Money is Small and Light in the Movies


I just watched Mark Stevens’ excellent 1956 film noir Timetable. There was a funny movie trope during the robbery scene portrayed above. After the robber blows the safe, he steals “$500,000 in small bills”. The money is contained in two small satchels each about the size of a woman’s purse, which he almost daintily lifts and then tosses into his suitcase.

In real life, a piece of US currency is .0043 inches think and weighs about a gram. If we assume the average “small bill” is a $10 note and that the bills are all perfectly pressed flat with no wrinkles, the stack of bills should have been 17.92 FEET high and would have weighed just over 110 pounds!

But in the movies, money is small and light. Countless caper films feature people nimbly running around with zillions of dollars in their small, lightweight satchels.

Does anyone know any movies that undo this trope, for example by having a kidnapper not be strong enough to lift the suitcase with the ransom in it, or having a car axle bend under the weight of the multi-billion dollar haul in the back seat?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Money is Small and Light in the Movies”

  1. I believe that in “3 Kings” the weight of the gold being stolen and the tensile strength of the bags needed to carry the gold was a key plot point. But I haven’t seen the movie in years, so will welcome correction.

  2. Is Mel Brooks still making movies?

    He ought to use this as a gag if he ever does a spoof on (say) Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther.

  3. Actually, I do think this was a key plot element in one of the old “Thunderbird” TV episodes, (Give or take a Million) where the criminal met a disasterous end because he tried to make off with too many gold bars at once. But that was a puppet show, unlike live action you expect those to pay attention to the details…

  4. There’s the bit in The Italian Job (the remake, at the very least) where (SPOILERS!) the identity of the armored car that is actually carrying the valuable cargo rather than being a decoy is detectable because the armored car is riding low on its suspension – but the cargo is, if I recall, gold, rather than paper, so I’m not sure it qualifies.

    1. By that token, Goldfinger (the film; I seem to recall hearing someplace that the novel is fairly different), in which (SPOILERS, albeit 40 years later) Bond discovers just before the final act that far from there being a plot to steal the gold in Fort Knox, which would be impractical, the plot is to render the gold inaccessible and contaminated, so as to increase the value of other gold stocks.

      1. From the IMDB synopsis of Die Hard: With a Vengeance–McClane finds Simon’s men have raided the Federal Reserve Bank through the ruined subway system, making off with $140 billion of gold bullion from the vault, hauling it away in dump trucks.

        Hmmm…for estimating purposes, consider the price of gold to be about $1,400 per ounce. Not necessarily correct, but it doesn’t really matter; at least it makes the calculations easy. Also, for simplicity, forget special weights for gold; just go with our standard weight system. That much gold, then, would weigh about 100 million ounces…which is about 6 million pounds…which is about 3,000 tons…which, at 40 tons per truck, would be about 75 trucks full of gold.

        That’s a lot of dump trucks for Simon Gruber to be running through the streets and viaducts of New York. Not to mention, 3,000 tons is a lot of weight for Gruber’s merry band of men to be loading and unloading by hand.

        Hey, it’s a story…gotta take a few liberties.

        1. 1) from what I remember (haven’t seen the movie in 5 years or so), Gruber’s crew used about 20-30 dump trucks, which they had put in place as part of a fake construction site near the gold depository

          2) in conjunction with 1), they moved the gold on to the dump trucks using backhoe-esque construction equipment

  5. Check out “The Hard Word” from 2002 starring Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths (in which a lot of us heard those two speaking with their natural accents for the first time). During the climactic scenes, three robbers find themselves forced to escape from the scene of the crime on foot, carrying the loot. I have no idea how much Australian currency weighs, but by the time the chase is over, all three of them are sweating and out of breath. Point taken.

  6. Oh, and while it’s technically not a movie, it’s also a major plot point in “Jaynestown” (Firefly episode).

  7. Kubrick’s ‘The Killing’ (1956). The caper is a robbery of a race track’s receipts, and an important part of the planning is how to get the $2 million stolen (stuffed into a large and heavy duffel bag) away from the track. There’s a twist at the end that depends on the haul being unwieldy.

  8. CSI in its early seasons had an episode that covered this. A group targeted a vault for robbery, and got a man on the inside hiding inside a (fake) suit of armor. He then supposedly made off with the money taped to his body (as seen by his slower walking and bulges on his person in security cameras). They then calculated the weight of the money he had to carry, plus the fact the money bands were left behind uncut (it shouldn’t be possible to remove money from the bands that easily). From the weight calculation and other contrary evidence, they determined that the robbery was a fake for insurance money.

  9. In the great crime movie, Heat, the big heist and shootout involves very large bags for what looks like very heavy piles of cash. (Here is the whole long sequence:

    Also, let us not forget that the Joker needed a school bus to carry the cash he stole at the beginning of the Dark Knight. Nor, for that matter, the HUGE pile of money he burns later.

  10. All good reasons why it is so much easier to be a corporate looter and steal the goods right through the banking system.

  11. (SPOILER) At the ending of Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” Blondie leaves Tuco at the cemetery in the middle of the desert with his share of the loot but rides away on the only horse.

  12. In the Bond film License to Kill, 007 throws a large suitcase of money containing 2 million dollars at a bad guy hanging over a shark tank. The weight of the money causes the bad guy to lose his grip and fall into the tank, thereby being eaten by a shark.

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