A beaten path to the loot
You’ve no doubt seen the movie where the middle-aged guy with a checkered past of theft and intrigue gets pressed into service for one last job before he turns in his gun. You know the one -- he puts together his assorted crew of various specialists, cases the joint, does the dry run, pulls off the heist while nearly getting caught (the proverbial opportunity to say “we’ve got company”), catches some insider trying to pull off a double cross and gets away with the loot, if not the girl.
More than likely, a montage of clips from half a century of caper films just flashed on your mental silver screen, movies from John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” to the recent crop of score flicks, both original and remade.
The next fixture in a caper parade that continues through the summer comes at the end of the month, when “The Italian Job,” the remake of the 1969 heist film, has Mark Wahlberg reprising Michael Caine’s classic role of career criminal Charlie Croker with a retro-modern spin involving a fleet of Mini Coopers.
While the details of this latest in a run of hip ‘60s caper remakes -- from “The Thomas Crown Affair” to “Ocean’s Eleven” -- may feel ingenious, they’re merely variables pushed through the same equation that constructs the skeleton of nearly every caper movie ever laid onto celluloid.
The anatomy of a caper, in fact, breaks down into five simple steps.
1. Introducing the leader
Case in point: “Heat,” Michael Mann, 1995
The leader of the heist is usually just released from jail or nearing the end of the con game. It’s almost always, he swears, his last job, often one he takes on reluctantly, to save his neck or just to fund his retirement. And when we meet him, he must be shrouded in mystery.
In “Heat,” when we meet Robert De Niro playing Neil McCauley, he’s dressed in an EMT’s uniform, walking through a hospital corridor. He looks vaguely out of place, and we wonder why we’re in a hospital when we showed up to see a heist movie. Simple: He’s there to steal an ambulance as part of a big heist he plans to bring down.
Later, with the heat closing in, he heads for another big score that proves to be his last. Though his personal philosophy has been never to get close to anything he couldn’t walk away from, McCauley has fallen in love -- and following a simple caper rule, love and crime don’t mix.
2. Assembling the crew
Case in point: “Ocean’s Eleven,” Steven Soderbergh, 2001
Most decent capers follow a colorful assortment of criminals through their specialties, and bringing them together is always a key stage. In “Ocean’s Eleven” (details follow the remake, not the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle), Danny Ocean (George Clooney) needs to put together the perfect crew for an impossible job -- carrying off the cash stockpile of a string of Vegas casinos.
Soderbergh uses the classic technique of cutting to each specialist in the thick of their quotidian activity. We meet slick right-hand man and cardsharp Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) in the middle of a card hustle at a casino table. We meet Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), the upstart pickpocket and son of a master thief, picking pockets for chump change on the Chicago subway. And the list continues until reaching the title-fulfilling 11.
The crew convenes at the luxe pad of Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould), the job’s bankroll, the guy -- a caper staple -- who has enough cash to finance a state-of-the-art job that can allow for an elaborate and spectacular heist.
3. Casing the joint
Case in point: “The Score,” Frank Oz, 2001
In every caper, you’ve got to have someone on the inside to case the joint to be invaded, or you’ve got to get them there. In “The Score,” thief Jack Teller (Edward Norton) gets a job as a janitor in the storage facility where a priceless scepter is stored. Teller’s disguise is his cunning impersonation of a man with cerebral palsy, which he maintains until the heist goes down.
With Teller on the inside, blueprints can be stolen, guards’ daily activities can be monitored, and the extensive and high-tech alarm system can be understood. From there, gadgetry can be developed and plans can be made -- though usually parts are kept from the audience so the cleverness of each move can be experienced in real time.
And, of course, through the process, the stakes keep getting higher.
4. The heist itself
Case in point: “Rififi,” Jules Dassin, 1954
These days, most big heists flow from a basic pattern of using high-tech equipment that disables surveillance, with men clad in black or phony uniforms, lots of “Mission Impossible"-style gymnastics -- you know the drill. The granddaddy of all heist films, however, was built on ingenuity. It didn’t require time lapses or even music to heighten tension -- this one did it in real time and silence, which means 28 minutes of coughs, taps and drilling.
But it did rely on the three most crucial components of any heist -- a strict time lock, a clever plan and the fear of getting caught.
The thieves in “Rififi” tie up the couple living in the apartment over the jewelry store they intend to rob. With a soft hammer, they form a hole in the store’s ceiling, brilliantly opening an umbrella through the hole to catch any falling plaster that could set off the alarm. To protect the safe they wish to crack from its alarm’s sensitivity to vibrations, they stabilize it with the foam from a fire extinguisher, and then the safecracker, played by Dassin himself, drills through the safe’s back, the drill’s agonizing whirring timed exactly to the rhythms of the beat cop’s walk outside the store.
The sequence -- with no dialogue, or high-tech effects -- is gripping.
5. The double cross/getaway
Case in point: “Heist,” David Mamet, 2001
No caper film is ever complete without the double cross. It’s what maintains the suspense right to the closing credits, and without it, a caper movie would just lose its steam after the completion of the heist. Mamet, king of the double cross, threaded the theme throughout “Heist.” Joe Moore (Gene Hackman), who, like all caper protagonists, is used to working with his own guys on his own terms, is forced to pair up with a crime boss’ nephew Jimmy Silk (played by a mustachioed Sam Rockwell). There’s no love lost between these hotheads on the job, and once the heist is pulled off, Moore sends his slinky wife Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) to spy on his adversary.
Fran proceeds to sell out the middle-aged, end-of-his-game Moore to the richer, younger Silk, telling him that the stash of gold has been installed as metalwork on Moore’s boat.
But because one double cross is never good enough in these films, we realize that Moore has double-crossed the double-crossers and actually disguised the stash as copper tubing in his shipbuilding warehouse. Alas, he is double-crossed again. And because there needs to be one more cross for a satisfying ending, after the tubing is taken from the warehouse and we feel all is lost, we see Moore pulling out of the warehouse in a truck filled with junk metal. A metal rod hits the wall on the truck’s way out, scraping to reveal the glint of gold underneath.
Our hero rides off with the take, after four head-spinning shifts of duplicity following the end of the heist. And, criss-cross, that makes it a caper.