Heist films have been around since ever since the creation of film and cinema. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery is the earliest example of heist films. George Fitzmaurice and Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast’s 1930 pre-code film Raffles, was the first film that was able to be classed as a “heist” film, working in the “heist” subgenre.
One thing is clear, heist films have always been, and always will be thrilling. It’s about breaking the law, the gamble of either walking away rich, or having your life end. It’s about the planning, the stakes, the risks, the location, the products, the life afterwards…The disguises!
Whether it be banks, jewellery, artwork, cars, or poker games, audiences have made their love of the subgenre clear. Past and future filmmakers have, and always will, attempt to reinvent the subgenre, to break it down, dare to look at it in a way no one else has before them. Ultimately, it’s a full proof formula, and when done well, it’s an exciting piece of cinema.
Though nowhere near enough to jam all of the greats into one list, here you can find at least 20 of the greatest heist films ever made, ranked from great to greatest!
20. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
George Clooney stars as the charismatic bank robber who escapes prison and meets the ruthless female marshal, Jennifer Lopez. Things take a turn when he kidnaps her and they start falling for each other. Steven Soderbergh returns from his first hit, Sex, Lies & Videotapes, to remind audiences that he is the man to look out for when it comes down to crime capers…A few years later with the release of Ocean’s Eleven, not a single soul would doubt him.
The screenplay was written by Scott Frank, based on Elmore Leonard’s 1996 crime novel of the same name. The film cast also includes Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Nancy Allen, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Albert Brooks and a special cameo by Michael Keaton, who reprises his role as Ray Nicolette from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, another Elmore Leonard adaptation. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing and also led to a short-lived TV spinoff series in 2003 titled Karen Sisco.
19. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)
Before the big budget, star filled, aesthetically dominant films of Wes Anderson hijacked movie theatres. A smaller, more personal yet powerful Wes Anderson film existed…Bottle Rocket. In one of the greatest directorial debuts strewn from a 13-minute short, Bottle Rocket tells the story of three friends who plan to pull off a simple robbery and go on the run.
The film introduced the Wilson brothers to the world, playing two goofy wannabe criminals staging a bunch of sloppy robberies across Texas. The film although probably at the bottom of some people’s Wes Anderson or even “heist” film lists, is a great example of staying true to your vision and telling the story you want to tell. Like most of his later films, the film has a great balance of comedy, witty dialogue, emotion and perfectly written characters that make you want to keep watching the film purely for them.
18. The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
Michael Caine stars as Charlie, a Cockney ex con just released from prison who learns of his friend’s failed heist in Italy. Soon after, Charlie can’t help himself but attempt to do the heist himself. The film written by Troy Kennedy Martin and directed by Peter Collinson, has a great cast including English gentleman Noel Coward, comic Benny Hill, Raf Vallone, Tony Beckley and Margaret Blye. The soundtrack is also masterfully crafted by Quincey Jones.
Upon its release the film was a success, earning critical acclaim for its performances. The film is praised for its portrayal of late 60s British culture, becoming a cult symbol of British films. The climactic car chase, the cliff-hanger ending, and the use of the iconic red white and blue Mini Coopers are all valid reasons why The Italian Job stood out at the time, but also now.
17. Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)
Drive catapulted Danish arthouse director Nicholas Winding Refn to Hollywood and international acclaim. The film’s style and aesthetic choices even led to a stylistic change in the decade, as retro/synthwave music became popular in later films, TV and commercials.
Ryan Gosling stars as an unnamed Hollywood stunt driver as well as a mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver. Like a Samurai, Gosling’s character is the best at what he does by following a strict work ethic and set of rules. Things change when he forms a bond with his neighbour, a single mother (Carrey Mulligan) and her son Benecio (Kaden Loss). When the kid’s father, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison, he asks the getaway driver to help him get out of trouble with the mob. As you can guess…The so called “easy” heist doesn’t go as planned.
The film is a stylish yet at times gritty look into the criminal underworld of present Los Angeles. The nameless protagonist has echoes of past neo-noir characters such as Alain Delon’s character, Jef Costello in Melville’s Le Samouraï, Ryan O’Neal’s also unnamed character in Walter Hill’s The Driver and De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
16. Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
Spike Lee directs this masterful and intelligent thriller which focuses on what happens inside the bank during the heist, as much as outside. A detective (Denzel Washington) attempts to negotiate with the leader of a bank robbery which soon turns into a hostage situation. The film holds an excellent cast such as Jodie Foster, Clive Owens, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer.
