Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How to Rob a Bank (According to the Movies)

The economy’s got you down. The bills are due and your pockets are empty. You walk down the street and eye the local bank. All that money, just sitting there for the taking.

“How hard can it be?,” you ask yourself, thinking of the expert planning, the daring execution, the successful getaway, and you sitting on a beach, officially Retired. Bank robbing is as American as apple pie. Pull off that one big score and you’re on Easy Street.

But hold on a second. Grand larceny isn’t as easy as it may seem in your head. If you don’t believe me, scrape together a little of what cash you have left and rent some movies. They can show you just how dicey these schemes can be.

Here is a sampling of techniques used by people in films trying to rob banks (or other places that house a lot of money), and what they can tell us about how (un)successful the real schemes might be.

Option 1: The Stickup or Smash ‘n Grab

Seen in: Bonnie & Clyde, Dead Presidents, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Set It Off

The Plan: Walk into a bank during business hours, preferably wearing a mask or other disguise. Using the threat of physical violence, demand that whoever has access to the money hand it over to you. When the money is received, get away from the bank as fast as possible.

If the bank isn’t open, break open the vaults using brute force and take whatever’s inside, followed by a quick getaway.

Why this plan should work: Of all the common robbery methods, this one is the easiest to plan and execute. Cheap too – stick your finger in your coat and you don’t even have to buy a gun. The execution tends to be very quick and anonymous. The element of surprise is usually on your side. If you act badass enough you can keep bystanders and security personnel from doing anything, as people are not likely to risk their lives defending cash.

Why it usually doesn’t: Of all the options, this one is the least profitable since your score is limited to what you can quickly carry out. Depending on how much cash you need, you’ll have to do it again at another place, increasing your overall risk. The unpredictability of this operation is high, especially when other people are around – with all the guns and barely-contained frustration in America, you never know who’s going to try to be a hero.

Furthermore, these operations tend to attract a lot of attention quickly. One trip of a silent alarm is all it takes to get the place surrounded. Getaways are always problematic due to street traffic, car trouble, unexpected shootouts, etc.

If you’re thinking about using partners for this endeavor, understand that people attracted to this kind of plan are usually unreliable thrill junkies who tend to have big mouths and will start bragging to their friends (one of whom is always an undercover cop) about their big score as soon as they get to the bar.

Option #2: Kidnapping/Hostage Taking

Seen in: Die Hard, Dog Day Afternoon, Fargo, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3

The Plan: Hold one or more people in your custody, the condition of their release being that you get a large amount of money delivered to you at a time and place of your choosing.

Why this plan should work: The only real advantage this plan provides is that the police, faced with the risk of getting innocent people hurt, tend to stay back in order to negotiate. This gives you time to complete the job and get out.

Why it usually doesn’t: Pulling off this kind of job requires a team that knows how to control a crowd and keep their cool (the entire premise of Reservoir Dogs is what happens when they don’t). You will have to deal with everything from preventing escape attempts to making sure people get to go to the bathroom.

Also, trying to steal money is one thing, putting innocent peoples’ lives in danger in order to get money automatically bumps you into a more severe punishment category. It’s officially OK for the good guys to blow you away on sight.

Once again, the getaway is the big issue. Authorities aren’t exactly going to stop looking for you just because you let the hostages go.

Option #3: Deception, Infiltration, and Trickeration

Seen in: Confidence, The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven (2001), The Score

The Plan: You and your hard-boiled team (even better if they're an all-star group of international professional thieves), cleverly disguised as bank customers and/or employees, work your way into the bank’s operations, putting yourself in positions where you can get access to the money or can make operations like the smash and grab easier. Alternatively, you directly recruit people who work at the bank to help you "make things happen."

Why this plan should work: Since this plan takes a little time to set into motion, it’s much easier to walk away if things start going wrong. With this plan you are usually working with professionals who have reputations to protect.

Why it usually doesn’t: Getting this scheme going could take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. The more complex a plan like this becomes, the greater the chances it will fall apart. Double-crosses and setups are frequent – there’s always someone on your team who thinks they’re smarter than you.

Option #4: Big Business & Technology

Seen in: Office Space, Superman III, Wall Street
The Plan: Use the power of big business to steal a tiny bit of money millions of times, resulting in a massive haul. Alternately, set up shell corporations with fictitious earnings to dupe investors out of their money.

Why this plan should work: This is a great way to make a lot of money in a hurry. Little physical labor is involved, which is nice. Since you don’t have to be physically present with the money in order to steal it, getaway chances are improved.

Why it usually doesn’t: You have to have advanced knowledge of computer programming and/or finance to get this started. Since you usually end up stealing millions of dollars, punishment can be severe and pursued on an international level.

Option #5: Tunneling

Seen in: The Bank Job, The Ladykillers (2004), Larceny, Inc., Sexy Beast

The Plan: Find a location near the bank that can be hidden or disguised as a legitimate storefront. Use the location as a starting point to dig a tunnel to the bank’s vault, where you can break through a weak point in the structure, bypassing security alarms.

