It’s horrible to have your car stolen. It’s terrifying to be robbed. It’s devastating to have your life savings wiped out by a smooth-talking con man.

And yet, we run enthusiastically to the multiplex to root for actors portraying characters who steal, swindle and con people in movies.

The No. 1 movie in the country for three weeks running is “National Treasure,” in which Nicolas Cage steals the most important document in our history.

This weekend, Cage’s movie will be joined by “Ocean’s Twelve,” which features a lovable bunch of rogues and con men trying to steal their way through Europe to repay a sizable debt to a Las Vegas casino owner they ripped off for more than $160 million in a previous film.

What’s with this enduring love affair with Hollywood thieves, con men and cat burglars? Why do we enjoy watching miscreants scheme and lie their way into bank vaults, government depositories and bedroom safes? Why do we giggle and cheer at the antics of people we’d toss in the slammer in an instant if we met them in real life?

Is there something wrong with us? Are we all larcenous at heart?

“There is nothing wrong with the American moviegoing public,” insists film historian, author and “Entertainment Tonight” movie critic Leonard Maltin.

“Watching these movies is the ultimate vicarious thrill. It is a way of sharing a bit of illegal activity without doing harm to yourself or society. It is safe. It is a way of experiencing something most of us would never dare.

“And if the thief in question happens to be charming and charismatic, so much the better.”

According to Maltin, the birth of the so-called heist or caper movie can be traced to French director Jules Dassin, whose 1954 classic “Rififi” is widely considered to be the first and best of this genre.

“There is a 22-minute heist sequence in the movie that is done in complete silence,” Maltin says. “It is absolutely breathtaking.”

Although “Rififi” may have started the love affair with heist movies, the public was flirting with these cinematic thieves long before 1954.

“The Adventures of Robin Hood” in 1938 featured an impossibly handsome, glib hero (played magnificently by Errol Flynn) who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. We adored him, but it was still stealing.

Flynn’s escapades began a trend of their own – the lovable, devilishly handsome, silver-tongued thief – later perfected by Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief” in 1955.

We continue to see evidence of this kind of movie, the most recent example being Pierce Brosnan’s “After the Sunset.” OK, sometimes a plot is useful.

“Ocean’s Twelve” does have handsome thieves in it (Brad Pitt and George Clooney, to name just two), but this is more of a heist film than a Robin Hood movie. These guys are strictly in it for the money. There are no poor people getting their loot.

The movie is a sequel to the 2001 remake of the 1960 heist movie “Ocean’s Eleven,” which starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop (better known as the Rat Pack) as a group of former Army paratroopers who decide to use their military skills to knock off five Las Vegas casinos.

In the remake, there was no common military background. They were all just thieves and con men brought together by Clooney and Pitt to rob a casino safe.

The first movie made $183 million at the domestic box office in 2001. The sequel, although a much weaker film, is likely to make a hefty haul because people can’t resist watching thievery on the big screen.

For filmmakers, it’s almost like stealing.

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