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The big scores 

Cracking the code of the heist movie

Ocean's Thirteen, Steven Soderbergh's latest, larcenous exercise in star power and cinematic cool, screens too late in Atlanta for me to review it here. So the question is, can I take the example of George Clooney's hipster heisters and sneak in someplace to see it?

Parts of my plan are foolproof. I can scale the face of Clooney's heavily guarded Italian villa with my old-school Human Fly suction cups. My refrigerated ninja suit will render me invisible to Soderbergh's infrared security cameras. For my getaway, I plan to cover the walls with state-of-the-art mirror spray paint, so Matt Damon and Andy Garcia will be too distracted by their own reflections to run me down.

My biggest concern is getting my ass handed to me if I run into Bernie Mac. Or Ellen Barkin.

Before daring such a risky act of breaking, entering and movie-viewing, I felt I needed some pointers, so I did my homework on the heist picture to learn what I needed to do.

Enlist the crew – My partner-in-crime Scott Henry suggests that heist movies or "caper pictures" display the flip sides of police procedurals: They dramatize the extralegal techniques of safecrackers, sneak thieves and stick-up artists. Movies about robberies date back nearly to the dawn of narrative cinema, with 1903's "The Great Train Robbery" being probably the most famous screen story from film's infancy.

It took awhile for the robbers to steal the spotlight from the cops. Following World War II, film noir made anti-heroes of society's worst elements, and in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Sterling Hayden's two-fisted "hooligan" joins a safecracker, a mastermind schemer, a heavy-footed driver and a treacherous moneyman for a daring jewel theft. Most heist films feature the same basic core team of specialized talents.

Execute the plan – When director Jules Dassin focused on a French robbery with Rififi (1954), he drafted the blueprint for generations of screen thefts to come. Rififi follows in The Asphalt Jungle's footsteps, with Jean Servais (a terse tough guy faintly resembling Boris Karloff) leading a raid on an even more secure jewelry store. In the film's extended centerpiece, Servais and his cohorts use the tools of their trade with no music or dialogue in a feat that feels as brazen and precisely executed as the actual crime.

Rififi showcased the potential for suspenseful, complex robbery scenes to demonstrate what film scholars could call "pure cinema," expressing character through action and people (nearly always men) executing physical tasks. In more nuts-and-bolts terms, heist movies' appeal may appeal to the part of human nature that's fascinated with how things work, the part of us that gravitates to Home Depot on weekends and likes solving problems with tools. Typically, what the thieves do is more important than who they are.

Keep up with the times – Having created the heist-film template with Rififi, Dassin shook it like an Etch A Sketch 10 years later in Topkapi (1964). Like Alec Guinness' delightful early caper vehicle The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Topkapi proved that heists could support nimble comedy as well as hard-boiled cautionary tales. The breezy romp featured garishly colorful sequences and flamboyant characters, most memorably Peter Ustinov's Oscar-winning turn as a "schmoe" who finds himself both a reluctant accomplice and double agent in an Istanbul emerald theft.

Just as heist films match the tone of their times, so can thieves keep pace with technology. Topkapi's theft scene involves outlandish stunts, particularly a harnessed acrobat dangling over an exhibit hall with a hypersensitive floor. The film inspired the caper-heavy "Mission: Impossible" television series, so for the big-screen adaptation, Mission: Impossible director Brian De Palma paid explicit homage to Topkapi by dangling Tom Cruise in that all-white CIA vault. Despite the advanced gear and gadgetry, the basic task was the same.

Evade the authorities – Never underestimate the forces of law and order: Some of cinema's most brilliant and thrilling robberies get foiled by the so-called heroes. Goldfinger (1964) featured the title character's insanely brilliant scheme to set off an atomic bomb in Fort Knox: Why go to the trouble of transporting tons of gold when you can irradiate it and increase the value of your stockpile? James Bond not only ruined it, but finalized the Bond formula for decades of adventures to come.

Similarly, Alan Rickman justifiably said, "I am an exceptional thief!" while passing as a terrorist in Die Hard, but Bruce Willis' persistent acts of sabotage set the standard for nonstop present-day action movies. In "The Wrong Trousers," Plasticine penguin Feathers McGraw pilfered a massive gemstone with zany inventiveness, but Wallace & Gromit saved the day and became comedic icons.

Hang onto the loot – Any heist requires a clean getaway, which may be the most memorable thing about the film, such as those peppy Mini Coopers evading history's greatest traffic jam in Michael Caine's The Italian Job (1969). In fact, the big robberies nearly always succeed in heist films – that may be the genre's one constant. The problems come afterward, with either infighting and the failures of human nature (The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi) or the interference of blind fate (The Italian Job and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing). Bad deeds were always unpunished.

As anti-authority themes became more pronounced in the 1960s, crime started to pay, after all. In The Great Train Robbery (1979), Sean Connery's triumph stuck a finger in the eye of Victorian hypocrisy. For proof that it's better to be in a heist film now than in earlier years, consider that the Rat Pack's original Ocean's Eleven lost their fortune, but Soderbergh's team got to keep it.

So maybe the odds will favor my heist's success. Wish me luck with Brad Pitt's laser beams and tiger traps.

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