The Duke and other great heist movies

When it comes to the heist film genre, “based on a true story” isn’t an obvious selling point: knotty crime capers tend to be better the more elaborately and imaginatively concocted they are. The Duke (Amazon) is an exception. The last feature directed by the late Roger Michell, it has a daft underdog story that could have been plucked straight from the brain of Richard Curtis, but just happens to be rooted in fact. Even the name of its true-life protagonist sounds fanciful: Kempton Bunton, a working-class pensioner who, in protest against the TV licence fee imposed by the British government, set out to steal Goya’s painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery.

The reasoning, like many of the plot mechanics here, is better seen than explained. But it makes for a chipper, cheering romp, delightfully performed by Jim Broadbent as Bunton and Helen Mirren as his weary wife, and directed with unassuming, fleet-footed ease by Michell. All in all, it sits on the lightest, brightest end of the heist movie spectrum: there are no unsavoury criminals or grisly outcomes here, just salt-of-the-earth types doing ill-advised deeds with good intentions.

Sixty or 70 years ago – indeed, around the time The Duke is set – Michell’s film might have been a gleefully far-fetched Ealing comedy, though it may, admittedly, not endure quite as steadfastly as The Lavender Hill Mob (BritBox). Seven decades old and still perhaps the spryest and most sparkling of all bank-job films, Charles Crichton’s daffily ingenious comedy mixes complex narrative architecture with an endearing sympathy for small Englishmen against the vast capitalist system, while Alec Guinness’s wry, dry performance prevents things from getting too cute. By 2008, that archetype had shifted to the scruffy hard man embodied by Jason Statham, though The Bank Job (Amazon), written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, retraces a lot of The Lavender Hill Mob’s steps with more tight-jawed charm.

Over in the US, the heist film has tended to be a smoother, sleeker operation – even when the criminals are goofing off, as in Steven Soderbergh’s glittering comedy Ocean’s Eleven (2001; Netflix), a rare remake that significantly improves on its Rat Pack-era original. At the genre’s most hardboiled you get Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing (Apple TV+), about the leanest, meanest, most jolting film ever made from the hoary veteran-tries-one-last-job premise. At its most dishevelled, there’s Wes Anderson’s breakthrough film Bottle Rocket (Microsoft), made well before he perfected his cuckoo-clock aesthetic, drawing on mid-90s slacker energy as well as the then-ubiquitous influence of Tarantino’s droll bloodbath Reservoir Dogs (1991; BFI Player).

Anderson and Tarantino both, of course, owed a debt to the French New Wave’s louche, cool reshaping of the heist film, as exemplified by Jean-Luc Godard’s gracefully deconstructed anatomy of a robbery Bande à part (1964; Chili). This in turn owed a debt to Jules Dassin’s frosty, elegantly diagrammatic Rififi (1955; Apple TV+), with its intricate, taciturn jewel-heist centrepiece, followed by an exhilarating pileup of malicious human consequences and betrayals.

Finally, if men tend to be the driving heroes and villains (often simultaneously) of the heist film, more recent standouts of the genre have shown that women can take them on with some elan. Sebastian Schipper’s jaw-dropping Victoria (2015; Curzon) – thrusting Laia Costa’s naive Berlin waitress into a real-time bank job executed in one dazzling shot – brought female perspective to a chaotically male underworld. F Gary Gray’s Set It Off (Amazon) was a landmark in its depiction of black women in the criminal sphere, its quartet of bank thieves boasting more community-minded motives than most. Twenty six years after its release, it feels as bracing and forward-thinking as ever, since rivalled only by the politically knotty complexities and slam-bang action set pieces of Steve McQueen’s tough, Viola Davis-led Widows (2018; Amazon). Such films all make Kempton Bunton’s modest, if similarly social-minded heist look rather quaint by comparison.

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