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CLASSIC HEIST: Six Films That Define the Genre

CLASSIC HEIST: Six Films That Define the Genre

by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri August 4 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 50 secs

For a generation weaned on the high-tech-and-gizmo-aided heist of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean Eleven or Dom Cobb’s equally SFX-aided ones on ‘dreams and information’ in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, there was a time when heist films depended primarily on the writer’s and director’s ingenuity. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at six classics which set the template for the heist film before technology took the fun out of it.

The vicarious pleasure of watching a group of no-hopers plan and execute the perfect hold-up. A mastermind, usually just out of prison. A group of down-on-their luck lowlifes each with their own area of expertise (one to case the joint, another an explosive expert, one for the getaway, and so on). A cagey ‘fence’ you are not sure you could trust on moving the goods. Often, one bad egg who is likely to queer the pitch. One last job before walking away from it all with a neat little post-retirement nest-egg. Plans made down to the last detail only to have unforeseen contingencies crop up, forcing the mastermind to think on his feet. Crackling dialogues, ego tussles between the members of the gang with the police hot on the trail, plot twists dime a dozen and great background music. Of all the sub-genres of the crime film - a police procedural, a mobster biopic, a cops-and-robber cat-and-mouse game - it is the heist caper that offers maximum payoffs in terms of thrills.

Incredibly for its potential to entertain, Hindi cinema has never quite got a hold on this genre. For one thing, songs are a killer for a heist film and till about recently an average of six songs was par for the course for a Hindi film. Apart from the budgetary constraints in putting together a heist film, one primary reason for its absence in Hindi cinema is that the planning and execution of the caper requires foolproof writing, which has always been at a premium. The standard procedure of cracking a safe in Hindi films has been that of the ‘hero’ running his hand over the safe to the accompaniment of ‘tense’ music - and presto the job is done.

Wikipedia lists a number of Hindi films under this category but none of them meets the basic narrative requirements of a heist. Johnny Gaddar or Special 26 are interesting experiments as crime capers while Tees Maar Khan and Happy New Year are downright embarrassing even at the level of entertainment. Even the Dhoom franchise does not measure up to the exacting standards set by these classics below. The two heist sequences that come to mind in Hindi cinema are the ones in Farhan Akhtar’s Don and that rather well-shot one in the train (for its time) in Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, a film that tanked so badly that I once termed it flop ki rani boreon ka raja.

As will be apparent from the list below, I have a marked preference for the classic in the true sense (I find it incredible when films of the 1990s and the noughties are described as classics). There’s a reason for that. For one, they really don’t make it like it any more. For all the technical accomplishments of the modern heist films, there’s something in these classics that makes them score over the contemporary ones – the lack of technology in aid of the heist. What a geek manages with the aid of a few strokes on his computer now (bringing traffic lights to a halt, duplicating the joint in a virtual setup), often escaping the comprehension of tech illiterates like me, were all part of an exacting writing process in the past, which had to detail the entire execution of the heist. Today’s technological aids often offer a short-hand to that exhilarating process of planning that takes the fun away from the caper. Give me the meticulousness of the planning and execution in The Sting any day over the smart-Alec repartee and gizmo-laden been-there-done-that feel and all-too-obvious character and narrative graph of the remake of The Italian Job, for instance.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950), director: John Huston

Considered the granddaddy of all heist films, this taut caper based on W.R. Burnett’s novel established the tropes of the heist film as we know it today. ‘Doc’ Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), recently released from prison, and corrupt lawyer ‘Lon’ Emmerich (Louis Calhern) recruit a band of expert criminals to carry out a jewel heist. Realizing that major stars would not be able to provide the verisimilitude the characters demanded, Huston cast a roster of actors without a star image (including Sterling Hayden, and Marilyn Monroe in a 3-minute cameo in what turned out to be her breakout role), adding immeasurably to the narrative. Notable for its realistic view of a seamy underworld and its compassionate approach to its tough gangster ‘heroes’, the film climaxes with what is now the customary heist: in this case an 11-minute sequence that has its echoes in almost all heist films since. As Jean-Pierre Melville, a filmmaker who has two of the best films in this genre to his credit, said, ‘there are precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and all nineteen were to be found in “that masterpiece of John Huston” The Asphalt Jungle’.

