10 Directors Who Mastered the Heist Subgenre – MovieWeb

The mere idea of pulling a stunt as big as a bank heist makes for compelling cinema, and several directors have learned that lesson well.
Since 1950 with The Asphalt Jungle by John Huston, some of the most intense thrillers and gripping action movies have revolved around a large, singular robbery. A few of them can even be considered among the most lauded films to ever grace the silver screen. The mere idea of pulling a stunt as big as a bank heist makes for compelling cinema, and several directors have learned that lesson on multiple firsthand occasions.
Several names on this list will be familiar to moderate film fans, but if you’re a hardcore moviegoer, these names should be fully recognizable. All that said, these are ten directors who have made more than one heist film throughout their careers.
Though it leans far closer to the comedy side of the genre spectrum than, say, a thriller or an action film, A Fish Called Wanda (1988) received widespread praise from critics, including one win — Best Supporting Actor for Kevin Kline — and two separate nominations at the 61st Academy Awards.
Directed by Charles Crichton, it was also among the highest-grossing films of 1988 thanks to the charm of its style and the wit of its script, and the film as a whole has aged just wonderfully. However, it actually marked the second heist film of Crichton’s career up to that point, succeeding The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Another comedy, it didn’t exactly make waves at the box office, but it did win Best Film at the BAFTAs and picked up two nominations at the Academy Awards. Not bad for a film about robberies.
One of the most influential directors of his time, Jean-Pierre Melville fought with the French Resistance in World War II, and was known to make films set during the affair. The other kind of stories he preferred to tell were of the criminal variety, and often times, those transgressions involved careful planning and a steady sleight of hand.
His most famous went down as a forerunner to the French New Wave while still being considered noir: Bob the Gambler (1955). It features a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and received particular praise from American film critics in hindsight such as Roger Ebert. Toward the end of his career, Melville released another heist film by way of The Red Circle (1970). It wasn’t as notable as Bob the Gambler, but still rounded Melville out as a master of heist films.
After releasing the comedy film Friday (1995) with Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, director F. Gary Gray moved on to a project far disparate in genre: Set It Off (1996). It featured a cast of Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise in a plot that of course revolves around a bank robbery. Each character has their own motive, and it makes for a thrilling experience from start to finish.
Another heist film from Gray was The Italian Job (2003), a remake of the 1969 British film of the same name. It wasn’t quite as well-received as its original counterpart, but Gray’s version featured an impressive ensemble castand made $176 million off a $60 million budget. In the end, though neither of them exactly broke the cinematic mold, F. Gary Gray two iconic modern heist films that land him at number eight.
This era marked a shift in heist films where directors began toying with the conventions thereof. For instance: in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino never even shows the audience the heist in which the plot revolves around. It’s almost entirely the aftermath thereof, with a few flashbacks here and there to the days leading up, as well as moments of their escape from the bank. Aside from that, it’s all set after the heist takes place. It’s undoubtedly the most popular heist film under Tarantino’s belt, but he did direct one more 90s film that could very well fit in the categorical subgenre.
Starring Pam Grier as the titular character, Jackie Brown (1997) is the only film of Tarantino’s career that he did not write from the ground up, as it’s based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. However, this just meant that the ground was already set for an elaborate plot of thievery — all Tarantino had to do was add his own unique flair, and voila! One of the best heist films of its time.
Commonly cited among the greatest of all French film noirs, Rififi (1955) follows a group of four thieves pulling off a heist on a Parisian jewelry store. The project won Jules Dassin the Best Director award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and has remained a staple of the genre ever since. Particularly, the movie is remembered for its half-hour-long heist scene that takes place in almost total silence — no background music, no frantic dialogue. Just the robbery.
It was one of the most influential films of its kind, but Dassin didn’t stop there with regard to the subgenre at hand. Just over a decade later, he released Topkapi (1964) to decent commercial success. And critically, Peter Ustinov took home gold for Best Supporting Actor at the 37th Academy Awards. Despite the fact that he was blacklisted from Hollywood, Jules Dassin provided film fans with some of the most influential heist films ever made.
Despite being one of the more popular names on the list whose films consistently resonate with audiences, Guy Ritchie doesn't have the best track record with regard to critical reception. The highest-rated heist film he made was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), which holds an adequate score of 75% on consensus review website Rotten Tomatoes. But along with Snatch (2000), these two films are regarded among the greatest modern British films, and with good reason — also on Rotten Tomatoes, the two films have the same audience score of 93%.
Meanwhile, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Wrath of Man (2021) showcased a clear dip in quality for Ritchie as of late. Not that it matters, though. Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are among the funniest and most gripping heist movies ever made, and Ritchie will forever be remembered for their quality.
Perhaps most well-known for his play and screenplay adaptation of the same name in Glengarry Glenn Ross (1984), David Mamet was also responsible for directing three heist films. Two of them were among the most critically acclaimed movies in the director's catalog — House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1998) — while Heist (2001) was the most financially successful project thereof.
Plus, Mamet also wrote the script for Ronin (1998), which has gone down as a classic of the sub-genre thanks to its realistic car chase sequence. In the end, while some of these aren't the most recognizable movies you'll read about today, they were all vastly influential in helping make the heist film a staple of American cinema.
The two most prevalent heist films of Michael Mann’s career were Thief (1981) starring James Caan and Heist (1995) with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Val Kilmer. The latter has been deemed by fans and critics alike one of the best and most iconic heist films of all time, while the former has largely flown under the radar. But reception aside — they’re two truly thought-out thrillers that remain absolute staples of the subgenres all these decades later.
And although it blurs the line between subgenres, Public Enemies (2009) with Johnny Depp as John Dillinger could be described as a heist film just as aptly as one might call it a gangster movie. And despite being among the more popular titles throughout this article, it’s also among the most moderately received.
From a sheerly qualitative perspective, there's an argument that Dog Day Afternoon (1975) is the best film covered in this article. It garnered Sidney Lumet nominations across the board of award associations for Best Director, and it remains one of his greatest titles from a career that spanned six decades.
Before Dog Day Afternoon, however, Lumet put out The Anderson Tapes (1971), which popularized the use of electronic surveillance like security cameras in movies. And in the last film of his career, Lumet directed Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. It received widespread acclaim for its nonlinear structure and histrionic performances, and it really solidified Lumet as one of the greatest directors of heist films that cinema has ever seen. Only one man stands on top in this regard, though.
Since Out of Sight (1998) up until No Sudden Move (2021), Steven Soderbergh has directed six heist films in total. His characters have robbed three casinos — the Ocean’s trilogy, of course. But they’ve also stolen from two banks in Out of Sight and No Sudden Move, as well as a speedway in Logan Lucky (2017).
All three Ocean’s movies are among the most popular of everything covered in this list, with Ocean’s Eleven (2001) going down as the highest-grossing of them all. It garnered $450 million off an $85 million budget, and it received widespread acclaim from critics. With three other individual heist films on top of the Ocean’s trilogy — all of the highest absolute quality — Steven Soderbergh is without a doubt the king of Hollywood heists. And, who knows? At sixty years of age, he may have more to come.
Related: Movies Steven Soderbergh is Best Known For

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