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Aural Fixation: Heist Movies — What Goes Into Creating a Sneaky Score?

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2011

When you hear the music for a horror film, you know you’re in for suspenseful strings and make-you-jump percussion while the music in a romance will swell in the moments leading up to that big proclamation. But for a heist film, the musical landscape is a bit more complicated. The music has to walk that line between action and suspense so it helps drive the action on screen while still leaving audiences on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will happen next. The music must lull you into the action as you find out about the heist and then keep your adrenaline pumping as that plan is carried out (or is at least attempted). Whether you are boosting cars in Fast Five or ideas in Inception, the music works to imitate the thieves themselves from the more quiet moments while setting up the plan to the all out action once you break into the necessary getaway.

Tower Heist establishes its theme early (read: the opening credits) with subtle tones that sound almost like the buttons on an ATM or safe being pressed. Composer Christophe Beck is no stranger to heist films having also scored The Pink Panther re-boot back in 2006, but where The Pink Panther was a comedy, Tower Heist takes itself more seriously. Naturally a film with Eddie Murphy is not lacking in the joke department (the film’s trailer alone proves that), but when it comes to planning and carrying out the actual plan, Tower Heist plays like any other high stakes heist films and the music keeps that pace as well.

Much like Ocean’s Eleven and Mission: Impossible, Tower Heist uses horns and percussion to create the sense of sneaking around – an idea best associated with Henry Mancini’s iconic The Pink Panther score. The theme introduced in the beginning is called back on throughout the film lacing a modern day sound with the more classic heist orchestration. The band Tangerine Dream created the score for 1981’s Thief and their electronic sound was distinctively ’80s while the electronic elements Beck has infused into Tower Heist help it to sound like a film created in this decade (and one that could eventually be watched on an iPad).

There is always an underlying reason behind committing a heist, and it’s usually an emotional one intended to help redeem one (or all) of the leads. This also makes the root of the heist vulnerable and as Rusty (Brad Pitt) said in Ocean’s Eleven, “Tell me this is not about her,” because in order for a heist to go off flawlessly you have to be calculating, not emotional. But that would not make for an interesting film and as such, the reasoning that drives this group of hotel workers to try and steal from one of their residents is all emotion. The song “Lester’s Loss” implants this idea right from the start, adding another layer to the score beyond just driving percussion, booming horns and staccato strings. This additional layer works to help us care about the characters and want them to pull off their mission. (Like I said – it gets complicated)

Unlike the more stylized (and in some ways more “serious” cues in the scores for other heist films) Tower Heist does not take itself too seriously and on tracks like “Courthouse Con” it is clear the music is winking at the audience as much as the image of Matthew Broderick with a red sports car does. This is not a group of highly trained thieves and the music imitates the moments where the plan begins to unravel or the group’s lack of experience comes back to haunt them.

One of the highlights of any heist film is the “plan coming together” montage that has the group getting the elements to pull off the score from testing out mini coopers (The Italian Job) to creating the shopping list of “ladies” to take out (Gone In Sixty Seconds), all set to a rocking soundtrack that gets both the thieves (and the audience) excited to see the plan put into motion. However Tower Heist plays things closer to the vest and has us wait until the plan is actually happening to take us through the different twists and turns with the music following suit. These thieves do not quite know what they’re doing so it makes sense that we, the audience, are left a bit in the dark as well until the plan takes action.

Tower Heist succeeds in creating sonic elements of its own while also incorporating ideas from other well-known scores like The Pink Panther (“Fifty Dollar Thrift Lift”) and Mission: Impossible (“We Go On Snoopy”), which makes sense seeing as the film is in many ways paying homage to other heist films. And what would a film about stealing be if it didn’t lift elements from other films like it?

The soundtrack for Tower Heist is available through Varese Sarabande.

  1. “Theme from Tower Heist”
  2. “Code Black”
  3. “Shawfrontation”
  4. “The Germ”
  5. “Lester’s Loss”
  6. “My Little Bitch”
  7. “Macy’s Day”
  8. “The Marshall Swindle”
  9. “Right At Rikers”
  10. “Fifty Dollar Thrift Lift”
  11. “The Charlie Deception”
  12. “We Go On Snoopy”
  13. “Courthouse Con”
  14. “Grand Theft Auto”
  15. “Gonna Call Ralph”
  16. “Strong Box Situation”
  17. “Shaft Fail”
  18. “Odessa’s Cake”
  19. “Arrested”
  20. “Shawstafari”
  21. “Gold Rush”
  22. “End Titles”

All the songs on this soundtrack composed by Christophe Beck.

Is it considered “stealing” when the score for a heist film utilizes elements from other heist scores? Would your heist score sound suspenseful, action-packed, emotional or all of the above?

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