Seeking air tight caper flicks or thrillers
May 25, 2009 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Seeking first rate caper flicks or thrillers. (Books also acceptable) AIR TIGHT PLOT ESSENTIAL! Stylish is nice, but I hate, hate, a cheat.

Cheats include long cons requiring highly unlikely coincidence (I’m talking to you, David Mamet), or incriminating documents that no thought to burn years earlier (Little Dorrit, of all things, seems to have started this). Or the vital search warrant that no judge on earth would grant. Crap like that. I want the hinges to be silent, the joinery to be tight, the gears to mesh precisely, the ending to be truly surprising and solution to be satisfying and capable of withstanding close scrutiny.
posted by IndigoJones to Media & Arts (64 answers total) 121 users marked this as a favorite
glass key
out of the past
in a lonely place
murder my sweet
double indemnity
asphalt jungle
posted by mr. remy at 8:39 AM on May 25, 2009

I always thought Bound was a polished little gem of a caper flick.
posted by The Whelk at 8:44 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Last Seduction
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:49 AM on May 25, 2009

Le Trou
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:51 AM on May 25, 2009

Blood Simple
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:01 AM on May 25, 2009

Monsieur Hire
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:01 AM on May 25, 2009

Just watched The Sting last weekend. Forgot how enjoyable it was.

Loved Sexy Beast and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, though there's an awful lot going on in the latter.
posted by stargell at 9:02 AM on May 25, 2009

Funny Games
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:04 AM on May 25, 2009

Michael Clayton. Tom Wilkinson will tear your heart out.
posted by effluvia at 9:14 AM on May 25, 2009

Seconding The Sting. For a western feel, you might also check out A Big Hand for the Little Lady.
posted by Phineas Rhyne at 9:16 AM on May 25, 2009

Seconding Blood Simple, it's got that "Greek-Tragedy-Inescapable-Doom-Gears Falling Into Place-Oh-The-Folly-Of-Man" feeling I think you're wanting.
posted by The Whelk at 9:22 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sleuth (1972 version)
posted by susanvance at 9:22 AM on May 25, 2009

Simple Plan, either the movie or the book. I'll also second Blood Simple. I loved how the characters all had different understandings of what was going on.

I've got to disagree somewhat with your disapproval of people's stupidity as a plot point. Failure to destroy documents was exactly what brought down the 2003 Antwerp diamond robbery (which reads exactly like fiction).
posted by rtimmel at 9:23 AM on May 25, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 (original version) is one of my favourites. Ronin is faintly ridiculous but I still love watching it for atavistic thrills.
posted by WPW at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Michael Clayton has a cleverly hidden Deus Ex Machina in it, otherwise I would also have recommended it.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:51 AM on May 25, 2009

Although you express disdain towards Mamet, his Glen Garry Glenross has a bit of a caper in it, which I found very satisfying -- especially with the high profile cast.

I will also second the Heat recommendation -- a very well put together film that is not only entertaining on an action level, but there is a decent amount of emotional action that happens as well.

I don't see The Usual Suspects listed here, but if you haven't seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to. Especially if you don't know how it ends.
posted by newper at 10:00 AM on May 25, 2009

Make that Glengarry Glen Ross.
posted by newper at 10:02 AM on May 25, 2009

I deeply, deeply love Nueve Rienas, as long as you don't mind the subtitles.
posted by aint broke at 10:12 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

posted by sanko at 10:15 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I found Inside Man to be a great romp and pretty tightly constructed.
posted by sinfony at 10:17 AM on May 25, 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Probably the truest of the '70s crime caper fliks.
posted by Gungho at 10:17 AM on May 25, 2009

Seconding Rififi. The "pulling off the job" scene is legendary, and worth the price of admission on its own.
posted by Dr-Baa at 10:49 AM on May 25, 2009

You might like the TNT series Leverage.
posted by Pronoiac at 10:50 AM on May 25, 2009

Response by poster: I've got to disagree somewhat with your disapproval of people's stupidity as a plot point.

