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A heist film is a film that has an intricate plot woven around a group of people trying to steal something. Versions with dominant or prominent comic elements are often called caper movies. They could be described as the analogues of caper stories in film history. Typically, there are many plot twists, and film focuses on the characters' attempts to formulate a plan, carry it out, and escape with the goods. There is often a nemesis who must be thwarted: either a figure of authority or a former partner who turned on the group or one of its members.
The archetypical plot
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Usually a heist film will contain a three-act plot. The first act usually consists of the preparations for the heist: gathering conspirators, learning about the layout of the location to be robbed, learning about the alarm system, revealing innovative technologies to be used, and, most importantly, setting up the plot twists in the final act.
The second act is the heist itself. With rare exception, the heist will be successful, though some number of unexpected events will occur.
The third act is the unraveling of the plot. The characters involved in the heist will be turned against one another or one of the characters will have made arrangements with some outside party, who will interfere (often a wise, underestimated detective). Normally, most of or all the characters involved in the heist will end up dead, captured by the law, or without any of the loot; however, it is becoming increasingly common for the conspirators to be successful, particularly if the target is portrayed as being of low moral standing, such as casinos, corrupt organizations or individuals, or fellow criminals.
As an established archetype, it became common, starting in the fifties, to excise one or two of the acts in the story, relying on the viewers' familiarity with the archetype to fill in the missing elements. Touchez pas au grisbi and Reservoir Dogs, for example, both take place largely after the heist has occurred.
Throughout the 1930s, thievery and scams were present in such films as Raffles, Outside the Law, The Unholy Garden and Ninotchka. The classic film noir period of the 1940s and 1950s brought the genre to fame, by focusing more explicitly on the heists themselves, with such films as John Huston's Asphalt Jungle, Jules Dassin's Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing or Mario Monicelli's Big Deal on Madonna Street. Since that time caper movies have been shot in many variations, ranging from light-hearted folly of the 1960s classic like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with its cast of clowns led by Sid Caesar and the British made Crooks and Coronets to darker, more challenging treatments introducing innovative ways of craftsmanship, such as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs or Christopher Nolan's Inception.
Even to contemporary Hollywood, the genre still remains promising, as the remakes of Ocean's 11 (2001, as Ocean's Eleven) and The Italian Job (2003) show. Examples of the variety of directions the heist film can take would include the comedy heist film such as Topkapi, the western heist film such as The War Wagon, the war/heist film such as Kelly's Heroes, numerous spy movies and television programs which had heist-like plots, most notably Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief, and recently a sci-fi heist film combination with Robot and Frank. Recent examples are Toy Story 3.