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Rififi (1954) & A List Of Heist Movies July 18, 2012

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Movies.
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A good heist movie is a wonderful subgenre of crime or gangster film, especially for those of us who love to see the intricate steps of some complicated supertheft come together. After all, one of the big appeals of the crime/mystery genre in general is to watch seemingly disconnected plot threads weave together into something that makes perfect sense, especially if we didn’t see it coming. I certainly tried to put this sort of set-up together for my novel Cut To Wagstaff since I’d like to think I can play ball in the same league as the movies I’m about to go into.

The other night I watched Rififi, a great ’50s French heist film that reminded me of a lot of other films that came later & one that came before. It follows the basic formula of these things – some experienced criminal puts together a team of experts to pull off the big burglary score – and inevitably the personality conflicts of the team involved or unlucky twists of fate undo the carefully laid plans.  What makes Rififi so nice is how the mechanics of the theft become the centerpiece of the film. The entire crime, step by step, comes off with nearly no dialogue at all, as the men break through a floor into the jewelry store and crack the safe.  In the first part of the film, we mostly get character development of all the burglars as well as their criminal rivals, information that will become important to the way the plot unfolds later – and this particular exposition leads to a wonderful payoff when the 4 men look at the millions in jewels they’ve lifted and discuss what they’ll do with their share – all their answers deeply reflect who they are.  Director Jules Dassin (who also plays the Italian safecracker under a pseudonym) would also make another great heist film, Topkapi, later in his career.

Dassin had been blacklisted in Hollywood after being named as a Commie by Hollywood 10 member Edward Dmytryk (a good director as well, alas) and worked in Europe in the 1950s as a result. Even after the Blacklist era, Dassin had pretty much relocated to Greece with his new wife Melina Mercouri (star of Topkapi). I guess the overall “criminal on the run” feel was something he understood well.

Rififi owes a lot to an earlier heist film with a similar set up – John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle sort of invents the genre – the team of specialists brought together to pull off the perfect jewel heist – and also sets the stage for the various ways in which the formula’s denouments will vary in later films. Will they make one fatal mistake and get caught? Will they turn on each other? Will some random twist of fate ruin all the carefully made plans? Will they get away with it? All of these variations would turn up in subsequent films.

So here are a bunch of others worth seeing:

The Killing – Kubrick’s take on the genre, with Sterling Hayden as the leader of a group out to rob a racetrack. One of Kubrick’s best, IMO, with the tell-tale Kubrick formula of the mechanical system overwhelming individual humanity (as well as tracking shots up the wazoo).

The Dirty Dozen – this one combines the heist formula with the WW2 film, expanding the team and the specialists.  And this time we get killing lots of Nazis besides the operation for entertainment value, as well as Lee Marvin beating the crap out of people. Another combo along the same genre lines would be Kelly’s Heroes, where Clint Eastwood leads an effort to rob a German bank in the middle of the war, although that one is more uneven and Donald Sutherland’s 1940s hippie schtick gets old real fast.

The Great Train Robbery (1979)- Sean Connery scheming to steal a ton of money in Victorian England has some awfully dated dialogue, but Michael Crichton’s mechanics here are great fun.

Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels – Guy Ritchie’s cinematic tricks abound, but this time they serve the story and atmosphere. Fast paced, funny & clever.

Quick Change – Bill Murray leads a group of bank robbers in this extremely dry and often hilarious comedy, mostly about how horrible 1990s NYC is. This is one of Murray’s best movies, and it always amazes me that so many people have never seen it.

A Fish Called Wanda – while I’m thinking of heist comedies, you gotta include this one. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Jamie Lee Curtis & Kevin Kline are all wonderful in it.

Sexy Beast – Ben Kingsley is especially great here in a tale of criminals dragged out of retirement.

And then there are films that vary the formula – there’s the failed robbery in Dog Day Afternoon, or the entire robbery being a team-of-specialists con job in The Sting, or the focus away from the actual crime and on the characters themselves that we find in Reservoir Dogs or The Usual Suspects.

Odd Man Out from Carol Reed in 1947 is more about loyalty & guilt, with James Mason’s IRA robbery going wrong and leaving him wounded and lost. This one reminded me a lot more of John Ford’s excellent The Informer more than a heist film, but I’ll list it here anyway since it’s worth seeing.

Near misses? Well,  recently there was Inception, which followed the formula but focused on stealing people’s ideas via scifi dreamjacking. While I liked a lot of it, my problem was how literal the dreams were presented. I think David Lynch, in material like Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive, handles the role switching and odd symbolism of actual dream psychology much better, and I think that approach to dreams would have made Inception far better than it was.

The Day They Robbed The Bank of England has its moments and a young Peter O’Toole, but reaches an anticlimax.

Ah well… my brain is well beyond fried after pounding out that list.

But if you’re interested in the reality behind the carefully planned burglary, or in the ways in which the police investigate the aftermath, I can recommend a couple of books, respectively – Confessions of A Master Jewel Thief by Bill Mason and The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick. Both are fascinating reads.

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