Edgar Wright takes a break from his signature brand of genre comedies to write and direct Baby Driver, an action thriller that follows Baby (Ansel Elgort), a reluctant getaway driver with tinnitus who uses music to drown out the ringing in his ears. Wright puts his own unique take on the heist film with Baby’s tale — he is beholden to crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) and is lauded as the best getaway driver there is, but wants out of his criminal lifestyle, dreaming of an escape with diner waitress Debora (Lily James).
Since there have been banks, there have been bank robbers and films about them — featuring signature heist film elements like the fabled “one last job,” the reluctant criminal trying to go straight, loose cannon villains, and action-filled getaway sequences. Even one of cinema’s earliest films, The Great Train Robbery, is essentially a heist movie. And Wright is known for his slick style full of references to films and properties from the past, so it’s no surprise that his latest entry draws on one of the oldest and most beloved genres around.
Before you check out the soundtrack-fueled Baby Driver (in theaters now), take a look at one (or more) of these eight classic heist films.
Larceny, Inc. (1942)
The basic plot of a heist film often lends itself to a multitude of genres. In this gangster-comedy film, Edward G. Robinson spoofed his beloved tough guy persona as “Pressure” Maxwell, a recently released felon who has vowed to go straight. When he finds his business plans have gone awry, he purchases a luggage store next to a bank with the intention of using the proximity to tunnel into the bank. The trouble begins when the store starts turning a profit. Robinson had grown weary of the persona that had made him famous since 1931’s Little Caesar and jumped at this chance to take a comedic turn. Jane Wyman, the first Mrs. Ronald Reagan, has a memorable role as Robinson’s niece who helps propel the store to success as a legitimate enterprise. It also features many other beloved Warner Bros. contract players including Broderick Crawford, Jack Carson, and Anthony Quinn. Though he’s never formally confirmed it, Woody Allen’s 2000 film Small Time Crooks seems to have been influenced by this charming twist on the heist film.
Available on: DVD
Criss Cross (1949)
After their success with the film noir The Killers, director Robert Siodmak and star Burt Lancaster re-teamed for this tale of an armored truck driver who finds himself mixed up in underworld dealings when he tries to win his wife back. Steve (Lancaster) can’t get ex-wife Anna (a pre-Munsters Yvonne De Carlo) out of his head, but when he returns to town he finds himself in a love triangle with gangster Slim Dundee (noir stalwart Dan Duryea). He devises a plan to double-cross Slim in a robbery of the armored car he drives for work, but things quickly take an unexpected turn. The film features so much backstabbing and double-crossing, it’s no wonder it’s titled Criss Cross. Siodmak made use of the iconic Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles (now torn down and redeveloped), staging a heist on the streets of the city with the famous Angels Flight funicular train for a backdrop. As a good guy caught up in a crime that’s out of his depth, Lancaster perfects one of the tried-and-true protagonists of the heist film. As an added treat, a very young Tony Curtis makes his screen debut in an un-credited role as one of Anna’s dance partners at a seedy nightclub. Curtis would later star opposite Lancaster in Trapeze and The Sweet Smell of Success.
Available on: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
John Huston’s tale of a jewel heist gone wrong when human frailty and double crosses intervene marked a new kind of gangster picture in American cinema. Including the line “Crime, my dear, is merely a left-handed form of human endeavor,” this film was one of the first to look at criminals as essentially good men with an offbeat profession. With the atmosphere of film noir but the professional criminals of a gangster movie, The Asphalt Jungle studied crime as a career choice rather than a consequence of desperation. Though Huston had already made a name for himself as a director, this deviated from the more enclosed and claustrophobic interiors of his previous work. He took a more open approach to the urban environment, making the gritty metropolis a character in its own right. Huston capitalized on the rising trend of neorealism in filmmaking, using the urban landscape as a realistic means of accenting the restlessness of the characters. The film features an 11-minute heist sequence that raised eyebrows with the Production Code Administration for its how-to guide of criminal activity. Though the jewel robbery goes off without a hitch, the men prove to be their own undoing. Marilyn Monroe appears in her first speaking role as the mistress of one of the crooks.
Available on: Amazon, Vudu
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
This wry British comedy follows shy and unassuming bank clerk Holland (Alec Guinness) as he decides to steal the gold bullion he is entrusted with watching over. When he meets his new neighbor Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway who is best remembered as Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady), they hatch a plan to smuggle the stolen gold out of the country as souvenir Eiffel Tower paperweights. Hijinks ensue when two bumbling crooks are brought on to assist with the robbery and schoolgirls mistakenly purchase the solid gold miniature Eiffel Towers. Shot on location in London, it earned Alec Guinness his first Academy Award nomination. Producers Ealing Studios were famous for their dry and dark comedies, and this is one of their finest entries. A wild car chase, sight gags, and dizzying trick shots inject it with the necessary energy of a heist thriller. You can spot a very young Audrey Hepburn in one of her first film roles as a South American cigarette girl with one line in the opening scene.
