A great heist film, like a convincing magician or overconfident poker player, lives and dies by misdirection. Misdirection at its best comes in the form of deception, not only in a heist’s antagonistic force, but in well-earned deception of the audience. Made to remember and forget all at once, the audience is given an intricate understanding of the ‘set up’, the uneasy alliances and the colourful roster of characters that make up the crew. Within all of this, a heist film, if it is smart enough, attempts to develop the deeper narrative push for why we should care in the first place.
That last feature is one that has not always been necessary for a great crime caper. From Lavender Hill Mob (1951), to the Italian Job (1969), to Robert Redford’s The Sting (1973), the heist genre has been able to rely on ragtag antics, roguish protagonists and well-placed tension to carry the day. The payoff was what mattered in these films, and as such made them shine in their own slick execution. In our day and age, however, with an increasingly cine-literate audience that delight in their ability to foresee a twist or surprise ending from a mile away, how is the heist film faring?
It seems that the more enduring modern heist films have been the ones in which the heist is incidental to other narrative beats and richer character development. We tend to simply forget that celebrated recent additions, such as Baby Driver (2017) and Inception (2010) belong to the genre – we remember them for differing stylistic and thematic choices that have nevertheless entertained their audiences. What’s more, Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018) re-imagines the underdog nature of heist logic for a wider discussion on female identity. Increasingly, the inherited legacy of the heist is being re-shaped to tell more inspired stories.
Misdirection can still be preeminent, but often with diminishing returns. The Steven Soderbergh helmed Ocean’s 11 franchise is one such example – the recent outing Ocean’s 8 (2018) reflects a failed, glossy attempt to re-capture the charm of the original film with a new all-female cast. Despite clamouring objections across the internet and beyond, Ocean 8’s problem was never with its new female leads. Rather, the film was marred by the fact that it was part of a franchise attempting to re-package what had come before, whilst attempting to pave its own way with misdirection and twists that fell flat. Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) may play the sister of the original films’ lead, but that does not necessitate her having the same motivations and compromising love interests. When lazy character choices persist, crafting an unpredictable story loses its heart.
What, then, has the heist genre inherited that still makes it so popular? The answer is set expectations. Audience familiarity can be a blessing or a curse for any sub-genre in cinema, but a heist flick will stand to benefit from initially wearing its heart on its sleeve. Audiences want to feel as if they have a grasp on the situation – one hand on the proverbial wheel, so to speak.
Within the language of the heist, this translates to ‘The Big Score’ – this can be anything from casino winnings to gold bullion, or in the brilliant case of Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1980), a stockpile of steel kitchen sinks. Whatever the score is, it represents a narrative endpoint, and something that even the most vigilant of viewers will be obliged to latch onto. More often than not, the antagonist of a heist movie is an easy-to-identify, despicable figure, deserving of some form of retributive justice due to their greed or general villainy. The heist becomes that justice and the eventual victory of our protagonists becomes the narrative fulfilment. There is much fun to be had with this. In most cases, we put conventional morality to the side and champion our motley crew of vault breakers or jewel thieves.
Yet we don’t want the film to ever make it too easy. The old adage “keep them guessing till the end” continues to ring true. Dramatic tension is still king, and the possibility of ‘The Big Score’ coming to fruition must always be in doubt. This is no small feat, and only works when the misdirection lies not just in the heist itself, but in the motivations of the characters involved.
The cool slickness and clever contrivances of heist films are very much at the core of what makes them beloved and dissected by cinema audiences. What’s more, these films have allowed for iconic moments in so many filmographies, with the genre being played with by directors from Tarantino to Guy Ritchie. Nevertheless, the dangers of ‘style over substance’ are at the heels of the modern heist film, forcing it to adapt. Ironically, this is the best inheritance the genre could ask for.