There are genres (e.g., Action, Comedy, Drama). Cross genres (e.g., Action-Thriller, Comedy-Science Fiction). Sub-genres (e.g., Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure). And then there are what we may call movie story types. In Hollywood development circles, people use them as shorthand. If you go here, you will see several that we’ve featured on GITS including Contained Thriller, Road Pictures, and The [Blank] From Hell.
This week and next, we look at more movie story types. Today: Briefcase Full of Cash.
Treasure hunts, stashed cash, hidden jewels, this is a story type where a central point of focus is characters searching for something of great value.
Some examples of briefcase full of cash movies:
The Maltese Falcon (1941): A private detective takes on a case that involves three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette.
North by Northwest (1959): A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963): The dying words of a thief spark a madcap cross-country rush to find some treasure.
Marathon Man (1976): A graduate history student is unwittingly caught in the middle of an international conspiracy involving stolen diamonds, an exiled Nazi war criminal, and a rogue government agent.
The Deep (1977): A pair of young vacationers are involved in a dangerous conflict with treasure hunters when they discover a way into a deadly wreck in Bermuda waters.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Archeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired by the US government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis.
48 Hrs. (1984): A hard-nosed cop reluctantly teams up with a wise-cracking criminal temporarily paroled to him, in order to track down a killer, and a briefcase full of cash.
A Simple Plan (1998): Two brothers and a friend find $4 million in the cockpit of a downed plane.
Three Kings (1999): In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, four soldiers set out to steal gold that was stolen from Kuwait.
National Treasure (2004): A treasure hunter is in hot pursuit of a mythical treasure that has been passed down for centuries, while his employer turned enemy is onto the same path that he’s on.
Millions (2004): A 7-year old finds a bag of Pounds just days before the currency is switched to Euros.
Lottery Ticket (2010): A young man living in the projects has to survive a three-day weekend after his opportunistic neighbors find out he’s holding a winning lottery ticket worth $370 million.
Whether it’s money, jewels, art or a priceless historic artifact, the object of pursuit in briefcase full of cash movies translates into a powerful psychological dynamic with moviegoers: wish fulfillment. Just think what I could do with all that money! If most stories are about a character or characters who go through some sort of personal metamorphosis, what could possibly speed that change along other than a massive influx of cash?
The briefcase full of cash also represents power because if you own something other characters in the movie want, you are in a position of authority over them. You can make demands, negotiate favorable terms, even act like a total asshole… because you have what they want.
However as the Bible says, “The love of money is the root of all evil,” and so there are plenty of these story types that serve as morality tales, object lessons about how financial wealth is not all it’s cracked up to be. Or as Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) says at the very end of The Maltese Falcon, describing the falcon statue, “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of” as Brigid (Mary Astor) gets hauled off to prison. She learned her lesson… just a little too late.
What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in briefcase full of cash films? What other movies of note belong in the list?
[Originally posted October 26, 2011]