Ever since Robin Hood, storytellers have been fascinated with the idea of theft as a noble concept, a compelling element of civil disobedience that can have various social meanings attached to it. Of course, Robin Hood robbed the rich to give to the poor, leveling the field for underdogs, but as time has gone on, those underdogs have evolved into increasingly more-vicious beasts of prey.
This week’s release of Killing Them Softly continues and furthers the tradition, ascribing the same bottom-line motives held by major corporations and predatory bank lenders to mob bosses who want to avenge the robbery of a poker game by two low-level hoods. As the film’s star Brad Pitt recently told Interview magazine, the film is “a call for responsible capitalism.” Though Killing Them Softly specifically relates to contemporary times—it’s set during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election—it also hearkens back to a theme that’s been part of heist films for as long as they’ve been made: Various forms of oppression can be exposed, if not necessarily rectified, by donning a ski mask or dark sunglasses to make a big score.
Click through for five more films that have depicted the pursuit of ill-gotten gains for the greater good.
Photo: Plan B Entertainment
Odds Against Tomorrow
Usually, the tension in a heist film comes from uncertainty over whether or not the thieves will be able to pull off the job. In Robert Wise’s tense 1959 nailbiter, it all boils down to whether or not the three desperate men who rob their local bank will kill each other before the police come to kill them. The trio is composed of an African-American (Harry Belafonte), a bigoted white parolee (Robert Ryan) and the disgraced ex-cop (Ed Begley) who brings the other two together. The first film produced by Belafonte’s HarBel production company used the backdrop of a bank job movie and its aftermath as a compelling allegory for America’s cultural climate in terms of race at the time. Odds Against Tomorrow made great strides toward social progress in placing Belafonte in the lead, an African American first for the popular film noir genre, and hired blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky (under the alias of John O. Killens) to write the script.
Photo: Courtesy of MGM
Dog Day Afternoon
The gay relationship that was a major motivation in the true story behind Sidney Lumet’s famous 1975 crime film is downplayed, and logically so. When in the midst of a hostage crisis, one has more pressing issues to think about than sexual orientation, which made Dog Day Afternoon a case of saying more with less. No didacticism is allowed to set in during the sweaty standoff after Al Pacino’s Sonny takes a Brooklyn bank hostage with the goal of paying for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery. Sonny became one of the movies’ most memorable antiheroes for screaming “Attica! Attica!” By portraying a deeper love for a significant other than most Hollywood romances, Dog Day Afternoon left an equally lasting legacy by incorporating gay and transgender relationships as a part of the everyday world movies are a reflection of.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Set It Off
Following the Whitney Houston-Angela Bassett ensemble drama Waiting to Exhale by just one year, Set It Off was among the first times audiences were treated to a film with a quartet of strong African-American women onscreen. Unlike the adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best seller, Set It Off was intended to leave moviegoers breathless. Not since the days of Blaxploitation star Pam Grier had mainstream moviegoers seen the likes of such tough, proud and resilient ladies doing it for themselves—Queen Latifah, Kimberly Elise, Vivica A. Fox and Jada Pinkett Smith created a formidable bank robbing posse. Ordinarily, breaking the law might not sound like something worth celebrating. Then again, in Set It Off the law hasn’t been fair to the women. All four are in the struggle to leave the projects. One (Pinkett Smith) sees her brother shot by the police; another (Elise) has her young son unfairly taken away by social services; the most upwardly mobile of the group (Fox) is fired from her job as a bank teller when, for no other reason than she’s black and the perpetrator is from the same neighborhood, she’s suspected of aiding a robbery. Ultimately, crime may not pay for the characters in the movie. But in terms of empowering a host of underrepresented groups on the big screen, Set It Off—which has become a cult classic in the years since its 1996 release—has reaped great dividends.
Photo: Courtesy of New Line Cinema
If you haven’t seen the Denzel Washington-Clive Owen battle of wits Inside Man, you may want to stop reading in advance of a spoiler. If you have seen the film, you already know director Spike Lee’s biggest hit was a bank heist thriller where the most surprising twist was that it ultimately committed no real violence at all. Instead, keeping in line with Lee’s socially conscious work to date in films such as Do the Right Thing and Get on the Bus, Lee demonstrated to his largest audience to date that thought could be more powerful than guns. Lee also hinted that the guardians entrusted with power may need to be undermined every now and then to keep them honest. The film is filled with clever tweaks on traditional Hollywood, whether it’s the equal weight and respect given to both Washington’s sharp-dressed detective and Owen’s clever thief or the fact that the true villains in the film aren’t those involved in the robbery, but rather dirty public officials and the owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer) whose hidden past comes back to haunt him. While Owen’s character tells the audience directly he’s “not a martyr” for his actions, Inside Man atones for generations of films that have played into easy stereotypes. Made in 2006, it also serves as a surprisingly prescient tale of greed that plays even better post-economic crash of 2008.
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
As originally conceived in 2005, Tower Heist would’ve brought together Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx and Chris Tucker as the African-American answer to the mostly caucasian cast of the Ocean's 11 capers. That cast in itself would’ve made a statement at the often diversity-starved mainstream multiplexes. Although that version of the film never came to fruition, the green-lit comedy did dip into social issues, pitting the underpaid staff of a tony New York high-rise against the one percent billionaire who resides on the top floor. The staff had lost all of their pensions by placing the money in a Bernie Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme hatched by the billionaire. Not only did the villain (played by Alan Alda) seem more evil at the time of Tower Heist’s 2011 release than any bad guy with loads of guns, but the 99 percent who hatches a plan to break into his penthouse was well-represented by a cast that still included Murphy, along with a multi-ethnic array of actors such as Ben Stiller, Michael Pena, Matthew Broderick and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe.
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