The Art of the Heist: Caper-Lovers Will Never Be ‘Out of the Game’

If the detective mystery is the father of crime fiction and noir the alcoholic uncle, then the caper is the lovable nev’r-do-well cousin. Well, I take that back. Capers are doing quite well, thank you. Just look at box office heists like The Italian Job and the remake of Ocean’s 11 (also 12, and 13). The genre has evolved from big-screen adaptations of Donald Westlake’s offbeat Dortmunder stories (Bank Shot, The Hot Rock) to postmodern quirky comedies like The Brothers Bloom, Reservoir Dogs to the acclaimed science-fiction genre-(and mind-)bender Inception.

As readers and film-viewers, we are expected to see hustlers or criminal masterminds, in their endeavor to plan and carry out a get-rich-fast plan, as protagonists. Perhaps our identification with the crew is us wanting to share in the ingenuities of execution or laugh at the absurdities of the crime. (In Bankshot, a gang of criminals carries out a bank robbery by ‘stealing’ the entire building.)

At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, British-based art collective Blast Theory designed a GPS app for smartphone that guided registered audience members through Park City, Utah to take part in a ‘Locative Cinema’ heist film, A Machine to See With. “One of the starting points was Made In USA by Jean-Luc Godard and the novel from which he stole the story, The Jugger by Richard Stark. (also Donald Westlake.) The experiential film explores choice, consumerism, and technology through a crime thriller.

That brings me to another hook in capers: the plays on the contradiction of material desires—namely, greed. The plots often suggest that there is a ‘last-time’ operation, after which the protagonists are ‘out of the game’ and will no longer participate in high-risk criminal activity. However, if there’s one thing to be learned, it’s this—there is no cure to ever-spiraling desire. In capers, the progression of the narrative invokes only the fantasy of escape from the repetition of desire.

Rarely do our main characters make it out—at least not with the loot and alive.

Image courtesy of Ain’t It Cool News.

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