The Allure of Bank Robbery Explained in ‘A History of Heists’

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by ‘A History of Heists,’ 2015.

No crime captures our attention quite like bank robbery. Jesse James and John Dillinger take on mythic proportions in American consciousness, and it’s possible that, after love and war, we’ve made more movies about bank heists than anything else.

In movies, we can’t help rooting for a bank robbery to come off smoothly. In part, this is because in the paradigmatic heist, if everything goes smoothly, nobody gets hurt. The tension comes from knowing that the bank manager might hit some dumb button, or one of the perpetrators of the theft — a crony, never the mastermind — will freak out and off somebody.

But isn’t something else happening when we watch a bank robbery? Don’t we also want the bank to lose? The guys in masks with guns aren’t exactly the good guys, but surely we aren’t on the side of Chase Bank in all of this. What did they ever do for me besides ATM fees, wire transfer charges, and so-called “overdraft protection?”

A good bank robbery has us walking along a razor, and the new book A History of Heists: Bank Robbery in America walks us along the sharp edge of our confused sympathies. This story by retired FBI agent Jerry Clark and investigative journalist Ed Palattella is not only a compendium of historic perpetrators, the crimes they committed, and the men who pursued them, but a look at why we don’t root for the bank. After all, my petty quibbles with the bank are nothing compared to people who lost everything in the Great Depression. And who took what they lost? The banks. According to Clark and Palattella, Dillinger became the people’s thief because he understood the zeitgeist. He was on the little guy’s side.

Years later, Patty Hearst would rob banks as a revolutionary act, and Al Pacino — at the height of his powers, fresh off Godfather II — would immortalize John Wojtowicz in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Clark and Palattella are able to draw a continuous line from one iconic robbery to the next in their history, while simultaneously explaining how every bank robbery is a distinct product of its era. They not only look at how banks get robbed, but why bank robbery becomes the crime of choice for a certain kind of criminal. It’s an explanation of how bank robbers become folk heroes, never summed up better than by Dillinger’s line, “We don’t want your money. We just want the bank’s.”

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by 'A History of Heists,' 2015.

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by ‘A History of Heists,’ 2015.