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Improvised Lockpick

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An unlikely object is used to open a lock.

This trope has been Launched!
Proposed By:
Maxaxle on Feb 22nd 2012 at 4:40:07 PM
Last Edited By:
intastiel on Oct 1st 2017 at 8:08:10 PM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: Trope

Rolling Updates; draft adopted by Intastiel


Not everyone has a lockpick on hand when they need it. Whether due to the difficulty of obtaining lockpicks, the possible embarrassment of being caught with one, or simple unpreparedness, a character might be forced to confront a lock with only only whatever supplies happen to be at hand. Fortunately, in fiction, that can be as easy as pulling a bobby pin out of your hair.

This is Truth in Television, as locksmiths and amateur enthusiasts can jimmy a lock with materials like paper clips and hair pins quite easily. A character might take it further by using something that couldn't turn the lock or even fit inside it in real life.

Related to MacGyvering, especially when people get creative in their improvisations. Shapeshifters and characters benefiting from Toon Physics might also be able to turn parts of themselves into keys or lockpicks, in a Mundane Utility alternative to Shapeshifter Weapons.

Super Trope to Skeleton Key Card and Hairpin Lockpick.


Examples

Anime and Manga
  • In One Piece, during the Marineford Arc, the key that holds Ace's handcuff is shot down by Kizaru, so Mr. 3 creates a duplicate key with his wax powers. It works.
  • In Mob Psycho 100, when Ritsu and the others need to break out of their cage, Ritsu uses a spoon to unlock the lock on the cage. He has Gou use his pyrokinesis to make the spoon soft so it can stick into the lock and then have Takeshi uses his telekinesis to twist the spoon so it fits the lock.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, when Jonouchi is chained to the Ax-Crazy Chopman as part of Kaiba's Death-T challenge, he uses a metal candle stick to pick the lock and free himself.

Comic Books

  • In X-Men, Gambit does this while trapped by Cameron Hodge. He is hanging by his hands trapped in manacles and frees himself by curling up, using his teeth to pull out a metal spike that had been shot through his leg, and using it as a lockpick — with his feet.

Film — Animated

  • In the animated movie "Here Come The Littles," Cousin Dinky uses his tail to pick the lock on a trunk, with little success at first.
  • In The Rescuers Down Under, Frank tries to pick the lock of his cage with his tail. It takes him a while but he succeeds.
  • In Frozen, Snowman Olaf uses his carrot nose to unlock the door behind which Princess Anna is dying of her frozen heart.

Film — Live Action

  • Grand Theft Parsons features a yellow hearse, the keys to which have been lost since before the beginning of the movie. - ZCE
  • In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Sarah Connor steals some paper clips during an interrogation and later uses them to break out of her cell. Her actress Linda Hamilton took training in lock-picking before the film, and shows her work in using multiple clips to hold the pins in place rather than just jiggling a single wire around.
  • In Kung Fu Hustle, during his infiltration into the asylum that contains the Beast, Sing the protagonist uses a steel wire to open the lock to the Beast's cell.
  • In Time Bandits, Wally uses Kevin's knife to pick the lock of the cage they are trapped in. It works, but the knife's blade is noticeably bent and mangled afterward.

Literature

  • In The Great Brain at the Academy, TD makes an impression in wax of the key to a locked room, then carves a duplicate out of wood.
  • In Richard Scarry's Best Christmas Book Ever!, Lowly Worm uses his foot (technically the tip of his tail) to pick a lock.
  • In Artemis Fowl, Mulch uses his beard hair (dwarves are weird in this series: their beards function more like antennae) as a lockpick by pushing it in as far as it can go then plucking it, letting the hair stiffen until it can be used as a key.
  • In one of the Stainless Steel Rat books, Jim picked a lock with the wires connected to his Shock Collar on a rare occasion when he had been strip-searched thoroughly enough to deprive him of his regular tools.

