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Best Heist Movies: Some Greats from the Vault That You Can Bank On

Romance movies come and go, but a crackerjack bank heist picture is a joy forever. Because of film’s unique power to manipulate time, the medi-
um is ideally suited to tell stories in
which a character races the clock. It’s a mechanism that really cannot, should not fail. The entertainment comes from watching how talented directors and writers tweak a basic scenario and push it in new directions, or, at the very least, deliver a perfectly executed cliche.

As a colleague pointed out, almost every bank heist movie starts with this premise: a guy who’s either just out of prison, or has been out of the game for a while, is pulled back in for one last job. Maybe he’s bored, maybe he doesn’t know how to do anything else, maybe he has to find money to pay for his son’s open-heart surgery. Whatever. He’s persuaded.

He joins the gang. But not without a speech about how, after this job, he’s done. When it’s all over, he’ll take his spoils and retire to a palmy beach where he’ll slather himself with baby oil, swig rum and Coke like it’s water, and acquire a tawny goddess 25 years younger than he who looks better out of clothes than in them. Part of the reliable pleasure in watching scenes like this is wondering how the filmmakers will thwart the best-laid plans of said retiree, because you know the guy’s dream will never be realized.

I recently indulged in a mini-festival of heist movies and was struck by how closely each film conformed to its national stereotype. The way the heist is carried out, the outcome, the types: all end up reinforcing our assumptions about national character. The Italians are excitable, the French are cynical and steeped in existentialism, the English are eccentric, and the Americans favor explosions and gunplay.

Take the 1955 French film Rififi, directed by Jules Dassin, an American who ended up on the House Un-American Activities Committee-era Hollywood blacklist and went to work in Europe as a result. It’s considered to be one of the most influential heist movies because Dassin did something in the middle of it that was almost unheard of at the time, and is still unusual.

He filmed the heist in near silence — no music, almost no dialogue — so that the slightest noise or unexpected movement jars the characters and the audience at the same time, ratcheting up the tension. What’s unintentionally amusing about the film, though, is how Dassin invents a Bogart-like character, played by a Bogart-like actor (Jean Servais) wearing a Bogart-like Fedora who speaks Hemingway-ese.

Yet the movie is thoroughly French: cynical, fatalist, sexually frank. It’s a taut exercise, with the exception of one miscalculation, the inclusion of a song and dance number by a starlet who must have been pegged for glory, but never really arrived. If you like location shooting in Paris in the 1950s, that’s a bonus.

The 1958 Italian film Big Deal on Madonna Street, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman, is a terrific spoof of Rififi that begins with a very funny prison scene set on visiting day. As the prisoners in their striped pajamas crowd the wire that separates them from the visitors, the audience sees a mass of gesticulating, agitated Italians yelling at each other, which sets the tone for the comedy of errors that follows. This is a caper in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong, with elaborate plans to lift the contents of a safe foiled again and again.

Here’s a list of some other heist movies worth watching. It’s by no means a complete list, just a suggested starting point.

The Asphalt Jungle, 1950.

Directed by John Huston. Starring Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe and Louis Calhern.

This is one of the best heist movies, in the post-war noir vein. Sam Jaffe, a wonderful character actor, is perfect in the role of Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider, an unassuming little man who happens to be an expert safe cracker. Recently sprung from the big house, Doc puts together a team to go into a bank in an unnamed city somewhere in the Midwest. There’s a fairly complex plot involving a double cross, and a crooked lawyer.

One of the reasons the film holds up so well is the acting by Jaffe, Calhern and Hayden, as a hood called in to provide muscle. Critics have long held up American films from the 1970s as a period of remarkable vitality, but the post-war noir films are just as innovative and still undiscovered territory for many filmgoers. Huston, who also directed The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was clear-eyed in his view of corruption in society, and it was a theme he returned to frequently.

The Italian Job, 1969.

Directed by Peter Collinson. Starring Michael Cain, Noel Coward and Rossano Brazzi.

There was a remake of this film a few years ago, but why anyone felt the need to rework something so good is beyond me. Michael Caine has a gleaming, animal intelligence in the part that leaps out at at you, and Noel Coward is the model of an English gentleman as Mr. Bridger, an impeccably tailored mastermind who runs an international criminal empire from prison. The job is to steal an armored car’s haul of gold being delivered to Turin. How to get away with it entails a traffic jam of Herculean proportions in the city’s main square, hundreds of Mini Coopers, several car chases and a very witty script. This caper film continually upends our expectations of what’s going to happen next.

Inside Man, 2006. Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster.

Spike Lee shows his directing chops in this suspenseful take on the bank heist. The heist itself, a robbery of a downtown Manhattan bank, almost plays second fiddle to the trio of unusually well-matched actors: Washington, Owen and Foster. And Lee plays to one of his strengths, which is making the city as much of a star as the hired talent. Washington never gives a bad performance and here you can lean back, knowing you’re in his capable hands.

Heat, 1995. Directed by Michael Mann. Starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. The movie has explosive episodes of violence, and some of it is preposterous, as a team of bank robbers led by DeNiro basically shuts down Los Angeles. However, this is one of the last movies in which Pacino was tolerable to watch and listen to: no orange spray-on tan, no yelling, no skating by on his reputation. DeNiro is also in top form. Mann not only restrains the two actors’ worst mannerisms but subverts our expectations of the roles they’re going to play, and how they’re going to play them. DeNiro is the bank robber, Pacino, the cop, and there’s a great set piece where they meet on neutral ground, in a restaurant.

Others to consider:

∎ The Town, a pretty good film directed by Ben Affleck that was shot in Boston, and has a nifty car chase.

∎ Sexy Beast, which has a formidable turn by Ben Kingsley as one of the scariest gangsters you’ll ever see on screen.

∎  The Ladykillers, a black comedy that stars Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and a parade of great English character actors as a rather inept gang whose plans to rob a bank are consistently underminded by a rather dotty old lady.

∎ Public Enemies, another Michael Mann film, starring Johnny Depp as 1930s public enemy #1, John Dillinger. This has a number of bank jobs in it, and it’s worth watching for its period detail.

Last but not least, one of my favorite films from the 1970s, Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring a young Al Pacino and John Cazale. I hesitate to call it a straight heist movie, although it does involve a bank robbery gone wrong. and is based on a real-life case that took place in Brooklyn in 1972. It’s the writing, the acting, the directing and the characterization, all uniformly strong, that rivet your attention.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

or 603-727-3211.