UAC and remained uncredited for his work on the film until 1997.
Further reading… High Sierra (1941), Appointment With Danger (1951), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Tagline: “These 5 men had a $2,000,000 secret until one of them told this woman!”
Part of a gilded era for heist noirs that also produced Rififi, Topkapi and Bob Le Flambeur, Stanley Kubrick dispensed with traditional chronology to craft a wickedly ingenious thriller that tore up the blueprints for the perfect movie heist. It opens with the crew, led by Sterling Hayden’s Johnny Clay – like The Asphalt Jungle’s Dix Handley, a strong-arm man, but here entirely unsympathetic – circling an LA racetrack, before sharply retracing its steps to establish the desperate band of characters. And as you’d expect with pulp writer Jim “The Killer Inside Me” Thompson putting the meat onto the bones of Kubrick’s script outline, they’re a hardboiled bunch. Timothy Carey’s bigoted sniper and Kola Kwariani’s whip-smart wrestler are the diversions who clear the way for Hayden’s clown-masked gunman to clean out the track accountant. But standing between them and $2m worth of high times is Marie Windsor’s double-dealing moll…
Iconic moment: Clay watches in disbelief as his hard-stolen cash billows across the airport tarmac. Seriously dude, buy yourself a proper suitcase.
What to quote: “Aw, what’s the difference?”
Pub trivia: Kubrick hated the voice-over demanded by United Artists so much he subverted it with an unreliable narrator and a few red herrings.
Further reading… Armored Car Robbery (1950), Seven Thieves (1960), The First Great Train Robbery (1979), The Usual Suspects (1995), Bound (1996)
Tagline: “This is the self preservation society”
Take one TV writer, one journeyman director, a van full of odd-ball cameos, some slightly dodgy stereotyping and an innuendo or twelve – and hey presto, you’ve got yourself an indelible slice of cool Britannia. In fairness to director Peter Collinson and writer Troy Kennedy Martin, the action revs along in top gear, the script sings with one-liners (“You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir”; “Yes, I used a machine gun”), and the casting is pitch-perfect, right down to Benny Hill’s bottom-fixated Prof. But it’s the heist itself – an audacious grab for a shipment of gold bound for China – that’s still the joyfully nuts highpoint, a blur of red, white and blue that culminates in cinema’s most famous cliffhanger. Arguably the most iconic British movie ever made, it continues to blow the bloody doors off other crime capers.
Iconic moment: To a rowdy chant of “Eng-land”, Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward) takes a bow in prison as Crocker’s Mini adventure unfolds in – and across – Turin.
What to quote: “Hang on, lads; I've got a great idea…”
Pub trivia: The Royal Society of Chemistry ran a competition for the best solution of Croker’s seesawing bus conundrum. The winning idea involved breaking the bus windows, letting down the front tires and waiting for the petrol to run out.
Further reading… The League Of Gentlemen (1959), The Criminal (1960), Sneakers (1992), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Snatch (2000), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Tagline: “Seven Total Strangers Team Up For The Perfect Crime. They Don't Know Each Other's Name. But They've Got Each Other's Color”
Hailed by Empire as the greatest indie ever made, Reservoir Dogs was conceived by Quentin Tarantino as his take on ‘50s heist movies – a lo-fi LA-set version of The Killing with a ‘70s pop soundtrack. His script, nutted out in a handful of weeks while working at Video Archives, employed the same fractured timeline as Kubrick’s heist effort but marries it with a modern sensibility, ultra violence and some brilliantly random debates about Madonna lyrics. We never see the robbery itself, a gambit designed to keep attention focused on the sharpsuited crims, but we’re in undercover cop Mr. Orange’s (Tim Roth) blood-soaked shoes from the moment the heist unravels, a particularly hairy place to be. Still incendiary 18 years on, Dogs is a timeless thriller that could only have emerged from the architecture of Quentin Tarantino’s twisted mind.
Iconic moment: In an abandoned downtown warehouse, Mr. Blonde – and Steelers Wheel – set about giving Marvin Nash serious earache.
What to quote: “Somebody's shoved a red-hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle!”
Pub trivia: Madonna gave Tarantino a signed copy of Erotica with a note that read: "To Quentin. It's not about dick, it’s about love. Madonna."
Further reading… Kansas City Confidential (1955), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), Jackie Brown (1997), City On Fire (1987), The Usual Suspects (1995)