Film

The Art of the Museum Heist Movie, from How to Steal a Million to Ocean’s 8

The new film, which revolves around a plan to rob the Met Gala, is the latest addition to the micro-genre of art and museum heist movies.

The cast of Ocean’s 8 (2018) (image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Adrenalin-fueled heist films are a beloved genre, and usually revolve around grand theft auto or bank robberies, the latter of which promise the visual thrill of glimmering gold bars and endless stacks of green-tinted cash in purportedly impregnable vaults. Also popular, but not as common, are art heist films, in which priceless artworks are spirited away by savvy thieves who know how to bypass seemingly iron-clad security systems.

One such film was released last week, Ocean’s 8, a female-led entry in the Ocean’s 11 franchise. Though the object of the carefully laid out burglary plot is a piece of jewelry, not oil paintings, the theft takes place at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (where another art heist film, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, was filmed 20 years earlier). As a result of this setting, several familiar masterpieces make cameos in the movie.

“It was a thrill to shoot [at the Met],” Ocean’s 8 director and co-writer, Gary Ross, said in a junket interview of the 10 days spent filming on location at the museum. “To be able to shoot in the Met every day, and everywhere you look … I mean, there’s a Cézanne there, there’s a Miró there, it’s like, ‘oh, I’m pointing at a van Gogh.’ I got a shot of one of my favorite paintings ever, a Winslow Homer.”

Helena Bonham Carter descends the Metropolitan Museum's main staircase in a scene from <em>Ocean's 8</em> (image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Helena Bonham Carter descends the Metropolitan Museum’s main staircase in a scene from Ocean’s 8 (image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

For art lovers, watching the occasional art heist film can be a delightfully unexpected way to spot some favorite painted and bronze stars on the silver screen. Monet is thrust into a new realm of pop culture relevance when cast alongside the likes of Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo; Audrey Hepburn makes Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini seem cinematically contemporary. But similar to how a counter-intelligence officer might view a spy thriller, those in the art world will likely notice that certain liberties are often taken in the museum heist genre: iconic paintings are stolen from museums that have never actually owned them; fictional institutions are invented; forgeries are rarely crafted from era-appropriate materials; and a museum gift shop poster would simply never pass as an authentic oil painting, no matter how impressive the frame.

Nonetheless, popcorn and Rembrandt make a great combination, and Ocean’s 8 is the most recent addition to the impressive canon of art and museum heist movies.

How to Steal a Million (1966)

This Audrey Hepburn film isn’t as famous as some of her earlier on-screen appearances (namely Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Roman Holiday), but How to Steal a Million shows off the actress’s comic chops. Starring alongside Peter O’Toole, Hepburn plays Nicole, a third-generation art criminal. Her grandfather forged a nude Venus sculpture by Italian Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini, which has been loaned by her father (a forger of paintings by van Gogh and others) to a Parisian art museum. Hepburn tasks O’Toole’s character, a cat burglar, to help her steal the Venus before it is discovered as a fake, to which he agrees because (spoiler alert!) he’s fallen in love with her. More in the tradition of a romantic comedy than an action-packed thriller, the heist itself involves boomerangs, high-powered magnets, and other instruments whose utility is far surpassed by their capacity for enabling physical comedy.

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Bruce Willis stars in this early 1990s caper as a New Jersey burglar nicknamed Hudson Hawk who is fresh off a 10-year stint in prison and hoping to quit his former life of crime. But as soon as he finishes his sentence, he’s blackmailed into pulling one last series of heists or risk harm to his friend and business partner (played by Danny Aiello). His assignment: crack safes around the globe and steal three works by Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. One of these is a model of the monumental Sforza horse sculpture in Milan, designed by da Vinci, but never actually cast in bronze during his lifetime.