Live-Action TV

  • In one Burn Notice episode Michael steals a motorcycle by turning the ignition lock with a penknife, then kicking the handlebars to break the steering lock.
  • Double Subverted on Get Smart. The Chief has been kidnapped, so Max is filling in in the Chief's office. Chief's private phone line is ringing. Max takes out a locked box in which it is enclosed. Max goes to a special hidden file cabinet, pulls out a piece of paper. He goes to the Wall Safe, uses the paper to open the combination door to the safe. He gets a hammer from the safe, and bashes the locked box with it so he can get to the phone inside.
  • In the Vegas episode "Exposure", Jack forces open a locked desk drawer by using a letter-opener on the lock.
  • In Rome, Titus Pullo keeps one of his thugs in a locked cage, feeding him off scraps, in punishment for trying to steal from him. Unfortunately he picks the lock with a piece of bone and nearly kills Pullo.
  • In an episode of The Musketeers, Aramis picks the lock of some manacles with a cross attached to his rosary beads.
  • In Hannah Montana, Season 1 "Good Golly, Miss Dolly" when Miley, Lily, and Aunt Dolly needs to get inside the school to recover a tape on Miley accidentally professing her love for Jake, Aunty uses her long fingernail to unlock the doors.
    Aunt Dolly: I haven't carried a house key in years.
  • In Game of Thrones, Sansa steals a corkscrew in "The Gift" and uses it to pick the lock on her bedchamber in the Season 5 finale "Mother's Mercy".
  • The ever-resourceful MacGyver needed to open a door with a palm-print reader as the lock. Mac used toner from a copier to adhere to the residue of the previous palm print, then carefully blew away the rest and laid a blank page on the scanner. Pressing his palm on the paper activated the scanner, which read the residual palm print of an authorized user, and granted Mac access.
  • In MythBusters, Jamie and Adam are trapped in a room and need to use the filament of a light bulb to pick the lock and escape. It takes a while, but it works within their time limit.
  • In the iCarly episode "I Psycho", Sam gnaws on a duck bone into a lock pick to unlock the door out of the recording booth that she, Carly, and Freddie are trapped in by Nora.

Video Games

  • Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars uses a car theft mechanic that involves this with low-end cars. - ZCE
  • In Fallout 3, a screwdriver is used as a torque wrench (the picking itself is done with bobby pins).
  • In the Banjo-Kazooie "Banjo is Back!" teaser trailer, Banjo wields Kazooie as a lockpick.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, as in the tabletop game, characters usually need special lockpicking tools to open doors, but can also attempt it with improvised implements at a substantial penalty to the Disable Device roll.
  • In Zak Mckracken And The Alien Mindbenders, the heroes need to access a particular chamber to acquire the crystal that powers their device. The alien who gives them this assignment provides them with the key to open the door, but it disintegrates upon being picked up. How do you open the door it was supposed to unlock? By going to a hair salon and cutting down the giant bobby pin hanging outside, then using it to pick the lock.
  • Early in Timeless: The Forgotten Town, the player character picks a locked drawer with two wooden hair sticks.
  • In The Last of Us, Joel uses shivs to unlock doors to supply rooms.
  • In the Citalel DLC for Mass Effect 3, Samantha Traynor uses her biotic toothbrush to pick the Normandy's vent lock.

