Mon
Jan 13 2014 9:00pm

The Five Best Heist Films You’ve Never Seen

Armored Car Robbery movie posterYou 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.

 

Payroll (I Promised to Pay) (1961)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. 

 

The Silent Partner (1978)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.

 

City of Industry (1997)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.

 

El Aura or The Aura (2005) by director Fabian Bielinsky5.) 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.

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14 comments
1. Gar Haywood
I don't know about the "you've never seen part," but I would make the argument that Charlie Varrick is a heist film, and as such, should be on anyone's list of bests. The original Taking of Pelham One, Two Three is also a heist film at its core, and that's also terrific. Pekinpah's The Getaway? What is that if not one big long heist film? The Driver (only movie starring Ryan O'Neal I could ever stand). The Split starring Jim Brown and Ernest Borgnine?

Or am I defining "heist film" too loosely?
2. WStroby
Gar: All good films, but I was aiming for some more obscure picks, as per the title. And THE SPLIT, despite its great cast and authentic Westlake pedigree, has a lot of issues.
I'm with you on THE DRIVER being one of the rare watchable O'Neal films, but I'd include BARRY LYNDON on that short list as well.
Teddy Pierson
3. TeddyP
You are right, I have not seen any of those!
4. Jim Beaver
I'd toss in a fairly nifty heist picture called FIVE AGAINST THE HOUSE, with Guy Madison, Kerwin Mathews, and a nutty Brian Keith.
5. wstroby
A PRIZE OF ARMS almost made the list, but was edged out by PAYROLL PRIZE is another gritty Brit heist noir featuring a great performance from Tom Bell, one of Britain's most interesting character actors of the '60s and '70s. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Prize_of_Arms
Brian Greene
6. BrianGreene
I enjoyed this article. I've seen The Silent Partner and liked it, will look into the others. Thanks for the good post.
Jane Sellman
7. wordgirlsam
Great post -- new movies (and the books some are based on) to look for and enjoy. I like Gambit -- which fools you into thinking you are watching the perfect job and then you realized Michael Caine is telling someone how it should go -- and then it goes all wrong but in a funny and endearing way. One of my favorites. There's one with Gene Hackman and Ricky Jay that I remember liking a lot. I think the mark of a good heist film is that the characters are memorable and the dialogue is sharp and even sometimes funny.
8. Larry J. Coven
Wallace, Thanks for all the Heist and Noir tips. Though not Noir, as a heist film I thought Topkapi was one of the best. Gar, you didn't cry at "Love Story" when Ryan lost Ali. Reminds me of a quote--well this is probably a paraphrase of Wilde talking about the Dicken's novel. "One would have to be virtually inhuman to read Little Dorrit's death scene and not laugh." Also not a lot of people realize what a fine actor William Tallman was.(D.A. Berger from Perry Mason tv show--the episodes without him were not nearly as good) , especially in Noir. Glad to see his billing up there in "Armored Car Robbery." Of course, Raymond Burr himself, in his early films also did a lot of villains in Noir flicks. His best, and I think it can be considered Noir because Cornell Wollrich wrote the novel, was his unforgettable turn as Jimmy Stewart's meancing neighbor in "Rear Window". Man, I mean the guy murders a little dog .--Pretty dark stuff. There's a wonderful bio of Burr from several years ago called, "Hiding in Plain Sight."
Laurence Coven
9. Holmes
For some reason I could not post a comment under my name, Laurence Coven, because it was already it use--I'm pretty sure by me. So I posted it as Larry J. Coven. Anybody know how I can correct this. Thanks.
david hartzog
10. dlhartzog
Great post. Actually I've seen all of these except The Aura, and own dvds for the others except Payroll. These are all outstanding flicks. I agree about Tom Bell, who was terrific in Prime Suspect, among other things he's done. And so are your novels, the latest of which I just finished. Noir on a stick. Thanks.
11. Cary Watson
Excellent list! The Silent Partner was a Canadian tax shelter film, but unlike most it was pretty good. We Torontonians were quite pleased that for a change Toronto wasn't doubling for a US city. Two obscure heist films I'd add are THE JOKERS and THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS. I talk about both in my own piece on heist films.
12. wstroby
Thanks, David. Bell was also great in a U.K. miniseries from the '70s called OUT, in which he played a gangster just released from prison. Brian Cox - with bleach blond hair - was one of the villains.
david hartzog
13. dlhartzog
Thanks, I will be looking for Out, Brian Cox is a favorite of mine as well.
14. Todd Mason
I was fortunate enough to see THE SILENT PARTNER in, of all places, the Kailua, Hawaii Drive-In, as the B feature for THE SHINING...THE SILENT PARTNER was a much better film.
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