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Great Movie Heists

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Christmas is going to come early for Batman fans, because Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is releasing a prologue, the first six minutes of the movie, to appear before IMAX screenings of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  It reminded me of the prologue for The Dark Knight: Heath Ledger’s Joker robbing Gotham National Bank, which we saw in December 2007 before I Am Legend.

Quite apart from the Batman angle, that was one slick bank robbery.  So, in the spirit of whetting our appetites for whatever is to come, I thought a survey of some favorite cinematic heists was in order.  In no particular order…

The Adrianas Job, Beverly Hills Cop II

It started with a soft urgent percussion setting the tempo as the stars circled
the Paramount logo.  We didn’t need the smoggy establishing shot or the text on the screen to tell us this was Beverly Hills, California; the sleek limo depositing an impeccably chic blonde at the door of a posh jewelry store told us where we were, and the gun she pressed to the doorman’s temple told us what was happening. 

The tension built as we saw a security camera’s black-and-white view of a man in sunglasses foaming over its lens.  It was a little more than one minute of film time between Karla Fry’s first cry for customers and staff to “Eat the floor” and her crew’s escape with untold thousands in jewelry, but what made the heist seem so fast-moving and well-executed was Fry’s countdown from the two minute mark on her stopwatch: “1:45,” “1:00 minute,”  “30 seconds,” as her cohorts smashed cases and loaded jewels into sacks by the handful. 

Remember, though, however impressive the Alphabet Bandit’s first crime might have seemed to those of us watching, the man behind the scenes declared that “Adriana’s was not perfect. It was perfectly planned.  But it was executed with Neolithic incompetence.”

So remember kids, to make your jewelry store robberies seem slicker than they actually are: limo, leggy blonde that reeks of money and status, “Eat the floor,” stop watch countdown, and it helps if you set the whole thing to Faltermeyer’s “Bad Guys,” although so many people think the music was “Duke Arrives/The Barricade” from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, that might work just as well.

The Monet in The Thomas Crown Affair


It’s a rare remake that improves on the original.  Heist movies in particular will update the technology, speed up the pacing for a modern audience, but fail to contribute anything that makes up for the fact that we have seen this story before.  The Pierce Brosnan Thomas Crown Affair is that rarest of rarities:  approaching the original with all the respect it deserves, in the spirit of a young actor who grew up on these movies and found in them the inspiration to pursue a life in acting himself.  Determined to keep all that made the original what it was, but recognizing its flaws and using the opportunity of a remake to fix them.  The great failing of the 1968 original is that stealing cash from a bank isn’t all that sexy.  As high-ticket crimes goes, it lacks panache. 

Stealing a painting from a museum—not just any painting but a thinly veiled Impression Sunrise, the Claude Monet painting for which Impressionism is named and the single work that marks the transition between old masters and modern art—that’s sexy.  That’s an item that is  not only more interesting than cash, it is interesting beyond its literal worth.  This object isn’t worth a lot of money because it’s made of gold, is covered in diamonds, or belonged to a king.  It’s valuable because of what it is.  And that cache rubs off on the act of stealing it.

The execution of the robbery is cinematic poetry.  A dozen mini-episodes are laid across our path:  Crown’s daily visits to the impressionist gallery, a forgotten briefcase, a mislabeled delivery, a remark about the heat of the day.  The significance isn’t apparent at the time.  Only once the dominos start falling will we know what it is we’ve seen.

And oh yes, the music.  The drum solo from Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.”  There must be something about percussion.

The Pink Panther, Return of the Pink Panther


Yeah, I know.  Peter Sellers.  Blake Edwards. Clouseau setting a room on fire.  I can’t seriously be holding up The Return of the Pink Panther as a heist movie—and I’m not.  The movie itself is the ‘Slapstick Gone Wild’ that we all remember, but the theft of the titular diamond after the opening credits is honestly the most classically archetypal cat burglar strike I remember on the big screen.  Before the opening credits, we find ourselves in the National Museum of Lugash, as a guide leads a tour group past the famous diamond and explains the intricacies of the security system: the “radar shield” of electric eyes and motion detectors and pressure pad under the diamond itself, etc.  It may be familiar to movie-goers today, but in ’75 they were certainly the cutting edge of high tech.  After the credits, a black clad thief is repelling into the Panther’s special gallery, is seen spraying a mysterious aerosol to locate the beams of the electric eyes, and executing a series of acrobatic moves to defeat each part of the security that was explained earlier.  The thief leaves white glove monogrammed with the letter “P,” the signature of “The Phantom,” who stole the diamond in an earlier film.  But is it the same thief?

Why it’s not on the list

I know what you’re thinking.  Where’s Entrapment?  How is it that Chris All-Things-Catwoman Dee is writing about movie heists as an aperitif for our first glimpse of The Dark Knight Rises, a movie which will finally add Catwoman to the Chris Nolan movieverse, and the ultimate sexy female movie cat burglar doesn’t make the list? 

I mean look at her—that’s Catwoman!

That’s more Catwoman than anything comics, cartoons or games have tried to pass off as Selina in years! 

Here’s the reason: Does anybody remember the name of the character Catherine Zeta Jones was playing?  Does anybody recall the items stolen before the final plot with the Y2K window?  I have a vague recollection of a cylindrical tube being thrown down a mail chute.  Whether it had a painting or some kind of schematics or blueprints inside, I have no idea.  And I’m pretty sure there was a mask.  Aztec?  Mayan?  Cantonese?  Anybody?  Without checking Wikipedia, does anybody remember? 

Exactly.   What we remember is this.

I liked Entrapment.  A lot.  I’m going to watch it again as
soon as I’m done here.  But this is a list of memorable movie heists, and none
of us remember what was stolen.  I’m straight, and in a movie with Sean Connery running around reminding us of James Bond’s glory days, CZJ’s tush navigating the laser beams is the only lasting impression. 

So… Part I’s picks are Adrianas, The Thomas Crown Monet and The Pink
Panther.  Add yours, and if there is time before December 18th, we’ll have another round.

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  • James Giammo

    I would add Oceans 11 to the list for the duplicate vault subterfuge, with a honorable mention for the French Thief in Oceans 12 who casually penetrated the impenetrable laser grid. Loved the Pink Panther heist as a kid. I also the hostage shell game in Inside Man and Edward Norton in the Score even though he got greedy and lost in the end.