Web Comics

Web Original

Western Animation

  • In Rugrats, Tommy is often able to pick locks with his (toy) screwdriver as easily as he can reach and push latches with it.
  • Jackie Chan Adventures subverts this in the Season 4 finale. Viper tries to break the J-Team out of their cell with a hairclip and then with a credit card, but the lock is magically sealed shut.
  • Gerry Anderson's marionette series Thunderbirds has the episode "Vault of Doom" wherein the Bank of London installs an airtight vault to discourage safecrackers. One bank employee is in the vault when it gets shut for the day, and the Thunderbirds team race to tunnel through reinforced concrete to rescue him. Happily, Lady Penelope's manservant Aloysius Parker is a former safecracker. He asks Lady P for a hairpin, which defeats the lock and opens the vault door in seconds.
    Bank Manager: Let's go back to the old design; at least it took him five hours to open it.
  • In Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, Wrench Wench Gadget occasionally uses her tail as a lockpick.
  • In The Proud Family, Season 3 "Thelma and Luis'', when Suga Mama and Penny and her friends break into a retirement home that is secretly an okra farm that forces their residents to work on the fields all day to rescue Papi, they find him in a locked cell. Dijonay fails to unlock the cell with her hairpin so Suga Mama uses her long toenail to pick the lock of the cell.
  • On The Amazing World of Gumball, Gumball shapes one of his fingers into a paper clip, which he then unbends to make a lock pick.
  • Subverted in American Dad! in Season 14 "Portrait of Francine's Genitals": when Roger is hiring a crew to help Stan steal a portrait of Francine's genitals from an art museum, he hires a Belgian locksmith named Claude Verdeer, who has the smallest fingers in the world. It looks like he was going to uses his small fingers to pick the lock to entrance door, but then he pulls out a drill to use on the lock instead.

Real Life

  • In order to pick a standard pin-tumbler lock, two tools (rather than one as is often portrayed) are needed; a torque wrench and a pick. The torque wrench is used to turn the cylinder, while the pick is used to manipulate the pins in such a way to allow it to turn. A flat headed screwdriver can substitute for one. In addition, a screwdriver can also be used to force the lock (literally just twist it hard enough to snap the pins) or rake it (drawing it across the pins in a particular way until they snap in place).
  • A bike lock manufacturer experienced some embarrassment when it became public that their locks could be jimmied with the plastic cylinder from a ball-point pen.

Feedback: 66 replies

Feb 22nd 2012 at 4:40:48 PM

How do we not have a page about the film Grand Theft Parsons?

Feb 22nd 2012 at 5:25:26 PM

MacGyver does this several multiple times with his Swiss army knife.

Feb 22nd 2012 at 6:03:02 PM

This actually has some basis in real life. A pin-tumbler lock consists of two surfaces (generally cylinders, since the design is used in cylinder locks), one of which can rotate against the other (and is both connected to the latch and has the slot for the key in it). Both the cylinders have holes in them which line up when the lock is in the "locked position". Above the cylinders are spring loaded pins which fit into said holes, when the pins are down they lock the cylinders together. Each pin is a different length, meaning that it has to be pushed up by precisly the right amount to stop it from preventing the cylinder rotating. The teeth on a key push each pin up by a different amount and (naturally) a key cut to fit a given lock pushes each pin in the lock by exactly the right amount, alowing the cylinder to be rotating and to manipulate the latch.

In order to pick the lock two tools (rather than one as is often portrayed) are needed; a torque wrench and a pick. The torque wrench is used to turn the cylinder, while the pick is used to manipulate the pins in such a way to allow it to turn. A flat headed screwdrive can be used as one. In addition, a screwdriver can also be used to force the lock (literally just twist it hard enough to snap the pins) or rake it (drawing it across the pins in a particular way until they snap in place).

  • In Rugrats, Tommy is often able to pick locks with his (toy) screwdriver as easily as he can reach and push latches with it.
  • In Fallout 3, a screwdriver is used as a torque wrench (the picking itself is done with bobby pins).

Feb 22nd 2012 at 8:05:26 PM

I'll put that under Real Life. I know it's possible, it's just a matter of *how* it's done.

Feb 22nd 2012 at 8:12:12 PM

You know what? This sounds like a case of Missing Supertrope Syndrome. We don't really need a separate trope for every tool that can be used to open locks (and we have one of the most common, Hairpin Lockpick), so how about making this Improvised Lockpick and covering all the "tool not specifically designed for lockpicking" variations? Hairpin Lockpick would then be a subtrope.

Feb 22nd 2012 at 8:37:07 PM

I like the idea of Improvised Lockpick better than just listing ever single one as their own trope.

