The Evolution of the British Heist Movie

    You can find heists in almost every film genre, even in the wackiest fantasy and sci-fi settings. It’s a great way to structure a story since there’s so much tension baked into the premise, with so many ways to pull it off. Everybody does it differently.

    Naturally, most are American, bombastic, pulse-setting thrillers with lots and lots of guns. A heist movie made by Brits, planned by Brits and pulled off by Brits is a different affair. Today we’re looking at three great British heist movies, all from different eras of film.

    The Italian Job, 1969

    It’s hard to think of a more impactful heist movie than The Italian Job, which is still lists as one of Britain’s top 100 films.

    Daring heists have always captured our imagination and inspired so much media, from movies like these and to video or slot games like Action Bank. The idea of cracking a locked vault open is a smart fit for the formula of a slot title. When faced with a vault, there are so many possible answers to the question – what’s inside?

    In The Italian Job, there are bars of solid gold on the inside. Inside what? A moving security van. That’s where the iconic Mini Coopers come in. Michael Deeley directs a younger Michael Caine as he leads his merry band of Brits to steal from the city of Turin, spiting the Mafia themselves. It has a 1960s vibe with a dose of that classic British understatement, famous on account of its iconic chase sequence, its music and for putting the word cliff into cliffhanger.

    Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 1998

    Almost 30 years after The Italian Job, we got Guy Ritchie’s first full-length film with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s a much different film than the ‘60s international heist caper, following small-timers in a squatted flat who need their hands on £500,000, fast. They resort to robbing their nastier criminal neighbours and grimy ‘90s chaos ensues.

    As a film, it’s more authentic just because it’s set in Britain. Just getting their hands on the antique shotguns that the film is named after becomes a whole ordeal. It helps that almost every character speaks in a Cockney slang that you don’t hear much nowadays.

    It established Ritchie’s fast-paced, infinitely quotable, multiple POV story formula that he’d double down with for Snatch two years later. It’s also where Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones got their acting debuts.

    King of Thieves, 2018

    The Hatton Garden safety deposit burglary was a real British heist that made headlines in 2015. Not long after, a spate of films followed and King of Thieves won out, once more led by a much older Michael Caine. Since the real heist was carried out by old men, Caine leads other British old guards like Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and Michael Gambon.

    It also means the film is sanitised, light on action, as they slowly steal £14 million in diamonds and cash over a weekend. That’s realistic since that was literally how it happened, but it didn’t wow moviegoers as much Deeley’s or Ritchie’s films. For the right audience, this true-to-life story could make it more interesting than a fiction flick.

    Together, all three movies represent different stages of British culture and film-making at large. The Italian Job was a Hollywood Renaissance gift to a larger-than-life Britain, becoming more of an icon culturally than commercially. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was the low-budget underdog that out-earned the other movies on this list, injecting a London gangster edge into the genre that American mob movies got earlier in the decade. As for King of Thieves, it is a cleaner, more grounded story based on a headline-grabbing event, for an age where every blockbuster is an expensive gamble.

    Abbie Wilson
    Abbie Wilson
    An experienced writer, Abbie has written for several publications, including Homaphy, covering various niches, including film and television, gaming, fashion, and the arts.

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