There have been many types of thief characters throughout cinema history: honor-bound rogues, unscrupulous renegades, charming cats, rich businessmen looking for a thrill, cunning ex-cons. They’ve all indelibly left their mark upon the big screen.
The versatility of the character archetype means thieves can be heroes (stealing for a righteous cause) or villains (ripping off others for the sake of avarice). Either way, their motives lay hidden beneath.
And no matter which way they lean, thief characters often make for scintillating cinema. Here are our picks for the best thief characters in movies who will surprise you.
8. Flynn Rider (Tangled)
By his own description, Flynn Rider is a swashbuckling rogue. Handsome, funny, and abundantly charming, Flynn’s reason for stealing doesn’t come down to him wanting to steal—he steals because he has no other options. That is, until he meets Rapunzel, of course.
When he first encounters the long-haired and locked-away princess, the pair embark upon a journey that sees him turn his ways around after he realizes that he’s enough as who he really is: Eugene Fitzherbert.
Flynn may not be the most original character in Disney’s oeuvre, but he’s so much fun to be around. He’s really not a bad guy at all, proving himself a hero by the end. He’s simply looking for the kind of life that he always dreamed of as an orphan.
7. Hans Gruber (Die Hard)
John McClane’s Christmas Eve with Hans Gruber wasn’t the best night of his life, as the New York cop was shot at, made to run through broken glass, and single-handedly took down a gang of “terrorists.”
Of course, it transpires that the terrorists aren’t really terrorists—they’re a band of thieves led by one intelligent, level-headed man. Hans Gruber is a likable villain, such is the charm brought forth by Alan Rickman.
But his veneer of civility quickly fades when things start going wrong. Hans’ plan to steal $640 million is actually well thought-out and has the advantage of making sure nobody would go after him, which would have worked had John not been in the building.
6. Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
The image of James Bond strapped to a table with a laser about to cut him in half? Iconic, all because of cinema’s ultimate gold fetish.
Auric Goldfinger has a special place among Bond villains. Yes, his plans are about as hair-brained as any, but he attempted to pull off his radiation plan with endless swagger and a debonair whiff that has become passé in modern cinematic villainy.
With Oddjob by his side, Goldfinger’s grandiosity was a supreme force on the screen—and he felt almost untouchable for most of the film, as he continually bettered Bond’s attempts to stop him. Though, in the finale, it’s his trusted pilot Pussy Galore who betrays him.
5. Thomas Crown (The Thomas Crown Affair)
Who is Thomas Crown underneath his cool and calm exterior? A villain? A Robin Hood-style anti-hero? No, he’s just a bored and wealthy man who likes to play games.
Thomas Crown is the man we all want to be, in that he has everything he wants while still retaining an air of fun to him. He isn’t evil. He isn’t after world domination. He simply enjoys stealing.
Both Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan felt comfortable in Thomas Crown’s excellently polished shoes—even if the quality of their films differed—because both men imbued the character with a sense of gallantry that other actors would have struggled to pull off.
4. Catwoman (Batman Returns)
The mother of all cat burglars, Selina Kyle in Batman Returns is the definitive on-screen version of the character. Who could forget her ransacking of Max Shreck’s store before blowing it up in a fireball? It’s one of the film’s best moments.
Though her plan isn’t directly connected to any grand heist scheme, she’s a character built upon her quest to get revenge on her boss (for pushing her out of a window) by killing him publicly.
As Selina’s madness takes hold of her, her personality changes from a downtrodden secretary to a confident psychopath—one who’s fast driven to insanity by her obsession with Shreck. However, she isn’t evil. She’s just a tragic figure with whom the audience can empathize.
3. Neil McCauley (Heat)
Robert De Niro’s thief in Heat is everything that a great thief character should be: borderline untraceable, with the instincts of a coyote, and able to spot when even the smallest detail is amiss.
He knows the cop that’s coming for him is Al Pacino’s unrelenting detective Vincent Hanna, yet McCauley still finds a way to pull off the job (though not without a vicious gunfight).
Unlike many cinematic thieves, Neil manages to get away with his crime and almost gets out of LA. However, his own moral compass for those whom he’s lost along the way makes him turn around and make a mistake, which costs him his life in a tense gunfight with Hanna.
2. Frank Abagnale Jr. (Catch Me If You Can)
Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of real-life con-man Frank Abagnale Jr. is one of his most elusive roles to date. The story revolves around the intelligent teenager who escapes his chaotic life (with his divorcing mom and dad) to try and make something of himself.
Frank spends years defrauding banks out of their money using altered checks and garnering millions of dollars, all before he’s finally caught in France and sent back to the US for trial.
The chase between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank and Tom Hanks’ FBI agent Carl Hanratty is one of cinema’s greatest and most drawn-out pursuits, as Frank charms his way from city to city while pretending to have all kinds of different professions along the way.
And while Frank started out doing what he did because he needed money to survive, he soon fell into the rabbit hole, unable to pull himself out. He wasn’t a bad person; he was desperate and spiraled from there.
1. Sonny Wortzik (Dog Day Afternoon)
Is Sonny Wortzik the most intelligent thief? No. Is Sonny Wortzik the best thief? No. Then, why is he one of cinema’s greatest thieves?
Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story that follows two desperate men who decide to rob a bank, and the whole job goes wrong—which leads to a standoff with police and the hostages inside the bank.
Sonny is a man trying to pay for his partner’s gender reassignment surgery, which is why he robs the bank. He rallies the crowd to join his side when he comes outside to speak to the police, by chanting “Attica” at them until they join him.
The truth of Sonny is that he’s a victim of the world around him. He’s desperate, lonely, and wants to make those in his life happy—and that’s why he’s the best of all cinematic thieves. He may be borderline useless at robbing a bank, but he’s an anti-hero in many ways.