When we hear about the greatest crime films ever made, there’s often a feeling of Déjà vu. The same group of films (rightfully so, perhaps) are repeatedly mentioned- the Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas- and while these films are all incredible in their own right, they tend to overshadow many other great crime movies. For that reason, we thought we’d give honourable mention to some films that have been slightly overlooked in the past.
12. Léon: the Professional (1994)
This is a film quite unlike any other, that continually goes from being shockingly violent to genuinely touching. Léon (Jean Reno) is a hitman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mathilda (Natalie Portman, in an incredibly mature performance), a 12-year old girl whose family are murdered by a corrupt DEA agent (Gary Oldman, in his best villain role).
Léon (despite being a skilled killer) is a strangely loveable character, who seems to feel just as relaxed assassinating people as he does watering his plants, or mentoring the young Mathilda. Although it’s in English, the film was made by a French production company, and there’s something in its overall tone and cinematography that makes this apparent. It’s hard to define, but it has that French magic- watch it and see.
11. American Gangster (2007)
One of the coolest films of the last ten years, American Gangster follows the true story of Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), and the huge heroin empire he built for himself during the late 60s/early 70s. The film has a quintessentially African-American identity- everything from the soul-infused soundtrack to the sharp, streetwise dialogue gives this film an authenticity that transports us to that particular time and place.
Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) proves a worthy counterpoint to Frank Lucas, and both men are revealed to be as complex and unpredictable as the other. Despite being the good guy, it’s quite hard to side with Roberts in the film, mainly because of how charismatic Frank is. At over 2 and a half hours, this is a lengthy watch, but you will barely notice the time pass as you watch this masterful Harlem tragedy unfold.
10. Brighton Rock (1947)
The cheery shores of Brighton are transformed into something much darker and malevolent in this eerie film noir that stars the late Richard Attenborough, in one of his earliest roles. It’s shocking that in the 1940s, a film that included the word ‘slut’ and featured an unfeeling psychopath as the main character was even released, but that’s what sets Brighton Rock apart. Pinkie (Attenborough) is up there with the worst horror villains, and brings a calm reasoning to all his evil deeds. He’s part of a gang of small-time racketeers, none of which he feels any particular affiliation or kinship with.
At the start of the film, Pinkie murders a journalist who supposedly caused the death of the only gang member he truly respected. From this point on he tries desperately to hide his tracks, with little regard for how much worse he makes things for others, so long as he is saved. It’s quite unsettling to see the guy most of us know as the genial old man from Jurassic Park as this baby-faced murderer, but it makes for intriguing viewing. The town of Brighton feels like a character in the film, acting as a strangely dislodged, beautiful backdrop to all of Pinkie and his gang’s despicable actions.
9. A Bronx Tale (1993)
Robert De Niro’s directorial debut is a fascinating exploration of fatherhood and responsibility in the Mafia-ruled Bronx of the 1960s. It follows the adolescent years of Calagero Anello (Francis Capra as a child/Lillo Brancato Jr. as a teenager), a highly impressionable young Italian-American who is torn between following the path of his hard-working, moral father (Robert De Niro) and local gang boss Sonny LeSpocchio (Chazz Palminteri, also the writer). De Niro is usually known for playing criminal characters, so it’s refreshing to see him cast himself in such an uncharacteristically restrained role.
Calagero is a conflicted character, just as scared of the violent realities of Mafia life as he is of living a mundane life like his father (“The working man’s a sucker”). He finds himself faced with another dilemna when he meets an attractive black girl, much to the dismay of his prejudiced friends. This brings an important racial subtext to the film, when we contextualise it with the period in which it was set. The music, an eclectic mix of 60s rock and soul, additionally provides the film with this particular identity and gives some of the scenes real momentum (particularly the bar fight, which is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire movie). A Bronx Tale is essentially a coming-of-age tale about finding one’s own identity in the most difficult scenarios, and it raises more philosophical questions than your regular crime film.