Feb 23rd 2012 at 9:05:13 AM

Double Subverted on Get Smart. The Chief has been kidnapped, so Max is filling in in the Chief's office. Chief's private phone line is ringing. Max takes out a locked box in which it is enclosed. Max goes to a special hidden file cabinet, pulls out a piece of paper. He goes to the Wall Safe, uses the paper to open the combination door to the safe. He gets a hammer from the safe, and bashes the locked box with it so he can get to the phone inside.

Feb 23rd 2012 at 10:31:32 AM

What about those who have Voluntary Shapeshifting and can morph their hand into a key?

Feb 23rd 2012 at 11:54:03 AM

In X-men , Gambit does the wrong "single tool" version while trapped by Cameron Hodge. He is hanging by his hands trapped in manacles and frees himself by curling up, using his teeth to pull out a metal spike that had been shot through his leg, and using it as a lockpick - with his feet.

Feb 23rd 2012 at 12:01:21 PM

^^ Sounds pretty improvised to me, but I think there might be a specific trope for that already.

Nov 27th 2012 at 10:25:53 PM

Perhaps this should be renamed "Hollywood Lockpicking" or something. There are plenty of instances where a character whips out his utility knife, pokes the awl or nail file blade into a keyhole, and just turns it and it opens with no attempt made to finesse the tumblers. (For instance, Charming does this in the episode "Child of the Moon" in the series Once Upon A Time.) If that were possible in the real world, locks would be a whole less useful!

That's not "improvised," because there wasn't any air of "improvisation" about it, any moment where the character tries to figure out what he could pick a lock with. He just...does it. It's basically the physical equivalent of a Sonic Screwdriver.

Nov 27th 2012 at 10:36:12 PM

Live Action TV

  • In the Vegas episode "Exposure", Jack forces open a locked desk drawer by using a letter-opener on the lock.
  • In one Burn Notice episode Michael steals a motorcycle by turning the ignition lock with a penknife, then kicking the handlebars to break the steering lock.

Nov 27th 2012 at 11:32:31 PM

Those first two examples violate site rules. They fall under Zero Context Example and don't even list what was used to pick the lock.

Nov 28th 2012 at 12:26:09 AM

What about simply kicking the door in? Indelicate, perhaps, but effective.

Dec 24th 2012 at 2:32:37 PM

In The Great Brain at the Academy, TD makes an impression in wax of the key to a locked room, then carves a duplicate out of wood.

Jul 13th 2015 at 8:05:28 AM

In the Banjo Kazooie "Banjo is Back!" teaser trailer, Banjo wields Kazooie as a lockpick.

Jul 13th 2015 at 8:36:08 AM

  • In Terminator 2 Judgment Day, Sarah Connor steals some paper clips during an interrogation and later uses them to break out of her cell. Her actress Linda Hamilton took training in lock-picking before the film, and shows her work in using multiple clips to hold the pins in place rather than just jiggling a single wire around.
  • Subverted in the last episode of Jackie Chan Adventures Season 4. Viper tries to break the J-Team out of their cell with a hairclip and then a credit card, but the lock is magically sealed shut.

Jul 13th 2015 at 9:12:19 AM

Telekinesis is very handy for lockpicking.

Jul 13th 2015 at 6:38:16 PM

Western Animation

  • Gerry Anderson's marionette series Thunderbirds has the episode "Vault of Doom" wherein the Bank of London installs an airtight vault to discourage safecrackers. One bank employee is in the vault when it gets shut for the day, and the Thunderbirds team race to tunnel through reinforced concrete to rescue him. Happily, Lady Penelope's manservant Aloysius Parker is a former safecracker. He asks Lady P for a hairpin, which defeats the lock and opens the vault door in seconds.
    Bank Manager: Let's go back to the old design; at least it took him five hours to open it.

Jul 14th 2015 at 6:21:54 AM

In the animated movie "Here Come The Littles," Cousin Dinky uses his tail to pick the lock on a trunk, with little success at first.