The filmmaking is just as smart as the heist itself. With subtle editing and decoys in dialogue, the film manages to pull of its climactic twist just like a perfect magic trick, blowing all of our minds and forcing us to rewatch the film over and over again.
15. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Michael Mann directs this classic neo-noir thriller as highly skilled jewel thief, Frank (James Caan), wishes to leave his crime filled life behind in order to settle down with his girlfriend, Jessie (Tuesday Weld). With only one last big score to do, Frank teams up with powerful Chicago gangster Leo (Robert Prosky). Things take a turn when Leo wants to keep Frank working for him due to his speciality, but Frank has other things in mind.
Written and directed by Michael Mann, the film remains a heavy hitter with a stellar supporting cast including Willie Nelson, Dennis Farina and James Belushi. The film is dark, gritty, and relies heavily on Caan’s performance which is one of his best. Caan has a desperation yet relentlessness about him as Frank. You can see it when he’s at work cracking safes, to when he attempts to open up to his girlfriend. The film not only reminded audiences in ’81 that Caan was a star, but that Hollywood had a new crime expert director ready to shake things up and his name was Mann.
14. The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
Convict Doc McCoy (Steve McQueen) is in his fourth year of a ten-year prison sentence. Sleazy Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson) scores him an early release in return for helping him with a bank robbery. Of course, the robbery doesn’t go as planned, so Doc is forced to go on the run across the border to Mexico with his wife (Ali MacGraw).
The film is the second collaboration between McQueen and director “bloody Sam” Peckinpah, the first being Junior Bonner. It’s an exciting ride through the sweaty, greasy and dangerous Texan underworld, with a script penned by Walter Hill based on Jim Thompson’s 1958 novel of the same name. The film leads us towards a climactic hotel shootout where Peckinpah can’t contain himself any longer, as he gives us the big bloody poetic mess Peckinpah fans crave.
13. The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010)
In a brutal and lean opening scene a group of Boston thieves rob a bank and hold the assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), hostage. Things take a turn, becoming far too complicated than expected when one of the crew members, Doug (Ben Affleck) falls in love with Claire. The Town is Ben Affleck’s second directed film after Gone Baby Gone. This film is really where Affleck shined as not only a director, but a director capable of also simultaneously delivering an excellent in a lead role. His next film, Argo, would go onto win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
The film has a strong cast including Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite, Titus Welliver and Chris Cooper. The film takes us on an uncomfortable at times journey through Boston’s criminal underworld, finishing with a climactic heist attempt at Fenway Park. The film draws from other Boston-set crime movies such as The Boondock Saints, The Departed, Mystic River and most importantly, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
12. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)
Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) are two, at times goofy, free-spirited leaders of their Hole-In-The-Wall Gang. Though, when their plan to rob a bank goes wrong (surprisingly!) the two split away from their gang and flee to the only place Butch can think of…Bolivia. The film was written by screenwriting legend William Holden and directed by equal legend, George Roy Hill.
The film’s significance is hard to put into words without writing a twenty-page essay, but it was released in 1969, a time where New Hollywood had already invaded movie theatres, and Butch Cassidy was exactly the type of film audiences wanted to see. It was also one of the first “anti-westerns”, a sub-genre that was born in the mid 60s that described films set in the western setting, yet didn’t hold any of the conventions or share the same values that classic westerns did. The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, The Shooting, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and El Topo are all examples of the “anti-western” subgenre. Ironically, Henry Hathaway’s classic western True Grit also came out in 1969 and gained a Best Actor Oscar for John Wayne. Though the Best Picture award went to a separate cowboy film that year, a cowboy film Wayne couldn’t believe was even allowed to be screen in theatres, let alone be nominated…Midnight Cowboy.
11. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) begins infiltrating a group of surfers that are believed to be a gang of bank robbers by Utah’s older partner, Pappas (Gary Busey). Things take a turn when Utah is introduced to the charismatic and almost God-like leader of the surfers, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Written by Rick King and W. Peter Iliff (with some rewrites done by James Cameron), the script was directed masterfully by Kathryn Bigelow.
The most exciting part of writing a heist film, isn’t the actual heist, it isn’t the planning, or the getaway…It’s figuring out what the robber’s disguise is going to be. Will it be a pair of pantyhose? A balaclava? Hockey masks? Point Break chooses to go with their criminals’ wearing masks of past presidents, but what will they call themselves when they’re in character, robbing banks? You guessed it… “The Dead Presidents”.