Your Humble Blogger likes heist movies. Over the last week, I’ve seen three of them: Inside Man, a Spike Lee joint from 2006; Logan Lucky, last year’s Steven Soderbergh flick, and Ocean’s 8, the woman-fronted entry in the heist-movie series which is currently playing in actual movie theaters. About a month before that, I watched The Lavender Hill Mob, the 1951 classic, which may well be the entry that all heist movies get measured against.
What makes a good heist movie? I am inclined to break it down into five things: the plan, which should ideally be bizarrely baroque and improbable; the gang, which should be entertaining, varied and likeable; the victim, which should be sufficiently unsympathetic to allow us to root for the thieves; the detective, who should be likeable enough and clever enough to create tension but not more likeable and clever than the thieves; and what I guess I’ll call the style, which should be, well, stylish. I’m including in that things like pacing and rhythm, as well the look and sound of the thing.
I’m breaking it down that way instead of by task (the writing, the acting, the cinematography, etc) because (a) I feel like it, (II) I don’t really know enough about filmmaking to make any persuasive case for how any of that stuff actually works, and (3) I suspect that it all interacts enough to make it difficult to tease out whether, for instance, a particular character is well-written or well-performed or just well-dressed and well-lit. You know?
…and the rest of this note will have spoilers for all four movies. OK? And for heist movies, spoiling the plot would seriously spoil the enjoyment of the film, I think, so fair warning: spoily spoily spoilers spoiling everything. Sorry about that.
OK, so: The plan. My current ranking: Logan > Lavender > Ocean8 > Inside. The Logan plan gets added points for the low-tech explosives that suit the milieu and for including a separate heist-like breakout of two of the gang from prison—and then back in to prison with no-one missing them and an ironclad alibi. Beautiful. The Lavender Hill Mob plan has the wonderful gold Eiffel towers as well as the magnificent scene where Dutch has to beat himself up whilst bound and blindfolded. The plan for Ocean’s 8 is beautifully complicated and nonsensical—I particularly liked the twist where the most nonsensical part of the plan (why not just swap necklaces while the actress is puking?) turns out to be very important because the heist is just a distraction from the real heist of the crown jewels. The plan in Inside Job is, well, fine: making the hostages all wear identical costumes to the gang’s is quite clever, really, and the twist of bricking up the gangleader behind a false wall at the end of the heist was extra lovely. On the other hand, it was so poorly filmed in the eventuality that it was inconceivable that it wouldn’t have been noticed. Also, it was never actually explained how the thief knew about the secret safe-deposit box that was the maguffin for the film, so that was a problem.
Digression: all three of the recent movies have a twist, where there is an element of the plan that the audience wasn’t told about in advance. In both Logan Lucky and Ocean’s 8 the gangleaders have in fact deceived the rest of the gang about an element of the plan until after the event. I like twists, and I liked the specific twists in those movies (although, seriously, if you have a jewel fence in your gang, check with her before stealing any jewels you might not be able to fence, K?) but I do feel like it’s a drawback if the gang is keeping secrets from each other. Double-crosses are different, of course. But this was additional risk and additional payoff, and in both cases involved the gang losing what they stole in the original heist, while gaining the secret payoff. And I get, from a movie narrative point of view, how that gives us a new tension near the end, after we think the big tension is resolved. But it makes the original (or what we thought was the original) plan less impressive, and of course that’s the bulk of the movie. End Digression
The gang. My current ranking: Lavender > Ocean8 > Logan > Inside. The Lavender Hill Mob cast is utterly wonderful of course—Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway are superb, and Sid James and Alfie Bass in the supporting roles really are excellent as well. Also the recruitment scenes (an important part of this section) are great. Untouchable. Ocean8 drags a lot in the recruitment, and completely fails to give most of the gang anything remotely worthwhile to do, but they get credit both for having so many women in the gang and for having really magnificent (if, alas, mostly wasted) performances from Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling and Rihanna. Logan suffers because the gangleader is dull, but Adam Driver and Daniel Craig are both very entertaining. Inside Man has effectively a one-person gang: Clive Owen is the guy, and the other four members of the gang are total nonentities. Clive Owen does a wonderful job, mind you, particularly given that he spends most of the movie with his face obscured.
Digression: There’s a great bit in one of William Goldman’s books where he talks about how a screenwriter would write, and how an audience might respond to, a man who needs to break in to Buckingham Palace and talk to the Queen of England. He talks about the specialists who need to be recruited, the acquisition of detailed plans of the castle and the security roster, and the split-second timing of the operation. In fact, in 1982 a disturbed fellow just hopped the wall, shinned up the drainpipe, wandered through the place setting off all sort of things (which the security assumed were false alarms) and then happened on the Queen’s bedroom and walked straight in. It would have made a terrible movie. End Digression.
