Everybody loves caper movies just a little bit, right? Whether it’s Newman and Redford pulling off The Sting, Tom Cruise and the Mission: Impossible team breaking into the CIA or Danny Ocean’s crew knocking off casinos in Vegas, this is a world of crime with a minimum of violence and a maximum of ingenuity, in which the rich and unpleasant are relieved of their ill-gotten gains by clever and (fairly) honourable crooks. The recent Kurt Russell movie, The Art of the Steal (2013), which has great fun leading viewers up the garden path, got me thinking about the genre as a whole, and how evil thieves got reshaped into anti-Establishment heroes as we cheer their ingenious ability to thumb their noses at convention.
I offer this post for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog – you should head over there right now.
“If you’ve got no trust, then what do you got?” – opening and closing lines of The Art of the Steal
One of the interesting things about the recent TV success of Hustle (BBC 2004-2012) and its US counterpart Leverage (2008-2012) is the way that it successfully conflated the heist genre with the con man character by setting the criminals on the side of good, in effect co-opting and modernising the Robin Hood archetype (adopted so successfully in the 20s and 30s by Leslie Charteris for The Saint). These shows were inspired by such recent cinema hits as The Thomas Crown Affair (1999, remake from the 1968 film) and Ocean’s Eleven (2011, from the 1960 original), both of which (together with the Ocean sequels) helped re-launch the swinging sixties heist genre for the 21st century. Its roots go back to the very earliest days of crime fiction though …
“May he be ever so humble, there is no police like Holmes” – EW Hornung
Ever since EW Hornung’s Raffles arrived in 1898 and later Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin (1905), the gentleman thief has held almost as tight a grip on the public’s fascination as the genius detective. Moriarty was a classic villain (perhaps the classic villain in fact), but ever since Father Brown turned his nemesis Flambeau away from crime, it seems that as often as not we want our long-lasting enemies to be almost as indestructible as our heroes. Inevitably perhaps we would start seeing the emergence of the professional anti-hero, which could either be the hardboiled gangster or the charming and debonair con man. In the 1930s figures that stole from the idle rich at a time of severe Depression was always going to be popular, but it is fascinating to see how it developed. In the 40s and early 50s Noir predominated and stories involving criminals started to focus on their planning and execution of robberies, though censorship mandated that they be punished. Films like Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway (1949), Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), 5 Against the House (1955), Kubrick’s 1956 opus The Killing (which I reviewed here) and in France Rififi (again from Dassin) were all adapted from crime novels and took an intimate look at crooks and focused with relish on their intricate robbery plans – and how they were then undone.
In the 60s as censorship relaxed and movies started to Swing, this mutated into the lighter and breezier caper genre, more or less starting with the success of the ring-a-ding-ding Ocean’s 11, a transitional film that gets the tone right but feels a bit bogged down in unnecessary seriousness all the same (and has an ironic, unhappy ending too). But it ushered in the caper movie as we now know it – funny, bright, smooth and, as often as not, starring Sir Michael ‘Bloody’ Caine (gawd bless ‘im).
“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” – Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1969)
Not a lot of people know this, but Michael Caine is the king of the caper movie – don’t believe me? Well, across the decades, his credits in the genre include Gambit (1966), Deadfall (1968 – and which I previously reviewed here), The Italian Job (1969), Silver Bears (1978), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Bullseye (1990), Blood and Wine (1996), Inception (2010) and most recently 2013’s Now You See Me. The latter did very well recently (a sequel is due soon) but, although perfectly harmless, was not to my mind very good. Inception pretended to be a SF blockbuster but was really a heist movie in disguise and much, much better (and in its own way, plays much fairer with the viewer too).
So, time to stick my neck out and spell out which are some of my favourite heist movies. In strict chronological order, here are my Top 15 movie capers:
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A sparkling pre-code escapade about con artists by the inter-war master of the sophisticated comedy, Ernst Lubitsch
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
An Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway with charm to spare (and an early role for Audrey Hepburn, who did rather less well in the her later, full-fledged caper, How To Steal A Million).
I Soliti Ignoti (1958)
A huge hit internationally, this Italian comedy classic by the great Mario Monicelli features a bunch of no-hopers whose robbery plans go awry when they dig through to the wrong building. Known in the US as Big Deal on Madonna Steert and as Persons Unknown in the UK, it led to two direct sequels and has also been remade by Louis Malle as Crackers (1986) and Welcome to Collinwood (2002) by the Russo brothers. It was also the ‘inspiration’ for Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (2000), which basically used the entire plot – but did so in a very loving way, it has to be said! I plan a more detailed review of Ignoti at Fedora very soon …
Dassin, having set the ground rules for the heist genre in the hardboiled Rififi went all eye-wincingly tongue-in-cheek and postmodern with this lighter-than-air, gloriously colourful adaptation of Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day starring his wife and muse, Melina Mercuri.
Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine in a highly diverting comedy thriller that starts out with the plan as it shoudl have worked and then shows what really happened … remade in 2012 with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz and considerably less charm.
The Italian Job (1969)
Caine again in a classic car chase caper set in Italy – remade in 2003 with Mark Wahlberg and best avoided. Stick to the original, which also boasts a memorable if bizarre cod-Italian score by Quincy Jones and a ‘once seen, never forgotten’ cliffhanger finale.
The Hot Rock (1972)
I love this movie, adapted by William Goldman from a classic Donald Westlake caper – I reviewed the book and movie here.
The Sting (1973)
Neman and Redford reunite for a clever story of short and long cons that became a box office smash. It now seems a bit studio-bound for a major production, but the stars and the Scott Joplin music help it soar.
Paper Moon (1973)
Margot Kinberg rightly pointed out to me that I missed this from my list – it’s a delightful and beguiling story, adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown, with Ryan O’Neal as a smalltime conman being outmanouvered by 9-year old Addie (Tatum O’Neal), who may or may not be his daughter, beautifully shot in black and white to recreate the Depression era. I think it more properly belong here than the caustic and often nasty Pelham One Two Three (see below – or don’t).
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
The first and best of three adaptations of the novel by John Godey – a bit harsh and violent but the strong satirical quotient makes me class this as a caper movie all the same – I reviewed it here. It was a big influence, along with The Killing, on Quentin Tarantino and Reservoir Dogs (1992).
A retro caper movie starring Robert Redford (of course), with a great Branford Marsalis on the soundtrack, that delights in its sense of paradox (a blind man drives the getaway van; a robbery has to be undertaken as really fast but as slowly as possible; a magic box that is empty). This is great fun and includes a nice homage to Blindfold (1966), an underappreciated comic thriller starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale, as well as references to Touch of Evil (which I reviewed here) and others.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
A summer blockbuster than in Brian De Palma’s hands became something much more akin to the 60s caper movie, with guns virtually never fired and a classic break-in sequence at Langley inspired by Topkapi (see above).
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
David Mamet loves stories about con men and women – see House of Games (1987) and Heist (2001) – but his tales of double and triple cross can be a bit on the depressing side. Spanish Prisoner mines a more Hitchcockian vein and is a lighter, more entertaining movie as a result – yes, it has a happy ending – there, I said it!
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
In practically every way preferable to the 1968 original – yes, McQueen and Dunaway were sexy chic personified, but their characters were pretty empty by the end of it and I hated the ending. The remake provides Rene Russo with a much better role than Dunaway had, while the plot is much more dynamic and the whole thing never stops moving thanks to the intelligent handling of director John McTiernan – and Dennis Leary is great as the cop too!
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Again, much better than the original 1960 ratpack movie – in fact, any of the three Ocean movies made by Steven Soderbergh is better than the OK but rather dull affair starring Francis, Dino and Sammy, especially in its handling of the central romance. Clooney, Roberts, Pitt, Damon, Reiner, Cheadle, Gould and the rest do a fine job here.
A clever, very interior story that masquerades as a blockbuster summer movie about a heist that takes place mostly in the mind – it all works like a dream.
And finally, not in my top 15, but an honourable mention none the less, The Art of the Steal. In many ways it feels like an extended episode of Leverage (or Hustle) in the way that is provides us with a seemingly linear revenge plot, albeit one with several reversals of fortune along the way as Kurt Russell gets roped in for (all together now), ‘one last job.’ But towards the end we realise, through a variety of flashbacks, that the rivalry between Russell and Matt Dillon masked several much more devious plans, making the result highly entertaining and well worth catching up with in my view. Much better than the overblown (and much more popular) Now You See Me …
The Art of the Steal (2013)
Director: Jonathan Sobol
Producer: Nicholas Tabarrok
Screenplay: Jonathan Sobol
Cinematography: Adam Swica
Art Direction: Matthew Davies
Music: Grayson Matthews
Cast: Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Jay Baruchel, Katheryn Winnick, Chris Diamantopoulos, Kenneth Welsh, Terrence Stamp