The Federalist readers will have heard that Sandra Bullock will be headlining an all-female reboot of “Ocean’s Eleven.” Sounds like fun. I love Ben Domenech’s casting suggestions. (I very much disagree with his assertion that the Brat Pack remake is better than the Rat Pack original. Sorry, Ben, not even close.)
Caper movies are fun. Bullock may be blazing a trail with the all-female cast, but heist movies have long been a staple of Hollywood. In fact, the very first Hollywood movie, the silent “Great Train Robbery” of 1903, was a caper. Over the next 100-plus years, three more feature films were made with this title, including one of the best caper films ever, and a “Great Train Robbery” television mini-series was produced in 2013.
Why do we love heist films? First there’s the “tick-tock”—the intricate procedural of planning and execution required to get loot out of a place (bank, museum, store, warehouse, etc.) where the owners would prefer it stay. Although only 12 minutes long, the cowboy bandits in the 1903 version of “The Great Train Robbery” execute a nine-step plan to pull off their caper.
Also, the delayed reveal. Many of the best caper movies don’t reveal why the crooks’ plans include certain steps, until you see the robbery unfold and you see how clever the crooks were. How could you have missed it! Why in “Topkapi” (1964) do Maximillian Schell and Melina Mercuori plant guns in poor Peter Ustinov’s car that will obviously be discovered at the border crossing? Aha, it’s all part of the plan!
We also love to watch a team. How satisfying in an age of self-indulgence and narcissism to enjoy watching individuals function as team, each relying on a special set of skills to achieve the perfect heist. The safe cracker. The tech wizard who disables the alarms. The tout. The temptress. The muscle. The getaway car driver. All working in harmony to commit a crime beyond the capacity of a single crook.
We all love a rogue. But we don’t necessarily approve of violence in the pursuit of someone else’s property. That’s a mugging, not a caper. The best capers feature protagonists (think Danny Ocean or Sir Charles Litton) who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but have no problem taking things from generally unpleasant people. Of course, people do get killed in caper movies. Often, however, it’s the plan gone wrong (“The Getaway” (1972) and “Heat” (1995) are prime examples).
Then there’s the hitch. Something almost always goes wrong with the perfect plan. And we enjoy watching the crooks get the caper back on track. Or not. The red-headed woman in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974) almost brought down the whole caper. If only pervy Doc Riedenschneider could have resisted watching the teeny boppers dancing one more dance in “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950). The popular television series “Mission Impossible” (1966-73) was a weekly caper story. Each week, some unforeseen event would cause the team’s nearly perfect plan to unravel. Almost. (The MI TV series, unlike the more recent Tom Cruise movies, perfectly embodied all the essential elements of caperdom.)
The crooks’ team leader is imperturbable and tres cool. Cary Grant sets the standard in “To Catch a Thief” (1955). The chef de crime in all caper movies is the embodiment of sangfroid.
Caper movies fall into several categories. From pure comedy, such as in “The Lady Killers” (1955), Blake Edward’s “The Pink Panther” (1963), “Who’s Minding the Mint” (1967), and Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” (1969), to lighter hearted, rom-com offerings such as “To Catch a Thief,” “How to Steal a Million,” and “Gambit” (both from 1966), to very dark offerings such as Stanley Kubrick directorial debut “The Killing” (1956). Also notable on the dark side of capers are “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) (the best film noir ever, in this reviewer’s opinion) and “The Killers.” This Hemingway-based plot was good enough to be made twice—1946 and 1964. The ‘64 version features Ronald Reagan (as a bad guy) in his last movie role.
All of the great movie makers have been attracted to the genre: Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Mamet, Sam Peckinpah, Michael Mann, and even Woody Allen, to name a few. But what are the essential heist films? The must-sees to even be considered for admittance into in the Caper Film Connoisseur Club? For a start, I recommend all the movies mentioned above. The following are caper films you should probably binge-watch this weekend if you haven’t seen them.
‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1979)
Written and directed by the late, and greatly missed Michael Crichton, this is probably Sean Connery’s best film outside the Bond franchise. It is also the perfect caper movie. On top of a superb cast, symphonic plotting, and marvelous script, this film shares an almost unique-within-the-genre attribute of being a (mostly) true story. Even seemingly pure Hollywood moments like the miraculous escape at the end actually happened. Perhaps the best all-round caper movie.
‘The Ladykillers’ (the 1955 Version, Please!)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Cecil Parker, and Herbert Lom, this is perhaps the best of the great “Ealing comedies” and one of most charming and hilarious movies you will ever see. My nominee for the funniest caper movie. (The Tom Hanks remake is embarrassing.)
‘The Getaway’ (1972)
The caper itself (hick town bank job) doesn’t play a large role in Sam Peckinpah’s offering, but the aftermath is terrific. Interestingly, Steve McQueen’s character, Doc McCoy, was stealing the loot in the movie while the real McQueen was stealing co-star Ali McGraw from legendary mega-producer (“the kid stays in the picture”) Robert Evans. Easily the most violent and best edge-of-your-seat caper film. (Don’t bother with the 1994 Alec Baldwin remake.)
‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (1968 and 1999)
This one is another instance where all the elements of the perfect caper flick come together. I think the Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway version (directed by Norman Jewison) is the better film. The smoldering sexual tension between McQueen and Dunaway in the chess scene is one of the best things ever in a movie. But I have to admit the Pierce Brosnan-Rene Russo film (directed by John McTiernan) isn’t too shabby, either. My nominee for sexiest caper movie.
This is David Mamet’s superb offering in the caper genre. It features Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell, Danny DeVito, and Delroy Lindo, as well as Mamet favorites Rebecca Pidgeon and the incomparable Ricky Jay. With Mamet-driven dialog like “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money” and “You know, I’m reluctant to tell you” and “Don’t you want to hear my last words?” followed by a shotgun blast, and “I just did,” “Heist” is easily the best-scripted caper movie ever.
The Michael Mann movie magic is fully on display in this neo-noir classic starring James Caan and Tuesday Weld. With an intricate plot beautifully filmed, this movie has all the elements of the perfect heist, plus the superb performance of the late character actor Robert Prosky. And then there’s that wonderful score we associate with the best Mann films, this time performed by Tangerine Dream. “Thief” is the best-scored caper film. (Yes, I know Mann also directed “Heat,” which definitely belongs on this list and any list of seriously badass movies. But you’ve seen it, right? And you may not have seen “Thief.”)
‘Sexy Beast’ (2000)
Run, don’t walk, to see this remarkable caper film directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. Like the rest of us, crooks eventually reach retirement age. But can they really retire? Ray Winstone says yes. Ben Kingsley says no, no, no. I am pretty sure Kingsley melted several cameras while making this movie. Easily the most intense caper movie.
Don’t Forget the Caper Canon
This list isn’t comprehensive by any means. At best, these are merely the best caper movies you may have missed. Here, for your reference, is a partial list of the essential caper canon.
“The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951) another superb Ealing comedy caper movie; “Goldfinger” (1964); “The Italian Job” (1969) (Michael Caine at his most magnificent); “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970)—I could devote a whole piece to just the wartime capers, such as “Guns of Navronne” (1961) or “The Great Escape” (1963); “The Brink’s Job” (1978), another true story; “Sneakers” (1992); “Heat” (1995); “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998); “Three Kings” (1999); “The Score” (2001); and “The Bank Job” (2008), yet another true story, this one with Jason Statham.
I know, I probably overlooked some gems. But start here, and enjoy.