Unlike most classic film noir, heist movies are not about passion but process. If all noir taps into its audience’s guilty desires—to murder or lie or commit adultery—the heist film taps into a particularly cool-burning flame: the desire to be a professional crook.
This being classic noir we’re talking about, the heist team is always going to go down in flames in the end. These days, heist films like The Town and the Ocean’s franchise showcase their criminals’ and crooks’ stealing without impunity or consequence. Perhaps in a world where unregulated Wall Street malfeasance can bring the word economy to the brink of collapse without anyone going to jail, we’re simply beyond the idea that greed is a sin, much less the root of all evil. In the old days, though, that idea still had merit.
Still, all in all, stealing sure did look like a lot of fun. In his book Crime Fiction, part of The New Critical Idiom Series, scholar John Scaggs identifies three kinds of crime story: the whodunit, the whydunit, and the howdunit. The popular whodunit is your basic puzzle-like murder mystery (think Agatha Christie). The whydunit is more psychological in nature, more focused why people do what they do (think Jim Thompson). The howdunit is about process. This is where the police procedural (think Ed McBain) and its evil twin, the heist story (think Richard Stark aka Donald Westlake), come in. The joy of these stories come from watching professionals go about their work.
In film, the joy of a good heist flick is watching a bunch of smooth criminals go about their business. More often than not, these are working-class crews, just a bunch of guys trying to feed their families, or pay off the bookies, or save up enough dough to get out of town. There’s always one guy who’s got the brains, and one guy who’s got the muscle, and there’s always a weak link who brings the whole perfect plan to ruin. Like I said, this is classic noir. No happy endings here. Save that crap for the kids.
Best of the Best:
1. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston’s haunting masterpiece features a perfect cast: surly-but-sympathetic goon Sterling Hayden; brilliant-but-pervy mastermind Sam Jaffe; sad-eyed dame Jean Hagen; loyal hunchback James Whitmore; sweaty Marc Lawrence; and so many, many more. Louis Calhern gives the best performance of his career as a corrupt businessman trying to finance a big jewelry heist so he can run off with sexy Marilyn Monroe (in her first big role). The screenplay by Huston and Ben Maddow, from the novel by W.R. Burnett, overflows with well-polished gems, as when Calhern forlornly observes, “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”
2. Kansas City Confidential (1952) Director Phil Karlson made some of the hardest-hitting noirs on record, often in collaboration with star John Payne. This rough and tumble little caper film finds Payne as an ex-con pulled into an armored car robbery against his will. Sit back and enjoy the headbusting. Although he started out in musicals, when Payne made the switch to noir he went in with both fists swinging, and this flick has an amazing line-up of gristle for Payne to pound on: Preston Foster, Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, Jack Elam. Noir’s nicest nice girl Coleen Gray is on hand to class up the joint in between the rounds of sweaty fisticuffs.
3. The Killing (1956) As the mastermind of a race-track heist, Sterling Hayden gives his other great performance in another great classic noir heist film. Director Stanley Kubrick made more acclaimed films, but I’m not alone among noir geeks in thinking that he never topped this tour-de-force. Working from a script he co-wrote with Jim Thompson (don’t let the “additional dialog” credit fool you, JT was the co-author of the script) from the book by Lionel White, Kubrick brought the heist flick to its purest expression since, well, The Asphalt Jungle. Bonus points for the darkest vision of matrimonial hell to make it to the screen in the 1950s: the brutal union between she-devil Marie Windsor and cuckold Elisha Cook Jr.
4. Plunder Road (1957) Director Hubert Cornfield’s overlooked train heist flick features the hardest working crew in noir. The film opens with a thrilling ten-minute sequence in the pouring rain, and it doesn’t let up while our gang of robbers attempt to haul their nine-ton gold shipment across state lines. The uniformly excellent, if largely unknown, cast is headed by the indispensible noir character Elisha Cook Jr. (This film would make a good companion piece to Cook’s work in The Killing.) Director Cornfield had deep roots in France with filmmakers like Melville, Godard, and Truffaut, and there is every evidence that with Plunder Road he was setting out to make a film that would appeal to the crowd that loved its existentialism in pulp form. He succeeded. Hard to find, but worth the search.
5. Rififi (1955) -speaking of the French. When noir director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, Night and the City) was forced to flee America during the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood, he went to Europe and embarked on a second career. His first film overseas was this brilliant French noir about an epic jewelry heist. Starring the gruff Jean Servais—a man whose disappointed eyes and world-weary manner make him look like Humphrey Bogart’s older French cousin—the film is a masterpiece of precisely modulated technique and style. At the heart of the film is the thrilling heist itself, a nail-biting sequence that meticulously unfolds over thirty minutes without dialog or music. Look for Dassin himself as the dapper Cesar.
Later, Tarantino deconstructed the heist genre with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs by filming a heist movie without a heist. And for my money, Michael Mann made the last great heist movie with 1995’s Heat, possibly the most epic ‘howdunit’ on record and a film steeped in the classics of the genre.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor