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Safe Cracking
Now in minigame form!
It's about fitting into a culture with its own rules and hierarchies. It's a world where bank robbers are the rock stars, con artists are the snobs, car thieves are the blue collar guys...and safe crackers are the artists.
Burn Notice, "Scatter Point"

A safe is a box designed to house valuable items, protected with a lock to prevent unauthorized access to the contents. In the pre-digital world, people tended to load safes protected by combination locks with tons of money, important documents, and fabulous jewelry. (They did in popular media, anyway.)

Naturally, other people would sometimes want the fabulous loot hidden away in someone's seemingly impregnable safe. These people won't be given the combination to the safe's lock, as they're usually enemies of the owner. They may not be able to steal the combination. Breaking into the safe with sledgehammers or just stealing it outright isn't advisable since the safe is probably in an enemy's house, protected by guards.

Our criminal or spy isn't out of luck, though. Combination locks were driven by a mechanism that involved tumblers, devices that would spin into place as the combination lock's dial was turned. Someone with very, very good ears (or a doctor's stethoscope) could hear the tumblers spinning and know by sound when they had fallen into place. At least, that's what Hollywood think they did.

It's a Dead Horse Trope now - but survives due to the Grandfather Clause in older material, and is used for comedy occasionally but never straight.

In a digital world, valuable information is rarely stored in physical formats - well, except backups of printed materials like magazines etc. - digital publishing, despite the name, also produces physical magazines. Other valuables are likely to be protected by safes using electronic locks, buried deep in highly inaccessible vaults. Even when a safe does have a combination lock... well, modern combination locks are much better thanks to new materials and manufacturing methods. While it is possible to break your average safe open with the right tools, it'll usually take hours and will involve cutting open the safe (with a slight risk of damaging whatever's inside).

Typically this trope is only played straight in older media (and sometimes parodies, homages, or remakes of said older media). Otherwise, the Safecracker's role is most likely to be played by a main character equipped with cool gadgets or a computer hacker who needs to work inscrutable magic on an electronic lock.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • In the Grendel graphic novel, Devil by the Deed, the adoptive daughter of Hunter "Grendel" Rose discovers that her father has a safe hidden away. Furthermore, the book makes it clear it's of vintage design as a matter of aesthetics for Rose, so the girl is able to read up about classic safecracking methods she can use to get it open.

    Film 
  • The French movie I as in Icarus has a safe-breaker explaining that it only works on safes whose code is never changed: It's the wear that makes the "right" position sound a little different.
  • Our Man Flint. Flint uses a stethoscope-like device to crack the Exotica Beauty company safe.
  • James Bond:
    • You Only Live Twice. Bond breaks into a safe in the Osato Chemical Company with the use of a small gadget that signals when each combination number is reached, but unfortunately he sets off an alarm.
    • On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Bond uses a device that directly manipulates the dial automatically to open it, and has a photocopier function so Bond can put back the documents he wants so as to eliminate evidence of his break in. The cold bastard then steals a Playboy in the safe.
    • Moonraker. Bond uses an X-ray device to break into a safe in Drax's headquarters.
  • In the remake of The Italian Job, this is Stella's role, inherited from her father after he was shot on the last job they pulled.
  • Daredevil has the titular hero entering his rooftop hideout by dragging his hand across 3 combination locks, and stopping them at the correct moments, thanks to his super-hearing.
  • In the Danish series of movies Olsen Banden, there are, usually, at least one scene of a safe being cracked. In a Running Gag, it is always the same type of safe, from the fictional "Franz Jäger of Berlin". Except in one movie, where it is from "Francis Hunter", and another one from "Francois Chasseur". In one movie the safe is deemed uncrackable but the gang's leader had obtained the combination ahead of time so all they have to do is get around the other security measures.
  • In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Mr. E.H. Harriman's newest safe defeats Butch's cracker. So they use dynamite. A LOT of dynamite. It winds up destroying the whole train car as well as the safe and sending the money flying everywhere.
  • In No Deposit No Return Duke is a safe cracker he and his partner are held hostage by two rich kids that are faking their own kidnapping. At the climax of the film Duke has to crack a safe to save the children who have been locked inside - in front of the police detective that has been hunting him down
  • In the Polish crime comedy Vabank Henryk Kwinto is a legendary safecracker who plans to retire after getting out of prison. However, he discovers that Kramer, his old partner, is now a corrupt bank president whose financial schemes caused one of Kwinto's friends to commit suicide. Seeking revenge, he plans out a complicated heist where he has to break in to Kramer's allegedly heist-proof bank vault.
    • In the sequel Vabank 2, Kramer locks a little girl in a safe and then Kwinto has to crack the safe before she runs out of air.
  • In The Score this is Robert De Niro's role. However when it is time to break the main safe of the movie, he uses more expedient measures.
  • In The Thieves, Pepsee and Julie are both expert safecrackers. Pepsee favours the drills and other gadgets, while Julie likes to feel the tumblers with her fingers.

    Literature 
  • Mulch in the first Artemis Fowl does this; he has more developed hearing that usual and he's had so much experience stealing things that he breaks into the extremely new and top-of-the-line safe Artemis keeps his copy of the Book in by listening to the dials.
  • Cryptonomicon has Lawrence cracking a safe using a microphone macgyvered from a pencil lead, two razor blades, wax, wire and a battery. Justified since this part of the story takes place during WWII, Lawrence is cryptography and lock enthusiast and he is under no real deadline or pressure to open the safe (he is doing so out of curiosity and as an intellectual exercise). He tried to crack the safe earlier while in complete darkness in a wrecked submarine being pitched around by waves and half-submerged in sewage. He probably would have been successful too, had the wrecked submarine not been hit with torpedoes.
  • The titular Papillon, aka Henri Charrière, was a safecracker and member of Paris's criminal underworld before being framed for murder and shipped to the French Guiana Penal Colony.
  • In a subtle nod to Simon Templar's position at the top of his field, "The Man From St. Louis" has him open and empty Tex Goldman's safe offscreen.

    Live Action TV 
  • NCIS: A suspect named Scoletti hires a guy to break into NCIS' evidence locker and switch his gun. He uses this method.
  • Done numerous times in Burn Notice, though Michael tends to cut out the bottom of a cup and use that to listen to the tumblers falling into place. He also is seen in several episodes practicing on similar safes, before actually cracking the real thing. When he can't break into a safe (usually because he doesn't have the time), he takes another route and steals the safe, knowing that just having it (or depriving his target of it) is sufficient for his purposes.
  • This was Newkirk's specialty on Hogan's Heroes.
  • An episode of The Red Green Show had Mike Hammer asking for assistance in using Duct Tape for Everything to repair a stethoscope, which he used to keep track of his own health while jogging away from things. Red Green asked him if he knew that it could be used to crack a safe, which Mike claimed that he didn't know that earlier. But given Mike's lack of knowledge on the location of his own heart...
  • On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this is Nog's role in the holodeck caper in "Badda Bing, Badda Bang", presumably because of his excellent hearing.
  • Safecrackers is one of the games played on The Price Is Right. A big prize is locked behind a vault and contestants have to use 3 numbers on the vault by guessing the price of a small item.
  • In a season two episode of Person of Interest, the person Reese has to protect is a retired safecracker who gets blackmailed by his old gang into cracking one last safe. Finch mentions that cracking a safe by the sound of the tumblers is a lost art. He doesn't mention the fact that this is because modern safes are designed so that thieves can't do that anymore (Which, given that the safecracker succeeds in opening the safe, proves that either he's really good or the safe was obsolete).
  • In the short-lived Richard Dean Anderson series Legend, Legend has to break into a bank's safe to get at the record books that prove that the owner of the bank was embezzling (And from there, that he had committed murder to cover up the embezzlement). He uses explosives to open it. Unfortunately, his friend Janos gave him a nitroglycerine based bomb that was much stronger than dynamite, and rather than opening the safe, the safe goes through the roof and lands in the stable next door.
  • This is the specialty of legendary Western outlaw Hannibal Heyes in Alias Smith and Jones, although one of the reasons he and his partner decide to get out of the outlaw business is that the safes are getting ever harder to crack.
  • The listen-to-the-tumblers version was tested and busted on MythBusters; Adam Savage, even with a specially boosted stethoscope, could not use that technique to unlock the safe. A technique using a borescope to see the tumblers and piano wire to move them (after prying off the combination dial) proved more successful. It took a total 45 minutes (presumably ~20 minutes used on the stethoscope method, and ~25 on the borescope method) to open a safe rated for 5 minutes, though given that techniques used to rate a safe are far from quiet, and that it was their first attempt at it, it wasn't too shabby.
  • On Elementary Sherlock is hired to figure out how a thief broke into a state-of-the-art bank vault protected by an electronic lock. The lock's combination constantly changes based on an algorithm and the single decoding device was confirmed to be on another continent at the time of the robbery. He is so frustrated by his inability to figure out the trick that he takes a fire axe and goes Axe Crazy on the locking mechanism. In the end it turns out that the mastermind hacked the computers of the company who made the vault and replaced the algorithm for the lock with one that looked like it was generating random numbers but was simply giving out portions of the number PI. With that knowledge he could calculate what the combination was at any given time.
  • In numerous episodes of Mission: Impossible, the team has to break into a safe or vault in order to steal or plant something, starting with the first episode. The methods they use are rather varied.

    Manga 
  • Ranma ½: Genma, who invented two martial arts styles based on theft, is shown to be a safecracker.
  • Detective Conan: Kaitou Kid is asked by Jirokichi Suzuki to crack his safe the Iron Tanuki.
  • Lupin III: Not used often, Lupin prefers Social Engineering to open the safe, but he has proven the ability to do so several times in the franchise. The board game just assumes that if a character enters the building with the loot, they can automatically open it. They're just that good.

    Pinball 
  • This is the final goal in the aptly-named Safe Cracker.
  • Theater Of Magic has an illusion where the magician picks a safe from the inside.
  • The Sopranos has a safe that cracks in two after it is bashed repeatedly.

    Video Games 
  • Red Steel 2 has you unlocking safes using this method with you listening to the speaker in the actual wiimote. Shame then the effect is ruined by the big flashing A if you find the correct number.
  • Eternal Darkness had the lead character Alex unlock an old safe through the use of a 200-year-old Stethoscope.
  • Made fun of in Spyro: Attack of the Rhynocs. After delivering a number of tools to the Master Thief, he demonstrates his skills as he opens the safe that holds the Heart of his Realm. He starts out by listening to the safe with a stethoscope while turning the dial, but then transitions to using a hammer and a crowbar, and then finally just blows the safe up. Made even sillier than it seems by the fact that since it's his safe to begin with, the Master Thief should have known the combination.
  • Safecracker places the protagonist in the headquarters of a prestigious safe-manufacturing firm as part of a job interview - crack all the safes and open the final vault before time runs out, and you're hired. The safes vary from cleverly hidden that need special keys, to novelty boxes that can be opened by completing a puzzle, and none of them rely on the traditional methods of safecracking. (Except for the tried and true "figure out where they wrote down the combination" gambit.)
  • Safe Opening Simulator is a simulation game for Ms-dos, trying for a realistic method of cracking the safe. It uses the traditional methods, such as dialing, drilling and if all else fails, explosives.
  • The Sly Cooper series regularly involves safecracking - for the first two games, you simply receive the combination codes once you pick up all the level's collectible "clue bottles", but in the third game you have to crack them yourself, rotating the dial (via the analogue stick) until it clicks.
  • Covert Action has the safecracking kit as one of things Player Character can take on break-ins. Not exactly necessary, but safes, of course, tend to lend more valuable clues than less secured documents and evidence allowing to blackmail enemy agents into turning may be found only in floor safes.
  • A Mini-Game in both Quest for Glory IV and Quest for Glory V. In IV it's a form of Three in a row with suits of cards (Yellow, Red, Green and Blue) and in V it's a Simon Says esque game with a Greek Dancer and an Earworm song.
  • Averted in PAYDAY: The Heist. Rather than trying to crack the codes in the fortified vaults and rooms, the crew brute force the way around it. For the bank they rob, the crew use thermite in the room above the vault to bypass the door and have direct access to the money. In another mission where the crew attempt to rob some junkies, rather than trying to crack the code to the panic room (where the money is), they decide to detach the panic room from the floor, blow a hole to the roof, and have a helicopter airlift the room away, money and all.
    • This is possible in the sequel via a perk in the ghost tree.
  • In Zork Zero, you crack a safe with a magic glove that allows you to feel the tumblers turning.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Real Life: Averted, in that modern, government-authorized combination locks are electronic; the combination is dialed by viewing a liquid crystal display that is powered by capacitors built into the lock.
  • Anyone with physical access to a safe will be able to open it with 100% success given enough time and the proper tools. As such the security of physical devices are rated in "Minutes" that an attacker with unfettered access to the device will need to defeat the security measures. Surprisingly the best mechanical locks today are only rated for 15 minutes and the best safes are only rated to between 30 and 60 minutes. This means that within that time period someone or something must check on the device to ensure it is not being broken into.
    • All devices have weaknesses, the most basic being an oxy-acetylene torch which can cut through feet of steel over a typical Holiday Weekend. Being less obvious takes more time, but anyone with intimate knowledge of the device can usually find a way in.
      • The safe-maker can only defend against the attacks he can think of, the safe-cracker only has to find the one thing the safe-maker missed.
  • More often than one would like to believe the combinations on safes are left at their factory default settings.
    • And if not sometimes one can just phone up and ask.
  • Master thief Gerald Blanchard stole millions of dollars in both the cyber and physical realms defeating the best security systems the 21st century had to offer. His favourite trick was to simply walk around banks that were under construction and build in his own back doors and combination grabbing surveillance equipment before the banks opened for business. After all, who would bother to break into a bank before it had any money.
  • Richard Feynman got into the habit of breaking into safes while working on the Manhattan Project. He discovered that, due to a design flaw, when one of the combination-locked filing cabinets that were used to hold the project's documents was open, he could read off all but one number of the combination. Then he broke into the main project archives, because the guy who could have let him in was out of the office.
    • Feynman also claims, in his memoir, that most of the safes still had the default combination. When he told his superiors about this obvious security risk, their response was to institute policy to 1. Change All The Combinations and 2. Keep Feynman Away From The Safes.
  • In 2003 a vault in the Secure Antwerp Diamond Area was robbed by a group of sophisticated Italian thieves known as the School of Turin making off with anywhere from $108-432 million. They defeated a number of high tech security systems in order to pull it off, including using hairspray against the motion detectors(due to the fact that it would be transparent enough for the system to arm but opaque enough to make the sensor useless). The vault itself though was interesting in that no one knows exactly how they got the combination. It was suggested that hidden cameras were used to record the combination being entered (In a Wired magazine article). The problem with that idea is that the combination was entered by viewing the dial through a magnification lens specifically to avoid the problem of shoulder surfing. One interesting possibility was that the dial was never manually zeroed by spinning the dial after the door was locked such that all that was necessary was turning the key(this is an issue with mechanical lock vaults as they are too complicated to zero automatically). Another option was that one of the individuals had written down the combination and it was pickpocketed from them(at least one of the concierges with the combination admitted to having wrote down the combination ). In addition to the combination, the key that opened the vault door was on a foot long pole(to prevent lockpicking attempts) that was stored in a closet next to the vault with the key left screwed on out of laziness(which fits the second theory on the combination). This was all described in the book Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History.

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alternative title(s): Loud Safe
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