5. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
No, this isn’t the Danish TV show or its subsequent American remake. The Killing is Stanley Kubrick’s superb film noir in which Sterling Hayden stars as Johnny Clay, just out of prison and already back to his old tricks, planning one last robbery before settling down and marrying his girlfriend (Coleen Gray).
He, along with a team consisting of corrupt policeman Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia), betting window teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.), sharpshooter Nikki Arane (Timothy Carey), ex-wrestler Maurice (Kola Kwariani), track bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) and financial backer Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), plan to rob a racetrack of two million dollars.
The Killing’s real strength is in it’s compelling characters. Each character is interesting in his or her own right, be it Johnny Clay himself or George and his materialistic wife Sherry brilliantly portrayed by Marie Windsor. This is down to brilliant acting, a well-written script, written by Stanley Kubrick and based upon a novel called Clean Break by Lionel White, and superb direction.
Kubrick really flexes his directorial muscles in this epic heist film and demonstrated what a truly innovative and groundbreaking director he was from the very beginning of his career. There are some scenes that will make you wonder just how did he pull that off (specifically a scene involving a horse race, which is filmed at neck braking speed).
There is nothing more fascinating than watching a Kubrick film and The Killing is no exception. Kubrick shows us how it’s done and his film has been replicated by many others since. A large number, if not all, on the films of this list owe a huge debt to The Killing.
Quentin Tarantino himself said that The Killing was a huge influence in making Reservoir Dogs, and it’s no surprise why. The Killing is simply magnificent; full of suspense, tense scenes, terrific performances and a truly exceptional heist, even if everything doesn’t go quite to plan.
4. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
Quentin Tarantino’s first real feature film (My Friend’s Birthday’s Birthday doesn’t really count, as it is just over an hour long) Reservoir Dogs, is considered by many to be one of his best films to date. The crime thriller doesn’t actually show the heist onscreen, yet it does prove how crime doesn’t pay and offers valuable insight into how careful one should be when choosing their team before pulling off a heist, you never know who might be an undercover cop.
Following a relatively simple heist that goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals start to suspect that one of them is actually an undercover cop after the police turn up slightly too quickly during their heist. This group of criminals were put together by Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn) to rob a jewellery store.
In order to maintain anonymity and protect the lawbreaking individuals’ identity, Joe comes up with the idea of giving his team of burgers made up names. We therefore have Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Marsden), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker) and Quentin Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown.
We all know how Quentin Tarantino loves exhibiting a certain amount of blood and violence onscreen (especially a gruesome torture scene), and Reservoir Dogs is not different in this respect. However, Reservoir Dogs is his most restrained effort, and benefits from it. It’s far more focused than any of his subsequent movies, thus Tarantino delivers a truly first class film, full of mistrust, brilliantly colourful language, superb camera work (Tarantino’s ability to film long takes is second to none), shoot-outs, and a lot of blood.
There’s far more to this film than meets the eye. It isn’t principally about a heist that goes wrong, yes that is the premise, yet it’s more about a group of men suspecting one another. It’s about trust, (or more specifically mistrust) and whom you can and whom you can’t trust in a crime ridden world Writer/director Quentin Tarantino makes sure that this is emphasised.
It is this seething sense of suspicion between the characters and the way that they interact with one another which makes Reservoir Dogs such a compelling film, which has become a fans’ favourite and a cult classic over the years, deservedly so.
3. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
French film noire Rififi, originally called “Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes”, is a redemptive story both for Jean Servais’ ageing gangster Tony “le Stéphanois”, and its American director Jules Dassin, who had to flea the United States after being blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
He managed to find work in Europe after being asked to helm this truly masterful heist film Rififi, which is an adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s novel of the same name. Rififi earned Dassin the Best Director award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and the film was also nominated for the Best Foreign Film award by the National Board of Review.
The film, set in Paris, follows the tale of Tony “le Stéphanois” who has just served a five-year prison term for a jewel heist. He is contacted by old friends and fellow robbers Jo “le Suédois” (Carl Möhner) and Mario Farrati (Robert Manuel) to help them plan and pull off another jewellery heist. He eventually accepts and they employ the services of Italian safecracker César “le Milanais”, interesting played by none other than Jules Dassin himself.
They pull off the almost impossible heist of the exclusive jewellery shop without a hitch, yet they get into deep trouble when one of them pockets a diamond ring intended for his lover Vivianne, which puts the dangerous gangster and nightclub owner Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) hot on the foursome’s heels.
The key scene in this film is the truly remarkable heist itself, which plays out like a perfectly choreographed dance, where one move leads swiftly and effortlessly into another. The scene is filmed in almost complete silence, without dialogue or music, which just adds to the already unbearable tension. It’s undoubtedly one of the of the quietest and meticulously planned out robberies ever seen on film, which has interestingly been copied by robbers around the world ever since.