Lord knows it's what makes things interesting in real life, as you noted, but fiction has to be more plausible than real life. To my mind, anyway. Last night I saw Inside Man, which would have us believe that Christopher Plummer saved documents that would prove his complicity in WWII war crimes. I don't think so. That and a whole slew of other plot holes is what prompted this request at this time.

That said, I don't mind a well placed F-up sending a plot on a new tangent. The Sting does that in a nice way, with Redford and the waitress.

The Mamet comment refers to The Spanish Prisoner, part of which as I recall depends on the schlub happening to walk by a certain garage at a certain time and wandering in to see Steve Martin doing something vital to the scheme. Forget the details, but it struck me as way too implausible for someone to hang their long con on. (That and the smudging of dialogue by a fog horn- come on, Mamet, style ain't gonna cut it on a caper film. Get the gears working properly or go back to the drawing board.)

Of the titles I have seen suggested, you're clearly getting the point. Of the many more I have not seen, I thank you all and encourage more of the same.

Such as Armadillo (book and magnificent television by John Boyd).
posted by IndigoJones at 10:51 AM on May 25, 2009

I don't think that stupidity is implausible, but I do find it much more satisfying when plots don't depend on stupidity -- or at least I like it best when characters' crucial mistakes derive clearly from well established larger weaknesses. Certainly it's frustrating when people set up elaborate plots that only work because they have correctly predicted that someone will be conveniently very stupid in just the right way. Motivated stupidity is okay, and I think that even making plans that hinge on other people's anticipated stupidity is fine, as long as that stupidity is interesting and seems genuinely predictable.

I remember Nine Queens, suggested above by ain't broke, as being well constructed in this way. Not a caper movie, but Breach, about Robert Hanssen, is fun this way because it is all about a series of successful manipulations in which clever people put other clever people into situations they will respond to in predictable ways.
posted by redfoxtail at 11:08 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about Ladrón que roba a ladrón? American heist movie, in Spanish. It's humorous, which may not be your thing, but I remember the plot (if you can buy a couple things being exaggerated for comedic value) being pretty tight.
posted by sineala at 11:11 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I second Double Indemnity, and would also suggest Kubrick's The Killing. Both of these stand up to scrutiny quite well and are very entertaining. However, the plot twists in both are pretty low-key by modern standards, so I wouldn't go so far as to say that the endings are truly surprising. I'm also a big fan of The Usual Suspects, though I don't think it qualifies, since the plot is airtight for a trivial reason (on which I can't elaborate without spoiling the movie).

David Fincher for a while tried to perfect the kind of movie you ask for. Seven and Panic Room are probably the most airtight examples. I love Fight Club as well, but as with The Usual Suspects, airtightness is not the right criterion to judge it by. I also recommend Memento.
posted by epimorph at 11:12 AM on May 25, 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Probably the truest of the '70s crime caper fliks.

Great book, too (as is Higgins' Trust, which does have some con stuff). If you're interested in books, all of the Parker heist novels written by Donald Westlake under the name Richard Stark are tight. They've been adapted for the screen several times, notably as John Boorman's Point Blank (with Lee Marvin as "Walker") and Payback (with Mel Gibson as "Porter"), both of which are adaptions of Stark's The Hunter. But these are heist books -- there's not a gimmick or a con game, just well-planned robberies which tend to fall apart after the job is actually done.

Westlake's screenplay for Stephen Frears' The Grifters (original novel by Jim Thompson) doesn't have any plot holes in it that I can recall, but the long con stuff isn't actually the focus of the movie.

Breach is actually a really good example of what is essentially a long con that isn't actually in the context of a caper movie.
posted by snarkout at 11:21 AM on May 25, 2009

The Score might fit your criteria.
posted by The Deej at 11:31 AM on May 25, 2009

Seconding Michael Clayton. Loved it.. I don't know about a deus ex machina..

Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa came to mind, but I saw it a looong time ago and can't recall if it suits your criteria, perhaps someone else might weigh in?

Le Cercle Rouge starring the one and only Alain Delon

Johnnie To is aces, when he's really on.. perhaps The Mission?
posted by citron at 11:53 AM on May 25, 2009

For books, Agatha Christie did a good job with this, but you have to pick and choose even in her works. For instance, Murder on the Orient Express deserves the accolades, while The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, though superbly written, held too many clues for me. Still worth reading, though.

Have you read Presumed Innocent? There's also a semi sequel featuring the brilliant lawyer from that book, Alejandro (Sandy) Stern, Pleading Guilty.

Movies: Seconding Sleuth and Blood Simple. Jagged Edge wasn't bad.

I would really recommend BBC's Hustle over Leverage. I tried watching Leverage twice and it drove me nuts--lots of stereotypes that didn't hold true for me, and too predictable. YMMV.
posted by misha at 11:56 AM on May 25, 2009

The Score might fit your criteria.

Except that when the first interesting thing happens... the credits role.

I gotta speak out against the Usual Suspects. I think it has a huge hole that makes the film laughable. The same writer wrote Way of the Gun which is a far superior movie imo.

The Spanish Prisoner is easily Mamet's worst script. If you haven't seen House of Games, Spartan, and Red Belt (big hole but very hard to spot), I'd recommend them (in that order).
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 11:57 AM on May 25, 2009

Oh and for same writer, better script, see The Limey before you see The Score. Dobbs' script is terrific for the former. Fantastic film.

I'll second Point Blank

Also... Miami Blues, the book and the film. All of the books in the series are great (their are four, Sideswiped being my favorite) as are most that are written by Charles Willeford.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:10 PM on May 25, 2009

grr. There are four. :(
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:11 PM on May 25, 2009

For novelists, Ken Bruen's doing interesting things these days. Far more character oriented than plot, however.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:11 PM on May 25, 2009

Michael Mann's THIEF (spoilers in Wikipedia entry)

Most of Jean-Pierre Melville's ouvre, including: UN FLIC, LE DOULOS and especially LE CERCLE ROUGE.

Also KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL a Phil Karson b-movie with Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, and Jack Elam. Available at the Internet Archive.

Another Richard Stark/Parker adaptation is THE OUTFIT with Robert Duvall playing Parker (and called Parker on screen). OOP on VHS, never available on DVD though the Warner Archive Collection might cough it up...

Also see Dustin Hoffman in the fantastic crime film STRAIGHT TIME - it features a very realistic jewelry store heist and one of the funniest liquor store hold-ups ever committed to the screen.

posted by cinemafiend at 12:18 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm back to suggest the Tony Scott remake of Man on Fire. I think the director does pretty much everything possible to fuck up the movie but the performances and Helgeland script carry it. It's much better than the Scott Glen version. I haven't read the book but am eager to as I've heard the series is good.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 12:23 PM on May 25, 2009

Ah! yes, The Limey. Go see that.
posted by The Whelk at 12:25 PM on May 25, 2009

Everything by Melville, plus Riffifi, which wins my vote for best heist movie of all time. I think The French Connection counts as a heist movie, or should. Also: The Bank Job and Inside Man, to name two more recent selections.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 12:55 PM on May 25, 2009

Nthing Double Indemnity, House of Games, Memento, Sleuth (the original), The Sting, The Taking of Pelham 123 (the original), The Killing, and Michael Clayton. I'd also add ...

Diabolique (the 1955 French original, definitely not the 1996 US remake). The original "please don't spoil it for your friends" movie that also inspired Lt. Columbo.

I'll assume you've mined Alfred Hitchcock's work pretty thoroughly. If not: Vertigo, and Shadow of a Doubt. While I love North by Northwest, I'm not sure it would pass your test.

