Most of the time, anyway.
John Huston essentially launched the heist drama as a genre of its own with The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Constructed around the meticulous planning and execution of a caper, it transformed the crime drama into a mission movie featuring shady soldiers of the urban underworld: mercenaries seeking redemption through one last gamble of action, trust, talent, and sacrifice. It's a model of elegant construction, street-level tragedy, and poetic justice, with Huston's wry fatalism providing the noir sensibility.
Rififi (1955) built upon the blueprint, adding the cool sensibility of continental crooks and the dingy beauty of the Paris underworld. Director Jules Dassin (an American exile from the blacklist) delivers a justly famous 33-minute heist scene thrillingly executed without a word spoken.
In The League of Gentlemen (1960), a British take on the genre, a crew of former soldiers is recruited by a bitter career officer (Jack Hawkins) to put their military precision and larcenous instincts to use in a bank robbery. This is as much urban platoon drama as caper, and while these fellows are no gentlemen, they adopt a code of honor and loyalty that earns our grudging respect, even if their motives don't.
There's an elegance to this brand of heist film, which invites us to appreciate the criminal engineering as a kind of outsider art in its own right ("A left-handed form of human endeavor," in the words of The Asphalt Jungle). These mechanics demand clean direction and neat, meticulous storytelling, and the inevitable collapse comes in the getaway. I find the "heist gone wrong"—where teams are torn apart by emotions spinning out of control—more true to the spirit of noir. Greed, vengeance, and sweaty desperation unravel even the most meticulously worked-out plan.
Criss Cross (1949), with Burt Lancaster as an armored-car driver in league with petty crooks, downplays the execution of the robbery in favor of the duplicity and doom surrounding the crime. This is a tawdry world of small-timers with delusions of competence, and director Robert Siodmak delivers a visual world to match, right down to one of the most beautifully bleak finales you've ever seen.
Kansas City Confidential (1952) is a terse, tough little picture with a bang-up opening, a deadly payoff, a hard-luck guy framed as the patsy, and the most iconic trio of B-movie icons providing the psychotic muscle: Neville Brand, Jack Elam, and Lee Van Cleef. Quentin Tarantino cribbed a few ideas for Reservoir Dogs.
Stanley Kubrick's trademark precision sets off the racetrack caper The Killing (1956), but the jagged edge to the storytelling matches the emotional volatility of the players and Kubrick's mordant humor. It's ingeniously paired up in the festival with Cruel Gun Story (1964), a Japanese variation on the American B-movie heist blueprint (much of which is borrowed from The Killing). It's a snazzy, jazzy film with the charismatic Jo Shishido as an ex-con saddled with an unreliable team and double-crossing bosses. It delivers gleeful nihilism with explosive energy.
The crew heist form continued to evolve through the 1970s. In Charlie Varrick (1973), Walter Matthau is the last of the independents, a cowboy bank robber who matches the big-city mob in a battle of wits.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) pits transit cop Walter Matthau against mercenary Robert Shaw, who hijacks a New York City subway car for ransom. This is a film crammed with character, from the bit-part actors to the chaotic streets of New York City, which becomes a character in its own right.
The fun of Matthau's underdog charm gives way to the fatalism of Blue Collar (1978), where noir sensibility meets gritty 1970s filmmaking. Director and cowriter Paul Schrader hangs a portrait of working-class life, economic anxiety, and corporate corruption on the framework of a heist movie in which three Detroit autoworker buddies (including Richard Pryor, showing some of the anger behind his comedy) are betrayed by their own union.
There are no coolheaded masterminds or carefully engineered capers in Straight Time (1978), a street-level look at life after prison for a career criminal (Dustin Hoffman) with hair-trigger rage issues in a system that seems engineered to guarantee recidivism. There's no underdog romance in these latter-day versions of noir—these guys simply jump into robberies with half-formed plans and ride the adrenaline charge until they get caught.
And someone always gets caught.