Considering America’s idolatry of maverick independence, it’s no wonder Hollywood movies usually focus on the lone hero. Yet the beloved genre of heist films offers a distinctive contrast, celebrating the group and the ensemble cast. Today we primarily think of them as comedies, expecting the crooks to triumph. But heist films initially emerged from the shadows of noir, and for two decades censorship stymied the thieves.
Traditional gangster sagas like Little Caesar (1931), based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, spotlight the individual antihero who bullies his way to the top with guns and guts but no special talents. John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, also based on a Burnett novel, instead focuses on a group of “professionals,” each with a specific skill needed for a heist. Emphasizing the meticulous planning and particulars of the job itself, Huston’s masterpiece virtually defined a new genre. Jungle’s jewel thieves include a creative mastermind, a crooked lawyer (for financing), a safecracker, a getaway driver and an all-around tough guy. The film also established the genre’s key story arc: The robbery starts successfully, but by the end bad luck and worse people botch it.
Noir master Jules Dassin, forced into European exile by the Hollywood blacklist, took Huston’s formula and ran with it—straight into his own French masterpiece, Rififi. What grabs everyone’s attention is Rififi’s extraordinarily intense 30-minute robbery (again, of a jewelry shop), enacted in silence except for the sounds of breathing and burglary tools. But that’s merely the middle of the film. Surrounding it is a dark tale of how thieves fall out, notable for its characters’ complexity.
The Asphalt Jungle is the father of the heist genre, and many early heist movies carry the dark, downbeat DNA of film noir. Rififi, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (starring Asphalt’s Sterling Hayden) and lesser known films such as 5 Against the House and Odds Against Tomorrow feature alienated antiheroes doomed by a malevolent fate and their own psychic flaws. And by censorship. Until 1968, Hollywood’s crime-cramping Production Code decreed that transgressors be punished. No matter how carefully they plan, how skillfully they work or how sympathetic they are, heisters were required to lose.
Ocean’s Eleven was designed as a lighter heist film, replacing noir’s gritty gloom with the antics of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack cohorts. They play a gang of World War II vets plotting to empty five Las Vegas casinos on New Year’s Eve. But the Code pummeled the Pack; they avoid prison but don’t score the loot. Things are different for George Clooney’s crew in Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake. Not only do they get away with it, we expect them to. After the Code’s demise, Hollywood trained us to root for the thieves and rest easy knowing they’ll get a happy ending.
Brute Force, Naked City, Thieves’ Highway—welcome to Jules Dassin’s world of claustrophobia, cruelty, treachery and fear, the world of 1940s film noir. By 1950 Dassin’s own life had become a tale of paranoia and persecution. A victim of Hollywood’s hideous anticommie blacklist, he fled to Europe, went without work for five years and finally revived his career with the sensational Rififi. Perhaps that’s why, despite its justly celebrated robbery sequence, it is among the darkest of heist films, a painful mix of beatings, betrayals, kidnapping and murder. Almost everyone ends up dead.
In 1964 Dassin needed another hit. His tragic Phaedra (1962) had flopped in the U.S., but his previous film, the comedy Never on Sunday, had been a smash. He decided to combine comedy and crime, turning Eric Ambler’s novel The Light of Day into Topkapi. Among its attractive innovations: a beautiful woman (Sunday’s Melina Mercouri) as master planner, an ex- and probably future lover as fellow gang member, and a good bit of sexy repartee between them. But there’s also the requisite stomach-crunching suspense: Topkapi’s robbery sequence is as silent as Rififi’s but longer and more ingenious. The thieves ultimately fail, but Dassin’s heist hit big.
Ocean’s Eleven was not the first heist comedy. Earlier examples include the U.K.’s Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Italy’s delicious parody of Rififi, Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958). But Lewis Milestone’s slick caper gave us a new kind of specifically American gang: Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, with its ring-a-ding-ding, effortlessly hip insouciance. No chance these thieves would fall out, even if caught; they’re much too expert at looking cool and having madcap fun.
Topkapi’s gang is neither as smooth nor as traitor-free as the Eleven, but the film gets laughs. Director Jules Dassin leavens the high-tension thrills (familiar to viewers of his Rififi) with wit, farce, romance, a touch of self-parody and fiery star Melina Mercouri. At first the scheme to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi museum appears to succeed, but it’s still 1964, and though the movie wasn’t made in Hollywood, Dassin stuck to the Production Code’s rules. His bantering gang ends up in the slammer, yet the mood stays light. We last see the merry band of thieves planning their next job. And for a real-life happy ending, Dassin married Mercouri two years after the film’s worldwide success.
It’s 1966. Hollywood’s self-censorship system says a crime film, whether noir-inflected tragedy or light comic caper, must end with the crooks either in cuffs or coffins. But audiences want happy endings.
Enter TV producer Bruce Geller. His brilliant idea? Make the “crooks” good guys, the “heist” espionage or government-sanctioned sabotage, the “loot” secret information and/or a rescued freedom fighter. And do it all while leaving our heroes without bloodstained hands. The result was Mission: Impossible. Unlike traditional mission movies, M:I favored flimflam and gadgets over action and explosions. Its usual team—a lead planner, an electronics genius, a master of disguise, a strongman and a femme fatale—seem more like Topkapi’s thieves than commandos. Geller admitted he stole from Topkapi the idea of a burglar dangling from wires over the desired jewels to avoid floor alarms.
Two years after M:I’s premiere, Hollywood sacked the Production Code. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) may be the first major studio film in which the thief gets away with it. Mirroring the era’s unhappiness, however, it still manages a darkish ending—Crown gets the money but not the girl. He gets both in the 1999 remake.
Blowing up a pair of enormous Nazi cannons on a Greek island may not seem like a heist, but doing it takes a team of specialists, and the Allied troops rescued as a result count as the loot. Producer and writer Carl Foreman, Guns of Navarone’s real auteur (he hired director J. Lee Thompson after firing another), turned Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel into one of the first international blockbusters. Stuffed with hair-raising stunts, Oscar-winning special effects and a superstar ensemble from Europe and Hollywood, Navarone still finds time to express Foreman’s antiwar sentiments.
Although Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) had whet filmgoers’ appetite for bands of good guys going up against impossible odds and winning, Navarone inspired countless other commando movies—from The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare (based on another MacLean book) to its own sequel, the rather crappy Force 10 From Navarone. Commandos and specialists from the A-Team to the X-Men are all Navarone’s descendants.
Mission: Impossible is obviously another high-tech variation on the commando genre, so obvious that series creator Bruce Geller carefully pointed out its equal debt to the heist film. But as both Navarone and M:I suggest, commandos are simply heisters wearing camos.