Witness for the Prosecution (the 1957 Billy Wilder version, supposedly Agatha Christie's favorite adaptation of her work until Murder on the Orient Express).

If you can deal with preposterous but riveting, The Manchurian Candidate (1962 original).

L.A. Confidential is very good, but you may figure out one bit of information too early. Still entertaining.
posted by pmurray63 at 1:41 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Clear jackpot here for me and 53 new favorite friends, and many thanks to all. Looks like much to look forward to this summer. (Oh, and Armadillo is by William Boyd, not John in case anyone is looking. And you should, you really should. My bad.)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:54 PM on May 25, 2009

The Long Goodbye is also one I'd recommend. Prime Cut as well.

Other Coen "crime" films worth watching include Miller's Crossing and No Country for Old Men.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 5:27 PM on May 25, 2009

Another: Things to do in Denver When You're Dead.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 5:35 PM on May 25, 2009

Another Richard Stark/Parker adaptation is THE OUTFIT

I just dl and watched this. It was pretty sharp. Surprised I hadn't heard of it before. Thanks!
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 9:01 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmm...I don't know if this exactly suits the criteria that you've mentioned in your question but I would recommend Bottle Rocket, directed by Wes Anderson. It's a lovable, goofy, surprising heist flick that, while not exactly tight, is certainly well thought out with interesting characters and all of the elements that you'd come to expect from a great caper flick.
posted by talkingmuffin at 10:59 PM on May 25, 2009

A bit of an off-kilter one: What's Up, Doc? It's a polished little gem of at least four capers intersecting with one another. I just watched it and aside from one or two quibbles and people not actually acting rationally as they might in the real situation -- hey, it's first of all a romantic comedy -- it's pretty airtight. I suppose it might fail your coincidence criterion in a big way, though.
posted by dhartung at 1:10 AM on May 26, 2009

Topkapi fits your bill. A tense, brilliant heist by Jules Dassin, the director of Rififi.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 11:38 AM on May 26, 2009

Response by poster: In the spirit of giving back-

Flawless was good except for the last two minutes, which fortunately have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie save as a bit of rubbishy feel good. (And it does raise the perennial problem of how does a real person launder serious money - anyone have suggestions on a story that finishes that problem, I'd like to hear about it).

Mad Money, a comedy I expected to hate for many reasons, actually did a nice job across the board.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:52 AM on May 26, 2009

Always loved:

The Hot Rock
Anderson Tapes
The Italian Job (Original)
The Train
Second on Sting
Second on Le Cerce Rouge
Wages of Fear
posted by silsurf at 1:26 PM on May 26, 2009

I like Star Wars myself
posted by michaelehline at 10:10 PM on May 26, 2009

The first 'Mission Impossible' had caperish qualities. They don't come as good as 'The Sting' obviously. Another vote for 'Pelham 123' and 'The Killing'.

I remember 'The Inside Man' to be enjoyable.
posted by NekulturnY at 12:25 AM on May 27, 2009

Response by poster: I remember 'The Inside Man' to be enjoyable.

Stylish, but in fact the prompt for this question. It had one or two clever conceits, and I'm sure they excited the writer when he came up with them, but having come up with them, he was stumped when it came time to fit all the other pieces together. So he didn't, and counted on style to smudge over the weak bits.

Bits such as- Why did Christopher Plummer not burn the incriminating papers sixty years ago? Why did he keep the diamonds? Why did the bank fail to document the "missing" safe deposit box? What probable cause did Denzel Washington give the judge for opening said safe deposit box? Even having opened said safe deposit box, how would one definitively link said safety deposit box back to Christopher Plummer? Did the perps really imagine they could pull this off with no one getting hurt or killed? I could go on....

It's things like this that ruin movies like that. For me, anyway.

(Sorry, had to vent on this one and Mrs Jones is tired of hearing about it.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:58 AM on May 27, 2009

We're souldmates IndigoJones! The same things bug me about fiction and I felt the exact same way about Inside Man (especially all the things that couldn't go wrong during the heist).