The victim. My current ranking: Inside > Lavender > Logan > Ocean8. Christopher Plummer is a bank chairman who is hiding his Nazi-collaborator past in Inside Job, and it’s a wonderful performance and of course you are rooting against him all the time. In Lavender Hill Mob, the victim is the Bank of England and its insurers, and there is no room for anyone to feel bad about their having lost millions. Logan makes a joke of having some of the gang care about the morality of the theft, but eventually it’s just the insurance company being jerks that makes it OK to steal from them. Ocean’s 8, well. It kind of seems to be setting itself up as a kind of satire about the awfulness of the very rich, but instead winds up fawning over them. So the Met, Cartier, the European Royal Families, all of the victims of the crime come off as vaguely positive, and the gang come off as just greedy.
Digression: One problem that heist movies have to grapple with is that their heroes are thieves. If they are just stealing things because they think of themselves as entitled to vast amounts of wealth, then they aren’t very sympathetic. There are lots of possible ways to deal with this, from the gang being forced to commit the crime by truly unsympathetic criminals (and ideally turning the tables on them in the process) to the gang being Robin Hoods who give their takings to charity. The Lavender Hill Mob’s Dutch is a dreamer and an amateur who is in above his head, which helps. If the writers of Ocean’s 8 had, as one possibility, made the Mindy Kaling jewel-fence character an obsessive about great jewels, and given her a rant about how awful it is that the greatest jewels are locked up in vaults or kept behind glass instead of being worn, that would have not only given Ms. Kaling something to do but made the whole caper more interesting. End Digression.
The detective. My current ranking: Inside > Lavender > Logan > Ocean8. This isn’t just the character of the detective or detective crew but the whole handling of the law-enforcement end of the caper. It’s largely the focus of Inside Man, where we spend much of the movie with Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor as two police detectives. In The Lavender Hill Mob, the police aren’t as great as individual characters, but collectively make wonderful foils to our lead—and the desperate dive into the Police Training Demonstration to get the last golden souvenir Eiffel Tower is inspired. I’m putting Logan Lucky in third really only because I found the whole James Corden and Richard Armitage subplot in Ocean’s 8 irritating.
Digression: In some films, and here I’m thinking specifically of Ronin and Charade, the detective turns out to be one of the gang of thieves. That’s not unreasonable, but then you have to have the detective win in the end. My preference is for the detective (or security or whatever) to be excellent characters as foils, but for us to be rooting against them throughout. That’s just me, though.
The style. My current ranking: Lavender > Logan > Ocean8 > Inside. This is surprisingly difficult, because they are all wonderfully stylish films from exceptional directors. The Lavender Hill Mob takes the crown because the funny bits are just so funny, and the suspenseful bits manage to remain suspenseful. Also, frankly, I just like that style of film, so there. Logan Lucky is an interesting exercise as its low-key southern inflection is at odds with the caper film pace, so there’s a lot of deliberately slow meandering that I found funny but frustrating. As for Ocean’s 8, it was piggybacking on the style of the earlier films (not the original, of course) and succeeded, more or less, at the visual flair and timing. And I put Inside Man in last, despite it being really remarkable, simply because it manages to be a caper film that isn’t fun at all. There are a couple of very funny bits in that fatal Spike Lee way, but mostly it’s a tense, serious film. And there’s no sense that the thieves are enjoying their crime, either.
Digression, sort of: Ocean’s 8 obviously passes the Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test), and obviously The Lavender Hill Mob doesn’t. Inside Man doesn’t come close to passing, and its representations of women are, well, not unproblematic. And by ‘not unproblematic’ I mean that it’s a terribly misogynist film, ugh. I’m pretty sure that in Logan Lucky the sister and sister-in-law have enough of a conversation about the girl’s beauty pageant to pass, but it’s close. The women’s roles are on the whole weaker than the men’s, and while the gang had a woman getaway driver, I was surprised when in the final twist she turned out to have a bigger role in the heist. I don’t think that the Bechdel-Wallace test is a particularly good tool for discussing individual movies (a profound one for discussing the industry, though) but given the positioning of Ocean’s 8 as a women’s heist flick, it seemed worth mentioning.
Also, the depiction of race is always worth considering. The Lavender Hill Mob is a lily-white cast in a (fictional) lily-white England and Europe, and its racial blindness is, well, probably better than it might have been had they attempted to portray anything else. Inside Job treats race with Spike Lee’s usual provocative sledgehammer insight. In Logan Lucky, the entire world outside the prison is lily-white and race is an issue in the prison only. It’s addressed with a kind of irony that does not, in my opinion, let it off the hook. The gang in Ocean’s 8 is a full 4/9 people of color but their backgrounds have little meaning or context, and the whole thing feels deracinated to me. I’m neither an expert nor a person of color, so I’m just reporting my own experience of the films. End Digression.
Final analysis: The Lavender Hill Mob is a great, great movie and a great, great heist movie. Logan Lucky is a pretty good movie and a pretty good heist movie. Ocean’s 8 is a weak movie but an excellent heist movie. Inside Man is an excellent movie but a weak heist movie.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,