8. Point Break (1991)
Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough film, besides being a classic, highly-charged thriller, is an ode to surfing and the spirit of rock n’ roll. It stars the archetypal dude, Keanu Reeves, as Johnny Utah, a detective who is tasked with infiltrating the Ex-Presidents, a gang of bank-robbing surfers headed by the enigmatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). They don’t necessarily rob banks for financial gain, but as a way to get back at an establishment that supposedly “kills the human spirit”. They also fundamentally do it for an adrenaline rush, just as with their (borderline life-threatening) surfing, which Bodhi in particular treats with an almost religious reverence.
Utah treads a dangerous path, dutifully obliged to the police force, particularly his mentor Angelo (Gary Busey), but also enamored with the philosophy and lifestyle offered to him by Bodhi and Tyler (Lori Petty), the surfer girl he falls for. There are some exhilarating fight and action scenes that propel the film along and give it its ‘high-throttle’ sensibility, and despite some corniness, it’s hard not to enjoy the over-the-top, spiritual vision that Bigelow brought to Point Break.
7. Menace II Society (1993)
This brutal, unflinching look at gang life in South Central Los Angeles should have achieved the same level of acclaim as Boyz In The Hood (1991). Menace II Society is another coming-of-age story that examines the effects of crime and poverty on young African-American men, a trend that continues to this day and thus remains relevant. It tells the story of the angry, yet good-hearted Caine (Tyrin Turner) and his psychopathic, trigger-happy friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate), and their navigations through adolescence and urban life. We get a good indication of the pair’s relationship in the opening scene, when O-Dog shoots an innocent store-clerk over a flippant remark, while Caine watches in horror.
While being a casual drug-dealer, Caine clearly doesn’t take as much pleasure from the criminal lifestyle as his friend, and is offered redemption in the form of the beautiful, intelligent Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith) who wants desperately for him to get out of the ghetto and join her in Atlanta. It is a profoundly honest film, acknowledging the attraction that crime may have (particularly in poor black communities) and also demonstrating the real, self-perpetuating destruction it inflicts on these communities.
6. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon takes place on one hot, sweaty afternoon in Brooklyn, when first time criminals Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) decide to rob a bank. Sonny has quite a peculiar motive for robbing the bank- he goes in intending to steal enough money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change, but from the very start the whole endeavour seems cursed. Very soon, their companion flees and the entire building is surrounded by police, and eventually press.
Sonny is an inherently good man, out of his depth in having to deal with the escalating situation, but utterly determined to pay for his partner’s sex change and negotiate a deal with the police. It would even work well as a play, because most of the drama occurs within the bank and thus relies more on dialogue than action. Director Sidney Lumet is a master at building this kind of intensity, and Dog Day Afternoon is one of his finest films. Pacino also brings a real humanity to the character of Sonny; we can clearly see that he is doing this out of desperation, and almost instantly regrets what he’s got himself into when he sees the reality of the situation. The bank staff and hostages, rather than remain anonymous, each come to reveal their own personal stories, making things even harder for Sonny and Sal to deal with. An unforgettable story of circumstance and consequence.
5. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The Coen Brothers created something that felt both new and comfortingly antiquated with Miller’s Crossing, a classic gangster tale set in the 1930s Prohibition era. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) works for the Irish-American mob boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney), and both men’s lives are put under threat when O’Bannon agrees to protect the life of Bernie Benbaum (John Turturro), who is wanted dead by a rival gang.
Bernie proves to be nothing but trouble for Reagan, who is led into an explosive game of negotiation between both gangs and Bernie, made even more complicated by his involvement with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). There is something simultaneously morbid and comical about Miller’s Crossing; while the dialogue is very often sharp and full of comedic bite, the overall tone is quite sombre and ominous. The idea of murder is not taken lightly in the film, and the life of the thoroughly unlikeable Bernie is at the moral heart of the situation that Reagan finds himself embroiled in, with Reagan’s own redemption being similarly challenged. The chain of events that follows makes for some of the most intense drama the Coens have ever committed to film.
4. Double Indemnity (1944)
This amoral masterpiece is one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films, and played a huge role in shaping film noir and the crime genre. It opens with insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) making a desperate confession into a dictaphone, leading to a flashback which transports us into the story. Wilder later used a similar flashback technique in Sunset Boulevard (1950), and gave both films the same brooding atmosphere that made them so hauntingly memorable.
