The best heist films are probably among the most entertaining and engaging cinematic gems that you will ever experience. Although the genre has been around for a while (it can be traced as far back as 1903 – The Great Train Robbery), a proper framework for heist films was only established during the ’50s.
Over the years, many filmmakers have interpreted the genre in various ways but most of the films that fall under this category are bound by some common concerns. Before we get into the list of the greatest heist films ever made, it is important to establish a definition of the genre in order to explore further.
Many consider works that focus on the heist itself to be proper heist films, this list also includes iconic projects that play around with the conventions of the genre. Ranging from the works of Quentin Tarantino to Stanley Kubrick, the selection mentioned below should be essential viewing for all fans of heist films.
Check out the full list below.
The 10 greatest heist films of all time:
10. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
The film that announced Quentin Tarantino’s arrival to the world, Reservoir Dogs is undoubtedly among the most interesting heist films ever made because it completely subverts the primary concerns of the genre in order to conducts its own investigations.
Instead of focusing on the heist itself, Reservoir Dogs highlights the brilliance of Tarantino’s screenwriting skills as he explores the events before the heist as well as the shockingly violent aftermath which acts as a meditation on the medium.
9. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
Featuring the unbelievably effective on-screen combination of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Michael Mann’s 1995 neo-noir masterpiece is one of the greatest achievements of the ’90s. A cat-and-mouse game contextualised within the urban jungle of Los Angeles, you can’t take your eyes off this film.
De Niro is fantastic as a highly intelligent career criminal whose heist skills are simply unparalleled. The film follows his psychological battle with a LAPD detective (played by Al Pacino) who becomes obsessed with hunting him down.
8. The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)
Another neo-noir addition to the list and a true cult classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle stars the legendary Robert Mitchum as a low-level mobster who works as a gunrunner in order to survive. This isn’t just a heist masterpiece but a masterclass by Mitchum.
While the film did not have a huge impact on the frameworks of popular culture when it first came out, The Friends of Eddie Coyle has continued to grow in stature in the years that have followed and is often ranked among the greatest films of the decade.
7. Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
A heist film that feels like a breath of fresh air, Godard’s 1964 gem Bande à part is unlike any other film on this list. It is a playful but simultaneously radical revision of the frameworks of the genre, starring Anna Karina in one of her most memorable roles.
The story revolves around three people who make plans to rob a supposedly large stash of money but it all goes wrong. Godard’s vision of crime is deeply informed by his love of American cinema which he transforms into something completely unique.
6. The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)
The film that laid the groundwork for the heist films that came after it, The Asphalt Jungle is an essential film noir by John Huston. Many of Huston’s films can be read as critiques of capitalism and greed, including this particular work.
The Asphalt Jungle features a jewellery store heist but its real focus is on the journeys of the characters that embark on this dark road as well as the powers that control them. The ending scene puts everything into its place, urging us to think about the existential questions it raises.
5. The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
Stanley Kubrick’s venture into the world of film noir is a magical one, starring the likes of Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray among others. It uncovers the meticulous nature of crime by highlighting the amount of intellectual effort that goes into it.
The film has become influential for many reasons, the most famous one being the use of clown masks. Just one scene from The Killing is enough to convince people of its greatness – the one where all the capital is poetically swept away by gusts of wind.
4. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975)
Yet another entry starring the great Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon is a remarkable addition to the fascinating filmography of Sidney Lumet. Based on an actual event, Lumet’s 1975 heist film is remembered as one of the most iconic New York movies of all time.
Lumet was a master of building narrative tension and Dog Day Afternoon is the perfect example of that, exploring the atmospheric anxiety involved in engaging in a heist. It remains one of the greatest cinematic achievements of Sidney Lumet.
3. The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951)
A hilarious heist comedy by Charles Crichton, The Lavender Hill Mob tells the story of a shy bank clerk named Henry who was in charge of gold bullion deliveries. In order to live the life he wanted, he teams up with a businessman to pull it off.
Crichton’s masterpiece is now cited among the most influential heist films ever made, with many noting it as a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock who incorporated several elements from The Lavender Hill Mob while he was making Vertigo.
2. Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
A masterful work by a titan of cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge acts as a beautiful deconstruction of the heist genre. It is a highly unconventional cinematic experience which draws the audience into its impossible world.
Elaborating on the film’s title, Melville provided this epigraph: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.'”
1. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
There can be no doubt that Rififi is the greatest heist film in the history of cinema. Cinematic accomplishments aside, Jules Dassin’s work was so accurate that it was banned in many places because criminals were blatantly copying it.
While it is mostly remembered for its mesmerising and contemplative 28-minute sequence where the criminals participate in the heist in complete silence, the film has every single element in it that makes heist films so interesting for fans as well as scholars.