Much of the thrill of watching movies on the big screen is the vicarious enjoyment we get out of lives and experiences we would never have. For most of us, that extends to the many intricate, elaborately planned heist set pieces that have become a cinematic staple. Let's dig into some of the many, many epic cinematic robberies audiences have gotten to witness over the decades. What distinguishes these thefts is that, for the most part, they were successful (for a while, at least), enacted by clever, slick operators - which is why Reservoir Dogs and Dog Day Afternoon will not make the cut.
Which robberies were the best-plotted or best-produced? Vote for your favorites (and/or least favorites) below!
- 17 VOTESPhoto: Warner Bros.
In order to get the attention of Gotham City crime bosses, the mysterious, anarchic Joker (Heath Ledger) sets up a fiendish heist of what is supposed to be a mob-protected bank.
During a bravura opening sequence for The Dark Knight, it appears the Joker has hired six crooks, all wearing terrifying plastic clown masks, to enact his complicated plot. Two clowns break into the bank from the roof, while three others travel in an anonymous van, and the sixth arrives late with a school bus equipped to haul off the cash. All the crooks seem curious about the Joker, who they believe is sitting out the job but still expecting an equal share of the loot. We discover that, at certain points, each crook is told to eliminate a specific associate in order to guarantee themselves a bigger slice of the take.
By the end of his robbery, the Joker is the last man standing, having done away with all the goons he hired. A corrupt mob banker (William Fichtner), bleeding out on the marble tile, complains that the Joker's new breed of crooks lack a code of honor, which should have precluded them from hitting a mob bank. The Joker shoves a grenade in his mouth, and drives the bus to safety.
The robbery irritates the local bosses, which was the Joker's operating intention all along. He doesn't care about earning their capital, per se - he cares about securing control over the city's syndicates and plunging Gotham into chaos. This first theft puts him in an ideal position to achieve that.
- 24 VOTESPhoto: Pathé
Just-released con Tony "le Stéphanois" (Jean Servais), a veteran career jewel thief, plans the elaborate robbery of a Parisian jewelry store's safe with his friends/former criminal associates Jo "le Suédois" (Carl Möhner) and Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel). They recruit expert Italian safecracker César "le Milanais" (Jules Dassin). They use sophisticated tools to chisel through the cement ceiling of the store from the apartment above it during the store's off-hours. Upon getting inside, the team turns off the store's high-tech alarm system.
They successfully rob the vault without leaving any identifiers on the scene, though ladies' man César also swipes a diamond ring for his nightclub singer girlfriend Viviane (Magali Noël), unbeknownst to the others. The clever theft would have gone without a hitch save for the fact that Viviane works at a nightclub owned by the Grutter crime family, who recognize her new jewelry and connect it to the crew's heist, which has become speculative fodder for local newspapers. Soon, the Grutters are striving to relieve the original crew of their haul.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Career thieves Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to propose a complex multi-casino heist to Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), a rich former casino owner. They convince Reuben to fund the operation by suggesting they will steal from the vaults of three casinos owned by Reuben's rival, Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), in tandem. We discover that Danny, too, has some motivation for robbing Terry Benedict: The wealthy casino owner is currently dating Danny's ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts).
They expect that one of these locales, the Bellagio, will be holding at least $150 million on the night they're targeting for the lottery, as a big boxing bout will be transpiring that evening. Danny and Rusty hire eight specialists to round out their team, all designed to maximize the efficacy of their mission.
The team researches every inch of all three casinos and the habits of its security staff, and builds an exact replica of the vault. On the night of the theft, we realize that we were only privy to a portion of Danny's plan. Danny deliberately makes sure Benedict locks him in a vault for the night, seemingly clearing him of any involvement in the upcoming job. What Benedict doesn't know is that Danny is paying off the guard Benedict tasked with locking him up, and is soon free to assist in the robbery for the night (though he returns to the vault when the job is done).
The team fakes security footage of themselves robbing Benedict's vault (actually the replica), and Benedict calls in what he thinks is a SWAT team (actually Danny's crew) to protect his vault. They successfully rob the vault even while Benedict thinks they're defending it, which Benedict only pieces together in retrospect, though he can't actively connect Danny to the crime.
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Impossible Mission Force superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is tasked with preventing a rogue agent from stealing a CIA non-official cover (NOC) list, which divulges the protected identities of every active covert CIA undercover agent. Hunt discovers that his first effort was a setup designed to flush out a mole within his organization, and that IMF believes he is that mole.
Eventually, Hunt, fellow surviving team member Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), and new two new ex-IMF additions, hacker Luther Stickell and helicopter pilot Franz Krieger, become freelance operators for arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), who has been given a phony NOC list. Max agrees to pay them $10 million to swipe the real list from the CIA's headquarters in Langley, VA.
That mission, a highlight of the film, happens around its midpoint, prior to several character betrayals as we discover the true identity of the mysterious "Job" who has been infiltrating IMF. The heist in question proves to be (ahem) a nearly impossible task. Ethan smuggles into the locked-down "black vault" containing the computer terminal with the NOC list. The only person permitted into the room must clear several security checkpoints before entering. So Ethan and his team poison the drink of CIA analyst William Donloe (Rolf Saxon), causing him to get violently ill and eventually leave the room. Meanwhile, Luther smuggles Ethan into the vault through a series of air ducts, where he must hang upside down until Donloe clears the room. After a series of close calls, Hunt and his team successfully smuggle the list out of CIA headquarters.