hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season so far. I’ve been enjoying great Christmas break with my family in the delightfully cold and wet Puget Sound area.
recently, in between all the holiday parties and travel I’ve been researching the “Heist” movie. and by “researching” I mean “watching a lot of them.” during this process I’ve taken notes in order to try to identify the “genre conventions.” that is, I’m looking for the characters, plot points, and sequences that occur again and again throughout the different films. often these reoccurring elements are called “tropes” but that reminds me of tripe and generally I try and stay away from that. unless it’s in a delicious soup, but I digress…
in this essay I’m going to share what I’ve found thus far. first off, a few quick terms.
certain characters occur throughout the genre, I’ve named these “Players” The Team, The Leader, The Loose Cannon, The Woman of Loose Morals, The Big Boss, and The Investigators. Generally the Protagonist (the good guy) is the Leader, while the Antagonist (the bad guy) is either the Big Boss or the Investigators…in some films both will be after our hero!
certain plot points or “story beats” occur in almost every Heist film. I’m going to be calling those story beats “Movements.” they include The Plan, The Small Heist, The Caper, The Shit Goes Sideways, and The Get-Away.
and of course, all these players and movements are leading up to the goal of the Heist film…and I’m calling that The Big Score.
The Big Score
almost all of these films revolve around the Protagonists trying for one, and often “last,” Big Score. generally this takes the form of diamonds or untraceable cash. it is almost always something fluid. that is, they are not stealing a Van Gogh or something similarly unique. The Big Score is not desired for prestige, honor, or revenge – it is done for financial gain. this cash is often a means for the Protagonist to Get Away from their current life, which, not surprisingly is often a “life of crime.” the cash will be a way for them and their loved ones to start fresh somewhere new (THE TOWN, THE BANK JOB, THIEF, A FISH CALLED WANDA).
there are a few exceptions, in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, the Big Score is attempted because of the Protagonist’s apathy with life. in THE ITALIAN JOB (’69) & TOPAKI the Protagonist acts because…well, actually I don’t really know. maybe it’s “the only life they know?” these films lacked a strong dilemma for the Protagonist and thus are not that interesting to me. I didn’t feel the Protagonist had a compelling need to take the personal risk required to get the Big Score. because of this I was not rooting for them to succeed. the lack of a “strong dilemma” is something I might write more about in the future…but for now I’ll stick to Heist movies.
before the Protagonist can attempt to take the Big Score, they first need to assemble The Team.
generally the Protagonist is also the Team’s Leader (THE TOWN, THOMAS CROWN, THE BANK JOB, etc…). Occasionally, in an ensemble film, there won’t be a clear team leader (A FISH CALLED WANDA, RESERVOIR DOGS). Interesting side note: both these films take place almost entirely after The Shit Goes Sideways movement. the Leader knows what the Big Score is, and that they will need help executing The Caper, so they seek out individuals with specific, specialized skills.
these often include, the Electronics Expert, the Munitions/Explosives Expert, the Driver, and the Seductress. When the Seductress is a member of the team she is also The Woman of Loose Morals (A FISH CALLED WANDA, THE BANK JOB). however, the Woman of Loose Morals can also be a non-team member (THE TOWN). another common team member that fills multiple rolls is The Loose Cannon. this character occasionally also functions as antagonist (A FISH CALLED WANDA, THE TOWN, RESERVOIR DOGS). The Loose Cannon is most likely the “Munitions Expert.”
frequently code names are used. sometimes these are anonymous, e.g. Mr. White/Mr. Orange from RESERVOIR DOGS, sometimes they are colorful, like The Major (THE ITALIAN JOB) or The Schlub (TOPKAPI).
Team Members often have opposing objectives. this could be a secret mission (THE BANK JOB), a plan to double cross their teammates (A FISH CALLED WANDA) or fundamentally different goals for after The Caper (THE TOWN). these opposing objectives will come to a head in The Shit Goes Sideways.
occasionally The Team will have a silent partner in the form of the Big Boss. the Big Boss will have set the wheels in motion for The Caper by cluing the Leader into the Big Score (RESERVOIR DOGS, THE TOWN, THIEF). he continues to help in The Plan by providing financial and operational support for the Team. at first it may seem that the Big Boss and the Protagonist have the same goals, but as the story progresses they will come into opposition and the Big Boss will be revealed as an ANTAGONIST.
I’ll talk more about the Big Boss later, but before that…every Big Score requires The Caper. and in order to successfully pull it off, the Team needs The Plan.
in this movement the Leader or the Big Boss walks the Team step by step through the parts of the Caper. often this will include information from an Inside Man (THE TOWN). the Plan will include studying blueprints, diagrams, safe specifications, car routes and other data that is crucial to the Caper. the Leader or the Big Boss does not go into details on how they arrived at this very specific and in theory, private material, it is just accepted that they have been able to obtain it (THE BANK JOB, THIEF, THE ITALIAN JOB).
after studying the layout of the building or the car routes on paper, the Team will then begin the surveil these in person. during this time they learn the schedules and routes of the guards and delivery personnel and the audience learns more about the dynamics of the Team (RESERVOIR DOGS, THE BANK JOB, TOPKAPI).
another important part of the Plan is for the Team to find various Experts who will either procure or build “specialized tools” for them to use during the Caper. these experts may join the team (TOPKAPI, THE BANK JOB) or remain separate entities (THIEF).
now with the intelligence regarding the location and the specific tools for the job, the Team will begin to practice. sometimes this practice is done on their own, separate from the outside world (THE ITALIAN JOB), sometimes this practice is done indirectly through a series of Smaller Heists.
The Small Heists for The Small Scores
practice and team building often will take the form of Small Heists for Small Scores. these might be similar in nature to the Big Score, e.g. the Team robs an armored car instead of a bank. but the Small Heists always have less risk and less reward.
throughout these Small Heists the audience sees the Team growing and bonding. the Leader asserts control and helps the Team both grow in their skills and become a cohesive unit. during this movement the Character Flaws of the Loose Cannon and the Woman of Loose Morals will begin to show, giving hints of the problems that will occur later in The Shit Goes Sideways.
the Small Heists do not necessarily need to be successful. the Team will either learn from its mistakes or gain confidence through its success. either way they continue to drive forward towards the Big Score.
the Plan to execute the Caper for the Big Score often gets complicated by the ANTAGONISTS. these usually take the form of the Big Boss or the Investigators. sometimes the Team is squeezed by both (THE TOWN; LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS).
and next week we’ll pick back up with The Big Boss!
until then, here’s the trailer for TOPKAPI… pay attention to how they talk about the Big Score, the special skills of the Team, and show the Investigators!