by Christopher Campbell
This list was originally published on July 1, 2009. It is being reposted ahead of the opening of the bank robbery comedy "30 Minutes or Less."
Before seeing Johnny Depp as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s new crime film "Public Enemies," we decided to check out an earlier portrayal of the infamous bank robber, Lawrence Tierney in "Dillinger." The 1945 picture is a bit disappointing in terms of bank jobs, which are mostly shown in quick succession during a montage. There is one interesting robbery, but technically it’s an armored truck heist (also, having been shot by Fritz Lang for an earlier film, the scene doesn’t quite fit the rest of the movie). From what we hear, the robberies in "Public Enemies" aren’t that much more memorable, even if they do resemble an MGM musical, which is a shame considering how clever the real Dillinger was.
We definitely prefer a clever criminal and a clever plan when it comes to bank robber movies. Otherwise it’s just yet another taut thriller or slapstick comedy involving a tunnel dig from the bakery/bathhouse/chicken restaurant/luggage store/etc. next door. So we’ve come up with ten favorite bank jobs that involve originality and a successful getaway (a plan isn’t that clever if it doesn’t work). There have been hundreds of bank robberies throughout film history so if we’ve forgotten something really clever, inform/remind us of the movie in the comments. We’ve purposefully excluded armed vehicle, stagecoach and train robberies, though, so stick specifically to internal bank jobs.
10. Clive Owen Hides in the Wall, in "Inside Man" (2006)
In Spike Lee’s complex heist drama, Clive Owen plays one of the smartest, most precise bank robbers ever seen at the movies, and though his scheme is figured out in the end, it’s already too late for him to get caught. To begin, he and his team enter a New York City bank disguised as painters and refer to each other only as variations of the name “Steve.” Simple enough, but then as time goes on there are some mysterious activities going on with the moving of hostages and some sort of carpentry occurring inside a stockroom. Ultimately, the employment of fake kills and fake walls is ingenious, though the overall idea of camouflaging robbers as hostages had been done before (see #1).
9. The Money is Floating Out of the Bank, in "The Invisible Man" (1933)
Is an idea clever if it’s not technically possible? Well, there are apparently scientists working on achieving invisibility, with relative success, so in the future H.G Wells’ concept of an invisible man may not be so unfeasible for real life criminals. Of course, by then it won’t be such an original idea to rob a bank using the power of invisibility. It’s the second most likely thing for a man of such ability to do (the first is to go into the women’s’ locker room). For Claude Rains’ character in James Whale’s adaptation of the Wells novel, the concept was still pretty original and obviously quite brilliant. And his idea to have the money just float outside and into the streets, for the townspeople to take, is very generous.
8. Modern Robin Hoods Don’t Actually Steal Anything, in "Wisdom" (1987)
If Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore were merely modern day Robin Hoods in this film (which Estevez also wrote and directed — with help from Robert Wise), they wouldn’t have qualified for the list, but because they didn’t actually steal any money from the banks they robbed, their holdups are quite interesting. During the 1980s, when American farming was in crisis, it was more beneficial to decrease farmers’ debt than increase their cash in hand. Does burning mortgage records still count as stealing? Yes, in a way that’s cleverer than simply looting money.
7. Small Army, Big Take, in "Kelly’s Heroes" (1970)
In this larger-scale precursor to "Three Kings," a group of American soldiers led by Clint Eastwood venture into enemy territory during WWII to steal a huge cache of gold bars located in a bank vault. It’s certainly unlike most heist films in that it’s also a war movie, and both the robbers and the bank guards are armed with tanks.
6. Army-Trained Crew, in "The League of Gentlemen" (1960)
Of course, "Kelly’s Heroes" wasn’t the first film to feature a group of soldiers-turned-bank robbers, but it’s still quite different from "The League of Gentlemen," which isn’t set during wartime. Instead the film involves former army personnel who are deemed corrupt in some way or another who are brought together to lend their specific military expertise towards a foolproof bank heist plot. We consider the plan foolproof despite the group’s ultimate downfall, and still count the job as a relative success (compared to most foiled heists in other movies) due to the very rare and circumstantial reason that they were caught.