Available on: DVD, Google Play, Vudu
Considered the gold standard, Rififi has influenced and inspired nearly every heist film that’s come since. Its centerpiece, the robbery of a jewelry story, takes up a quarter of the film’s running time (it was only 10 pages in the 250 page novel the film was based on). Nearly completely silent, featuring only natural sound and no music or dialogue, the 32-minute heist scene is meticulous and unsettling; its lack of sound heightening the tension to an almost excruciating level. The robbery is so well executed supposedly some real life thieves have used it as a guide for their own crimes. The word “rififi” is French slang for a machismo or show of force found in the criminal underbelly of Paris. Written and directed by blacklisted American expat Jules Dassin while he was living in France, the film injected the gritty realism and avant-garde techniques of the French New Wave into the American crime film. While the thieves pull off the job flawlessly, their own human foibles ultimately prove their undoing. Dassin is a triple threat in the film, appearing as Italian safecracker Cesar, in addition to his writing and directing duties. He went on to win Best Director that year at the Cannes Film Festival at a time when he was nearly destitute having had to flee the U.S. in the wake of the Blacklist. Many believe a murder in the film when one of the thieves betray their code of silence was a direct jab at those who had named names to the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee, destroying careers and lives in the process.
Available on: DVD/Blu-ray
The Killing (1956)
Heavily influenced by The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing tells the tale of a band of desperate men who come together to stage an elaborate racetrack heist. Each one has his reasons for his involvement – from a veteran criminal (Sterling Hayden) who wants one last score before he goes straight and settles down to a corrupt cop (Ted de Corsia) to a bartender (Joe Sawyer) who needs money for his wife’s medical bills to a betting window teller (Elisha Cook, Jr.) afraid his wife will abandon him if he doesn’t bring in some cash. As with so many of the films here, the heist goes well but avarice and the fickle hand of fate trip them up in the end. This was director Stanley Kubrick’s third feature, but it was the first to put him on the map as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. Kubrick said of his approach to the film, “In a crime film, it is almost like a bullfight; it has a ritual and a pattern.” The film used its low-budget limitations to craft a thriller that drips with realism and urgency, and it makes expert use of the technique of shifting points-of-view to retell the story from multiple perspectives. Its non-linear storytelling has inspired generations of filmmakers, most particularly Quentin Tarantino. Kirk Douglas was so impressed with the film that he recruited Kubrick to direct his next film Paths of Glory (1957).
Available on: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
How to Steal a Million (1966)
Shot on location in Paris, this charming, insouciant confection merges the heist film with the romantic comedy. Looking delightfully “mod” in her custom ensembles from Givenchy, Audrey Hepburn stars as Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of an art forger who must perpetrate a heist to try to protect her father. Peter O’Toole stars opposite her as an art thief she recruits to help steal the forged statue from an art museum. When Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffith) lends one of his forgeries to a Paris museum, Nicole determines to steal it to prevent his being found out and arrested when it is inspected. Having already caught Simon Dermott (O’Toole) robbing her apartment, she enlists his help. In the midst of their attempted heist, the two fall in love. The plot is deliciously preposterous (though director William Wyler initially sought counsel on a heist film from Stanley Kubrick), and it enhances its dizzy narrative with its dazzling visual style and the ebullient chemistry between O’Toole and Hepburn. It introduced a new lightheartedness to the genre and added the extra sheen of the Paris art world. Hepburn looks exquisite here in modish, chic fashions with swooping eyeliner. With the assistance of Givenchy, she reinvented herself as a style icon yet again.
Available on: Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu
The Italian Job (1969)
Edgar Wright cited this comic caper as a direct influence on Baby Driver. The Italian Job (which got a remake of its own in 2003) was a delightfully dippy product of its time, reveling in its ability to turn the heist into farce and featuring a distinctly groovy, 1960s atmosphere. A young Michael Caine stars as Charlie Croker, a lothario and criminal mastermind who plots to steal a gold shipment by using a traffic jam in the streets of Italy as a distraction. Playwright and actor Noel Coward makes his final cinematic appearance as crime boss, Mr. Bridger, running the operation from inside prison. More style than substance, this film offered a knowing, tongue-in-cheek alternative to the suave charms of the James Bond franchise, aided by a groovy Quincy Jones soundtrack. The film’s car chases and use of a trio of red, white, and blue mini-Coopers have become so entrenched in British culture that it and Caine’s famous one-liner (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”) were featured in the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony. Ultimately, the film revels more in its car chases and visual tomfoolery than the actual heist itself, even leaving viewers with a literal cliffhanger of an ending.
Available on: Starz, Vudu