Why do we love crime movies so much? Well, let’s see: we have gangsters, car chases, overcomplicated heists, infiltrated moles, choreographic and violent shoot-outs, and sometimes spectacular action set pieces. Plus, of course, there’s the sheer fun of empathizing with the bad guys… or the good guys who will try to take ‘em down.
One can prefer Tarantino’s over-the-top ear for dialogue or Sidney Lumet’s intelligent and calculated conversations, a more realistic attitude and tone or a funnier twist to the archetypal elements in the genre, but in the end, almost everyone enjoys a good crime movie… especially the ones in which something (or everything!) suddenly goes terribly wrong, leaving characters to handle the unexpected consequences of the ill-fated events.
Today we count down some of the very best movies reflecting that situation, trying to individuate some of the different causes and variations in the context of these masterworks’ scripts. Please note that not every single “crime movie about plans going wrong” could make it into the list, so if your favourite heist movies didn’t make it into the list, well… that happens.
Also, this list will heavily focus on the plot and atmosphere of the films involved, focusing on the premises and consequences of whatever plan is central to their scripts while also trying to avoid any in-depth analysis in order to avoid (whenever that is possible!) a higher presence of spoilers. In case you haven’t seen any of the listed films, however, it would be safer to skip the pertaining text. You’ve been warned!
15. Baby Driver
“The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.”
What’s the plan: Employed as a getaway driver in the criminal underworld of Atlanta, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is about to quit his job after falling in love with Debora (Lily James), a waitress at a local diner. Forced to team up with Buddy (Jon Hamm), his wife Darling (Eiza González) and the crazed and impulsive Bats (Jamie Foxx) in order to settle an old score with the boss of the operation, Kevin Spacey’s Doc, Baby once again reluctantly accepts to take part in a new hazardous heist.
What goes wrong: Starting as an upbeat action movie, “Baby Driver” and the plan at its core suddenly take a turn for the worse because of Bats’ delirious psychology and actions.
Convinced that the team is about to be brought to justice by police forces, Bats hilariously decides to provoke an epic shootout that ends up killing everyone on the other side of the deal, and once again brings chaos to the planned scheme later, pressuring Baby into a desperate attempt against his former partners to save his own (and Debora’s) life.
14. Blood Simple
“Believe me. These things always have a logical explanation. Usually.”
What’s the plan: Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) owns a bar in Texas, and is almost sure that his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him. When private eye Lorren (M. Emmet Walsh) brings him photographic evidence of Abby’s unfaithfulness with Ray (John Getz), who works as a bartender in Julian’s joint, Marty goes crazy and tries to kidnap his own wife; but when his attempt comically fails, he decides to pay the private investigator a sum to kill the newly formed couple.
What goes wrong: The first Coen brothers movie is an absolute blast, and feels like a blueprint for everything that will come in “Fargo” 12 years later; no one is ever really able to see the whole picture, and the fact that viewers can ironically heightens the tension.
The darkness and violence of the American lifestyle is mixed with a larger-than-life comedic vein that is portrayed by an incessant series of events that range from small, tragic mistakes to plain stupid acts, committed by pretty much everyone involved.
“A lot of guys mess around with married women, but you’re the only one I know who robs a joint just to pay back the husband. Crazy!”
What’s the plan: Los Angeles, California. Working at the same time as a mechanic, a stunt double and a getaway car driver, a quiet and unnamed “Driver” (Ryan Gosling) falls in love with his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and starts to develop a friendship with her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos).
Things go sour when Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac), Irene’s husband, is released from incarceration and beaten into taking part in one last quick robbery to repay his prison debts. The plan is indeed very simple: get in, point guns, take the money, get out, get away.
What goes wrong: Of course, Driver offers his ability as a getaway car driver in order to help Standard protect his family: what he does not know is that the planned robbery really is a set-up. When a part of the team gets shot, the Driver flees from the scene and ends up in the middle of a deadly and brutal game playing against the mob, bringing out the most dangerous and dark side of the ultimately positive personality he deeply wants to believe he possesses.
