At their very core, detective and mystery films are stories that deal with right and wrong. The protagonist must right the wrongdoing and find the culprit using their sagacity, deduction, and intuition to help them along the way. Heist films turn that notion on its head. In a heist or caper movie, it is the thief we identify with. We watch with fascination as the heist is planned and flawlessly executed. We watch the master of their trade apply remarkable skills to a seemingly insurmountable challenge, dealing with unforeseen complications along the way. Like its parent genre, the gangster, the heist film has a moral universe under which the conspirators must operate. Although the heist film may appear to have a concrete formula and a set pattern of events, many films can change these patterns to provide an alternative view or completely different experience.
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A very essence of a heist movie is “why.” Why does the thief do what he does? This is an important question as it can tell us many things about a character including the thieves’ morals; what they accept, or what they refuse to do. Sometimes, it is simply the hero’s chosen vocation; crime certainly can pay more than what a detective earns. Often, a film revolves around a thief’s “final big job,”. In Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston) Dix Handley is looking to escape the city life so he can retire back to his peaceful country side. In such instances the risks are high, but so are the rewards. Other times, a character may feel forced to commit the theft, as with Foolproof (2003, William Phillips) in which the main protagonist and his friends are blackmailed into carrying out an intricate burglary. For gentleman thief Sir Charles Lytton in The Pink Panther (1963, Blake Edwards) it was the sport that made burglary a rewarding pastime. For Daniel Ocean’s casino heist in Ocean’s 11(2001, Steven Soderbergh), revenge played a part. Nationalism was a factor in the original Italian Job, as the operation’s financier Mr. Bridger was anxious to take the Italians down a peg and earn a profit for England in the process. Many sources could be the motivator for crime or the reason to pull a heist job.
Due to the very definition of genre, the heist film has a generalized three act formula which is usually employed. The first act usually consists of introduction to characters and their motivations, the preparations for the heist and, most importantly, setting up the plot twists in the final act. In order to be fully prepared the heist planner must gather conspirators, learn the layout of the location to be robbed, and plan their points of entry and exit. Asphalt Jungle follows this mould closely establishing the character of Dix Handley; a simple southern man who only wants to get back home. Following the guidelines, the film continues on to define and plan the heist after the gathering all of the necessary conspirators, each with their own specialized skill.
In an unusual fashion, the film Inside Man (2006, Spike Lee) gives us all our information required in the first act within the first minute of the movie. While we see a close up of his face in a dimly lit room, Dalton Russell, the head of the heist, explains who he is, some of his moral codes, and his motivation.
“My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself. I’ve told you my name: that’s the Who. The Where could most readily be described as a prison cell. But there’s a vast difference between being stuck in a tiny cell and being in prison. The What is easy: recently I planned and set in motion events to execute the perfect bank robbery. That’s also the When. As for the Why: beyond the obvious financial motivation, it’s exceedingly simple… because I can. Which leaves us only with the How; and therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.”
He walks us through the basic questions of who, what where, why and when. This introductive soliloquy sets the tone for his character and the movie as well as establishing the fact that the robbery is currently happening; a foreign idea for the introduction of a heist film as the entire traditional first act is eliminated. Although motive and many other pieces of information are usually established during the first of the three acts, it is rarely as sudden, direct and profound as in this example. This is one of the many ways Inside Man has broken away from the archetypical plot or three act story of a heist film.
The second act of the film is the heist itself. After much careful planning and memorization, the team is ready. All characters gather their specialized tools and the operation is set into motion; however, things rarely go as planned. Sometimes the complication occurs before the heist, as in Bandits (2001, Barry Levinson) where the protagonists pick up a hostage they can’t get rid of. Although the heist will usually be successful, often there will be a complication during or after the heist forcing the protagonist to improvise on their plan; all too often, the complication is a betrayal. Asphalt Jungle continues to follow the genre defined guideless into the second act. After the planning is done, the crew assembles and the jewelry store is robbed. In heist films, the heist itself may either be a very large part of the film as with Inside Man or, it may be a smaller part of the film as demonstrated in Asphalt Jungle. Some films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino) take place entirely after the heist.
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Inside Man exemplifies a non-traditional heist film as the entire first act is eliminated and replaced with the previously noted introduction. The concept of the first act being eliminated is interesting as is keep the audience unknowing. The audience knows nothing about the heist before experiencing it and is constantly thrown around by new facts; the hostages are in a similar situation. By providing the audience with no knowledge, every step of the heist becomes a plot twist as the audience is blind. Inside Man entangles the audience in the plot even further by simultaneously showing the perspective of a hostage negotiator. This confuses the audience as they are now unaware of who are the protagonist and antagonist; who are they hoping to come out on top? This question pulls the audience into the moral universe of the film making it their reality.
In every heist picture, it’s the characters and their special skills that make the entire operation possible. Ocean couldn’t have burgled the Bellagio without a team that included an acrobat, a demolitions expert, a computer hacker, and several role-playing con artists. These amazing specialized skills become part of the definition of the heist genre as they allow the gangster to be seen as a professional; a person who operates under a certain set of rules and codes. Amazingly, Inside Man breaks away from the heist film staple that is the highly specialized team. Because of the audience is also given the perspective of the detective, and due to the way Dalton planned heist, all other conspirators stay anonymous until well after the heist is over.
Inevitably the plot must fray and unravel; this is the third act. Backstabbing, betrayal, and greed are usually embodied. Friends become enemies, and the audience no longer knows who to believe. Characters involved in the heist may end up dead, captured by the law, friends, or a competitor, or without any of the loot; however it is becoming increasingly common for the conspirators to be successful, particularly if the target is portrayed as being of low moral standing, such as casinos, corrupt organizations or individuals, or fellow criminals. This highlights how genres are able to change and form to the attitudes of the contemporary public.
Why is it that we love to identify with criminals, thieves and gangsters, when we’re all supposed to know that stealing is immoral? Perhaps our moral world is more complex than that, in an age where corporate executives get huge bonuses for pillaging entire countries and devastating the environment, where politicians make millions, and where regular folks work multiple jobs just to end up paying for the excesses of others. Or maybe we all just secretly wish we could be successful crooks ourselves, and heist films let us experience that vicarious thrill for a short time. Bruce Willis’s character in Bandits had an interesting point, however, when he stated that he never took a penny from anyone who earned it. The money he stole from banks, after all, was fully insured by a government that can create money just by pushing a button on a printing press. From Robin Hood to William Tell, people who challenged the unbeatable system and beat it have always been folk heroes.
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