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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

Caper Films Deliver the Goods

16 of the best cops-and-robbers movies of all time

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As a lifelong cinéaste, I have a great affinity for movies of many different kinds. But if forced to name my favorite genre, I’d choose cops-and-robbers, especially those that tell the story of ingenious, big-time heists. You know, caper films.

The twists and turns of well-planned bank jobs, jewel robberies or insurance frauds get my movie heart racing. So here’s my super 16 caper flicks, in alphabetical order:

The Asphalt Jungle
(1950): Directed in taut fashion by the great John Huston, this tingling godfather of jewel-heist films was engrossing from start to finish. It stars tough-guy Sterling Hayden with support by Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Louis Calhern and Anthony Caruso. It’s also notable for introducing Marilyn Monroe.

Charley Varrick
(1973): A droll Walter Matthau sparkles as an airplane crop-duster who robs a small-town bank serving as a drop for Mafia money. Also featuring Joe Don Baker and Sheree North, this twisting tale directed by the hard-hitting Don Siegel provides a memorable, bang-up ending.

Double Indemnity
(1944): This suspenseful, Billy Wilder-directed gem is full of nasty characters. Insurance salesman Fred MacMurray and femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck kill her husband to “crook the house.” Claims sleuth Edward G. Robinson jumps in and they share memorable scenes. The Raymond Chandler screenplay is based on James M. Cain’s novel.

The Getaway
(1972): Steve McQueen is at his anti-hero best in this searing story of a daring bank robbery and its bloody aftermath. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, whose work is famed for its violence, the believable cast includes Ben Johnson, Ali MacGraw, Sally Struthers and Slim Pickens—truly tough stuff.

The Great Train Robbery
(1979): Sean Connery conspires with Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down to heist a gold shipment from a speeding train in England in the mid-1800s. Connery on top of the train ducking bridges knocks your socks off. Based on a true incident, this film is stylish, witty and beautifully photographed—really terrific.

Heist
(2001): A cunning Gene Hackman pulls off the creative runway robbery of a Swiss cargo plane, assisted by Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito, Sam Rockwell and Ricky Jay. Patti LuPone shines in a slice-of-life cameo role. Director David Mamet provides a juicy surprise ending.

Inside Man
(2006): Spike Lee’s inspired take on a Manhattan hostage bank job features ingenious Clive Owen matching wits with detective Denzel Washington. Bank owner Christopher Plummer hires the gorgeous Jodie Foster as a problem-solver to retrieve his valuables. Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kim Director are part of a fine cast.

The Killers (1946): In this ultimate film noir based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Burt Lancaster, Albert Dekker and pals rob a factory payroll and are pursued years later by insurance detective Edmond O’Brien. Ava Gardner is a stunning gun moll in this flick in which the sight of killers William Conrad and Charles McGraw introduces “Dragnet” music.

The Killing
(1956): This tough tale of a daring racetrack robbery put director Stanley Kubrick on the map. Its ensemble cast includes Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr. and Timothy Carey. It’s simply not to be missed.

Perfect Friday
(1970): This film features delicious ins and outs as Stanley Baker, a staid London bank clerk, cleverly plans to rob his employer. Enlisting the help of a stunning Ursula Andress and her oddball husband, David Warner, they succeed—in a manner of speaking. It’s sexy, funny and entertaining, with a surprise “gotcha” conclusion.

Rififi
(1955): Famed for its astounding 33 dialogue-free minutes during a riveting jewel robbery, many purists consider this quirky gem the granddaddy of caper flicks. Superbly directed in Paris by the blacklisted Jules Dassin, its gritty realism is unmatched. Starring Jean Servais, Carl Mohner and Dassin himself, Rififi is the ultimate of the genre.

The Score
(2001): Marlon Brando, in his final film, finances the intricate burglary of a Montreal customs house planned by master thief Robert De Niro and young cohort Edward Norton. Also featuring Angela Bassett and jazz singers Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison, the film features nail-biting gymnastics and suspense all the way through.

Seven Thieves
(1960): This taut thriller about the cliff-hanging heist of a Monte Carlo casino concocted by the great Edward G. Robinson is absolutely wonderful. Its sterling cast includes Rod Steiger, Joan Collins, Eli Wallach, Sebastian Cabot and Alexander Scourby. The finale is both heart-rending and apropos.

The Sting
(1973): The best “big con” ever filmed. Paul Newman, Robert Redford and crew whip the game on 1930s mobster Robert Shaw with a dandy racetrack scheme. The cast, which includes Charles Durning, Robert Earl Jones and Harold Gould, helped the film win Best Picture and Best Director (George Roy Hill).

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
(1974): On-the-lam bank robber Clint Eastwood teams with youthful drifter Jeff Bridges and ex-partners George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis to break into an impregnable vault using a 20-mm anti-tank cannon. The daring plan works fine, but soon after things start to fall apart. The film is colorful and scenic, with a tragic ending.

Topkapi
(1964): In another Jules Dassin-directed winner, Peter Ustinov copped an Oscar as a clumsy member of an eclectic gang of thieves planning the perfect crime in a heavily guarded Constantinople museum. Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, Robert Morley and Akim Tamiroff are truly delightful in this lighthearted and classy film.

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