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Secrets of Cinema – Mark Kermode’s Take on the Heist Movie

July 27, 2018

I’ve been enjoying Mark Kermode’s new series Secrets of Cinema, but after watching his latest offering on the heist movie, I was surprised by how much material on the genre or sub-genre he seemed to leave out. I started to make a list of variations on the heist formula that had been omitted and, sure enough, the task soon consumed me.

Kermode focused on a fairly pure heist movie formula where the main protagonists are  criminals, the buildup and planning are essential to the narrative, and the police play a minimal role. With this type of movie, at least one of the criminal gang has to be sympathetic so the audience has someone they can root for. Some of the variations I’m going to talk about cast the thieves in an unambiguously villainous light, and readers might argue these aren’t truly heist films. But as Kermode lost so much time talking about films like The Big Short (2015), The French Connection (1971), Infernal Affairs (2002) and The Departed (2006) which are categorically NOT heist films, then I feel its worth mentioning some alternatives.


Kermode discussed The League of Gentlemen (1960) and its wonderful opening scene where Jack Hawkins emerges from a sewer in a spotless dinner jacket. Note that this film was made four years before Sean Connery famously emerged from the water in Goldfinger and took off his wet-suit to reveal a flawless white tux underneath. Goldfinger is, of course, a heist movie. It has a high-profile target in Fort Knox and an elaborate break-in involving poison gas, dynamite, lasers and an atom bomb, and one fantastic twist. After murdering the Mafia figures who have financed the heist, Auric Goldfinger plans to destroy the gold rather than remove it to increase the value of his own stock. In Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), Simon Gruber pretends to pull off this con as he wants the FBI to believe he has blown up the gold he has stolen from the Federal Reserve Bank, but in fact he has kept it.

Which brings me to another point: the original Die Hard is a heist movie. True, none of the heist-men are sympathetic, but they have taken over the Nakatomi building to steal millions in Bearer Bonds under the pretext of making terrorist demands. We don’t think of Die Hard as a heist film as it is an Action flick that created its own formula, recycled in films such as Cliffhanger (Die Hard on a mountain) and Under Siege (Die Hard on a battleship). But in the Die Hard formula, the heist sequence is crucial. Think of the spectacular mid-air heist that goes wrong in Cliffhanger, and the stealing of the nukes in Under Siege.

Stealing nuclear weapons is a recurring trope that links the spy-action genre to the heist movie, and again its genesis is in Bond. Take Spectre agent Largo’s underwater theft of the atom bombs from the Vulcan Avro jet in Thunderball (1965).

Kermode couldn’t cover everything, but I’m glad he spent considerable time on Sexy Beast (2000). But I was surprised that he didn’t mention how Ray Winstone’s retired thief Gal Dove is a perfect example of the retired criminal doing ‘one last job’, which is an integral device of the formula. Likewise, I didn’t agree with his classification of Ben Kingsley’s character Don Logan as the loose cannon of the gang. Logan lives for organised crime and is disgusted that Dove resists his demands to re-enter the gang. If anything, Dove is the loose cannon for killing Logan, and then covering it up from his criminal colleagues when he is forced to go back to London to do the job.

When news of the Hatton Garden heist broke in 2015 it was remarkable how much the story paralleled Sexy Beast. A book on the case was titled Sexy Beasts: The Inside Story of the Hatton Garden Heist and a film about the heist, the third made so far, even stars Ray Winstone. It’s one of the most remarkably surreal films to have had any inspiration on real events as it contains dream sequences, demonic rabbits and an underwater break-in through a Turkish bath. That said, heists by their nature are improbable and two of the most recent heist films have been based on real-life events. Rob the Mob (2014) and The Wannabe (2015) are based on the exploits of Thomas and Rosemarie Uva, a Bonnie and Clyde couple who robbed Mafia social clubs in the early 1990s. Kermode spent some time discussing the Mob’s role in the heist film, but he failed to mention one of the best deviations on the formula when small-time crooks net a massive haul when they rob a business which, unbeknownst to them, is a Mafia front. Charley Varrick (1973) and Drive (2011) are two of my favourite films which show the bloody, chaotic consequences of stealing from the Mafia.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire Mark Kermode as a critic and love his reviews, rants and documentaries. I was really chuffed when he did a Kermode Uncut vlog on the Ourscreen screenings of Sorcerer that were set up for the films fortieth anniversary last year as I had arranged and introduced the Liverpool screening of Sorcerer. There was much in this documentary that I admired, including the discussion of how the robbery gang usually includes an expert in every field: explosives, safecracker, wheelman etc.

As classic heist movies traditionally include some form of thieves’ Supergroup it is surprising, or perhaps not, that more cinematic heists don’t end happily whereas a ragtag group of misfits like The Dirty Dozen famously got the job done. No matter how well the heist is planned it is likely to come undone by the simplest, involuntary action. Think of the sneeze in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).

In crime, as in art, the best results come not through perfect planning and personnel but by chance and happenstance. After all, when was the last time you bought a Traveling Wilburys album?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2018 10:12 am

    I was surprised he did heist is a sub genre of crime … (which fitted with the wider themes elsewhere in the series). They could have done with half an hour rather than hour … as the diversions you mention took him off theme a couple of times ….

    • July 28, 2018 10:24 am

      I was frustrated by the diversions, but they kind of fit with Kermode’s agenda. He’s always been a massive Friedkin fan and championed him when Hollywood and other critics have written him off. The French Connection is a classic crime film, but it is not a Heist film. He couldn’t mention every hesit film, but if he took out French Connection and talked about Thief instead. I think it would have stayed more on topic.

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