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Honor among thieves: maybe those shady characters in heist movies can actually teach us a thing or two about cooperation and a just society.

HE FIRST NARRATIVE FILM EVER MADE WAS A heist movie. One hundred years ago Edwin Porter shot The Great Train Robbery, and ever since caper films have been runaway hits.

This summer alone we've seen Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton play cat and mouse with a boat, truck, and train full of bullion in the pumped-up remake of The Italian Job, watched Dustin Hoffman and Edward Burns bait and switch each other with a van full of dough in Confidence, and spied on Nick Nolte's efforts to pull one last jewelry heist in The Good Thief.

And this year was no fluke. Two summers ago we had George Clooney and Brad Pitt ripping off half of Las Vegas in Stephen Soderbergh's remake of the Rat Pack escapade Ocean's Eleven, while Robert De Niro and Edward Norton tried to take off the Canadian government and each other in The Score, and Gene Hackman and crew played follow-the-money with a decidedly nasty Danny DeVito in David Mamet's Heist.

A couple years before that Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo did their imitation of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, and master burglar Sean Connery came out of retirement to tutor apprentice art-thief Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. Back in 1995 we saw De Niro and his crew of merry robbers face off with Al Pacino and the feds in Heat and followed the intrigues as Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey were forced to pull one last job in The Usual Suspects. The heist movie remains a hot ticket in Hollywood.

Even though Porter's one-reeler was the first heist movie, John Huston's 1950 noir classic The Asphalt Jungle set the mold for the modern caper film, with crime genius Sam Jaffe assembling a crew of specialists to pull off the robbery of an impenetrable fortress. As in the generations of heist films that would follow and imitate Huston's gritty thriller, Jaffe plots an intricate and coordinated theft, hoping to anticipate and outflank every possible defense and obstacle.

You can see the traces of this "organized" approach to crime in the original and remake of Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Much of the pleasure of these slick films is in the smooth, split-second execution of a coordinated plan. It's like watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in their prime.

My own sentimental favorite caper flick has to be The Sting. Robert Redford and Paul Newman, who honed their easy camaraderie as stand-up stick-up guys to perfection in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, reinvented the buddy flick with the most likeable pair of jokers since Hope and Crosby, and pulled off a con that outwitted the villain, the cops, and the audience in a hat trick that's still being imitated in films as different as Confidence and Heist.

Still, my personal preference for the coolest robber of all time has to be Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. His cat burglar John Robie glides over the tiled rooftops of Monaco like Astaire crossing a ballroom, making even Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan seem like graceless bunglers.

The first pleasure of the caper film is savoring the perfect execution of an intricate and complex battle plan, enjoying the sweet syncopation as all the prearranged chords and beats come together in a lush and lively melody, and our conductor gets every singer to hit their note dead on and just in time.

The opening half of a good heist film tracks the careful selection of a team of world-class specialists, each with a talent suited to the one task he or she needs to do to pull off the robbery or con. And the climax of these caper movies comes when all the hours of planning and practice result in a high-speed choreographed dance where driver, hacker, and safecracker act as one. They are "in the zone," and everything is moving with the precision and harmony of a Swiss watch.

WE LOVE THIS BALLET of brigands because it is a vision of what work could be like, and rarely is. Imagine a workplace where everyone's talent meshes perfectly with the needs and gifts of all our coworkers, where we pull together like a team of world-class athletes, musicians, or even thieves, where our projects are choreographed by a genius, and we execute our tasks with the smooth efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Imagine a workplace where there are no delays, no dropped balls or missed cues, no foul-ups, no back biting, and no confusion. Imagine a workplace where every person has a part to play and plays it well. In The Republic Plato called that vision of teamwork "justice."

How ironic that the very thing we love most about heist films is that they offer us a vision of the just society--an interdependent team of collaborators whose differing gifts contribute to the common good, a collection of individuals who agree to work together to create a whole greater than the sum of all their parts.

Saint Augustine once wrote that without justice the state was no more than a gang of robbers, but the best caper movies remind us that even a band of thieves needs some smattering of justice to keep them from collapsing into chaos.

And the lack of justice is what usually ends up tearing these gangs apart and sending their plans into a tailspin. For the thieves in a heist film must not only outwit and overcome all the obstacles and defenses of the banks and cops, they must also withstand the temptation to betray and sell out their partners.

All too often the masterminded schemes of our merry band of robbers go awry when one member of the team decides to cut his buddies out of the picture. Edward Norton tries to do this to De Niro in The Score and to Wahlberg and crew in The Italian Job, and half a dozen people try shortchanging Gene Hackman and his buddies in Heist.

Of course greed isn't always the motive behind betrayal. In The Asphalt Jungle and Michael Crichton's The First Great Train Robbery things fall apart when one of the robbers rats out his buddies to avoid a stiff prison sentence. Even in The Sting the cops pressure Redford to betray Newman to stay out of jail.

OF COURSE WE ENJOY CAPER FILMS BE cause they're thrilling, because we get a vicarious experience of running with the wild crowd, because they have an intricate plot that zigs and zags like a runaway train on a switchback trail, and because they come together at the end like a puzzle falling into place. But even though heist films are adventures about bad guys, they are also inverted morality tales offering up a reflection on the importance of justice and loyalty.

For in spite of the fact that these are tales about criminals, the very labor of these thieves can only succeed if it models the justice of a community of individuals working together for a larger common good, if they (as our kindergarten teacher used to tell us) work and play well together, if (as Plato argued) each person does his or her part, and if nobody grandstands or hogs center stage. And the community formed by this justice can only hold together if all are loyal to the bonds that tie them to their coworkers and friends, if they are unwilling to sell each other out or betray each other for some personal advantage.

The thieves in The Great Train Robbery met with a bad end, as did the robbers in The Asphalt Jungle. Many of the anti-heroes in these movies are caught or killed because they can't sustain a just community for longer than it takes to stage a hold-up. But whether they succeed or fail, these movies remind us that every time two or three of us are gathered together we will either practice justice or be a band of brigands.

PATRICK MCCORMICK, professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:culture in context
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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