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This trope is so old that you may not actually know what a safe is. For reference, it's 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. In a digital world, valuable information is rarely stored in physical formats. 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.

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 of Safecracking include:


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 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.

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.

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 speciality 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.

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.


Nonfiction Series

  • Myth Busters tested this and found that this doesn't work on modern day safes.

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.


Webcomics

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 of 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.
  • Over $100 million in diamonds were stolen from a Super Secure vault under the Antwerp Diamond Center using a variety of means such as planting hidden cameras to capture the combination numbers and finding the foot long key stored in a nearby utility room.
  • 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 keep Feynman away from the safes.
      • He stated in his autobiography that the "keep Feynman away" thing wasn't an official policy, but the reaction of annoyed superiors and colleagues after security made them change all their combinations and told them it was because of Feynman.
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