We’ve spent enough time with A Burglar's Guide to the City to think we know our way around the best true stories of breaking and entering, but when we read Geoff Manaugh’s Work in Progress piece about the fictional heists in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and Cormac McCarthy's Suttree, we wanted more. We wanted more fictional heists. We wanted a complete and considered list of The Great Heists of Cinema and Literature...
This list of fictional heists comes with at least two important caveats.
One is that not all of these novels, comics, and films are necessarily “good,” in the critical sense. The acting might be stiff or the dialogue challenging, but what makes them each remarkable, and thus worth mentioning here, is the fact that they depict a heist in a unique or interesting way. The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England is not a good film, for example, but the means by which its central burglary crew gains access to the gold vaults of the English capital make it well worth watching.
The second caveat is that this list is heavily weighted toward heists with an architectural or urban angle; Dog Day Afternoon is a great heist film, for example, but I did not include it here because its story does not engage with the built environment in a particularly interesting way. Why use architectural or urban interest as criteria for judging heist films? You’ll have to read A Burglar's Guide to the City to find out. —Geoff Manaugh
The Score by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake), 1964—The plot of Richard Stark’s 1964 novel The Score makes it an instant classic, a heist fan’s dream. Sitting at a table in an apartment, the novel’s protagonist, Parker, receives an extraordinary criminal pitch. Watching old maps and images of mining roads click past on a slide projector, Parker realizes he and the people around him are being recruited to rob an entire town in North Dakota. It’s a town linked to the outside world by only one road, with a tiny police station the group can easily commandeer, and there are no other real barriers to worry about. Except, of course, the barriers that emerge amongst their own crew.
The Town Director’s Cut (d. Ben Affleck), 2010—The Town remains under-appreciated, despite being one of the best heist films of the past decade. In addition to its final set piece (robbing Boston’s Fenway Park!), the director’s cut features a short scene where Jon Hamm’s FBI agent explains that cutting off the neighborhood of Charlestown by closing its eponymous bridge can help prevent bank-robbing crews from returning home. This not entirely fictional notion—that every city has a choke point or weak spot that either the good guys or the bad guys can control—is fantastic.
The Italian Job (d. Peter Collinson), 1969, & The Italian Job (d. F. Gary Gray), 2003—I include both films here, perhaps to the chagrin of originalists, but both are heavy on charm and rife with great spatial details. The former depicts one of the first cinematic examples of smart-city hacking, and the second picks up on this with a combination of urban-scale traffic engineering as the Holy Grail of the getaway. The 2003 version, however, adds an ongoing use of perforation—that is, blasting holes in buildings and streets to spontaneously link layers of the world that had previously been disconnected—that remains perhaps the film’s most memorable feature.
The Bank Job (d. Roger Donaldson), 2008—In terms of pure, absurd popcorn value, The Bank Job, carried not only by its lead, Jason Statham, but by a broad supporting cast, is already noteworthy. But it’s the execution of the heist itself—a bank tunnel that proceeds by way of basements, beneath a fried chicken shop, and into a previously unknown plague pit beneath the target bank—complete with HAM radio signals and frantic police triangulation, that gives the film a great spatial emphasis.
Black Sea (d. Kevin Macdonald), 2014—Black Sea is, alas, an unevenly realized film, but what it stands out for its proposed target. Rather than case a bank vault, Jude Law’s motley crew stalk a sunken WWII submarine filled with Nazi gold. It’s a vault at the bottom of the sea. The idea of setting a heist film aboard a submarine is ingenious, inspiring all sorts of questions about where other fictional heists could yet be set. Here’s to a heist on the International Space Station, a heist in Antarctica, a heist on the Great Wall of China . . .
The Losers, Book One by Andy Diggle and Jock (Vertigo Comics), 2010—The Losers features a brilliant set-up late in the plot: a building in a village buried by volcanic ash on the island of Montserrat still contains something the book’s titular group must obtain. Brushing aside geologic debris and breaking down into a now-underground building, the group rappels into this short but awesomely archaeological act of breaking and entering.
Street Thief(d. Malik Bader), 2006—Presented as a documentary about a Chicago burglar, Street Thief has its ups and downs, but it is also one of the more accurate and interesting depictions of what a career burglar will do when it comes to casing a future target. From slipping into offices through pure social engineering to stealing receipts from a Dumpster to gauge the best night for striking, the film has a realism to it that is commendable. The final break-in of a suburban movie theater — and an unlikely hiding place in the cinema’s lobby—rounds out this lo-fi entry to the heist genre.
Rififi(d. Jules Dassin), 1955—It’s impossible to talk about heist films without talking about Rififi, Jules Dassin’s canonical 1955 depiction of a group’s painstaking, near-silent break-in through the roof of a jewelry shop in Paris. You’ll never look at fireproofing foam — or even umbrellas—in quite the same way.
Die Hard (d. John McTiernan), 1988—The near-complete infestation of Nakatomi Plaza in John McTiernan’s Die Hard remains an exhilarating depiction of architectural space. In a Los Angeles skyscraper that is still partially under construction, terrorists battle a displaced New York City cop named John McClane, using almost anything but the expected spatial means. McClane rides atop elevators, drops down HVAC shafts, leaps off the roof to slam back into the tower through a window, crawls through an air-conditioning duct, and more, as the film’s cat-and-mouse game becomes an ongoing catalog of ways to misuse and abuse a building. Ed Note: Don't miss Geoff's extended consideration of Die Hard at BLDGBLOG.
The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England (d. John Guillermin), 1960—As mentioned above, this film’s depiction of the heist of the Bank of England is explicitly architectural, proceeding by way of London’s underground infrastructure and opening with a burglar’s tête-à-tête with a bust of the bank’s architect, Sir John Soane.
Inside Man(d. Spike Lee), 2006—Inside Man features one of the most interesting getaway routes I’ve seen: it is a getaway that goes further into the building. Stop reading here if you have yet to see the film, but viewers only realize at the end of the movie that Clive Owen, the leader of the bank heist crew, “gets away” by hiding inside a new room the group has constructed in the basement of the bank, disguised behind the wall of an office supply closet.
Thief(d. Michael Mann), 1981, & Heat (d. Michael Mann), 1995—Both of these films are brilliant and neither film, I’m afraid, is perfect, but each includes a scene particularly noteworthy from an architectural or urban point of view. In Thief, there is an extraordinary scene featuring James Caan’s group of burglars dressed head to toe in hooded black protective gowns, melting their forward into a vault using a burning bar, all the while surrounded by French Rococo interior decoration. In Heat, there are too many great scenes to choose from, but one of the group’s members losing his LAPD tail by driving into LAX (where Air Support Division helicopters are not always allowed to fly) is a great (and accurate to real-life) detail, and the film’s final, labyrinthine chase across the runways of the airport are two particular standouts.
Panic Room (d. David Fincher), 2002—The plot of Panic Room is a quantum physics problem, a philosophical quandary: how do you break into a room that can’t be broken into? The slow-burning film is a meticulous attempt to solve that problem, as deviousness and cunning conspire to reveal an impregnable room’s human vulnerabilities.