Neff visits one of his clients to discuss an insurance policy, but instead meets the enticing Phyliss Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the wife of the client. She soon involves him in a plan to have her husband killed, convincing him into it through seduction and trickery, testing his already weak will. It is a bleak but wonderfully told story that remains as captivating and ahead of its time as when it was released, before the format was fully understood. The motivation for murder in Double Indemnity is passion, and the many complexities that surround this particular type of crime are explored in utterly inimitable fashion here.
3. City of God (2002)
The most disturbing thing about this film is how accurately it represents life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, a place in a state of seemingly perpetual violence, where children under 10 frequently become involved in or influenced by gang life. We watch a group of children grow up and become more and more entangled in the drug-dealing world around them, steadily replacing the old guard with the new. It is both fascinating and heartbreaking to see the influence that this way of life has on the boys’ minds, as Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) and his friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) hope desperately to break free and lead honest lives, while the terrifying Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino Da Hora) kills recklessly and without conscience.
While the brutally realistic violence is occasionally quite uncomfortable to watch, City of God is also a hugely entertaining film, zipping along at a breakneck speed with escalating events and masterful direction that makes good use of continuous narration and seamless time-lapses. Films were made to be like this, to both inform people of the reality of their world and to keep them enthralled by what they see onscreen. It is a near flawless examination of the cyclical nature of violence in one of the world’s cruelest, most unforgiving places.
2. Traffic (2000)
Traffic is a bold and provocative examination of the effect of the war on drugs from several very different perspectives, all of which highlight the different hierarchies within the drug trade and the political realm above that. The action is split into three narratives- in Ohio, where a judge (Michael Douglas) is given the power to enact drug policy, only to have his world turned upside down when he finds his daughter (Erika Christensen) is a drug user, from the front-line of the war on drugs in Mexico, where officer Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) wrestles with the unruly cartel, and in San Diego, where DEA agent Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) is working undercover against drug trafficker Carl Ayala (Steven Bauer) and his wife (Catherine- Zeta Jones).
Steven Soderbegh connected these parallel stories naturally and effectively, and besides making a fast-paced, aesthetically pleasing film, presented audiences with so many uncomfortable realities about the modern-day drug trade and all the violence that surrounds it. Soderbegh makes us feel personally involved in every story he imparts to us, and as a result opens us up to each character’s unique point of view. It’s hard not to feel a little different in your preconceptions about many complex issues regarding drugs after watching this brave, purposeful film.
1. Heat (1995)
Some of you may have already seen this film, but it’s criminal how many there are who haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching this unforgettable crime epic. It’s a career highlight for both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, with Pacino as the tireless LAPD lieutenant Vincent Hanna and De Niro as Neil McCauley, a professional criminal who is as intensely dedicated to his own way of life as Hanna is to his. A huge battle of wits and personalities ensues, with McCauley leading a gang in several high-risk robberies and Hanna ever at his heels, obsessing over how to catch him in the act. The lives of the two men are given further depth when we see their personal stories unfold, with Hanna becoming increasingly alienated from his wife (Diane Verona) due to the job, and McCauley keen to aspire to something new with a woman he meets and feels unexpectedly moved by (Amy Brenneman). There are also standout performances from Val Kilmer as an erratic member of McCauley’s gang and from a young Natalie Portman, as Hanna’s depressed stepdaughter. While the format is typical, the people we meet are anything but.
The heist and shootout sequences make for some of the most realistic, thrilling action scenes in film history, and are made even more impactful from the quietly bubbling sense of anticipation and tension that permeates the whole film. Director Michael Mann clearly took influence from a number of formats in order to create Heat- film noir, for the mood set- action thrillers, in giving the film its explosive presence- and theatre, in the organic, developmental process we see the two main characters go through. Heat is a simple cops and robbers film about complex people, and despite the simplicity there is something about it that gives it a larger-than-life presence. Los Angeles makes the perfect lively, dangerous backdrop to this breathtaking showdown of two uncompromising men who were born to confront one another.
What other lesser-known crime films are there that everyone should see? Let us know in the comments or over on Facebook!