Bean (1997)

It’s unclear who would trust buffoonish British character Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) to escort the iconic painting “Whistler’s Mother” (1871) from London’s National Gallery to an unspecified Los Angeles art museum, but that is the premise of Bean. As punishment for falling asleep on his museum guard job (among other demerits), Bean’s bosses decide to get rid of him for a while by sending him to LA to accompany the loan of this well-known painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (which is actually in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris). Antics ensue, and “Whistler’s Mother” is dramatically transformed after a close encounter with the British comedian and an unorthodox restoration job. Though not strictly speaking a heist film in the conventional sense, it does involve the a plot to put one over on an art museum, and thus deserves a place on this list.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

This version of The Thomas Crown Affair is an art-centric remake of the 1968 bank heist film of the same name. Manhattan billionaire Thomas Crown (Pierce Brosnan) likes to spend his mornings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Impressionist galleries, eating a croissant (mon dieu!), and staring at his favorite painting of hay stacks. All the while, though, Crown is actually planning to steal a Claude Monet landscape painting as part of an elaborate scheme in which the canvas is eventually returned to the Met in a circuitous and highly unexpected way. Surrealist René Magritte’s “Son of Man” (1964) also features prominently in one of the climactic scenes.

Entrapment (1999)

When a Rembrandt oil painting — “Bathsheba with King David’s Letter” (1654) — is stolen from a Manhattan office building (it actually belongs to the Louvre), professional art thief Robert MacDougal (Sean Connery) is the prime suspect. An insurance investigator (Catherine Zeta-Jones) begins investigating him undercover by posing as a thief herself, and the two begin working on other heists together. More than a film about stealing art, Entrapment is a sexy romantic thriller about two crooks figuring out if they can trust each other.

The Maiden Heist (2009)

Three longtime security guards at the fictional Boston Art Museum — played by Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, and William H. Macy — have each developed an attachment to a specific artwork in the permanent collection. For Macy’s character, it is a bronze sculpture of a male nude; Walken and Freeman prefer late 19th century oil paintings of solitary female figures. When they discover that a curator has decided to deaccession these works and sell them to a museum in Denmark (to make room for dung sculptures and other contemporary pieces, no less!), the trio refuses to be separated from objects they have spent years studying and safeguarding. They decide to pull an inside job — The Maiden Heist — and keep the works for themselves.

Trance (2013)

Some art heist films put museum security guards in the privileged position of knowing how to abscond with a masterpiece, but Trance gives us a twist, with an art auctioneer (James McAvoy) stealing a valuable painting by Francisco Goya. The only problem is that he is hit on the head after taking and hiding the painting, causing him to forget where he stashed Goya’s “Witches’ Flight” (1798), a painting that is actually in the collection of the Museo del Prado. McAvoy’s partner in crime sends him to a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to unlock the location of the 18th century painting, but this only leads to further plot twists.

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

A scene from Ocean’s 8 (2018) at the Metropolitan Museum (image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Ocean’s 8 is an outlier in the male-dominated heist film genre, in that an all-female ensemble comes together to pull off the theft of a multi-million-dollar jewel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which figures prominently in the film and is the setting of its most exhilarating scenes, is a sort of ninth member of the squad. Fresh off her parole from prison, Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) — the estranged sister of Danny Ocean, the main character in Ocean’s 11 and its sequels — gets in touch with old friends to do a job she’s been plotting for five years. While jewels are the focus of the film, a montage sequence reels through collection highlights (including a van Gogh self-portrait and several Modiglianis), and another scene was filmed in the gallery where Emanuel Leutze’s monumental painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) hangs.

Early in the film, in a bit of a twist, Ocean is sure to emphasize that the team will be stealing within the museum, not from the museum. This gives art-loving audiences permission to root for the anti-heroic sheroes with a somewhat clean conscience, assured that the Met collection will go unharmed. This is a bit of an anomaly in the art heist micro-genre, but the films nonetheless find ways to endear the thieves to museum-goers in the audience: the protagonist bandits are often motivated in part by their love art, or they develop a new appreciation after getting their hands on it.

Ocean’s 8 is playing at theaters throughout the United States.

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