Why does Hollywood get it wrong?
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good heist story.
I grew up watching “Sneakers” and the “Hudson Hawk.” Anytime one of the “Ocean’s” movies are on T.V. you can bet that I will find the time to sit down and watch. That said, heist movies, and books, have drifted far from the reality from which they are based on. In cinema the genre has devolved into what could best be described as “Heist Fantasy.” In literature using a heist as the main plot device has become more common in romance and erotica fiction than in thriller and crime fiction.
So what is it that these books and movies usually get wrong? Is it the techniques? That is sometimes the case. Big budget movies generally prefer to see sultry women dancing through a grid of laser beams while wearing tight spandex suits than a portly electrician with a bookie who needs to get paid yanking wires out of the nearest phone line. Is it the characters? Well let’s face it, casting sophisticated Englishmen such as Carey Grant, David Niven, and Ray Milland, in some of the most classic heist movies of the 50s and 60s probably had a lot to do with shaping the safe cracker image. Now, we can’t imagine a criminal mastermind who doesn’t look like he was born to wear a tux.
It is probably less about what they do and more about who they market these stories to. College educated people living tedious “lives of quiet desperation” who rarely have the audacity to risk a traffic fine, let alone real prison time, seem to be the target demographic for many heist stories. It is fun to live vicariously through the exploits of others. Naturally, the “others” we create to live vicariously through are primarily super polished versions of our own dreams. So we naturally have imbued them with the dreams of the middle class. The dream that you could be a sophisticated (wo)man about town if you could just afford the nice car and the fancy duds. Much like the Robin Hood myth was co-opted by the very upper class Victorians that the real Robin Hood (if he ever was real?) would have been fighting against, to a large degree the safe cracker has been held hostage by modern audiences.
How do you get it right? By being honest about the skills needed to crack safes, blow open vaults, and disable alarm systems. Let’s face it, most people from suburban America wouldn’t have the foggiest clue how to do any of that. The skills of the safe cracker are not taught in college. These are skills that you can learn from a book but can’t fully comprehend without the practical experience of bashing open a metal box, handling a heavy duty angle grinder, adjusting the right oxygen flow on a torch, drilling through inches of hardened steel, and of course…blowing crap up!. As I continue blogging about some of the great historical heists you may notice a common thread among the masterminds of these heists. Most of these guys were not upper crust snobs or even middle class “wannabees.” The vast majority of these guys were “working class.”
Bringing the working class element back to the story of the safe cracker was one of my motivations from the beginning of writing Boxman. Especially in the times in which we live, when the working class is getting screwed out of as much of the American Dream as any time since the Great Depression, it is far past time that they reclaimed at least the safe cracker mythos.
A few notable exceptions: When did Hollywood got it right?
The Bank Job– With Jason Statham
This is the story of the Baker Street Robbery. This movie got the heist right….because they were basing the movie off of an actual historical heist! Not sure if that is cheating or not but never fear, they add enough conspiracy theory/historical conjecture to make up for the fact that, by and large, they depicted the break in accurately.
This is the one to watch. James Kahn does the best job of portraying the working class boxman than any other depiction I have seen in film. Maybe the role didn’t earn him an Oscar but I think you have to excessively emote in close-ups to get an Oscar anyways. What was great about “Thief” was the technical advisors. Instead of hiring one technical advisor and having him explain stuff to the whole cast and crew, director Micheal Mann hired about five technical advisors and had them play roles in the film. This film launched the careers of several Holywood character actors including Dennis Farina, John Santucci, and Chuck Adamsen. In another fun twist many of the advisors who had been Chicago Police officers played the roles of the Mob Boss’s henchman while those who had been thieves played the roles of the police officers. This is definitely the best heist movie of all time if authenticity is used as a guide. Thief is less fiction and more of an ode to the famed Chicago crews who worked the diamond heists throughout the 60s and 70s.