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The Greatest Heist Comedies of All-Time

Written by on August 23, 2017 

The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)

the-ladykillers

Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) lives alone, but takes in a lodger in the form of Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) who plans to use the rented room as a practice space for his string quintet. The Professor’s ruse disguises the fact that they’re criminals, planning to rob an armored car, using the sweet old Mrs. Wilberforce’s bountiful kindness to their advantage. What’s remarkable about the Ealing Studios comedies (and most good comedies in general) is that the plotlines feel closer to dramas or thrillers with the comedic elements employed as acts of sabotage. The laugh-out-loud funniest moments in The Ladykillers stem not only from the clash of personalities crammed into a North London house, scenically located above the King’s Cross tunnel, but also from witnessing the antiheroes’ failure. The Ladykillers is like the comedic equivalent of a beautiful Swiss clock, its every move so precise and flawless that it’s a pleasure to watch as it ticks.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton)

the-lavender-hill-mob

Another effortlessly charming Ealing Studios comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob is a film about the working class of London, slaving away under the hopes of a 15-shilling raise. Holland (Alec Guinness) works for the bank, overseeing the transfer of gold bullion, thought of by his employers as a pathetically honest and unimaginative sap. Living in the Lavender Hill Boarding House with other impoverished folks, Holland and Pendelbury (Stanley Holloway) devise a plan to make off with the gold by smuggling it to Paris in the form of Eiffel Tower paperweights. Director Charles Crichton allows the narrative to gracefully dance between dizzying pangs of hilarity and suspense, delivering an unabashedly lively and entertaining romp with a touching, heartfelt aftertaste.

Ocean’s Eleven trilogy (Steven Soderbergh)

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Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven trilogy floats lighter than air through a series of juggernaut heists, repeatedly throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into the air, all the while its architects, led by Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) don designer duds, drop wry one-liners and “never break a sweat.” The fact that these photogenic cons succeed time and again is a testament to the creator’s skillful grasp of ‘70s neo-noir aesthetic, delivered in the form of a star-studded, sweet-as-bubble-gum crowd-pleaser. Steven Soderbergh’s breezy style, held aloft by David Holmes’s effervescent score, renders each con as gleefully enjoyable one-upmanship, each twist more deliriously bold than the last, stunningly paired with witty, quotable dialogue crackling with elegant splendor.

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)

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After busting out of prison, bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and partner Buddy (Ving Rhames) plan to rip off a wealthy businessman (Albert Brooks) who they met in jail. However, Foley soon finds himself falling for U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) who’s right on their heels. Steven Soderbergh’s wildly inventive adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel slow burns to its climatic heist, setting the table with vividly drawn characters with whom we enjoy spending time, before moving to its inevitable bittersweet, tragicomic ending. Decked with a sea of richly nuanced supporting performances from Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina and Nancy Allen, Out of Sight is a slick, brazenly engrossing semi-classic.

Quick Change (Howard Franklin and Bill Murray)

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Dressed as a clown, Grimm (Bill Murray) pulls a gun and forces everyone into the bank vault, after a short diversion in which he must convince them that he’s not joking. “What kind of clown are you?” asks a shocked security guard (comedian Bob Elliot in a scene-stealing turn) “The crying on the inside kind, I guess,” Grimm replies. Quick Change opens with a misleadingly painless and laughably easy bank robbery in the middle of downtown Manhattan. It goes off without a hitch. But once Grimm and his accomplices (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid) get out with the loot and head for the airport, they find the hellish landscape of post-Reagan New York City stands in their way at every turn. Untouched by time, Quick Change is a bleak and cynical cult comedy, so much so that audiences at the time of its original release didn’t know what to make of it, resulting in the film barely managing to break even at the box office.

Three Kings (David O. Russell)

three-kings

At the end of the Persian Gulf War, a group of soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze) find a secret map leading to hidden bunkers containing Kuwaiti gold bullion. Bored from the lack of “action” they experience in the desert, they set out to steal the gold. David O. Russell’s black comedy turned war caper quickly sets the tone as Wahlberg’s confused Troy Barlow shoots a surrendering Iraqi soldier in a misunderstanding, which horrifies him and excites the other Americans, hungry to see blood in the sand. Initially, the Americans ignore the horrors they witness, single-mindedly interested in the gold. But as the U.S. military spins its wheels, allowing Saddam Hussein’s troops to suppress and dismantle the Iraqi uprising, the would-be gold thieves can no longer turn a blind eye. At times, Russell aims for a Dr. Strangelove level satire, and inevitably falls short, but nonetheless, Three Kings accomplishes a great deal in its valiant, kinetic attempt.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino)

thunderbolt-and-lightfoot

One of the more offbeat entries in the Malpaso filmography, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is so playfully aw-shucks in its tone and attitude that star Clint Eastwood all but surrendered the film to a young Jeff Bridges, whose performance becomes the narrative’s beating heart. A man in a black suit enters a church, interrupting a pastor’s sermon. The man pulls out a gun and starts blasting away at the pastor, who hightails it out the back door. Dodging bullets, the pastor (Eastwood) escapes to the highway, where he’s almost run over by Lightfoot (Bridges), a fresh-faced free spirit in a stolen muscle car. The two team up and plan a daring bank heist, but director Michael Cimino’s film is more concerned with the peculiarities of its characters than it is with the mechanics of the robbery. Moments such as when Bridges jokingly threatens to smear raccoon shit on Eastwood are delivered with a disarming innocence. Energetically careening back and forth between goofy warmth and brash genre thrills, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is as lively and cool as its lead characters.

Logan Lucky is now in theaters.

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