Manhattan’s Film Forum cinema house kicks off a three-week festival of classic heist flicks on 1 Oct, a celebration of that oddly comforting movie genre that provides the vicarious thrill of watching the planning, execution and (usually) unraveling of elaborately conceived crimes. You can find the full schedule and more information at Filmforum.org. These sorts of movies were among the first films to really capture my imagination as a kid, and I have a great fondness for them. In fact, in more highfalutin moments, I like to claim them as a minor inspiration for my interest in design — there’s a vague but visceral connection between their emphasis on puzzle-like narratives and the act of designing.
At its most basic, the structure of a heist film is an echo of the design process: a problem is identified, plans are developed, a team undertakes its implementation, and the story climaxes on the heist or the execution of the design itself. The dramatic tension of that final act defines the genre, but it’s the lead-up, the intricate preparation, the clever inventions and novel insights into the problem that provide the bulk of its raw pleasure to me. As a designer, there is for me a familiar echo of the work that I do in creating a solution when I watch on screen a cadre of experts — the safe-cracker, the sharp-shooter, the explosives expert — gathered around a blueprint of a bank, running through their plan of attack. Who doesn’t secretly want their work life to be like that?
This festival is chock-full of thrilling and seminal examples of the genre, with an incredible line-up of classic films. Were I not schedule-challenged with daddy duties, I’d be spending most of the next three weeks at Film Forum watching the likes of festival openers “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (not the recent remake, but the far superior 1974 original) and “Charley Varrick.” (Both of these are Walter Matthau movies — you’ve got to sit up and take notice when a festival kicks off with two Walter Matthau movies.) Others on my list: the brutal “Kansas City Confidential,” the pulpy, little-remembered “Nightfall,” Quentin Tarantino’s essential “Reservoir Dogs” and the even better “Jackie Brown,” Michael Mann’s authoritative “Thief,” Jules Dassin’s genre-defining “Rififi,” and both Jean-Pierre Melville’s perversely serene “Le Cercle Rouge” and his presciently cool “Bob le flambeur.”
Right: Bet you can’t guess what’s in the box. Sterling Hayden in “The Killing.”
Actually, almost all of the films in this festival demand to be seen, but if there’s a night of the festival I wouldn’t miss, it’s Fri 9 Oct when both “The Asphalt Jungle” and “The Killing” are running as a double-feature bill. These are two of the best heist films of all time but they also happen to be two high points in the post-War film noir style. Each was also directed by a giant of artistic cinema — John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, respectively — working in genre mode and delivering nuanced, highly individualistic expressions within endlessly entertaining story structures. What’s more, the lead in both films is the fair-haired dark angel of film noir cinema, the indispensable Sterling Hayden, an actor who established a seedy archetype of the tragic hero that has been infrequently matched. If you don’t see these at the festival, they’re well worth a rental.