(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: some of the best oddball heist/robbery movies you’ve never seen.)
You’d be forgiven for not knowing this as it’s hardly being used as a marketing point, but Zach Braff has a new film hitting theaters this week. I already knew this, as I’m both a professional film critic and a card-carrying member of the “Braff is a Pretty Good Director” club. (No, those two things don’t cancel each other out.)
Braff’s latest is a notable departure from his two more personal dramedies about how angsty your twenties and thirties can be, and to prove it he’s not even starring this time around. Going In Style is instead a remake of Martin Brest’s 1979 classic which starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as old friends, well past the prime of their lives, who decide to rob a bank. Braff’s redo features Alan Arkin, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman as the threesome, and we’re hoping that together they can create an entertaining and affecting film that finds the same blend of laughs and pathos.
Inspired by this rogue’s gallery of octanagarian thieves, I’ve put together a list of six great movies about elaborate and/or odd thefts, robberies, and heists.
Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)
Harry Digby (James Caan) and Walter Hill (Elliott Gould) are vaudevillians hoping to make it big with their singing, dancing, comedy showcase, but when their only form of real income – stealing from the audience members – lands them in jail, a new opportunity presents itself. Inspired by the respect and admiration earned by the debonair thief Adam Worth (Michael Caine), the duo set their sights on the biggest safe heist the 1800s have ever seen and find themselves in direct competition with the legend himself.
Gould is a natural on stage as he was trained for it, but any concern that Caan would fail to keep up are quickly squashed as the pair show great chemistry in and out of their stage act. There’s some fast-moving and witty dialogue alongside some stellar physical gags, and it’s fun watching their ragtag team come together. It’s a slow build to the heist itself, but the final set-pieces offer up some suspense and smart editing as everything comes together.
Director Mark Rydell’s (The Cowboys, On Golden Pond) fifth feature underwhelmed everyone when it opened, and even Caan has gone on record regarding his unhappiness with the final product. But any movie with this cast – Caan, Gould, and Caine are joined by the likes of Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, Burt Young, Charles Durning, and more – is at least worth a watch, and happily it delivers plenty of laughs along the way. They all do good work here, but Caine steals the show as the film’s egotistical straight-man forced to contend with everyone else’s antics.
The Silent Partner (1978)
It should have been a simple robbery, but after Harry (Christopher Plummer) gets away with the cash, he hears something interesting on the news. The bank is reporting that he stole $50k more than he did, and he soon discovers why. It seems a bank teller (Elliott Gould, again!) caught wind of his plan and pocketed the loot in advance, and now Harry won’t rest until he gets it all.
This is by far the least elaborate of the cinematic robberies and heists covered here as it’s basically just a single man in a Santa suit walking in with a gun and walking out with the money, but the twist here is just so damn brilliant. Gould’s teller, Miles, is an average, mild-mannered guy who makes a spur of the moment decision that quickly comes back to bite him in the ass. Harry is not a nice man, and Plummer kills it as the frustrated and cruel thief. He hasn’t been this frightening since The Sound of Music in which I understand he plays a singing Nazi? I haven’t seen it, but it sounds terrifying. Susannah York is on-hand as the girl Miles likes who finds herself caught up in the escalating violence, and John Candy even pops up for a brief role.
If for some reason the cast and plot don’t do it for you I’ll also share that it’s written by the eternally wonderful Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, The Dunwich Horror). His script does great work setting up the two leads with subtle insights into their character and motivations, and what could have been a simple thriller becomes a fun and twisted game of cat and mouse with both players underestimating just how far the other will go. Again, it’s a simple movie, but damn if it isn’t an effective one.
Killer Fish (1979)
A group of Americans in Brazil sneak into a water plant/dam facility and steal a fortune in emeralds and other gems before barely eluding the authorities with the loot. Knowing the heat is on, they submerge the haul into a nearby lake for safekeeping for sixty days, but unbeknownst to the others, the leader of the group takes a precautionary step of filling the lake with piranha to prevent early withdrawals. The plan goes less well than you’d expect.
Look, this is one of those movies that’s admittedly better in premise than execution, but there’s still plenty of ridiculous fun to be had. The crew includes James Franciscus, Lee Majors, and Karen Black, who, along with three others, enter into a game of backstabbing and double-crosses leading to some very well-fed piranha. Director Antonio Margheriti also gifted the world with films as beautifully-titled as Mr. Hercules Against Karate and Yor, the Hunter from the Future, but this is writer Michael Rogers’ sole IMDB credit. Make of that what you will.
The traditional heist element opens the film, and it closes with the surviving team members trying once again to secure their treasure, but in between we get all manner of other goodies. Margaux Hemingway appears as a model who takes a shine to Majors’ habit of wearing shirts open to his belt buckle, a brief and non-condescending conversation about bisexuality appears somewhat ahead of its time, and a storm comes along that damages the dam (complete with exploding miniature model sets) sending the thousands of hungry fish towards the resort below. Finally, and this is a move that deserves some respect, Majors – whose production company with then-wife Farrah Fawcett made the film – actually finds a way to work “Farrah” into his final line of dialogue.
[Buy Killer Fish on Blu-ray/DVD]