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Five Movies About Bank Robbers

For a movie to be enjoyable, there usually has to be at least one character we can relate to or cheer for. Most of the time this character is, at their core, a “good” person. Criminals shouldn’t (and generally don’t) elicit much empathy or sympathy, since they don’t fall into that “good” category. But for some reason, bank robbers in the movies are often easy to connect with.

Maybe it’s because there’s something of a Robin Hood element to robbing banks, even where the robber only does the “steal from the rich” part. Maybe it’s because financial crimes feel less egregious than violent crimes (even though the overall costs to society can be much greater). Or maybe people just aren’t fans of big banks to begin with. So the bank robber enjoys a relatively rare status as a sympathetic criminal (perhaps alongside the jewel thief or cat burglar).

But when those same bank robbers commit other crimes, they’re no longer the kind of people we root for. That’s why I’m not including Bonnie and Clyde (1967) on this list. The film is inarguably a classic, but Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker also had their hands in multiple murders and other crimes. They might be sexy and compelling examples of rebellious, youthful rage, but we’re not rooting for them to succeed.

 

Inside Man (2006)

If the modern day bank robber is going to have any chance of getting away with their crime, they need to be smart. With today’s security systems and practices, the robbers must have a foolproof plan, consider all the angles, and rely on brains more than brute force. Watching those things might be enough to get us interested in their story, but if you throw in a little extra “see the robbers stick it to the REALLY bad guys” sub-plot, then you’ve got something that’s truly fun. And the robbers in Inside Man (including the uber-smooth Clive Owen) certainly take us on a fun ride.

But Inside Man sometimes feels so slick that it’s slippery. No character sticks with you after it’s done. This might be Spike Lee’s most successful directorial outing, but it also one of his shallowest. It’s pretty clear early on that the bank robbers aren’t going to get caught, and there’s just no real spice or bite in any of the characters.

 

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

The hold-up men in Dog Day Afternoon, Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale), are tragically incompetent and the polar opposite of the robbers in Inside Man. There’s a mistake or unexpected challenge in just about every aspect of Sonny’s plan, and whatever could go wrong does. One of Sonny’s crew even bails on the robbery barely a minute in!

But Sonny is a sympathetic everyman. You might not admire or laud him, but you can’t help but feel bad for him. It’s easy to relate to his sense of desperation; he’s barely getting by, and his personal life a mess. Even his physical presence breaks down before our eyes; he quickly goes from suit and tie and well-coiffed hair to disheveled, bandaged and mussed.

 

Even though it’s based on a real robbery, Dog Day Afternoon is still every bit a Sidney Lumet film. It’s gritty and grimy and beautiful 1970’s New York, and the exploitation themes we catch a glimpse of during Sonny’s brief television interview will be more fully explored in Lumet’s Network.

 

Quick Change (1990)

Quick Change turns the standard bank robber movie on its head by spending most of its story on what happens to the robbers after the heist. For bank robber Grimm (Bill Murray) and his crew, grabbing the money and getting out of the bank happens according to plan. The conflict and the comedy happen when they try to get out of the city with that money.

Even a perfectly scripted heist can face unforeseen challenges just because of the randomness of day-to-day life. It’s a great example of the old Yiddish saying “man plans, and god laughs.”

It’s a shame that Quick Change isn’t better known (it was only the 82nd highest earning movie of 1990), because I think it’s one of Murray’s best comedies. It’s funny, but still feels human and relatable.

 

Point Break  (1991)

Point Break follows the FBI’s investigation and pursuit of a gang of bank robbing surfers known as the “ex-Presidents” for the masks they wear during heists. The surfers are led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), and steal in order to finance their adrenaline junkie lifestyles. Bodhi is presented as something of a brah shoulder devil, whispering an alternate approach to life into the ear of FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves). The camera glamorizes (perhaps even fetishizes) the gang’s adventure sport activities, and at times we almost think the ex-Presidents are pretty damn cool.

 

Maybe we want to be a little more like them, but we shouldn’t want to be them. It’s the same deal as with Gordon Gecko from Wall Street. There’s an initial appeal and attraction, but by the end of the story it’s clear that Bodhi — like Gecko — is nothing more than a bad guy. Bodhi might be buff and exciting to watch, but at the end of the day he’s just a criminal and a thug. There’s no tragedy in the ending of Point Break (or Wall Street), just a moral reckoning. The bad guy gets what he deserves.

 

Charley Varrick (1973)

Charley Varrick (Walter Mattheau) and his crew rob a bank in rural New Mexico, only to learn that the bank had mafia dealings and the loot was mob money.

 

This unintentional theft puts Varrick in much worse peril than the bank heist itself, and it takes all his wile and intelligence to get himself out of the bind. Charley Varrick has a solid cast, a compelling story with clever (but not outrageous) twists, and there’s no lull or slowdown in pacing from the start to the snappy ending.

 

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.