You may know the classics of the heist genre—John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, Jules Dassin’s Rififi, etc.(for an overview of the essentials, check out Jake Hinkson’s entries in “The Art of the Steal”). But there are plenty of other excellent heist films you may have missed. Take a look at five under-appreciated heist films that are nonetheless gems of the form, all available on DVD:
1.) Armored Car Robbery (1950): A taut, violent action-melodrama that clocks in at a cracking 67 minutes. Richard Fleischer’s low-budget noir classic may have an unimaginative title, but it delivers on all fronts. A great lineup of character actors (including William Talman, Gene Evans, and Steve Brodie) play the heisters. On their trail is standby Charles McGraw as Lt. Jim Cordell, a cop so tough that his idea of comforting the wife of a newly slain partner is to utter this immortal line.
With a suspenseful airport-set finale (predating The Killing by five years), wry humor, and great L.A. locations circa 1949 (including the original Wrigley Field and environs), Armored Car Robbery is one of the best Bs ever. Fleischer directed a handful of noirs (including The Narrow Margin and the similarly themed Violent Saturday), but this is his masterpiece.
2.) Payroll (1961) aka I Promised To Pay: Another armored car robbery, this one of a factory payroll in Britain’s gritty, industrial Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. After the heist goes sour and the driver is killed, his widow (Billie Whitelaw) plots revenge, eventually turning the gang members against each other. Veteran director Sidney Hayers helms a formidable cast of British stage actors, including Whitelaw (Hell is a City), and the great Tom Bell (Prime Suspect). Hayers directed the equally effective 1962 horror film Night of the Eagle (aka Burn Witch Burn), as well as several Avengers episodes, before crossing the Atlantic for a long career in American TV. The 1960s were the Golden Decade of British heist movies, which also included The League of Gentlemen, A Prize of Arms, Robbery, and, of course, The Italian Job. One caveat for those on this side of the pond: the Region 2 Optimum DVD has no subtitles, and those faux-Geordie accents and rapid-fire slang can be hard to decipher.
3.) The Silent Partner (1978): Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) scripted this Canadian sleeper, based on Anders Bodelson’s novel Think of a Number and directed by Daryl Duke (Payday). At a Toronto mall just before Christmas, a bank clerk (Elliott Gould) embezzles a lunchbox full of cash the same day the bank is robbed by a sadistic thief in a Santa Claus suit (Christopher Plummer, a long way from The Sound of Music). When his take and the amount reported stolen don’t match, the thief knows something’s amiss, and a deadly cat-and-mouse game plays out between the two men. Suspenseful, surprising, and often startlingly violent, it’s the best film Alfred Hitchcock never made.
4.) City of Industry (1997): There have been many adaptations of the heist novels that Donald E. Westlake wrote under his ultra-terse Richard Stark persona, but this film – which has no direct connection to Westlake at all – comes closest to the spirit of those books. Harvey Keitel plays Roy Egan, a professional thief on the vengeance trail after one of his crew (Stephen Dorff) hijacks the take from a jewelry store robbery, killing Roy’s brother-in-crime Lee (Timothy Hutton) in the process. The plot does bear a resemblance to the 1969 Stark novel The Sour Lemon Score, but director John Irvin’s (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and Dogs of War) film, from a script by Ken Solarz, has a cool-and-slick ‘90s ambiance, with an electronica soundtrack and a classic Keitel performance (watch him beat a bartender senseless without ever losing the lit cigarette dangling from his lips). It also has some similarities to Michael Mann’s Heat, released two years previously. It may be heresy to some, but I prefer Irvin’s film.
5.) The Aura (2005): I have to credit noir-and-cocktail aficionado Vince Keenan for turning me on to this brilliant and original film, from Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky (Nine Queens). Ricardo Darin plays an epileptic taxidermist who fantasizes about pulling off the perfect robbery. After accidentally killing a man in a hunting accident, he’s soon drawn into a real-life heist, robbing an armored car carrying the proceeds from a local casino. It would be a shame to say any more about the plot, which twists and turns, but brings it all home at the end. One of the best crime films of the decade.
This is the third and final entry in a trio of traveling blog posts that began at Elizabeth A. White's blog with “The Five Best Crime Novels You’ve Never Read” and continued at Pulp Curry with “The Five Best Crime Films You’ve Never Seen.”
Wallace Stroby is the author of six novels, including the new Shoot the Woman First, the third in his series about professional thief Crissa Stone. His other books include Kings of Midnight, Cold Shot to the Heart, and Gone 'Til November.