Crime Films: A Monthly Column
How can we best define the heist film? According to the dictionary, a heist is an unlawful appropriation of someone else’s property, a hold-up accomplished through violence. Heist films concentrate on not just any hold-up but a final triumphant haul, a single major scheme that will enable the thieves to go straight and live in style forever. While banks are their usual target, movie heisters also plot against racetracks, safes, and rich Texans–anyone or anything that controls massive amounts of removable wealth.
Heist films are highly plotted, with the emphasis falling on intricate planning. Traditionally they were intellectual thrillers with engaging protagonists–smart guys after what we all want: immense piles of money. They enabled us to identify with the bad guys–to admire their audacity, brains, and ambition–while they also, ultimately, condemned the thieves’ greed. Movie heists were usually non-violent; the heisters got into that bank vault through brains, not brawn (or at least not through shooting people), and they got out the door through their wits. Most of their schemes ended in failure and death, however, a sign of the heist film’s roots in film noir and of movies’s need to disapprove of crime in the long run. (The exception here is Bound (1996), which features female heisters and delights in challenging moral codes.)
Heist films are frequently confused with other types of thrillers, such as revenge films and complex underworld films such as Kiss of Death (1949). They are also confused with bank robbery films such as Bonnie and Clyde that don’t qualify because they are more episodic, following an entire criminal career instead of a single plot for a big haul. But knowing what to include in the heist category can be difficult. I’d include The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), starring Matt Damon, because it is an intellectual thriller with a single criminal masterplan. However, I’m unsure about The Simple Plan, Sam Raimi’s 1998 movie about people who serendipitously find a downed plane with a cockpit full of money and then face the problem of making the booty their own. (I’d like to know readers’ opinions on this.)
Heist films, as Shots in the Mirror shows at greater length, enjoyed a golden age from about 1950 to the mid-1960s, a period that saw the release of such classics as White Heat (1949), Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1956), and The Killers (1964). Paralleling these American heist movies, French classics appeared in the same time period: Rififi (1955) and Bob le flambeur (1955). But then decline set in. Off-the-mark efforts include Killing Zoe (1994), a would-be hip film that replaces the traditional taut scenes of studying the bank’s blueprints with tedious episodes of drug partying. American counterparts include Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Ocean’s Twelve (2004)–comedies more than crime films–and The Italian Job (2003), a movie larded with (and weakened by) interminable boat and car chases. Jam-packed with plot improbabilities, The Italian Job fails to do what a genuine heist film must do: challenge our wits. We couldn’t possibly guess what its thieves are going to do next because no one could actually do it.
For Inside Man Spike Lee assembled a terrific cast, many of them actors with whom he’d worked with before, including his friend “D”: Denzel Washington, here playing hostage negotiator Keith Frazer, the film’s chief cop. The acting is particularly good in the ad-libbed interrogation scenes, where Washington, given opportunities to improvise, fleshes out his character and interjects witticisms into the dialogue. (To a released Sikh hostage who complains that the cops have confiscated his turban, Frazer replies, “But I bet you can get a cab in New York,” an ad-lib that forced Spike Lee to cut the scene abruptly in order to excise his whoop of laughter.) Lee here editorializes less than usual; although he still preaches, for the most part he instructs by following the maxim Show Don’t Tell..
Playing with heist film traditions, Inside Man offers both a heist film and an anti-heist or un-heist film simultaneously. While I don’t want to give the plot away entirely, let me mention that those guys with the guns and masks are not really bank robbers, and that the true bad guys are the corporate types–the bank chairman (Christopher Plummer) and the power broker (Jodie Foster). In this heist film, you can’t tell the hostages from the thieves, and the story does not end in failure. Few critics picked up on this playful element in the script. Reviewer Roger Ebert, for example, wrote that “We can’t accept the motive and method of the bank robbery.” Of course not–we aren’t supposed to! The movie itself gently pokes fun at the motives and methods used in traditional heist movies, as Ebert and other critics might have realized through Inside Man’s references to an earlier anti-heist, Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
What I liked best about Inside Man was its easy, relaxed tone: the film is casual, comfortable, self-assured. Lee’s low key style is a welcome contrast to the faux anxieties and strained efforts to amp up tensions that we find in, for instance, The Italian Job. Nor does Inside Man’s camera work indulge in the smarmy steep angles and endless closeups with which other recent heist films labor to make big stars seem heroic. Its camerawork is, instead, straightforward, almost intimate, with crane shots reserved to establish the Wall Street setting.
Does Inside Man signal a revitalization of the heist movie? That remains to be seen, of course, but hopefully, the future will bring a restoration of the heist film’s traditional liveliness and wit. With luck, we will start to see more tight, unpretentious heist films like Inside Man.
Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Her column is published on the 4th Tuesday of every month. Check out last month’s column on Miami Vice.