How to rob a bank (according to the movies)

Ever fantasised about pulling off the perfect heist? Here’s everything cinema has taught us about the art of the steal.


Adam Lee Davies


Has there ever been a wholly successful on-screen bank robbery? Sure, plenty of cinematic crooks have actually made it out of the door with the loot, but that’s often where the problems start: cops, roadblocks, double-crossings and, in the case of Keanu Reeves/James Caan heist caper Henry’s Crime, a provincial stage production of Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ – all have to be negotiated before you can kick back on the beach and swill piña coladas. No single movie robbery has ever gone entirely according to plan, but by taking lessons from a stack of them, could it be possible to plot and carry out the perfect score and – more importantly – get away clean?

The Plan

Okay, so there may be a few cases of career crims executing the perfect score, but feel we can disqualify them all. Heath Ledger’s Joker pulls off some elegantly nutty larceny in the opening scene of The Dark Knight, but then he burns all the swag. The fearsome trio of Bill Murray, Gina Davis and Randy “Star Whackers” Quaid get the better of the NYPD in Quick Change, but the entire plot revolves around Davis having millions of dollars stuffed down her bra, so this one’s a little fanciful. And Clive Owen may have got the job done in Inside Man, but it involved sitting in his own wee for a week, which isn’t everyone’s idea of high crime.

This is one area where it’s really easy to over think things. Don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty details – in and out always works best. You can sweet-talk it, Clooney in Out of Sight-style, but you might be better off following the lead of Berlin one-taker Victoria; wave a gun in a teller’s face and leg it. Kein muss, kein fuss.


The Mark

Do your research. The Cole-Younger gang come unstuck in Philip Kaufman’s mannered, underrated, grammatically erroneous western, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, when they fail to put the hard yards in before their heist and arrive to find that the locals distrust the banks for fear of having their dough pinched by thieving cowboys. Thus, the gang are reduced to hanging out on street corners being flamboyantly ‘overheard’ boasting about how much geld they and their friends have entrusted to this most secure of institutions, in the hope the credulous townsfolk will follow suit and there’ll be some money in the bank when they do finally rob it.

Which brings us to another important point: keep it impersonal. Don’t do what Nicolas Cage and his idiot brothers Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey do in Trapped in Paradise by robbing a smalltown bank and then spending a cosy Christmas with the unsuspecting bank manager. A guilty conscience is like rust on the soul: impossible to scrub away. Keep it civil, but businesslike. And don’t hang about. Warren Oates in Dillinger or Johnny Depp in Public Enemies are your role models here – polite, suave, fast. And on to the next.


The Tools

George Clooney has already shown us how far a kind word (and a Hollywood smile, killer looks and dialogue by Elmore Leonard) can get you. Sexy Beast makes a bold and unusual case for drilling through the wall of a swimming pool in some skimpy orange Speedos. Even more interesting is the 30 Minutes or Less notion of strapping dynamite to Jesse Eisenberg and booting him into the bank with a bag with a big dollar sign on it. Win-win!

But for sheer bloody-mindedness, it’s hard to look past Clint Eastwood’s choice of munitions in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. How would a man so closely associated with the most powerful handgun in the world approach breaking into a bank vault? Correct, he would fire an anti-tank cannon at it. Remember, this ain’t brain surgery, folks.


The Disguise

The (technically) successful raids in Quick Change and The Dark Knight both involve clown disguises, so that’s a fairly good batting average. Plus, everyone loves a clown, right? Perennial nearly-man Thomas Jane put all his eggs in one basket by predicting that bank tellers would get some sort of blurred wank-blindness from his overblown porn actor get-up in South African heist no-no Stander, while George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg really weren’t trying hard enough with their Groucho-glasses get-up in geezer-caper Going in Style.

Former US Presidents? It’s been done. Those nuns in Ben Affleck’s The Town? There are too many things all that material could get snagged on. The stocking-over-the-head has been less popular since Willem Dafoe – for reasons known only to the script – blew his own head off with a shotgun in Wild at Heart, but it’s always cheaper, more reliable and sexier than a clown costume. Walk into your local bank tomorrow and see how long you last – we’re sticking with stockings!


The Gang

There are those who will say it should begin and end with The Wild Bunch, but that film’s glorious tagline – ‘Nine men who came too late and stayed too long’ – does hint at the problem with your entire gang being made up of gun-toting superannuated racist drunks. The Ladykillers offers a more mixed bag, but they may be too colourful a bunch for a stealth mission.

Your best bet is to keep it respectable and hide in plain sight. The outwardly decent and estimable robbers of The League of Gentlemen are in fact a disgraced rabble of perverts, cads, fascists, drunks, cuckolds and homosexuals that all have something to prove and something to hide – a perfect arrangement to keep your partners from getting out of line. There may be no honour among thieves, but if everybody’s got the goods on everyone else, some strange form of self-serving loyalty keeps things together.


The Getaway

This is where things tend to get a bit dicey. You’ve followed all the rules, avoided all the most obvious pitfalls – never rob a bank with John Cazale; never advertise for a ‘moll’ on Craigslist; always go number one and number two before a job – now you just need a bit of luck on your side. If you’ve planned everything right it’s perfectly doable to simply drive a hundred tons of gold bullion out of town in a fleet of dump trucks. Jeremy Irons only managed to roll through New York with his hard-earned in Die Hard: With a Vengeance because he’d done his homework.

But it’s usually a fucking disaster. For instance, you might think that a film called The Getaway might present a solid escape plan, but Peckinpah’s sweat-stained roundelay of rape, suicide, blood and Slim Pickens is a Kafka-esque maze in which people are too busy shooting lumps out of each other to concentrate on getting away.

The prize in this category must surely go to The Pursuit of DB Cooper, starring Treat Williams as a bank robber with a novel approach to the art of the getaway. Instead of robbing a bank and trying to run away with the loot, ol’ DB opts to intercept a cash shipment aboard a 727 before parachuting out of the plane. Cooper goes nowhere (along one axis, at least) and the “bank” roars off at 600mph! Classic stuff.


The Hideout

An obvious howler to avoid: never allow your hideout to develop into a franchisable cookie store like Woody Allen in Small Time Crooks – and if you do, please choose a better name than ‘Takin’ the Biscuit!’ De Niro gets it right in Heat, choosing a spartan, loveless design nightmare with all the charm of a drained fishtank. We are invited to imagine that this is the outward manifestation of his cold, compartmentalised heart, but really it just looks as if the props department forgot to turn up. Either way, it’s functional, faceless and a dream to hoover. Job done.

Published 4 Feb 2016

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