Why this plan should work: It’s a good way of keeping a relatviely low profile until stealin’ time. This is also a good way of quickly moving a lot of cash out of a location.

Why it usually doesn’t: This is a logistical nightmare that involves lots of time, money, and specialized knowledge. You would have to steal a lot of money just to recoup the costs of doing the job. Plus, when the cops find out about the crime, there’s usually lots of evidence, starting with the ginormous hole in the ground you had to dig.

You can also rest assured that if you are sucessful, at some point someone on your crew, flush with accomplishment and riches, is going to start bragging to anyone who will listen (usually at the local pub), which will set off a series of events that result in the police knocking on your door.


  1. no mention about The Joker successful bank robbery in The Dark Knight?

  2. the joker did a pretty did god job

  3. You forgot to mention "Burst in with shotguns blazing, then use a schoolbus to escape"

  4. wow how long did it take for the fan-nerds to mention the joker...yeah he timed it perfectly to drive into a bus convoy! come-on

    Heat was a major f-up but still fun to watch

  5. One of my favs is Quick Change. The robbery went down almost flawlessly. The getaway on the other hand...

  6. See QUICK CHANGE (1990) for a clever and funny bank-robbery sequence. Wonderful and underappreciated movie!

  7. Thomas Crown Affair!!! (1999) That was the most perfectly executed robbery I have ever even thought of.

  8. What about "Inside Job" with Clive Owen? Pretty damn creative. But plenty of room for mistakes.

  9. Um, what part of The Joker's operation wasn't already covered in the "Option 1: The Stickup or Smash ‘n Grab" write-up?

  10. What about the successful heist in Inside Man (2006) by Spike Lee?

  11. Best movie bank robbery in my opinion: Takeshi Kitano in "Hana-Bi" aka. "Fireworks". So simple it might just work: Put on your police uniform, hand the cashier an empty bag and secretly but stoically flash your gun. As nobody notices it, the cashier understands and puts some money in the bag, and you simply leave, getting into your police car and drive away, while watching other police cars arrive. Not a word said. Really nice.
    Oh, and George Cloneys aproach in "Out of sight" is really sweet, too. Just pretend you have accomplices all over the room who will start shooting if you aren't allowed to escape quietly.

  12. what about Inside Man? (though that could apply to #4)

  13. Didn't Linus call out the job in Ocean's 11 as a smash and grab? and didn't Rusty say yeah but it's a bit more complicated? So wouldn't Ocean's 11 been under smash and grab and not Deception, Infiltration, and Trickeration?

  14. Then there's the type of heist committed in "Heat", where the team of professionals goes in with the hopes of making a swift getaway...But are completely prepared to shoot it out with the police if they can't.

    Another good example is the TV-Movie, "44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shootout", which is based on the 1997 gunfight between two AK-47 wielding robbers and the LAPD following an attempted bank robbery.

  15. Inside Man is one worth mentioning.
    Great list, very well thought out.

    I gave a set of heist themed movies to a friend for christmas, along with a ski mask and some popcorn :)

  16. Inside Man is a mix of #2 and #4. In its complexity and simplification (the 'standard executive procedures') this heist is outstanding.
    Brilliant Bank Job.

  17. Yeah, Inside Man with Cliwe Owen should really be there somewhere. Insanely clever!

    Also, the robbery scene in RocknRolla is absolutely hilarious, even though it's not really robbing an entire bank...

  18. And then there's THE ITALIAN JOB (the new one). Although it isn't a bank, you have to admit that that opening heist in Venice is pretty sweet. I mean, blasting the floor out from under the safe? Using a red herring boat? Using SCUBA to crack the safe and get the gold out underwater? You just can't beat that kind of creativity. And then of course stealing the gold back in the end. That was pretty darn intense as well.

  19. another one to the hostage movies, take family member of bank employee hostage and walk into bank and steal money. can't remember the name of the film but it was decent.

  20. how about inside man? it's definitely the coolest one other than oceans eleven

  21. Well, what makes The Joker's bank heist in "The Dark Knight" so different is because it's the only movie bank job I know of where the nature of the plan involves the robbers killing each other as it progresses. It's beautiful because each detail of the plan is carried out by a specialist and then the specialist in question is dealt with. It simplifies itself as it progresses.

    What makes it difficult is actually gathering all the specialists and convincing them to carry out their plan without getting suspicious. Not to mention it takes a drastic, chaotic mind to come up with the plan and execute it.

  22. Both Quick Change and Inside Man use the Hostage Situation as a ruse to escape as one of the Hostages once they are set free. Pretty ingenious if you ask me.

  23. Thank you so much it was a very good guide, now to rob a bank (according to the movies) is without a doubt simple by using your tips. Thank you