12. Big Deal on Madonna Street
“Stealing is a serious profession, and it takes serious people. All you can do at your best is work.”
What’s the plan: Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) gets arrested for an attempted car theft in the streets of Rome just before putting in practice a planned heist on a pawn shop next to an empty apartment.
After Peppe (Vittorio Gassman) finds out of his plan after getting paid to take the blame for his crime (the first of many plans that will not work out so well), he puts together a group of desperately poor acquaintances (including Marcello Mastroianni’s Tiberio and Toto’s Dante Cruciani, an expert on safe-cracking) to carry out Cosimo’s seemingly brilliant theft.
What goes wrong: Featuring great humor and a magnificent cast (Claudia Cardinale also has a small part as Michele’s Sicilian sister), “Big Deal on Madonna Street” is able to address some serious social issues, such as the increasing poverty in Rome and the harsh everyday life of those poor people in 1950’s Italy, all themes that seep through the witty dialogue and gags in the film, leading to a bittersweet finale in which the gang risks everything only to be fooled by their incompetence, and the only reward will be an humble plate of pasta with chickpeas, leading some of them to do what seemed impossible: start looking for a job.
11. The Killing
“Anytime you take a chance, you better be sure the rewards are worth the risk.”
What’s the plan: Just released from prison, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) starts assembling a team of friends and cons planning to score a $2 million hit on the local horse racetrack. His accomplices will include a financer, a corrupt cop, a capable sharpshooter, a track bartender, a wrestler and teller George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.); every single move has been perfectly planned and timed based on exact maps of the building. How could anything go wrong?
What goes wrong: The plan for the heist itself works out just fine, even if the marksman gets fatally wounded because of plain bad luck (literally, as a tossed lucky horseshoe will ironically pierce his car’s tire, causing him to be shot at by police forces).
While George Peatty’s wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) sets up a trap for the team with her lover’s help, resulting in a massive shoot-out with many casualties, the money is apparently safe in Johnny’s and his future wife’s hands… until another chain of coincidental events claims the entirety of the sum that’s just been illegally earned.
10. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
“That’s what I said. A Mom and Pop operation.”
What’s the plan: Hank Henson (Ethan Hawke) is a sad and penniless divorced man full of debts who’s even unable to pay for his daughter’s school fees, while his brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an executive at a NYC real estate firm who’s in need of some quick and easy cash to leave the country before a scandal hits him.
And then, Andy proposes to a reluctant Hank they rob their own parents’ jewelry store with a toy gun, as the insurance will cover the amount of every item stolen during the heist.
What goes wrong: Told in a nonlinear narrative style, Lumet decides to show us the disastrous results of the planned “quick and victimless” robbery right at the beginning of the movie.
Unable to commit a crime, Hank Henson hires small-time crook Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne) to enter the store and hold what he believes to be elderly employee Doris at gunpoint, resulting in a brief gunfight that leaves Bobby wounded and kills Hank’s mother, filling in for Doris for the day. The consequences of the murder will be even darker…
9. The French Connection
“Last time you were dead certain we had a dead cop.”
What’s the plan: William Friedkin’s seminal noir film follows the everyday life and struggle of violent police investigator Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) as they work to close in on the drug trafficking underworld of New York City, just as wealthy French smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) arrives in New York ready to sell his best product.
When the two discover that a huge shipment of heroin is about to enter the city, they begin to wiretap criminal Salvatore Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his wife Angie (Arlene Farber) to gain more information…
What goes wrong: With the purchase taking longer than expected, Charnier soon realizes he’s being followed by Doyle. While his henchman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) sets off to kill the detective, the car in which the heroin has been hidden is found and the heroin is retrieved, unbeknownst to both the car’s unsuspecting owner and Mr. Charnier. When the exchange is finally rushed to take place, everyone’s in for a bitter surprise.