All one needs to make a film, Jean-Luc Godard has famously said, is a girl and a gun, but he might have added something or someone from whom the lady can steal. Because, as Film Forum’s sweeping new series devoted to the heist picture demonstrates, of all the fantasies we go to the movies to indulge in, perhaps none is more elemental than our dream of the big score.
The cinema of theft has been with us from day one, or at least since The Great Train Robbery (1903), but it wasn’t until the Eisenhower era that the modern heist picture took shape. Against the economic growth and sunny optimism of that period, films like John Huston’s b&w The Asphalt Jungle and Richard Fleischer’s Technicolored Violent Saturday gave voice to the workaday futility of those who felt left behind, as well as to those veterans repressing their acquired wartime savagery—such, Brian Keith’s PTSD victim, who in Phil Karlson’s 5 Against the House, plots to get his piece of the pie by filching from a Reno casino.
By 1955, when Jean-Pierre Melville made Bob le flambeur, the quintessential aging-crook-with-one-last-job-to-pull-before-retiring picture, the heist tradition had grown both more stylish and more pessimistic. The French were copying our noirs, as they called them, and we began to copy theirs—a cross-cultural dialogue that inspired the work of several auteurs in Film Forum’s series, including Jules Dassin, a blacklisted American director who shot and co-starred in the classic jewel caper, Rififi, while exiled in France; Godard himself (Band of Outsiders), who had a thing for Hollywood gangster movies; and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino. Mired in their own respective postwar doldrums, French and American audiences must have felt a shared affinity for the safe-crackers and the fences, the gunmen and the getaway drivers, all the loners and losers, who populate these movies.
Melville, above all, devoted the remainder of his career to character studies of supercool thugs, and Film Forum will be screening his final pictures, Le Cercle Rouge(1970) and Un Flic (1972). Both were vehicles for star Alain Delon—who along with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura, Harvey Keitel, and Sterling Hayden, is an axiom of the series—but Un Flic is notable mostly for what may be the sloppiest use ever of rear-screen projections, not to mention a comically shoddy action sequence involving a model train and toy helicopter.
Stateside, though, the 1960s was a time when the heist tradition petered, arguably because political engagement was considered cooler than alienation. The most iconic crime picture of that decade—Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)—was not so much a heist movie as a pander to the counterculture, and it is correctly missing from this series. But when our economy hit the skids again in the 1970s, amid the disillusionment of Watergate and Vietnam, the heist picture enjoyed a renaissance, as evidenced by Film Forum’s inclusion of Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971), Don Siegel’s bewilderingly overlooked Charley Varrick (1973), and Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 (1974).
In some sense, the heist picture found its fullest expression in Paul Schrader’s bleak Blue Collar (1978), the very title of which foregrounds the class struggle that was always at the heart of this tradition. (The original Steve McQueen Thomas Crown Affair , the story of a tycoon who robs for kicks, is the outlier of the series and a fraud.) In Blue Collar , a trio of disgruntled Detroit auto workers—Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor, in a rare dramatic performance—are caught between late-night visits from the taxman and an F.B.I. agent who wants them to rat out their corrupt union bosses. They decide to steal not from the factory but from the union coffers, only to find themselves having fucked with the wrong racket.
In the immediate years following Blue Collar , the heist movie once again lost its cultural traction. The 1980s—with their patriotism and capitalist imperatives—were a particularly fallow period, represented in Film Forum’s series by a mere two titles, Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and Charles Crichton’s A Fish Called Wanda (1981). Bruce Goldstein’s programming is as creative and knowledgeable as ever, but for the post-1970s era he might also have included The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and the escape-from-New York cult favorite Quick Change (1990).
Of course, Tarantino was able to revive our interest in the heist picture during the 1990s, but Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown are conspicuous for their throwback wardrobes and soundtracks, their knowing dependence on our familiarity with the milieux of Melville and Godard and Huston and Kubrick. Same goes for the neglected Dead Presidents (1995) and for Bottle Rocket (1998), both of which might also have fit into this series.
Some pretty decent new heist pictures have appeared in the aughts—Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You Are Dead (2007) and last year’s little-seen Armored—but ask anyone what late model heist pictures they’ve seen and they are most likely to cite Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean's trilogy. Now, Soderbergh’s fourth feature, The Underneath (1995), is an underrated heist movie—yet another title I wish could be included here—but the smug, triumphant Ocean ’s franchise represents, for now, the bottoming-out of this once popular subgenre. With their happy endings and slaps on the back and jobs well done, the Ocean ’s films betray the one core maxim we have all learned from our years of viewing heist pictures: If the big score sounds too good to be true, it probably is.