Rififi is the granddaddy of heist movies, and one of the very first in the genre, which has been replicated both in cinema and in real life ever since. It’s a legendary film in the genre and genuinely groundbreaking. Yet it’s also a redemptive tale for our lead character Tony, who is wonderfully portrayed by Belgium actor Jean Servais. His character goes from being a rather disreputable and unlikable man, to becoming a true hero at the very end of the film.
Rififi is still highly acclaimed by many modern film critics and is considered to be one of the greatest works in the popular French film noire genre, despite being made by an American.
2. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
If you ask someone to name a heist movie, one of the first names mentioned will probably be Heat, and for good reason. Michael Mann’s heist movie has become synonymous with the genre and has achieved a sort of legendary status among cinema lovers.
It’s probably most famous for the diner scene between Robert De Niro’s professional bank robber Neil McCauley and Al Pacino’s Lt. Vincent Hanna, two of Hollywood’s most famous actors of our time. It is one of the most tense, well-written, well-directed and meticulously acted scenes in the film, and would probably be in many cinema enthusiasts’ top ten scenes of all time.
Robert De Niro plays Neil McCauley, a successful and meticulous professional bank robber who, when a new member compromises him by impulsively killing one of the guards of the armoured car they were robbing, is forced to do something he’d rather not do.
In order to make sure there are no witnesses, he, along with his other, less hot-headed crew members are forced to kill the remaining guards. This puts LAPD’s Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) hot on McCauley’s heels, and Hanna is a man who doesn’t give up too easily.
Heat is nothing short of a masterpiece, and undoubtedly one of Michael Mann’s best films. It’s no wonder that so many other filmmakers have tried to emulate it, most notably Christopher Nolan who has openly stated his love of the heist film and has admitted that the bank robbing scene in The Dark Knight was directly influenced by Michael Mann’s heist movie.
Nolan even went as far as to enlist the services of an actor who was in the film, William Fichtner, who basically plays the same character in both films; a corrupt money launderer with ties to the mob.
Michael Mann’s film is so much more than just a heist film. It shows how one’s job can really take over someone’s life; both De Niro’s and Pacino’s character’s have problems handling their own private lives due to the strains their demanding work places upon them (and yes, being a bank robber could be considered as a certain line of work). This is most noticeable in the famous diner scene.
Heat culminates in an incredible final shoot-out scene, which should be watched by anyone who has the slightest interest in heist movies, or movies in general.
1. The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
And in the top spot is none other than British comedy caper The Italian Job. No, not the awful 2003 remake starring Mark ‘Marky Mark’ Wallberg. This is of course Peter Collinson’s truly groundbreaking 1969 original starring the great Michael Caine.
The Italian Job is probably most famous for that line, which has subsequently been murdered by some many bad impressions, yet it still remains to this day, one of the most famous lines in cinema. “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” It also boasts a great cliffhanger of an ending – literally!
Michael Caine stars as Charlie Croker, a cockney gangster recently released from a stint in prison, who is already back to his old tricks, planning a heist in Italy. Croker, armed with a plan from his old thief friend Roger Beckermann (Rossano Brazzi), who was unfortunately killed in a car crash in the Alps, attempts to finance the job and to recruit a suitable team to pull off the elaborate heist, which involves deliberately creating a traffic jam in the centre of Turin.
What puts The Italian Job above all the other heist films in this list is its clever use of humour, its intriguing plan, and subsequently its near perfect heist (make sure you stay until the very end to find out why it was only near to perfection). It was certainly a film ahead of it’s time and spurred a whole slew of heist films involving roller coaster like car chases. The heist film franchise Fast and Furious for instance would not have existed if it hadn’t been for The Italian Job.
Along with the fantastic humour and thoroughly entertaining heist, there is Michael Caine’s wonderful central performance as Charlie Croker. Michael Caine was a real star of the era, and still delivers fine performances to this day. His performance is yet another reason why this film is held in such high regard.
Without Caine’s Croker you would probably not have George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. Despite Danny Ocean originally being played by Frank Sinatra, there is a certain wit to Clooney’s rendition of the leader of a bunch of loveable casino robbing criminals, that is ultimately inspired by Caine’s portrayal of Croker.
Ultimately the 1968 version of The Italian Job set the precedent for everything that followed it, which is why it’s at the top of this list and the very best heist film of all time. It’s no wonder that come Christmas time it’s being shown on hard rotation on almost every classic film TV channel.
Author Bio: Edward James Lauder is a graduate from Royal Holloway University in London and currently an MA Multimedia Journalism student at Westminster University, he strives to help people chose which films to see or not to see. He was subjected to studying French cinema at university and subsequently fell in love with everything to do with the craft.