Jul 14th 2015 at 7:12:26 AM

In The Rescuers Down Under, Frank tries to pick the lock of his cage with his tail. It takes him a while but he succeeds.

Jul 14th 2015 at 11:49:07 AM

Jul 15th 2015 at 1:59:43 PM

Wouldn't this already be covered under Hairpin Lockpick where it says "When a resourceful character picks a lock [...] with a hairpin, paper clip, or some other everyday object".

Jul 15th 2015 at 11:15:31 PM

  • In Dungeons And Dragons, characters usually need special lockpicking tools to open doors, but can also attempt it with improvised implements at a substantial penalty to the Disable Device roll.

Jul 15th 2015 at 11:52:26 PM

Literature:

  • In Richard Scarry's Best Christmas Book Ever!, Lowly Worm uses his foot (technically the tip of his tail) to pick a lock.

Jul 16th 2015 at 7:17:41 PM

Jul 24th 2016 at 7:34:52 AM

  • Rome. Titus Pullo keeps one of his thugs in a locked cage, feeding him off scraps, in punishment for trying to steal from him. Unfortunately he picks the lock with a piece of bone and nearly kills Pullo.

Jul 24th 2016 at 8:26:36 AM

  • Kungfu Hustle: During his infiltration into the asylum that contains the Beast, Sing the protagonist uses a steel wire to open the lock to the Beast's cell.

Jul 24th 2016 at 2:50:42 PM

In an episode of The Musketeers, Aramis picks the lock of some manacles with a cross attached to his rosary beads.

Jul 25th 2016 at 4:53:17 AM

Several OP examples are Zero Context Examples and have been marked as such (ZCE). They need more information to show how they fit the trope.

Jul 25th 2016 at 7:12:35 AM

Video Games

  • In Zak Mckracken And The Alien Mindbenders, the heroes need to access a particular chamber to acquire the crystal that powers their device. The alien who gives them this assignment provides them with the key to open the door, but it disintegrates upon being picked up. How do you open the door it was supposed to unlock? By going to a hair salon and cutting down the giant bobby pin hanging outside, then using it to pick the lock.

Jul 25th 2016 at 11:27:30 AM

  • In The Proud Family, Season 3 "Thelma and Luis'', when Suga Mama and Penny and her friends break into a retirement home that is secretly an okra farm that forces their residents to work on the fields all day to rescue Papi, they find him in a locked cell. Dijonay fails to unlock the cell with her hairpin so Suga Mama uses her long toenail to pick the lock of the cell.

Jul 25th 2016 at 3:37:25 PM

  • In Hannah Montana, Season 1 "Good Golly, Miss Dolly" when Miley, Lily, and Aunt Dolly needs to get inside the school to recover a tape on Miley accidentally professing her love for Jake, Aunty uses her long fingernail to unlock the doors.
    Aunt Dolly: I haven't carried a house key in years.

Sep 5th 2016 at 6:40:55 PM

On The Amazing World Of Gumball, Gumball shapes one of his fingers into a paper clip, which he then unbends to make a lock pick.

Sep 6th 2016 at 7:10:48 AM

Sep 6th 2016 at 7:02:37 PM

  • One Piece: during the Marineford Arc, when the key that holds Ace's handcuff is shot down by Kizaru, Mr. 3 creates a duplicate key with his wax powers. It works.

Sep 7th 2016 at 11:52:36 AM

Many Hidden Object Games include "unlock the lock" puzzles. While some of them have the player character find actual lockpicks (or, shock, the actual key), shoving random junk into the lock is also common.

(The external drive with my games is in one of those boxes piled up in the living room, but I'll see if I can find it soon and give you some more specific examples.)

Sep 7th 2016 at 12:01:20 PM

Artemis Fowl: Mulch uses his beard hair (dwarves are weird in this series, their beards function more like antennae) as a lockpick by pushing it in as far as it can go then plucking it, letting the hair stiffen until it can be used as a key.

