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‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ (1966)
France was the home of cool, midcentury crime pictures, and no Frenchman did them better than Jean-Pierre Melville. He followed up his classics “Bob le Flambeur” and “Le Doulos” with this story of a hard case who escapes from prison and tries to fund his getaway with that most beloved of caper movie devices: one last, big score. That hook shows up in too many subsequent caper movies to be particularly noteworthy, but “Souffle” is about much more than its potboiler plot. Its detached style and deliberate pacing give it a somber, almost existential feel, while its breathless action beats still deliver the goods.
‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (1970)
Melville again, this time spinning the yarn of three trenchcoated tough guys out to rip off a jewelry store and the police inspector hot on their trail. This drama was Melville’s penultimate picture, and it exhibits his firmly established style: cool, almost detached action; contemplative morality; characters that say more in a glance than in pages of dialogue; and unforgettable set pieces, this time in the form of the climactic robbery, which (in a nod to Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic, “Rififi”) unfolds in real time with no dialogue. But that big job isn’t what “Le Cercle Rouge” is really about; it’s about the rules of the crooks’ game, the code they share, and the consequences of both.
‘Ocean’s 11’ (1960)
This action comedy from Lewis Milestone was the jumping-off point for the American heist picture, for the lionization of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and for three Steven Soderbergh hits, but it hardly plays like a Big Bang. It feels more like an afternoon hangout, which by most accounts, it was. The film concerns a group of war buddies who plan to rob five casinos on New Year’s Eve with military precision, but the pacing is casual, the tone is slight, and the ending is all but a shrug. And yet, when these would-be criminals swagger through Vegas with their suits just so, they radiate more cool than a block of dry ice.
‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (2001)
Forty-one years later, Soderbergh gathered an all-star cast to make a very rare thing: a remake that tops the original, at least in ingenuity and wit. George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon head up a crew of con artists who team up to knock off three Vegas casinos owned by Andy Garcia (and to help Clooney’s character get back his ex-wife, played by a sly, luminous Julia Roberts). The writing is snappy, acted with gliding style by its impossibly good-looking cast, and elegantly executed (its “all the pieces come together” climax is worthy of applause), making for a ridiculously enjoyable, high-spirited romp.
‘The Italian Job’ (1969)
Michael Caine is a Cockney crook leading a gang of thieves and drivers through an elegant plot to steal four million dollars in gold from Turin, Italy, and high-tail it to Switzerland. In sharp contrast to most caper movies, in which the focus is on the mechanics of the theft, the key to “The Italian Job” is the escape, exuberantly executed by a pack of Mini Coopers in one of the most famous car chases in all of cinema. But there’s more to this than just fancy driving: Noël Coward supplies elegance as a dapper crime boss; Benny Hill is on hand for low comedy; and Caine brings to it his inimitable style, adding a timeless admonishment to the cinema canon: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
‘The Italian Job’ (2003)
F. Gary Gray’s fleet-footed remake isn’t terribly faithful to the source: He keeps the title, the broadest of story strokes and the Mini Coopers, but jettisons the rest in favor of a mustachioed Edward Norton, who double-crosses his fellow thieves, prompting them to reunite to take revenge. Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron generate some sparks, Mos Def and Seth Green get some laughs, and Jason Statham does his best slow burns, but the Coopers steal the show with a thrillingly staged climax that manages to one-up the original’s.
‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (1968)
Few onscreen couples have smoldered as convincingly as Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, cast as a millionaire playboy bank robber and the insurance investigator who might be onto him — and might be falling for him. Their cat-and-mouse game is winkingly sexy, and director Norman Jewison stages their interactions with the same tightly wound ingenuity that characterizes the robberies his hero pulls off for kicks. The film’s trademark split-screen editing was often replicated but rarely duplicated, giving the whole of “Crown” a giddy energy and bouncy vitality that matches the fireworks at its center.
‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (1999)
This remake from John McTiernan (“Die Hard”) sticks closer to its source than the ’03 “Italian Job” did to its namesake. But there are a few modifications, primarily changing Mr. Crown from a bored playboy bank robber into a bored playboy art thief. That change sets up one of the snazziest set pieces in the caper movie canon, as Pierce Brosnan’s art thief stages an elaborate museum diversion to return his stolen prize. Along the way, sparks fly between Brosnan’s enigmatic Crown and Rene Russo’s impeccable investigator, with extra juice supplied by a returning Dunaway in a sublime supporting turn. Enchanting, intoxicating fun.
A crew of hackers, thieves, spies and revolutionaries work as security threats for hire (if they can’t break into your business or its computers, no one can) until they’re hired to recover a black box that seems capable of decrypting any computer system. That box, and the mischief it can cause, provides this breezy caper flick with some unexpected proto-Snowden intellectual heft, but it’s mostly a McGuffin; the fun here is in the device’s thefts and recoveries, and the elaborate and often comic ruses that the team of misfits (Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix) mounts to get it into the right hands.
‘Inside Man’ (2006)
An armed robber (Clive Owen) takes over a Wall Street bank, holding its clerks and customers hostage, but this is no mere “Dog Day Afternoon” riff. The gunman’s exact motives are a puzzle, confounding the brilliant N.Y.P.D. hostage negotiator (Denzel Washington) at its center. Director Spike Lee gives what could’ve been a bank-job retread a palpable sense of time and place, and fills his frames with New York characters: wiseguy cops, seen-it-all looky-loos, and slick power brokers (Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer). But his most fascinating character is Owen’s master criminal, whose true motives Lee keeps under wraps without ever seeming to withhold information. A dazzling and rambunctious crime movie, with a humdinger of an ending.
‘The Score’ (2001)
This 2001 thriller from director Frank Oz is full of stock characters: the career criminal looking for one last big score; the cocky young hothead who wants to partner up; and the old-timer who puts it together. But when those characters are brought to life by Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando, you’re willing to cut the movie some slack. The sheer joy of watching three generations of Method actors thrust and parry overpowers the archetypes’ familiarity, and the heist itself is taut, suspenseful and pleasantly twisty.
‘Matchstick Men’ (2003)
Sam Rockwell’s unflappable, easy-breezy charm makes him a natural for caper movies, and here he plays second banana to Nicolas Cage as the two men work a long swindle on a blustery businessman that gets complicated when Cage’s teenage daughter (Alison Lohman) unexpectedly reappears. Ridley Scott directs, with a far lighter touch than you’d expect from his action and sci-fi pictures, while Cage and Rockwell are convincing as longtime partners who have learned to riff and improvise off each other. The movie itself also has the wiles of a con man: It distracts you with its inventive twists while sneaking in a surprising dose of warmth.
‘The Sting’ (1973)
Few onscreen pairings have conveyed affection and camaraderie as effortlessly as that of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and they easily recaptured the magic of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in their second onscreen collaboration (again under the guidance of “Cassidy” director George Roy Hill). Set in the 1930s, this sparkling, comedic con caper finds our handsome heroes mounting a giant operation to swindle a corrupt banker (Robert Shaw), all to the ragtime sounds of Scott Joplin’s piano. There are turns and reversals aplenty, along with endless charm.
‘The Brothers Bloom’ (2008)
Con-artist brothers Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) set their sights on an eccentric American heiress (Rachel Weisz) with uproarious results in this whimsical comedy from the “Star Wars: Episode VIII” director Rian Johnson. Its script is nimble and joyous, the acting sunny and funny while anchored by real emotion. The third act twists and turns and doubles back to arrive on schedule, but the genuine affection between Weisz and Brody, and the familial tension subtly hinted at by Brody and Ruffalo, create a narrative in which more is at stake than the customary suitcase full of money.