Over the decades, the heist film has spoken to us: Leave behind the daily grind, the suburban doldrums, it says. Riches, glamour, the good life are all within your grasp -- reach out and take them. While dangling from a rope, that is. Yes, there will definitely be some rope-dangling involved.
The appeal of the heist film, according to director Brett Ratner, is that "everyone dreams of stealing something and getting away with it." Or, as Noel Coward's underworld boss says in the original "Italian Job," "The whole world is a little bent." Yes, we've all got a little criminal in us, daring us to take something we're not supposed to, whether it's pens and legal pads from the supply room at work or a priceless Monet from the Met. Heist films sing to that felonious side of our human nature.
Ratner's latest film, "After the Sunset," starring Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek as jewel thieves who have retired directly into La Casa de Good Life on a beach in the Bahamas, reminds us once again how much more enjoyable our lives could be if we only had the guts to make the Big Score. The arrival of "Sunset," with "Ocean's Eleven" sequel "Ocean's Twelve" just around the cinematic corner, continues a recent heist revival. Like other recent caper films, including Brosnan's turn as the title character in "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1999), "Sunset" sells the seductive, charming, even amusing side of crime. That these are often remakes of '60s films is telling: The original "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), "The Italian Job" (1969) and "The Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) all offer variations on a slick cool that, in retro, smooths our edgy modern nerves.
We admire the master thief who calls his own shots and takes pride in his work, and cannot help but applaud the audacity of criminals of vision who set out to do the impossible, to breach the impenetrable. The solitary cat burglar who swipes diamonds the size of super-gobstoppers, a la Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief" (1955) or David Niven, who was out to nab the original Pink Panther in the 1963 film of the same name. Or the cocksure leader of a gang of skilled oddballs plotting an intricate caper, such as Danny Ocean (as played by Frank Sinatra and George Clooney) or Charlie Croker (Michael Caine, then Mark Wahlberg in "The Italian Job"). Like superspies, heist thieves get to use ultra-cool gadgets, but aren't encumbered by the whole "Loyalty to the Cause" thing and don't have to report to stern, stuffy government types. (Although the veddy British Coward in "The Italian Job" comes close.)
We swoon for their unflappable calm under extreme pressure -- as we know so well from our own mismanaged lives, you can lay down the most meticulous and intricate plans imaginable, but the real trick is how cool you remain when Fate and Chaos kick in the door. Or when you find your busload of gold teetering over the edge of the Alps.
The '60s heist films also offer an oddly respectable form of societal subversion. They stick it to the Man by going straight to his capitalist heart: They rob from him. There's a wink behind their finely tailored suits that says, "I'm part of the Establishment, but I stole in the back door and still have a little mud on my Italian shoes." This is especially true of McQueen's Thomas Crown, who's the CEO of a successful legitimate business but gets his kicks by sticking up the System he feels has him trapped.
That's another reason we feel safe rooting for the criminals. Most heists aren't going after the little guy or pinching mom and pop's nest egg -- they're stealing from palaces of vice such as casinos or racetracks, from corporate banks, or from other thieves. And if they occasionally lift a priceless objet d'art from a museum, well, that just demonstrates their higher aesthetics.
And speaking of appreciation of aesthetics, how can we not admire the craftsmanship, even artistry, that goes into planning a big movie heist? The poring over of blueprints and schematics, the navigation of alarms and security cameras. We're dazzled by mind-boggling complex plans, such as the multilayered mechanisms of the 2001 "Ocean's Eleven" remake. Who can't love a casino heist that involves not only high-tech trickery but good old-fashioned explosions, party balloons, acrobats and, of course, the inevitable rope dangling.
Although Ratner's "After the Sunset" follows in this school of lovable-rogue-caper films, the director is much more a fan of the heist film's grittier roots. "My favorite of all time is 'The Killing,' " he says, calling out Stanley Kubrick's 1956 fatalistic racetrack robbery. He also loves the classic French heist films, such as Jean Pierre Melville's "Bob Le Flambeur" (1955) and "Le Cercle Rouge" (1970), the remake of which he's producing. And Ratner is a fan of "Rififi," the 1955 French film by Jules Dassin that he and many others consider "the granddaddy of all heist films." The movie's centerpiece is a long, patient heist that unfolds in complete silence and makes simple, clever use of an ordinary umbrella. Often put on the same pedestal with "Rififi" is John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950).
Still, even as they drill home their grim message, these cynical heist films play off our criminal musings. Ah, they say, you are better off stuck behind your desk, punching the clock for your corporate overlords -- the alternative is getting gunned down in the middle of a rainy street as your suitcase of cash spills into the gutter. Heist-noir, as recently practiced in films such as "The Usual Suspects" (1995), "Heat" (1995), "The Score" (2001) and David Mamet's "Heist" (also 2001), reassures us that we're not really missing anything by not climbing that Mount Everest of crime.
But enough of heist-noir's dark voyages into the depths of human failings. Let's tango back to the sun, where we can blissfully project our larcenous daydreams onto stars a bit more suave and better-looking than ourselves. A place where a few months of intense work are paid off with a lifetime of tropical drinks on a beach in a country without extradition treaties. There Pierce Brosnan and George Clooney await, loot safely stowed in a Cayman account, their days of rope dangling over. For now.