Jesse James was a folk hero long, long before Brad Pitt played him in the new Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Even though he never denied being a thief and a murderer, James dominated the popular imagination as a Robin Hood who went after railroads and banks that exploited the poor, as a bitter Confederate veteran lashing out against the Union, and as the last great frontiersman in a Wild West that was getting tamer and more civilized with each passing year.
Movies and TV helped to keep that legend alive, of course — IMDB lists more than 60 different appearances of Jesse James on the big and small screens, from Tyrone Power’s “Jesse James” to that “Brady Bunch” episode where Bobby Brady is obsessed with the legendary outlaw. But the movies have always given us dashing, daring criminals that audiences just can’t help loving.
Here are 10 thieves whose dastardly deeds are nevertheless delightfully entertaining:
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” (1988)
When Bonnie Bedelia, playing a hostage taken by Gruber, comes to realize that his talk about politics and terrorism is just a smoke screen for getting into her company’s vaults, she spits, “After all your posturing, all your speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.” Gruber forcefully (and legitimately) corrects her: “I am an exceptional thief.” Rickman’s breakthrough role in the United States immediately put him in the pantheon of great screen villains, not only for the ingenuity of Gruber’s plan but also for the squirmy charisma the actor gives to the baddie. It is Rickman’s Gruber, just as much as Bruce Willis’ John McClane, that makes “Die Hard” such a classic.
Sabu as Abu in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940)When Prince Ahmad (John Justin), the rightful King of Bagdad, is imprisoned by the evil Grand Vizier (Conrad Veidt), he escapes the dungeon with the help of fellow prisoner Abu, who gets him out with the help of a genie (Rex Ingram). While Sabu became something of a joke later in his career — Hollywood treated him as a two-dimensional “exotic,” sort of a male Maria Montez — his early British films showcase him as a lively and engaging screen presence. Directed by the legendary Michael Powell, “The Thief of Bagdad” remains one of the most entertaining adventure movies ever made.
George Clooney as Jack Foley in “Out of Sight” (1998)Yes, Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh did better at the box office with the “Ocean’s” series, but their teaming on this Elmore Leonard adaptation cemented Clooney as a real-life movie star, as he created one of the screen’s sexiest (if not always successful) thieves. Who can blame Jennifer Lopez’s federal agent for being reluctant about putting Foley behind bars?
Bill Murray as Grimm in “Quick Change” (1990)
The film’s opening bank robbery is a masterful combination of laughs and procedural suspense, as Grimm, dressed as a clown, robs a bank and then craftily manages to slip out as part of a hostage release. Alas, while the bank job was easy, it’s getting to JFK Airport where the difficulties come in. Murray and collaborator Howard Franklin co-directed, and the movie is a perfect showcase for the star’s ability to balance deadpan comedy and understated drama.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)“They’re young. They’re in love. They rob banks,” read the famous tag line to this 1967 counter-culture hit. While earlier films like “Gun Crazy” and “Breathless” paved the way for these sexy crooks on the lam, the movies had never quite seen anything like these young, gorgeous, gun-wielding desperadoes. And every subsequent lovers-in-hot-pursuit crime melodrama owes this Arthur Penn classic at least a nod of gratitude.
Jean Servais as Tony le Stéphanois in “Rififi” (1955)While the money shot of “Rififi” is the 33-minute silent (save for the sound of breathing) heist, Jules Dassin’s caper classic is darn near perfect all the way through. And at the heart of it is Servais’ Tony, a bank robber fresh out of the joint, whose robbery of a jewelry store leads to betrayal, kidnapping and general heartache. Tony’s stealing skills are impeccable, and so is Dassin’s film — legend has it that the Paris police considered banning “Rififi” out of fear that it would be too much of a “how-to” for criminals.
Clive Owen as Dalton Russell in “Inside Man” (2006)Russell winds up with more than he’d bargained for in his bank job, since the safe deposit boxes there contain information implicating a high-profile New Yorker with ties to the Third Reich. (It’s akin to pickpocket Richard Widmark winding up with top-secret microfilm in “Pickup on South Street.”) But Owen plays it frigidly cool, whether he’s facing down steely hostage negotiator Denzel Washington or icy power-broker Jodie Foster.
Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as Gaston and Lily in “Trouble in Paradise” (1932)As with Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” the leads in “Trouble in Paradise” get a definite erotic kick out of their thievery — they even seduce each other by picking each others’ pockets! Under the masterful direction of Ernst Lubitsch, Marshall and Hopkins make larceny look like the sexiest thing ever.
Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise as Stony, Cleo, Frankie and T.T. in “Set It Off” (1996)This quartet of working-class women proves that you don’t have to be some crazy super-criminal to pull off a bank robbery — but having life push you against the wall certainly helps. With the exception of Latifah’s lesbian thrill-seeker, these are just everyday women trying make ends meet and keep things together. And if that means holding a gun on a teller or two, so be it.
Bruce Willis as Eddie “Hudson Hawk” Hawkins in “Hudson Hawk” (1991)Yes, this movie remains a punchline a decade and a half later, but Willis is surprisingly engaging and goofy in this maligned caper comedy. And the Hawk’s actual robberies — from sneaking into an auction house safe in New York to mailing himself inside the Vatican to steal a priceless tome by Leonardo da Vinci — are intricate fun to watch, even if they don’t make a whole lot of sense. Much like the movie itself.