/Answers: The Greatest Movie Heists

Logan Lucky photo

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. Tying in with the upcoming release of Logan Lucky, this week’s edition asks “What is your favorite movie heist scene or sequence?”

Ethan Anderton: Mission: Impossible III

The Mission: Impossible franchise may not immediately come to mind when you think of heist movies since they’re action adventure and spy movies first. But each of the Mission: Impossible moves involves at least one heist where the cast breaks into a seemingly impossible to penetrate facility. While the original is a staple of cinema, it’s been a little hard to appreciate as much knowing that the room containing the NOC list has every security measure imaginable, except video surveillance. But I digress.

For me, I think one of the best heists comes from Mission: Impossible III, when the IMF team has to break into the Vatican City in order to retrieve the MacGuffin known as the Rabbit’s Foot. The only way to do that is to kidnap the man who has it in his possession, the dangerous, underground criminal Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It’s a task that requires Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his entire team to pull it off, and it also requires the use of the staple IMF mask technology, which makes for a great scene where Tom Cruise slowly is transformed into Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The scene is exciting, suspenseful, and makes great use of the team dynamic that all Mission: Impossible movies have at their center, despite being considered Tom Cruise vehicles. Plus, there’s a great moment of levity when Ethan Hunt, as Owen Davian, and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) have a casual exchange right in the middle of the heist.


Jacob Hall: Rififi

Like the grizzled, older gangster coming out retirement to teach the young punks a thing or two, Jules Dassin’s Rififi remains one of the greatest crime movies ever made over 60 years after it was made. Released in 1955, this noir classic is a noteworthy heist movie for two reasons. First, the big job isn’t the climax of the film – it takes place in the second act, with the rest of the film dealing with the fallout of the “perfect crime.” Second, the big job practically is the entire second act of the film, running 28 minutes and showcasing a jewel heist in such agonizing detail that the film was reportedly banned by French police for being a little too real.

It’s a remarkable heist (sandwiched in a remarkable movie), made all the more breathless and intense because it plays out without dialogue or score. To slip past a vibration-sensitive security system, the crew of criminals use a specialized set of tools to break in through the ceiling and proceed to not make a peep as they carry out the robbery. This means every sound we do hear – a deep breath or the tap of a hammer or even a misplaced footstep – is enough to make you leap out of your seat.

It’s a thrilling experience to watch characters who are good at their jobs do them well. And while Rififi ultimately punishes its characters for their crimes, for 30 minutes, we’re on their side, on the edge of our seats, watching as they showcase true professionalism. Sure, it’s professionalism in service of illegal activity, but you have to admire the nerve and the precision. And that applies to Dassin’s filmmaking, too.

Vanessa Bogart: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

“Do you wanna dance? Or do you wanna dance?” Aside from being one of the sexiest movies ever made (That sheer dress! Those marble stairs! Is it getting warm in here?), the 199 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair boasts not one, but two of the greatest art heist scenes in cinema. And although there is a lot to admire about the opening heist of the $100 million San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight by Monet, the heist that has never been matched in my mind,is the one at the end, the one that adds insult to injury: the theft of The Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil by Edouard Manet.

The heist of the Monet that the film is centered round is impressive, and definitely an intricate affair. It is executed so meticulously that even though the detectives on Crown’s tail know it was him, they can’t seem to prove it. And yet, somehow, this $100 million job isn’t the most impressive heist in the film. The whole film is a perfect game of cat and mouse made even more enticing with a passionate love affair. Watching Rene Russo and Pierce Brosnan toy with one another almost makes you forget about the expensive object at the film’s center. However, Catherine is a serious woman, and through several misunderstandings, Crown knows, anticipates, and counts on her betraying him to the police. He tells her the exactly when he will return to the museum to replace the stolen Monet.

Upon entering the museum in a grey overcoat and red tie, Crown makes sure all eyes are on him, before placing a bowler hat on his head, the perfect image of the figure in The Son of Man, a painting by Rene Magritte that has been shown more than once throughout the film. Crown utters “let’s play ball,” and walks calmly but purposefully into the crowd. To the police, this seems like it will play out as a simple arrest, but that calm sense of inevitable victory is quickly shattered when they realize that Crown has no intention of being caught. Set exquisitely to the tune of ‘Sinnerman’ by Nina Simone, men with grey overcoats, red ties, and bowler hats fill the corridors of the museum, making it impossible to determine Crown from the lookalikes. It is a perfectly orchestrated dance. Once the distraction is set, Crown changes clothes and sneaks into the impressionist wing under the cover of smoke bombs and a fire alarm.

The metal guards close over the paintings to protect them from the sprinklers, but they stop just shy of the Pissaro painting that Crown had so generously donated just three days following the Monet heist. The water begins to wash away the paint exposing the stolen Monet beneath it. That son of a bitch. Before the detectives and the audience can even begin to comprehend the fact that the painting had been there the whole time, the metal gates open, and the Manet that Catherine had admired earlier was gone.

The key to a great heist film is to fool the detectives and the audience. Thomas Crown managed to do so with class and a wicked sense of humor. You can’t help but smirk and applaud. You have been fooled in the most delightful way.

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