As a common sub-genre of crime films, the heist is going through a renaissance. In recent years, we have moved from the likes of The Bank Job, a film where Jason Statham does exactly what the title says on the tin, to the more intricately crafted Inception, Now You See Me, and Baby Driver. The heist film typically involves rogues that rally together their criminal friends for the ultimate material reward. There is never petty theft in sight. Most importantly, we as audiences often root for the criminals, especially if they are carrying out revenge on corrupt millionaires.
The archetypal structure of the heist film – the plan, the execution, and the reveal – presents a very satisfying story arc. This is a testament to the genre’s successes, delivered with such spectacle it almost borders on the unbelievable. Directors and writers are able to adjust this basic configuration to add plot twists, extra characters, and unexpected deaths. For example, in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, we see the heist at the very beginning and the aftermath making up the rest of the film. This non-linear passage of time echoes elements of the film noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s, when crime dramas really found their feet.
Film noir and heist crime dramas amalgamate perfectly in the form of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a film that helped to write the rulebook for the heist films that we know and love today. Huston excellently demonstrates an equal balance of thorough character development and gritty entertainment, with Erwin Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) released from prison only to immediately assemble a team of crooked businessmen to steal jewellery. While this sounds like the plot of any other heist film, it unravels in a way that you may not expect. His characters are revealed to be more than ungainly crooks, with most of the criminals seeking the financial means to support their families.
The empathy built for the characters reveals a larger moral dilemma: do we simply need to accept crime as a part of society? The philosophical questions do not last long however, for the heist takes a downward turn after a member of the crew is shot. A desperate escape from the police ensues, and everything spirals out of control. Huston’s use of genre, structure, and characters make The Asphalt Jungle a prime example of a blueprint heist thriller.
Some nineteen years post Asphalt Jungle, we see the British answer to the American caper film in the form of The Italian Job (1969). Michael Caine plays Charlie Croker, the rogue leader recently released from prison. Croker mirrors Reidenschneider in Asphalt Jungle, as they are both the criminal masterminds behind the operation. The primary difference between the two films is the conscious move from the dark suburban mystery of film noir, to a more lighthearted comedic theme. It is playful in its delivery, with the many one liners still being quoted to this day.
There is also a glorification of material wealth and style, which carried through to the recent Ocean’s series. The Italian Job is full of European aesthetic and countless references to Jaguar, Fiat, Mini, Lamborghini, and Aston Martin throughout. It is the heavy presence of iconic cars upon a backdrop of British comedy that has earned The Italian Job the title of cult classic.
In a sub-genre stuffed full of rebellious men with guns, heist films of the noughties have added a contemporary twist. Now You See Me swaps rogue bravado for slight of hand. Four magicians perform an elaborate trick in Las Vegas, causing euros to rain down onto audience members. The euros are later found to be stolen from a Parisian bank, and are in fact, real money. This somewhat refreshing take on the heist film structure leaves us asking more questions. An intelligent take on a fairly fantastical genre.
Another unusual take on the genre is Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir Inception. Instead of stealing money or material goods, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, who performs heists on dreams and information. The focus is purely on the subconscious mind, as the characters manipulate information to use in their favour. In these modern takes on the heist film, it’s no longer just your money that can be stolen. By beginning with such a rigid and formulaic sub-genre, many modern filmmakers have found the perfect space to experiment with new and mind-bending ideas