While neither a caper or a thriller, I was thoroughly engrossed by The Wire and never once had doubts about the plausibility of its intricate plots.
posted by bouchacha at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2009

Matchstick Men, if you're not Nic Cage averse.
posted by alby at 11:02 AM on May 31, 2009

I know this thread is probably dead, but I did want to pipe up and second the recommendation for Bound. It's a terrific noir thriller with a great little Rube Golderberg machine of a plot. Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers in their pre-Matrix days.
posted by shiu mai baby at 2:53 PM on June 4, 2009

Response by poster: No thread is dead until it is closed.

Because of that, the Wire and Bound are now definitively on the List. And again, thanks to all
posted by IndigoJones at 9:52 AM on June 6, 2009

Response by poster: (and Matchstick Men - I'm not NC averse unless it's a real wowser.)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:53 AM on June 6, 2009

Seconding The Way of the Gun, Sexy Beast, Bound. The Wire is genius but IMO for other reasons than tight plotting.


Suicide Kings if you like Christopher Walken. I can't recall any obvious holes.

I *really* liked Redbelt, which is Mamet however with his usual failings. That said Chiwetel Ejiofor is amazing.

I first saw Chiwetel in Dirty Pretty Things which is really an excellent little thriller.

Pretty clever, snappy dialog, and nicely machined plotwork aside from the like, two or three HUGE coincidences/holes, but worth getting past: Zero Effect, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
posted by cps at 5:06 PM on June 13, 2009

These really do have unrealistic stuff but not the kind that feels to me like "cheating" if that makes any sense; I don't feel like the author's played me:

Shallow Grave - funny and sick, early Ewan McGregor. Very Bad Things is in the same vein.

Sneakers - team of hackers movie

Femme Fatale - hitchcocky, has some unrealistic elements but a really nice opening

Twelve Monkeys has a plot that eats itself
posted by cps at 6:19 PM on June 13, 2009

er, not sure about Femme Fatale. It's really beautiful, and the opening is great, but it's more of a dreamy, free-aossication meditation on hiest/caper movies and the kind of unique world they exist in. It might be a good philosophic chaser to a night of tight little caper movies tho.
posted by The Whelk at 6:41 PM on June 13, 2009

I am horrified that I actually typed "Rube Golderberg" above. I am even more horrified that it took me eleven days to realize the error. Oy.
posted by shiu mai baby at 4:19 AM on June 15, 2009

Response by poster: Kind of like Rube Golderberg. Sounds vaguely like an Austin Powers villain.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:05 AM on June 21, 2009

No Patricia Highsmith here? For shame!

Highsmith, of course wrote the Ripley novels, 'The Talented Mr. Ripley', first filmed as 'Purple Noon' by some French director and famously remade with Matt Damon and Jude Law miscast in each others' roles -- Damon would have made a better Dickie Greenleaf, just as Law would have made a better Tom Ripley.

The follow-up to 'Talented' was of course, 'Ripley's Game', adapted into 'The American Friend' (1977) by Wim Wenders, which was later adapted into an eponymously titled film starring John Malkovich in 2002. And finally, there was the underrated 'Ripley Under Ground' (2005), starring Barry Pepper.

But if you wanted to go back to the beginning of Highsmith adaptations, you'd have to start with Alfred Hitchcock's 'Strangers on a Train' (1951).

Her work may err on the side of cerebral and her protagonists are characteristically antiheroes, but modern caper flicks probably wouldn't exist without Highsmith's influence.
posted by vhsiv at 12:14 AM on June 26, 2009

Response by poster: but modern caper flicks probably wouldn't exist without Highsmith's influence.

Interesting thought. Have to think about it. I quite like ms Highsmith, in fact. (Very big in Germany, I understand.)
posted by IndigoJones at 6:05 AM on July 1, 2009

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