One of the first films ever produced, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, revolved around a robbery of a steam locomotive train, and ever since then the genre has continued to be one of the most enduring in cinema. It isn’t hard to see why. The core elements of the heist film are some of the most solidly pleasurable devices in big-screen entertainment.
They often consist of the wily and charismatic veteran thief, putting together a crew for a ‘last job’; a love interest who is either unaware of his or her plans or an enthusiastic participant in them; a supporting cast of various degrees of eccentricity or unreliability; an implacable nemesis, whether a lawman or a rival; thrilling action scenes; and exotic locations.
Here are half a dozen of the best, ranging from cutting-edge cool to a Sixties classic.
Heat (1995) – Amazon Prime
For many, this is the heist film. Michael Mann’s smart, icy picture has been ripped off and imitated more times than he would care to remember, but this first onscreen pairing of Robert de Niro, as a brilliant and emotionally isolated master criminal, and Al Pacino, as his wired cop nemesis, remains the high point of his, or most other people’s, careers.
Not only does it feature arguably the finest (and certainly most realistic) shoot-out in cinema, but it also delves into a complexity of character and situation that is usually found in a multi-series Netflix show rather than a self-contained three-hour film. The bank robbery scenes are about as realistic as could be imagined, but what makes Heat so compelling is that you feel you know the people involved, meaning that the violence, when it inevitably arrives, packs a considerable punch.
Ocean’s 11 (2001) – Amazon Prime/Netflix
The Frank Sinatra original Ocean’s 11 is terribly cool, but more of a private joke than a serious film. And the subsequent films in the series – the dire Ocean’s 12, Ocean’s 13 and the female-centred reboot Ocean’s 8 – are inferior. But Steven Soderbergh managed to make a beautifully stylish and entirely assured heist film in 2001, with a never-cooler George Clooney as the ex-con who plans to pull off the impossible, by robbing three casinos simultaneously.
Forget about the intricacies of the convoluted plot and bask in the wit, the charisma of a top-drawer cast (including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Casey Affleck) and the showmanship of Soderbergh at his peak. Unlike most of the other films on the list, it’s not full of shooting and torture, but instead remains the most satisfying of entertainments.
The Bank Job (2008) – Netflix
In 1971, there was a robbery of a Baker Street bank, but the details of what was stolen and why remain hazy. Rumours have persisted that these included compromising pictures of Princess Margaret and the ‘hard man’ John Bindon, or worse, and this hugely entertaining caper, which fictionalises the story but purports to shed light on its murkier workings, is equal parts heist story and conspiracy thriller.
Jason Statham is required to do more acting than usual as the in-over-his-head small-time criminal who puts together a crew for the bank robbery, and he’s matched by a suave Richard Lintern as his MI5 nemesis, David Suchet as porn king Lew Vogel and Saffron Burrows as the morally dubious woman who sets the whole thing going.
Baby Driver (2017) – Netflix
Edgar Wright’s thrilling and often hilarious crime caper revolves around Ansel Elgort’s expert driver Miles, aka Baby, and his penchant for listening to music while he drives getaway vehicles at top speed. Not only does this make for a typically fantastic and eclectic soundtrack, but, as Baby gets into cahoots with yet more sinister criminals (including a pre-disgrace Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and a charismatic Jon Hamm), he will need considerably more than a Spotify mix to extricate himself from the trouble that he’s in.
Wright’s trilogy of films with Simon Pegg often felt too jokey and consequence-free to be entirely convincing, but this superbly executed film shows that he is an action director to be reckoned with, and he also manages to keep it moving with all the speed and flair of a getaway driver – just like Baby, in fact.
The Town (2010) – Netflix
Ben Affleck may have won Oscars for his acclaimed drama Argo but it’s his Boston-set crime thriller that remains a more entertaining and arguably even more accomplished film. Affleck himself plays Doug, a Boston criminal who is forced by Pete Postlethwaite’s sadistic mobster to take on a particularly difficult job robbing a baseball stadium.
Along with his volatile friend and partner Jem (played, in an Oscar-nominated role by Jeremy Runner), Doug is thereby forced to deal with an implacable FBI agent (Jon Hamm, once again) as well as the manager of a bank that he previously robbed and who he has developed romantic feelings for.
Affleck co-wrote the script and beautifully balances warm Boston humour, of the kind that could be found in his Oscar-winning work for Good Will Hunting the previous decade, with hard-nosed violence and suspense, and it all ends up in a tumultuous gunfight that gives Heat a run for its (stolen) money.
The Italian Job (1969) – Amazon Prime
There are few classic films as iconic as The Italian Job, from its catchy theme song (‘The Self-Preservation Society’) to the climatic heist, involving a squad of Mini Coopers stealing gold bullion in Italy. And that is before you get onto Michael Caine at his most Caine-esque, Noel Coward as Mr Bridger, the incarcerated mastermind behind the heist, the legendary Benny Hill as the priapic Professor Peach and, of course, one of cinema’s greatest cliffhanging endings, as the crew find themselves having to choose between the stolen gold and their safety.
It was indifferently remade with Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton in 2003, but this is one of the great films of Sixties British cinema, and endlessly rewatchable as a result. Just don’t forget to blow the bloody doors off.
The Parole Officer (2001) – Sky Store
This 2001 Steve Coogan comedy sees a group of hapless former criminals try and prove the innocence of their parole officer by robbing a bank containing vital evidence for his murder trial. The film has no qualms in riffing off every heist movie cliché going. Nineteen years on from when it first came out, it’s still a blast to watch; this may have been his first feature film but Coogan is on fine form.