The Heist Movie : A Postwar Phenomenon

“…the early footage dwells too long on the preparation for the crime andasphalt jungle
antagonism between the chief bank robber and his long-time driver,…”
Boxoffice, March 9, 1959, p. 121

Cited above is the Boxoffice review of 1959’s The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, one of Steve McQueen’s earliest films. Oddly perhaps, the reviewer failed to understand that the essence of the Heist movie is the detailed planning of the crime. Did that or any other reviewer even realize that the Heist, aka Caper film did not trace its cinematic ancestry further back than mid-century?

Like film noir, the Heist film is a subgenre of Crime, Mystery & Suspense (It’s almost always about murder. The fact that there can be noir Westerns like 1954’s Johnny Guitar only proves noir is not a pureblooded genre.) Noir itself didn’t exist until the early 1940s although forerunners of the dark cinema can be detected in post-World War I German cinema, Universal’s 30s horror films, and such Hollywood B movies as Among the Living (1940). In retrospect, the black and white cinematography if not the plot signaled the coming of noir’s halcyon age after World War II. Heist movies themselves could be noir and also experienced a postwar, or more specifically, post-mid-century golden age. It may seem strange but true Heist films did not exist before 1950. Yes, gangsters and racketeers robbed armored cars (CrissCross, 1947), hotels (High Sierra, 1941), trains (White Heat, 1949), and sometimes banks (Dillinger, 1945) but most movie bank break-ins occurred in Westerns. The number one component of a true Heist movie was absent prior to 1950: the meticulous planning of the crime to which the audience was privy. It wasn’t until that year’s The Asphalt Jungle that this came into play. (Earlier that year Armored Car Robbery provided a small foretaste of this subgenre, but the police were as important as the criminals. In a true Heist film it is the opposite.)

Not all Heist movies have been dark. the ladykillersMany have been intentionally amusing, even hilarious. The British have been very adept at this. See The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Ladykillers (1955), Two-Way Stretch (1960), and The Italian Job (1969). Continental entries of note include Rififi (1955), Big Deal on Madonna Street (1960) and Topkapi (1964). A major semi-comic U.S. heist film was 1972’s The Hot Rock with Robert Redford and George Segal. Although it has a reputation, the original Ocean’s 11 (1961) was a mixed bag, slapdash— hardly a movie at all. Sinatra, Martin, Bishop, Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. were performing live in Vegas and apparently thought it would be a lark to make a movie, so they did, bringing in guest stars like Kim Novak and their mascot, Shirley MacLaine. The Ocean’s 11 remakes/sequels are quite fluffy in themselves and sometimes give short shrift to the caper and even its planning. They were not hardboiled.

A sampling of Heist movies or thomas crown affairthose with major caper elements : The Asphalt Jungle (1950),The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Good Die Young (1954), Five Against the House (1955), The Ladykillers (1955), A Prize of Gold (1955),The Killing (1956), Rififi (1955), Plunder Road (1957), The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Big Deal on Madonna Street (1960), The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960), Two-Way Stretch (1960), The Honeymoon Machine (1961), Ocean’s 11 (1961), Topkapi (1964), Assault on a Queen (1966), Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), Gambit (1966), How to Steal a Million (1966), Robbery (1967), Duffy (1968), The Split (1968), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Anderson Tapes (1971), $ (1971), Cool Breeze (1972), The Getaway (1972), The Hot Rock (1972), Charley Varrick (1973), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Reservoir Dogs (1992), HEAT (1994), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), The Score (2001), Heist (2002), The Italian Job (2003), The Getaway (2004), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007).

Reference: Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. New York: Overlook Press, 1979.

By Kim

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