Heist film

A heist film is a film that has an intricate plot woven around a group of people trying to steal something. Versions with dominant or prominent comic elements are often called caper movies. They could be described as the analogues of caper stories in film history. Typically, there are many plot twists, and film focuses on the characters' attempts to formulate a plan, carry it out, and escape with the goods. There is often a nemesis who must be thwarted: either a figure of authority or a former partner who turned on the group or one of its members.



The verb to caper means to leap in a frolicsome way,[1] and probably derives from capriole,[2] which derives from the Latin for goat (note: Capra (genus)). The noun caper, [3] means a frolicsome leap, a capricious escapade or an illegal or questionable act. The noun heist, originally a verb, was American slang[4] that probably derives from hoist, meaning lift, in the sense of shoplifting.

The archetypical plot

Usually a heist film will contain a three-act plot. The first act usually consists of the preparations for the heist: gathering conspirators, learning about the layout of the location to be robbed, learning about the alarm system, revealing innovative technologies to be used, and, most importantly, setting up the plot twists in the final act.

The second act is the heist itself. With rare exception, the heist will be successful, though some number of unexpected events will occur.

The third act is the unraveling of the plot. The characters involved in the heist will be turned against one another or one of the characters will have made arrangements with some outside party, who will interfere (often a wise underestimated detective). Normally, most of or all the characters involved in the heist will end up dead, captured by the law, or without any of the loot; however, it is becoming increasingly common for the conspirators to be successful, particularly if the target is portrayed as being of low moral standing, such as casinos, corrupt organizations or individuals, or fellow criminals.

Variations on the plot

As an established archetype, it became common, starting in the fifties, to excise one or two of the acts in the story, relying on the viewers' familiarity with the archetype to fill in the missing elements. Touchez pas au grisbi and Reservoir Dogs, for example, both take place largely after the heist has occurred.

Examples of heist films that take place non-linearly: The Killing, Gambit, Reservoir Dogs.

All-Star team of criminals

A team of experts is assembled especially for a big job - each provides some special skills like e.g. safe-cracking or explosives. This allows film-makers to use an all-star-cast playing each important character. Ocean's Eleven and its sequels is an obvious example. Often the film will begin with the characters actually being released from prison for a previous crime. Sometimes the required expert is currently in jail and must be broken out specifically for the job.

One last big job

One of the common forms of the heist is the one last big job. In it, a team of criminals are gathered together for a final caper that will make their fortunes and take them away from a life of crime forever. Usually, the added risk combined with the promise of an ideal life once the job is done provide for a natural element of suspense. The story then follows the execution of the job, or, if in the beginning the job goes horribly wrong, with the actions of the survivor(s).

Examples of "One Last Big Job" films: Sexy Beast, Heat, The Town, The Score, Christopher Nolan's Inception, Fast Five (2011), and the 2001 version of Ocean's Eleven.

Related film archetypes

The "heist film" is the most well-known of a number of closely related archetypal storylines. All involving collaborative efforts that require elaborate preparation and dramatic fallout, there is also: the prison-break film, the assassination film, and the hostage film (usually shown from the opposite perspective: that of the hostages and the rescuers). A number of spy films also have heist-like plots.

Additionally, it is common for films to have sections that are modeled after the heist film archetype. National Treasure, etc.[clarification needed]


Early examples of films which elaborately depict a heist are the three screen versions of the play Alias Jimmy Valentine, the first two made in the silent era (1915 and 1920). Throughout the 1930s, thievery and scams were present in such films as Raffles, Outside the Law, The Unholy Garden and Ninotchka. The classic film noir period of the 1940s and 1950s brought the genre to fame, by focusing more explicitly on the heists themselves, with such films as John Huston's Asphalt Jungle, Jules Dassin's Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur, or Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Since that time caper movies have been shot in many variations, ranging from light-hearted folly of the 1960s classic like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with its cast of clowns led by Jimmy Durante and the British made Crooks and Coronets to darker, more challenging treatments introducing innovative ways of craftsmanship, such as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs or Christopher Nolan's Inception. Even to contemporary Hollywood, the genre still remains promising, as the remakes of Ocean's Eleven (2001) and The Italian Job (2003) show. Examples of the variety of directions the heist film can take would include the comedy heist film such as Topkapi, the western heist film such as The War Wagon, the war/heist film such as Kelly's Heroes and numerous spy movies and television programs which had heist-like plots, most notably Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief.

List of heist films


  1. ^ Caper; definition 2 from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  2. ^ Capriole from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  3. ^ Caper; definition 3 from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  4. ^ Heist etymology from EtymOnline

External links

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