There comes a moment in ‘The Dark Knight’ when you realise you’ve been tricked into watching a different film. Batman has been given an impossible choice by the Joker. He can save the woman he loves, or the man who is Gotham’s only future hope. Suddenly you realise this isn’t a superhero movie at all, but a crime thriller. Beneath the costumes there’s a classic four-hander; criminal, maverick fighter, love interest and lawman must clash in a way that will test both their morality and mortality.
The crime film has come a long way, but in over a century the basic plots have hardly changed. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ was made in 1903 and ran for just 12 minutes, but it set the tone for years to come, drawing a line between right and wrong, then placing the cast on either side. Over the years, the blurring of that line is what still attracts film-makers and audiences to the subject. In the same way that musicals evolved from the leaden hoofing of ’42nd St’ to the dark razzle-dazzle of ‘Chicago’, celluloid crime has passed through increasing levels of sophistication. Bogart and Cagney faced off in ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ just as decent Sheriff Ed chases the insanely creepy Anton Chigurh in ‘No Country For Old Men’, but nothing is as simple as it once was. The lawmen might be flawed and compromised, the outlaws victims, and we have to decide where we stand.
There are rules, however. First, there must be a criminal act. Then we watch the consequences and follow the perpetrators, because they’re usually more interesting than the law. Criminals divide into decent hitmen (‘Grosse Point Blank’, ‘Wild Target’), glamorous burglars (‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, ‘The Pink Panther’), femme fatales (‘The Last Seduction’, ‘Double Indemnity’), guilt-ridden innocents (‘Seance On A Wet Afternoon’, ‘A Simple Plan’), honourable mobsters (‘Casino’, ‘A Better Tomorrow’) and unrepentant monsters (‘Hannibal’, ‘Se7en’). Plans always go wrong when those carrying them out are forced to improvise. Over-confident killers will be tripped up in courtrooms. Someone innocent will suffer, and be avenged. And the heroes can only become men after they have sustained a number of neat cuts to the head. Plus, for true memorability, there should be a few unanswered questions left at the end, although perhaps not so many as there are in Bogart’s incomprehensible ‘The Big Sleep’.
In a crime film the criminals know they’re guilty, but in a noir thriller they’re dumb enough to think they’re innocent. The noirs of the forties place us firmly on the side of the deluded sleazeballs. ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, with its cynical PI, hot mystery blonde and radioactive suitcase (stolen for everything from ‘Repo Man’ to ‘Pulp Fiction’), is generally accepted as the best noir ever, but I’d plump for the poverty row ‘Detour’, with Tom Neal’s mean-mouthed nightclub pianist complaining ‘When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn’t get excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.’
The film also contains another staple of the crime film; a jaw-dropping murder, in this case a telephone-cord strangling performed through a closed door. Death, it seems, is always just around the corner, and can come from anywhere, delivered via crop-sprayer or helicopter blades, sheets of falling glass, coffee pots, chainsaws, grenade launchers and even female thighs (Xenia Onatopp crushes her lovers in ‘Goldeneye’). It’s a macho world where women are generally sidelined into a handful of thankless roles; hand-wringing girlfriend, nightclub singer, tart, bad girl. But they do get the good lines. ‘You’re not too smart, are you?’ Kathleen Turner points out in ‘Body Heat’, ‘I like that in a man.’ The line is flipped by barfly Bruce Campbell in ‘Crimewave’. ‘I haven’t seen you in here before,’ he smarms, ‘I like that in a woman.’
Anyone new to the genre should head for the three big directors, Alfred Hitchcock, the Coen brothers and Martin Scorsese. Hitchcock is primarily interested in the mechanics of suspense, and makes us hope that the bad guys will get away with it – gay lovers pulling off the perfect murder in the nine-take ‘Rope’, Ray Milland tricking a colleague into strangling his wife in ‘Dial M for Murder’, killers swapping each others’ victims in ‘Strangers On A Train’, kleptomaniac ‘Marnie’ robbing her employers. He’s interested in the women, too, not just as icy blondes but also as controlling mothers, in ‘North By Northwest’, ‘Psycho’ and ‘Saboteur’.
