There’s something irresistible about a great caper film. Compared to the brute force of a robbery, where guns and violence are so often the primary tools, the caper calls for ingenuity, crack timing, mad skills, play acting and a little sleight of hand. If all goes to plan, no one gets hurt. And if the filmmakers do their job right, there’s always a twist or two to keep the audience guessing.
Here’s a choice selection of my favorite capers: crime cinema with colorful crews, a bounce of energy and a sense of humor.
“Big Deal on Madonna Street” (Italy, 1958, Criterion Channel) and “Topkapi” (1964, Amazon Prime Video)
The roots reach back to John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950), the first great heist film, and Jules Dassin’s “Rififi” (1955), which exported the heist genre to the underworld of Paris. But it took the lighthearted Italian romp “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” Mario Monicelli’s shaggy-dog spoof of “Rififi,” to add humor to the formula and turn the serious heist into a jaunty caper, albeit one that starts unraveling from the moment it is hatched. Dassin upped the ante in “Topkapi,” a colorful museum heist involving an eccentric crew of international jewel thieves (led by Melina Mercouri and Maximillian Schell) and a small-time con artist (Oscar winner Peter Ustinov) in Istanbul.
“Ocean’s Eleven” and sequels (2001-2018, VOD)
The original “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960) — with Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford — should be the gold standard, but for all the wise-guy charm of the stars it simply clomps along. “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001), Steven Soderbergh’s snappy remake/reworking, delivers a big, bright, star-studded fantasy of a heist film that dances along on George Clooney’s charm, Brad Pitt’s underplayed cool and a huge cast of players with as much personality as talent. Add the two sequels, “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004) and “Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007), and the spinoff “Ocean’s 8” (2018), with Sandra Bullock as the sister of Clooney’s character masterminding her own all-female team, and you’ve got one big moviemaking party.
“The Italian Job” (1969, free on Kanopy)
Michael Caine is the rakishly charming rogue who heists a fortune in gold bullion with a team of thugs, getaway drivers and an eccentric computer genius (Benny Hill). The getaway, with three Mini Coopers buzzing like bumblebees through the cracks of a traffic jam, is unforgettable.
“The Hot Rock” (1972, VOD)
The heist is only the beginning of this lively crime comedy, the best of the caper films based on Donald E. Westlake’s John Dortmunder novels. Dortmunder, played by Robert Redford, leads his dysfunctional crew through a series of outrageous capers to retrieve the loot after a successful robbery goes awry during the getaway, thanks to the brazen double-crossing of an opportunistic shyster (Zero Mostel).
“Three Kings” (1999, VOD)
The caper is dropped into the chaos and ambiguity of the final days of the Gulf War, with George Clooney as as an American soldier who requisitions a team to steal a stash of stolen gold hidden in an Iraqi bunker. David O. Russell walks a fine line between buddy film heroism and satirical subterfuge that makes it angry, edgy, inventive, passionate and fun all at once.
“Hustle” (2004-2012, Amazon Prime Video)
Don’t forget the modern incarnations of caper TV. Adrian Lester stars in “Hustle,” a British/American production about a team of grifters that scores big scams on sleazy marks in England. They’re fun, smart, stylish and have a way with spinning a spell that can distract the audience as well as it does their mark.
“Leverage” (2008-2012, free on IMDb TV)
A crew of high-end heist experts is hired by an alcoholic Robin Hood (Timothy Hutton) to steal from the crooks and give back to the victims. It mixes action-movie flair, snappy writing, likable (if eccentric) characters and plenty of humor — and in the final seasons relocates the team to the Pacific Northwest!
All are available on VOD through Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and other VOD services. You can also rent them from Scarecrow Video, which offers a rental-by-mail program.