Rififi (1955), director: Jules Dassin

François Truffaut called this the best film noir he had ever seen, adding for good measure, based on the worst noir novel he had ever read - Auguste Le Breton’s work of the same name. Credited, along with Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, with setting the benchmark for every heist film that followed, the pièce de resistance of Dassin’s film is an incredible 28-minute safe-cracking sequence that has never been bettered. Accounting for almost a fourth of the film’s running time and played entirely without words or music, this is probably one of cinema’s greatest mise en scenes (comparable to the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin). Composer Georges Auric did write the music for this sequence but agreed with Dassin to do away with it. For close to half an hour, the soundtrack has nothing but a few muffled coughs and the breathing of the perpetrators, plaster falling into an umbrella and ultimately drills screeching to cut the safe after the alarm has been disabled. Memorably, unlike in most films in the genre, the heist comes not as the film’s climax but is placed around the halfway mark. As Roger Ebert writes, ‘So meticulous is the construction and so specific the detail of this scene that it’s said the Paris police briefly banned the movie because they feared it was an instructional guide.’

Dassin returned to the genre with the hugely entertaining Topkapi (1964), led by an international cast (Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell) who plan to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, and hire a small-time hustler (Peter Ustinov in an Oscar-winning act) as their fall guy.

Bob the Gambler (Bob Le Flambeur, 1956)/The Red Circle (Le Cercle Rouge, 1970), director: Jean-Pierre Melville

‘I was born with an ace in my palm,’ says Bob, who as the film’s narration informs us, ‘glides through gambling dens and nightclubs in those moments between night and day… between heaven and hell’. Another of the foundational texts for the genre, along with Asphalt Jungle and Rififi, Bob Le Flambeur is the story of a once renowned criminal who has not been active for twenty years after a prison sentence following a bank job. When fate deals him a bad hand and he ends up broke (he wins big at the races only to lose it all at roulette), Bob brings together a crew to case a major casino. Melville is as much interested in documenting the intricate central set-up as he is about the turbulent lives of the dramatis personae involved. Its techniques of filming and cool quotient were a precursor to the French New Wave ushered in a few years later by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut. The climactic heist and the twist in the end have been endlessly borrowed by filmmakers including Steven Soderbergh in his ‘Ocean’s’ films and provide the template for almost all films in the genre that came after.

Considered one of the greatest films ever made, Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, starring the uber cool Alain Delon and Yves Montand, is as much a meditation on the nature of people as it is a top-notch caper. A criminal recently released from prison organizes a daring hold-up with the help of an ex-convict and an alcoholic ex-policeman. The success of the heist is never in doubt but what the director is more interested in is the dynamics that inform the interactions between the protagonists. Taciturn men in trench coats and fedoras, sharing an unsaid code of honour, a cigarette dangling from their lips always, Le Cercle Rouge defines cool like few other films (for millennials who haven’t heard of a world beyond Ocean’s Eleven, not even that measures up to the cool factor on display here). And given the many layers that inform what the ‘circle’ here stands for, Melville begins the film with this incredible epigraph: ‘Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.”’

The Killing (1956), director: Stanley Kubrick

The film that put Stanley Kubrick on the map. The then twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker infuses his take on a daring racetrack robbery with the coldness and irony that marked a lot of his later works to create a jaw-dropping twisted noir, one of cinema’s finest. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) wants to execute one last job (it’s always one last job!) before going straight. Recruiting a sharpshooter, a crooked police officer, a bartender and a betting teller towards that end, he plans it to the T. But one of the members makes the fatal mistake of telling his wife about the scheme, who in turn tells her boyfriend who decides to rob Clay’s team. The film unfolds in a dynamic non-linear manner - we have one character going through the paces after which the director rewinds the timeline to document what another was doing at the time. Kubrick handles it spectacularly to keep the viewer on edge before coming up with an ending that is supremely ironic. Starring a terrific roster of character actors, including Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor, the film, with an unemotional voiceover by Art Gilmore that adds to the sense of doom permeating the precise build-up to the heist, was rightly described by Roger Ebert as ‘a heist played like a game of chess’.

The Sting (1973), director: George Roy Hill

The con is on! And it does not get more entertaining than this. Set in Chicago of the 1930s, brilliantly created and shot, it stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as con men who get even with a mob boss responsible for killing their friend by pulling off what seems an impossible sting. After the critical and box-office high of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, George Roy Hill got the two stars from that film together again for a caper that flips the narrative so that instead of the conmen going after the joint, you have the heist come to them. Sounds complicated? One just has to quote from Roger Ebert on this: ‘Their methods are incredibly complex (it would take all of today’s space to attempt to explain them.). The idea, Redford explains, is to allow Shaw to win big on a fixed horse race in order to… but I wasn’t kidding when I said the scheme is complicated. Paul Newman operates the wire room. Or should we say it appears to be operated by Newman. Or, more accurately, it appears to be a wire room, because the entire operation is simply a theatrical set, and everybody in the room is an actor, and the “broadcasts” from the track actually are being made up by an announcer in the back room.’ Needless to say, anchored by the to-die-for charisma of its stars, this is one hell of a sting that went on to fetch the film seven Oscars, including best picture, director, editing and screenplay.

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