Scorsese skips that problem by doing away with women altogether, but he makes up for it with the sheer edginess of his bad guys. ‘I’m funny, how?’ the psychotically touchy Joe Pesci asks a laughing Ray Liotta in ‘Goodfellas’, ‘I’m a clown, I amuse you?’ And we hold our breath, knowing that Pesci will either shoot him in the foot or let the moment pass. Robert De Niro is clearly Scorsese’s alter-ego, the brooding man of the streets the director could never be. Al Pacino does the same for Brian De Palma in ‘Carlito’s Way’ and ‘Scarface’, and it’s true that the best crime actors play archetypes. For many, ‘Heat’, which brings together these two acting giants, is a pinnacle. Michael mann’s epic about an obsessive cop and his nemesis unfolds against a sinister, glittering Los Angeles, but keeps De Niro and Pacino apart for much of its running time, finally converging them not in a disused warehouse or at the docks (painfully overused crime locations) but in an ordinary coffee shop. Scorsese’s return to form in ‘Shutter Island’ felt like the filming of a beloved old paperback pulp thriller.
The Coen brothers perfected the satisfying crime thriller early in their careers with ‘Blood Simple’, a film that manages to stick to the rules while inverting them. The Coens understand how crucial it is for the audience to know more than the players, so when an incriminating cigarette lighter is left at a crime scene, we’re virtually screaming at the screen ‘Pick it up, you idiot!’ They’re not afraid of tackling existential epiphanies either, as double-crossing private dick M Emmett Walsh is left to die on a bathroom floor, knowing that the last sight in his grubby life will be the underside of a sink.
Nor is it only about granite-faced shoot-outs. The lighter side appears in the form of the caper movie, where we get to watch ingenious robberies slide into panicky disaster. As a child I remember admiring the sophistication of the crooks of ‘Rififi’, who cut a hole in a ceiling and stuck an umbrella through to catch the pieces. It was a long time before Tom Cruise’s absurd acrobatics in ‘Mission Impossible’. The Vegas caper, the bank job, the prison break and the cat burglary can all be played for laughs. The original ‘The Italian Job’ still trounces ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, least of all because its unlikely cast list incorporates the talents of both Noel Coward and Benny Hill. ‘Who’s Minding The Mint?’ provides a victimless crime, as a treasury worker accidentally minces thousands of dollars in his garbage disposal unit, and is forced to recruit a team of spectacularly hopeless crooks to print off replacement cash. It’s the kind of plot that’s still in service today, in films like ‘Welcome To Colinwood’.
Inevitably, French cinema offers up gems like ‘Les Diaboliques’, ‘Tell No-One’, ‘Nikita’ and ‘Leon’. A personal favourite is ‘L’Homme Du Train’, in which a cool hitman and a retired teacher yearn for each other’s lives. It’s probably the only crime film in which the key scene involves a pair of nice carpet slippers. And now, thanks to ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’, the Nordic countries are producing interesting crime films. In any top ten list you’ll find ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘The French Connection’ and ‘Chinatown’, but with so many rare gems surfacing on DVD, missing them would really be a crime.
A Criminally Different Top Ten
Darkness In Talinn
A mastermind plans to cut the power to Estonia’s capital in order to steal gold bullion, not realising that his wife is surviving on a life-support machine.
Jason Statham will deliver anything anywhere, but what’s inside the box? A beautiful woman – that’s the McGuffin and the love interest taken care of.
Freebie And The Bean
Cops Alan Arkin and James Caan bicker like old lovers, conduct irresponsible street shoot-outs and whack a police car through a tower block – six floors up.
A girl goes missing in a sunny, crowded gas station, but how much will her partner sacrifice to uncover the truth? The haunting original still upsets.
Brotherhood Of The Wolf
Inspired by ‘The Hound Of The Baskervilles’, this period crime case involves a kickboxing botanist, political manipulation and an avenging mythical beast.
Michel Serrault stars in the true story of a horrific wartime psychopath. The image of the doctor cycling in his billowing cape will stalk your dreams.
In a quiet village, the police know murders are being committed – but why? Remarkably there’s no dialogue, until the end song reveals the unexpected truth.
The Crimson Rivers
Mismatched cops, one street-smart, one rural, must solve an impossible crime involving a sinister mountain college and a nasty line in eugenics.
Iceland’s traceable bloodlines reveal a series of deaths, although the most disturbing part is watching the cop eat a takeaway sheep’s head.
The Last Of Sheila
A Riviera mystery with six guilty yacht-bound suspects, this neglected Sondheim-penned thriller provides all the clues and an unguessable punchline.