It’s Art Heist April on Kat’s Clues! Join me all month long to discover books, movies, and more, all featuring art heists.
A great heist is unlike a regular mystery because it aligns the audience with the criminal. Whether they’re rough and tumble or gentleman (or gentlewoman) cat burglars, we buy into the story from the thief’s point of view. The law enforcement characters are often bumbling, stupid, or vengeful. We have reason not to want justice to win. We like the thief because they are charming, interested in the thing they’re stealing (and not just in its dollar value), and above all intelligent. They’re willing to use that intelligence in daring ways. We want to see them create a plan and set it in motion, watching as its Rube-Goldberg components set each other off and allow the thief–we hope–to make their getaway in the nick of time. And we like watching how they react when things inevitably go wrong.
Here are some great art heist films, with a few bonus non-art heists that are too fun not to mention.
1. The Art of the Steal (2013)
This funny Canadian art heist boasts an ensemble with wonderful chemistry, a few different factions who may or may not be working together or double-crossing each other, and a strong appreciation for the art being stolen. It’s the story of underdog Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell), who took the fall for his half-brother Nicky (Matt Dillon at his delightfully sleaziest) during an art forgery gone wrong and lost a few years of his life in a Polish prison. Now he’s back home, working as a motorcycle daredevil (and just as often deliberately crashing for a few extra bucks). When a violent lowlife shows up demanding recompense for a Georges Seurrat painting Nicky stole, Crunch gets the old gang back together again for a classic “one last score” story. It’s a funny movie, with a lot of ad-libbed lines from Crunch’s protege, played in a affably nervous way by Jay Baruchel. The Art of the Steal brings together elements of forgery, con, old-timers mentoring the new generation, humour, and enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.
2. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Perhaps the best example of why we might cheer for a criminal is charming art thief Thomas Crown. The Thomas Crown Affair presents us with peak Pierce Brosnan in all his tailored-suit, smooth-talking perfection. He exudes class and charisma. He makes his ridiculous multi-millionaire hobbies look plausible. He even manages to convince us of the ennui of such a carefree lifestyle, bringing us totally onside with him in his elaborate heists just to alleviate his boredom–and bring him artwork that can give him private pleasure simply to gaze upon. Renee Russo is a perfect match, playing an insurance investigator who is just as smart and determined as Crown. They’re drawn to each other initially in a game of cat and mouse (but which character is cat and which is mouse?), and then become hopeless entwined, falling for each other even though they know they’re on opposite sides, that they can’t trust each other, and that the affair is likely a doomed one. This movie is such a good watch for its brilliantly crafted heist scenes and sizzling chemistry between its leads–and, shockingly, for a romance played out between a male lead in his forties and a romantic interest who is the same age (I’m giving you some serious side eye here, Entrapment).
3. The Score (2001)
This Frank Oz film–and another Canadian-set title on the list–is all about three generations of starpower: Marlon Brando as fence Max, Robert De Niro as retired thief Nick Wells, and Ed Norton as young upstart thief Jack Teller, with Angela Bassett wonderful as always in a supporting role as De Niro’s girlfriend. When Nick is enticed into one last score by Max, he partners with Jack to break a priceless French sceptre out of a customs warehouse. Of course we don’t know who to trust, and the character interplay is as important to the story as the well-planned heist is. Fun fact: apparently Brando hated working with Frank Oz, calling him “Miss Piggy” and demanding that Robert De Niro direct him.
4. How to Steal a Million (1966)
Proving, along with The Art of the Steal, that art theft movies don’t need to be terribly serious affairs, How to Steal a Million is a heist comedy featuring Audrey Hepburn as Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of an art forger. When her father lends a statue he claims is a Cellini Venus (but that he made himself) to be exhibited at a museum, he unwittingly agrees to it being tested for authenticity so it can be insured for a million dollars. Fearing her father will go to jail if his forgery is discovered, Nicole calls on Simon Dermott, played by Peter O’Toole–a man she caught with his hands on her father’s “Van Gogh,” and whom she believes is an art thief who can help her steal the statue before it is tested. With a great cast, a classic screwball romantic comedy, and a fun heist story, the movie is a joy–and is as much fun for Hepburn’s gorgeous wardrobe, designed by Givenchy, as it is for anything else.
Bonus Non-Art Round
There are so many entertaining heist and con movies about jewels, gold, money, and more where we find ourselves cheering for the “bad guys.” Here are just a few:
Ronin is a smart “MacGuffin” story–we never know what is in the case the crew has set out to steal, but the teamwork of the ensemble cast led by Al Pacino and the various European settings are fantastic.
A Fish Called Wanda and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are both heist/con comedies with hilarious performances–Scoundrels also had an excellent turn on Broadway and scooped up a bunch of Tony nominations.
Focus was an overlooked 2015 film starring Will Smith and Margot Robbie (before they teamed up again in Suicide Squad) as a slick con man and his young protege/love interest, boasting great international settings and cool cons among its many twists and turns.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels introduced North American audiences to Guy Ritchie, with a huge cast with varying motivations and ethical boundaries who are after two antique shotguns.
And finally, the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy updated the old Rat Pack story with a slickly charming cast of brilliant ne’er-do-wells out to make the ultimate con against Las Vegas casinos. The heists are well planned, the “whatever can go wrong does” monkey wrenches amp up the tension, and it’s just incredibly fun watching George Clooney and Brad Pitt bantering away, cooler than cool.
Do you have a favourite heist movie? Share in the comments below!