Ah, the heist. Who hasn’t thought of it—maybe even dreamed about it—imagining both the daring nature of the action itself and the rich reward should it be successful? Turns out there are a lot of great heists, both in real life and in fiction, that have become the subject of some of the most memorable films in history.
Sometimes, a movie is so good that the story is resurrected and recreated for a new generation. That’s what happened with The Italian Job, first done in 1969 and remade in 2003, and Ocean’s Eleven (1960 and 2001). In both cases, I thought each version deserved its own place in my little heist hall of fame. In both cases, I felt that the original version had more depth and more thoughtfulness–make of that what you will.
1) Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
This little-known-outside-of-French-cinema 1970 heist film stars dishy Alain Delon, along with one of France’s most beloved comedians, André Bourvil, and is directed by the brilliant gangster-movie specialist Jean-Pierre Melville. A master thief has just been released from prison and finds an escapee in the trunk of his car; they plot together to hold up one of the most expensive jewelers on Paris’s Place Vendome. Eventually, they team up with a former cop to mastermind the diamond heist.
Atmospheric and brilliant—watch for the heist scene itself, which contains no dialogue—this film is less about what is happening and more about the nature of the people making it happen. There is style in Le Cercle Rouge, honor, and a whole lot of other things that may be going out of style. Watch it.
2) Un Flic (1972)
Another Melville classic (his last) starring Alain Delon, who switches sides this time (though not really; “good guys” and “bad guys” don’t have much meaning to Melville), and now plays the eponymous cop. There are two heists: one is a bank robbery, and another involves a briefcase of drugs on a moving train—but this movie is less about the action and more about the lassitude of modern life.
Delon’s nemesis is his best friend, and he spends more time dissecting that relationship and sleeping with said friend’s wife, Catherine Deneuve, than doing the kind of active police work more modern films might require. Melville forces the viewer to slow down, to think; this is art as much as it’s story.
3) The Brain (1969)
Two clumsy French thieves (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bourvil) plan a spectacular heist: the attack of a freight train carrying NATO’s secret funds from Paris to Brussels. Alas, for them, another far more skilled team is planning the same robbery. It’s headed up by The Brain, a brilliant mastermind whose cerebellum is so heavy he often cannot hold his head up. It’s ridiculous, often slapstick, and it’s thoroughly entertaining. Make sure you watch the closing credits: there’s a sequence there you won’t want to miss.
4) The Italian Job (1969)
If you love classic cars, then the first Italian Job is for you. Yes, there are the signature Mini-Coopers, but there’s also an Aston-Martin (be still, my heart), a Lamborghini, a Lancia, and a couple of Jaguar E-Types. Safecracking and escaping from the Mafia are the core of this version—a caper filled with thrills, action, and some extremely witty lines. The acting is superb (with Michael Caine and Noel Coward fronting a really great cast, how could it not be?), and the film ends with a literal cliffhanger…
5) The Italian Job (2003)
…Which isn’t to say that Donald Sutherland and Mark Wahlberg are anything to sneeze at. Director F. Gary Gray jettisoned the Mafia for a double-cross from within the gang of thieves, and revenge is at the core of this extremely entertaining version. No memorable lines in particular–in fact, dialogue seems to be way down on Gray’s list of priorities–but who cares? Great scenery, exciting moments, amazing driving, and a nice tie-it-all-up-neatly ending make this updated story work.
6) Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
There’s a decent car chase in the first Gone in 60 Seconds, but other than that, save your popcorn for the 2000 version (which has its own fairly spectacular car chases): the heist here is 50 cars—featuring one particular legendary Mustang Shelby named Eleanor—in one night. Once referred to as one long car commercial, you’ll only really enjoy this particular heist if you like what’s being heisted.
Not so much—though there’s a clumsy attempt to create a connection between the two brothers that pretty much fails. But seriously, who cares? Gorgeous cars, some memorable lines, a lot of excitement–what else do you need for a Saturday afternoon when it’s raining out?
7) A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Like The Brain, here’s one you needn’t take too seriously; it’s no accident that the cast includes a couple of old Monty Python regulars, John Cleese and Michael Palin. There’s been a successful diamond heist, but its aftermath is when the real action starts: the crew’s leader hid the stones before his arrest, and everyone and their barrister is determined to find them—fair means or foul.
8) Ocean’s 11 (1960)
Get over the white shirts and skinny ties and enjoy the 1960 version of a daring Las Vegas casino heist with the legendary Rat Pack themselves. Five casinos are robbed on New Year’s Eve via a meticulously planned heist that goes awry for the most unexpected of reasons. The plot is terrific, and there are subtle backstories to each character’s motivations–one wants to get his wife out of stripping, one is dying of cancer and needs to pay his kid’s way through college, another wants to play baseball but drives a garbage truck because he’s black.
As one commenter has said, the acting in this movie is so top-notch that you don’t mind just watching the characters shoot their cuffs. Style, style, style…and a lot of substance to back it up.
9) Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
If you’re only going to watch one version of Ocean’s Eleven, stick with the Rat Pack; but if you can’t get enough heists (and really, who can?) then check out the new-if-not-improved version with George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Here, the motivation is clear–it’s all about greed–so no backstories are required.
The audience has to suspend its disbelief (that getaway truck? Really?), and the heist itself relies on some not-so-surprising “surprises”…yet, having said all that, it’s fun. It’s really fun. It’s no Cercle Rouge, but it’s not Spam, either.
10) The Heist (2001)
We can’t really have a list of movies about heists without this one, and not just because of its name. Director David Mamet shows here that it’s not just the Brits who can mix action, introspection, and wit and come up with something memorable. Roger Ebert said it best—it’s a movie made “before special effects replaced wit, construction and intelligence. This movie is made out of fresh ingredients, not cake mix. Despite the twists of its plot, it is about its characters.” I’m good with that.
And that’s it for me! I talk about an old heist in my new mystery, Deadly Jewels, which comes without soundtrack, but with lots of hidden motivations and secrets; I hope you’ll read it.
Jeannette de Beauvoir is an award-winning novelist and poet whose work has been translated into 12 languages and has appeared in 15 countries. She finds that the past always has some hold on the present, and writes mysteries and historical fiction that reflect that resonance. More information at www.jeannetteauthor.com.