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From 'Bonnie and Clyde' to 'King of Thieves': Why do men love heist films so much?

We examine the enduring appeal of the cinematic burglary

From 'Bonnie and Clyde' to 'King of Thieves': Why do men love heist films so much?
13 September 2018

“A thief is a thief, let’s get it right. But something inside me goes, ‘Ah, fucking lovely. Good boys.’” During a break in filming on King of Thieves, Ray Winstone is talking about the infamous Hatton Garden burglary of 2015.

Sitting around the same table are Michael Caine, Paul Whitehouse and Jim Broadbent. Both Broadbent and Winstone are wearing hi-visibility vests, a navy hoodie underneath Winstone’s. They look like construction men, which is exactly the point: they are filming a scene in which the group break into the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company at street level, posing as workmen in case they get caught.

We are in Ealing Studios, where the group are filming page 35 of a 102-page script. In the huge swathes of time when the cameras aren’t rolling, I am given a tour. A faithful representation of the burgled premises stands in a vast warehouse space full of wooden constructions and scaffolding. The room of safety deposit boxes smells of new paint. A pair of holes in the shape of a pair of breasts has been drilled into the concrete.

In making King of Thieves, the team tell me they are trying not to ‘glamorise’ the crime. It doesn’t need much glamorising. It might be the most delicious heist story of all time.

Carried out by a handful of pensioners and a tech wizard called Basil, the Hatton Garden burglary is the largest in English history. A gang of career criminals, led by the 76-year-old Brian Reader (played in the film by Michael Caine), entered the building – with the help of Basil’s access to a key; disabled a second-floor lift; climbed down the shaft to the basement; forced their way through iron gates into the vault; drilled through the 50cm concrete wall (failing the first time and returning 48 hours later); and emptied the vault’s 73 safe deposit boxes, leaving their tools at the scene.

We may never know the exact value of their haul but they made off with gems, gold and cash worth up to £200million. All without laying a finger on anyone.

“You couldn’t have dreamed it up, really, could you,” Whitehouse says. It is one of the few instances when this cliché is justified.

“There’s something romantic about it,” Winstone tells me. “They didn’t walk in and put a gun into some little girl’s head. They went in and they went through walls and they done their business. It’s kinda masterful. It’s kinda like a little bit of a Robin Hood kind of thing…without them giving the money away to anyone else.”

In the mountains of press coverage, the burglars and their analogue methods felt like nostalgic throwbacks to a bygone era. The heist was, in every sense of the phrase, an old school job. As Jim Broadbent tells me, “It’s an easy crime to like, isn’t it. It reminds you of crime as it used to be in your childhood.”

In his vast trailer sits Michael Caine. To his right on the sofa is an invitingly vacant space. He says I can join him there. I do, and it’s like sitting next to an elderly relative; Caine is 85, nine years older than the man he is playing. Why does he think the Hatton Garden job struck such a chord with the public?

Part of our fascination, he says, is aspirational: deep within us we want to be part of the heist ourselves. He thinks this despite taking to heart what his mother told him when he was growing up in the Elephant and Castle: “You don’t ever want anything of anybody else’s. Get your own.”

He also believes that, in our eyes, the ‘diamond wheezers’ may have been enacting a vigilante form of social justice: “There might be an idea that not everybody with the boxes in there was honest either: these old boys stealing a load of stuff from maybe one or two other thieves.” It’s a charitable assessment but it does underline a crucial facet of any heist film: if you want to keep the audience on side, steal from people who can take it.

“It’s kinda like a little bit of a Robin Hood kind of thing…without them giving the money away to anyone else”

So why does the heist film continue to appeal? Why are men endlessly interested in watching crooks break into secure buildings and make off with the loot?

We know and understand the tropes of a heist film well enough to rattle them off like colours of the rainow. The crime is likely to be, at least for one main character, the ‘last job’ they will ever commit; one of the crew – each of whom will be set up in an amusing, fast-paced scene that establishes them as A Personality – will be reluctantly teased out of retirement; the heist itself will play out as a montage set to cool music; and, more often than not, Michael Caine will be there. King of Thieves cleaves faithfully to these trademarks before evolving into an altogether darker story about how the group imploded in turmoil, doomed to be discovered by the police.

Brad Pitt and George Clooney in 2001’s Ocean’s Eleven

Our impulse to romanticise burglaries goes back a long way, to Dick Turpin in the early 18th century and beyond. 

“Humans are ruled and regulated by the world we live in,” says criminology lecturer Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce. “There are laws and there are social norms that govern our behaviours. And, as a result, there is always this appeal of the people who break the rules.”

Though, like Caine, none of us would contemplate breaking into a vault with a bunch of mates, heist films permit us to live vicariously as criminals: exciting risk-takers who break the law without hurting anyone. This victimlessness – or as close to it as possible – is crucial in the mythologising of a heist, says Duncan Campbell, a journalist who covered the Hatton Garden burglary in detail for The Guardian.

There was always a cloud over the Great Train Robbery, he argues, because the robbers inflicted brain damage on the driver. He cites the Woody Guthrie song ‘The Unwelcome Guest’: ‘I never took food / From the widows and orphans / And never a hardworking man I oppressed.’

However reprehensible the goodies, a heist film’s baddies should be more so. Danny Ocean might be a crook but, unlike Terry Benedict, the casino owner targeted in the Ocean’s Eleven heist, he isn’t a slimeball who pays to have people beaten up.

Faye Dunaway in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde

There is also, says Campbell, “a sneaking admiration in Britain for people who get one over the authorities”. The protagonists should be underdogs, going up against forces greater than themselves.

“We love a story of people defying odds,” Charlie Cox, who plays Basil, tells me in his (much smaller) trailer. Add to this the fact that the crooks are always battling demons of some kind, and you’ve got a cauldron of tasty ingredients, waiting to be vigorously stirred.

“Every character in any movie is more fascinating when they’re flawed,” says Ed Palattella, who has written books on American bank robberies and on the Pizza Bomber bank robbery (recently turned into the Netflix series Evil Genius).

“In a lot of cases, the audience identifies with the bank robbers more than they identify with the people who are trying to catch them. You look at Bonnie and Clyde: in real life they were pretty cold-blooded killers and robbed some banks but mainly convenience stores. But the movie Bonnie and Clyde makes them out to be counter-cultural antiheroes. They’re more sympathetic than the people who are chasing them.”

Every corner of our lives is being altered by the internet and crime is no different: as security systems mature, it is becoming an increasingly online phenomenon.

“If you wanna make a lot of money,” as Palattella puts it, “you just sit in your basement and try to hack into a financial system.” It would be hard to describe this as an inherently cinematic image. It is easier for men to get excited about a bus full of gold dangling off a cliff than it is for them to get excited about nerds stealing invisible money on screens peppered with incomprehensible numbers. In cinema’s most iconic heists – The Italian Job, The Sting, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – the action is thrillingly physical, the threat of violence ever-present in the air.

But Penfold-Mounce thinks that, though this shift is undeniable, old-fashioned heist films won’t be deposed from their throne. “They’re not going to lose their popularity,” she says. “If it’s a good story, and it’s about rule-breaking, I think those stories will stand the test of time and they will continue to be told into the future.”

Back on set, Jim Broadbent agrees. “As long as there’s a lot of wealth stashed in one particular area, people are gonna want to get to it,” he tells me. 

And, if Michael Caine is any barometer, the future of heist films is in rude health: “I keep looking in the newspapers to see if there’s another case that could be my next movie.”

King of Thieves is in cinemas from September 14

(Images: Working Title/Getty)