Sep 8th 2016 at 5:00:27 PM

Found one hidden object game example: Early in Timeless: The Forgotten Town, the player character picks a locked drawer with two wooden hair sticks.

Sep 15th 2016 at 7:34:12 PM

Live Action TV

  • The ever-resourceful Mac Gyver needed to open a door with a palm-print reader as the lock. Mac used toner from a copier to adhere to the residue of the previous palm print, then carefully blew away the rest and laid a blank page on the scanner. Pressing his palm on the paper activated the scanner, which read the residual palm print of an authorized user, and granted Mac access.

Jan 29th 2017 at 1:48:34 AM

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/carrot_door.jpg
Films - Animated:
  • In Frozen, Snowman Olaf uses his carrot nose to unlock the door behind which Princess Anna is dying of her frozen heart.

Jan 29th 2017 at 2:42:45 AM

^ That's actually a pretty good trope depiction.

Jan 29th 2017 at 3:10:06 AM

In one of the Stainless Steel Rat books, Jim picked a lock with the wires connected to his Shock Collar (it was the rare case where he went through a strip search extensive enough to deprive him of his regular tools.)

Jan 29th 2017 at 12:02:06 PM

  • In Mob Psycho 100, when Ritsu and the others need to break out of their cage, Ritsu uses a spoon to unlock the lock on the cage. He has Gou use his pyrokinesis to make the spoon soft so it can stick into the lock and then have Takeshi uses his telekinesis to twist the spoon so it fits the lock.

Jan 29th 2017 at 8:33:34 PM

The Real Life explanation is a tad rambly. Someone care to cut it down a bit?

Jan 30th 2017 at 7:41:31 AM

Series/Mythbusters: In one episode, Jamie and Adam are trapped in a room, and they need to use the filament of a light bulb to pick the lock and escape. It takes a while, but it works within their time limit.

Feb 4th 2017 at 10:16:43 PM

Time Bandits: Wally uses Kevin's knife to pick the lock of the cage they are trapped in. It works but the knife's blade is noticeably bent and mangled afterward.

May 21st 2017 at 10:38:00 AM

  • In American Dad in Season 14 "Portrait of Francine's Genitals", when Roger is hiring a crew to help Stan steal a portrait of Francine's genitals from an art museum, he hires a Belgian locksmith named Claude Verdeer, who has the smallest fingers in the world. When it looks like he was going to uses his small fingers to pick the lock to entrance door, he pulls out a drill to use on the lock instead.

May 21st 2017 at 11:27:38 AM

Video Games

  • In The Last Of Us Joel uses shivs to unlock doors to supply rooms.
  • In the Citalel DLC for Mass Effect 3 Samantha Traynor uses her biotic toothbrush to pick the Normandies vent lock.

May 22nd 2017 at 7:00:35 PM

  • Shapeshifters and any cartoon with Toon Physics can turn parts of their bodies into keys and/or lockpicks.

May 23rd 2017 at 3:24:56 PM

May 24th 2017 at 7:35:01 PM

  • In the I Carly episode "I Psycho", Sam gnaws on a duck bone into a lock pick to unlock the door out of the recording booth that she, Carly, and Freddie are trapped in by Nora.

Oct 1st 2017 at 10:57:03 AM

Updated the examples and added references to related tropes. The description still needs work, though.

Oct 1st 2017 at 5:25:22 PM

  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, when Jonouchi is chained to Chopman as part of Kaiba's Death-T challenge, he uses a metal candle stick to pick the lock and free himself.

Oct 1st 2017 at 4:40:00 PM

Webcomics

  • The Thursday 26 March 2009 installment of Sandra And Woo has the plucky raccoon defeat a padlock on the birdcage to an annoying Tweety Pie expy. Woo's fingers clearly double as assorted lock picks.

Oct 1st 2017 at 5:51:54 PM

Added those and reworded the description to avoid Example As A Thesis. Look launchable to people?

Oct 1st 2017 at 7:38:08 PM

Looks good to me.

Oct 1st 2017 at 8:08:24 PM

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