Six Damn Fine Degrees #119: Eleven Iconic Heist Themes

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

While reading Matt’s musings about the heist movie genre and Steven Soderbergh’s knack for it, my head was inevitably raided by musical themes: jazzy and cool, funky and bold, sneaky and witty they were – and all wonderfully descriptive of the act of boldly scheming, meticulously planning and sneakily (or spectacularly) executing! Is it a coincidence that a large majority of the most popular heist movies are associated with scores that often remained the most memorable aspect about the films? Maybe the indelible combination of suspense, anticipation and audacity is among the most fruitful contexts for a composer to create dynamic and energetic themes.

Not all classic heist movies are that musically memorable: who specifically remembers what scores played in the original Ladykillers (1955) or the very literal To Catch a Thief (one of the few lesser known Hitchcock scores by Lyn Murray)? Can anyone hum the tunes of A Fish Called Wanda (1988) or Allen’s wonderful Small Time Crooks (some jazz, we assume)? Or does anyone really remember what the respective Ocean heist teams were unerscored with? Or how about Michael Mann’s Heat, or even the splendid Dog Day Afternoon (recently discussed in one of our podcasts) – despite its prominent use of an Elton John song in the title credits? And let’s not forget that one of the most popular heisting couple in history, immortalised by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, did not receive much music at all in Bonnie & Clyde (1967).

However, think of any of the following movies and tell me that you can’t at all recall these musical moments! Here, with a nod to the Ocean series, are eleven iconic themes to heist by – in countdown order, of course!

#11 – The Italian Job (1969, by Quincy Jones)

The joyfully anarchistic theme by Quincy Jones plays mostly over the incredible caper Michael Caine and his collaborators try to pull off against a villainous Noël Coward in Peter Collinson’s original The Italian Job. While Mini cars drive through the narrow streets and across the slanted roofs of Torino, Jones’ ‘Self Preservation Society’ theme makes organised crime seem like a fratboy excursion!

#10 – The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974, by David Shire)

Joseph Sargent’s suspense thriller The Taking of Pelham 123 would not have turned out half as exciting without the pounding big city jazz of David Shire’s soundtrack. The theme seems to variably score the gangsters’ takeover of a New York subway train, the brave no-nonsense lieutenant (Walter Matthau) in charge of finding a way out and the propelling speed at which the train itself screeches across the subway system.

#9 The Great Train Robbery (1978, by Jerry Goldsmith)

Historic heists are not often scored as glorifyingly as in Michael Critchon’s adaptation starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland, with a soundtrack by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith. His theme indicates a fun romp and perfectly mimics both the energy of the targeted train moving and the robbery driven forward.

#8 Reservoir Dogs (1992, “Little Green Bag” by George Baker Selection)

It’s still one of the most popular scenes from Tarantino’s directorial debut, as well as his entire filmography, but can anyone imagine our gangster’s slow motion walk without ‘Little Green Bag’ by the George Baker Selection? It was an impressive early example of the perfect sense for song use Tarantino would have in later films – with his favourite composer following just after this in the next spot.

#7 A Fistful of Dynamite (1971, by Ennio Morricone)

It might not have been the most successful Spaghetti Western among the Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone collaborations, but it certainly left us with some of the most typical themes Morricone uses to characterise both crime and criminals (James Coburn and Rod Steiger face off as two Irish and Mexican bandits in this case, A Fistful of Dynamite). Morricone employs all the tricks of his trade (whistling, singing and cooky instrumentation) for their heist jobs.

#6 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, by Burt Bacharach)

The song “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” by recently deceased legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach might not be exactly used as a heist theme in George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (it famously plays over the love scene on a bicycle) but it has rather become associated with the buddy relationship between the two gangsters and, of course, was a major Oscar-winning hit beyond the film itself.

#5 The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, by Michel Legrand)

This is another Oscar-winning song that was rather written as a love theme but has since just as well become one with the elegance and cool of Steve McQueen as master thief Thomas Crown himself and the cat and mouse game he plays with Faye Dunaway as the detective who was sent to trap him. “The Windmills of Your Mind” (sung by Noel Harrison in the film) later became a major hit for Dusty Springfield, and the score by Michel Legrand ranks among the very best 1960s time pieces.

#4 Inception (2010, by Hans Zimmer)

Possibly the most mindbending heist movies of them all also featured an at times towering, at times intimate score by Hans Zimmer. I’m not always a fan of the larger-than-my-synthesiser approach of the composer but sometimes the visual material perfectly matches his style. Inception by Christopher Nolan was such a perfect match, here represented by its trailer music (“Mind Heist”) rather than the more popular “Time” theme.

#3 The Sting (1973, by Marvin Hamlisch)

One of the most famous gestures in movies might be the touch of the nose between Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting (1973) whenever they signal that their part of the scheme against gangster Robert Shaw has been completed. This is the second time George Roy Hill paired the two stars in a hit heist movie (see above) and again, the ingenious adaptation of existing Scott Joplin ragtime themes by composer Marvin Hamlisch have outlasted the film in popularity, particularly “The Entertainer”.

#2 The Pink Panther (1963, by Henry Mancini)

I always thought that if there’s any tune that burglars feel like whistling when sneaking around, it would have to be “The Pink Panther Theme” from the first in many movies in the Inspector Clouseau series starting in 1963. Henry Mancini created an deliciously sneaky melody for the animated title sequence and uses its jazzy mystery to great effect in many of the scenes. Among the many popular themes for (heist) movies, this must be one of the most beloved and recognisable and has been reused a million times.

#1 Mission: Impossible (1966, by Lalo Schifrin)

Lalo Schifrin’s explosive and pulsating Mission Impossible theme was a hit the moment it came out and propelled the Argentinian bossa nova and jazz composer to Hollywood (Dirty Harry, Bullit, Enter the Dragon and Rush Hour among his many other successes). The fact that it endured and makes my top spot here, is certainly also owed to its consequential reuse in Tom Cruise’s film series since 1996, with the next installment coming to theatres this summer. A lot of the cool excitement and riveting suspense is in that theme, and it perfectly matches the larger-than-life heists Ethan Hunt and his team have thrown at us until today.

Certainly, any such list must remain incomplete and I would like to extend some honourable mentions to Le Cercle Rouge, the cool and elegant score by Eric Demarsan (1970) and the brooding pathos of Ronin (1998) by Elia Cmiral. However, such a playlist (also available through the link below) gives ample evidence of how fruitful and memorable heist movies have proved to be in popular (music) culture.

The complete playlist can also be listened to here.

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