5. Elliott Gould Takes Advantage of His Situation, in "The Silent Partner" (1978)
Pulling a job from the inside isn’t always a good idea, but Elliott Gould shows us that it can work if the inside man isn’t connected to the outside men in any way. He plays a teller who learns that his bank will be robbed, so he puts aside a whole bunch of money for himself knowing that it will just be lumped in with the real robber’s take, as far as the bank and the police are concerned. Unfortunately, the real robber (Christopher Plummer) catches on to Gould’s sneaky cut-in and threatens his life. "The Silent Partner" is apparently a remake of a 1969 Danish film with the English title "Think of a Number," so that film should get some credit for this clever plot.
4. Lola Keeps it in the Family, in "Run Lola Run" (1998)
When she is desperate to get her hands on 100,000 Deutche Mark to pay a ransom, Lola’s (Franka Potente) options are depicted in three different scenarios. In the second of these segments, she decides to rob the bank where her father works. It’s a bold plan, but in a way it’s pretty clever because nobody would expect a banker’s daughter to be a bank robber. Of course, in the long run (no pun intended) such a crime wouldn’t really work, because she’s so easily identifiable, but in the short run it’s perfect, and hilarious, how the cops outside the bank don’t believe a young woman with bright red hair is the one robbing the bank.
3. Thomas Jane Investigates His Own Crime, in "Stander" (2003)
This film gets special props for being a true story, because it’s not often enough that real-life criminals are more clever than movie criminals. Thomas Jane plays a South African police Captain (named Stander), who starts robbing banks when he grows tired of his normal life. In the movie he often looks ridiculous, wearing disguises that seem straight out of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video. But his heists work out due to how unbelievable they are. Because he’s a cop, nobody suspects Stander for a long time, even when he’s recognized by a teller while leading an investigation of a robbery that he himself committed (this same irony occurred in the search for the informant “Deep Throat,” too).
2. The Joker Kills His Crew, in "The Dark Knight" (2008)
The opening sequence of "The Dark Knight" works so well on its own that it functioned almost as a pre-feature short when released as a promotional tool attached to prints of "I Am Legend." Really it’s one of the greatest bank heist scenes of all time, partly because it’s so clever. The concept of a gang leader killing off his team one by one in order to acquire 100% of the haul may not be the freshest, yet it’s written and executed (no pun intended) so perfectly that the plan seems original. The cleverest thing about this heist, though, has to be the Joker’s use of a school bus as a getaway vehicle so that he may blend in with a convoy of buses leaving a school.
1. Jean-Paul Belmondo Clowns Around, in "Hold-Up" (1985)
We’ve actually never seen this French Canadian comedy, but it was remade as one of our favorite Bill Murray films, "Quick Change" (both films are based on a novel), which we always thought had the most clever bank robbery in cinema before discovering this earlier film. So we’ll go by what we would have written for the American version and apply it to the source:
The employ of costumes in bank robberies was nothing new when Jean-Paul Belmondo and Guy Marchand wore disguises in this underrated comedy (which also stars Kim Cattrall, apparently in the Geena Davis spot), but the way the duo pulled off their costume changes was more clever than any other heist we’ve seen on the big screen, before or since. Belmondo enters a Montreal bank as a clown and seeming solo robber. Then, after letting his accomplice Marchand go free as a “hostage,” he changes into normal clothes and pretends to be a hostage, as well. In "Quick Change," the way the re-disguised bank robbers get lost in the frenzy outside the bank is a little unlikely, but otherwise the plan seems smart and easy enough that once we’re sure nobody remembers either "Hold-Up" or its more well-known remake, we may actually try to pull it off ourselves.