Criminally Different (A Baker's Dozen Of Underrated Crime Films)

Christopher Fowler
What makes a good crime film? Well, there has to be an innocent whose eyes are opened and a criminal on a mission, and there's usually someone trapped between the two, creating a moral problem. But the usual suspects, like 'The Usual Suspects', are absent here. 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 streaming channels and Blu-Ray, missing them would be a crime.
I've culled this list from films mentioned in columns past and present. How many have you seen?
L'Homme Du Train (Man on the Train) A cool hitman and a retired teacher cross paths in a small town, and much to the surprise of both 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. There's a remake in English with Donald Sutherland substituting for the late, great Jean Rochefort. The Candidate (El Reino) A Spanish politician has his high-class lifestyle exposed in the press. One man is picked to take the fall for his corrupt party, but he decides not to go down without a fight. It's a complex, clever film beautifully directed, terrifically suspenseful, with a lead that reminds me of a young Dustin Hoffman. The Occupant A downsizing businessman is gallingly forced to sell his apartment to a younger, richer family. But he still has the keys and takes to sitting in his old home pondering the fleeting nature of success when the new family is out. Unfortunately, the building's caretaker knows his secret... 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 in the inner city. Cool, dark - and a heist. Contratiempo (The Invisible Guest) A classic set-up: A man wakes up in a hotel room with a dead woman in his bed. He hires a tough lawyer to get him off the hook, she she has an agenda of her own... Knives Out/ The Last of Sheila Rian Johnson brilliantly reinvented the murder mystery by playing it straight but nodding to every trope in the whodunnit playbook, with a hilarious turn from Daniel Craig and enough in-jokes to out-Sheila
The Last Of Sheila, still the murder mystery to beat them all, a Riviera puzzle-game with six guilty yacht-bound suspects. It was penned by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins and provides all the clues on screen.   Freebie And The Bean It has been condemned by LGBT+ groups over the years but as a gay man I have no problem with it at all. Sometimes people are oversensitive. Old-school 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, from the director of 'The Stunt Man'. The Vanishing A girl goes missing in a crowd, a murderer rehearses his kill, and the victim's partner must sacrifice everything he has left to uncover the truth. The haunting original version (now remastered) still upsets. The film did for sunlit petrol stations what Jaws did for swimming.   Doctor Petiot Michel Serrault stars in the true story of a horrific wartime psychopath, a kindly doctor obsessed with curing the sick while at the same time sending Jews to their deaths. The image of the doctor cycling in his billowing cape will stalk your dreams. Hukkle 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 I & II Mismatched cops, one street-smart, one rural, must solve an impossible crime involving a sinister mountain college and a nasty line in eugenics. The sequel flips the dynamic. Jar City Iceland's traceable bloodlines reveal a series of deaths, although the most disturbing part is watching the cop eat a takeaway sheep's head. Jar City is a real place, the repository of the country's DNA.  


Paul C (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 10:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks for the excellent list - will definitely try to see them.

Doctor Petiot is certainly chilling and has echoes of an odd Joseph Losey film entitled Mr Klein which is worth a look.

Two favourite obscurities are Le Cop / Le Cop II with the fabulous Philippe Noiret in great form - pure pleasure. They
should be far better known.

Andrew Holme (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 11:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"The haunting original version still upsets." Boy, does it! The remake directed by the same director of the original 'Spoorloos', cops out on the ending, and spoils a gut wrenching finale. I wonder how much pressure was put on Sluizer to pander to American sensibilities, " you'll never make another film in Hollywood, unless you water down your original vision." That sort of thing? Maybe.

akikana (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 12:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

In echo of Paul C, thanks too for this excellent list. I would also recommend Le Cop.

Kristina (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 14:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Where can I find Jar City the movie??? I loved the book! And everything else Indriðason wrote.

Crimson Rivers I was great, the sequel was okay.

Susanna Carroll (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 16:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Vanishing (original version) is one of the most frightening movies I've seen, partly because of it's plausibility, and the utterly bleak ending. Freebie and the Bean, is a thoroughly entertaining film, and as member of the LBGT+ faction I don't have any problems with it either.

Christopher Fowler Fri, 04/09/2020 - 19:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jar City is still available online as a DVD, as are most of the others.

Scott Andrews (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 20:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Darkness in Talinn is so great. You're the first other person I know of who's even heard of it.

snowy (not verified) Fri, 04/09/2020 - 23:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

At the risk of answering a question that may be purely rhetorical, about half; from memory, I don't keep a list.

L'Homme Du Train stars Johnny Hallyday who was in Crimson Rivers II, but is more interesting in Vengence [2009] as an assassin turned chef, [a career path that didn't previously exist outside of the oeuvre of Stephen Segal], whose family is killed by members of a Triad gang, [the part was originally written for Alain Delon and it shows]. The film is a very odd creation, a mixture of French and Hong Kong Cinema but squarely aimed at an English-speaking audience. [And by this point JH has had so much knifework done on his face he spends the entire film looking like a permanently startled cat].

Crimson Rivers stars Jean Reno who appears an another film based on a Jean-Christophe Grangé novel: L'Empire des loups, quite hard to describe with giving away a key twist, [best seen cold without looking it up anywhere first], "A Parisian housewife, experiences nightmares related to a series of gruesome murders in the city. Meanwhile policemen, the unorthodox Schiffer and the cautious Nerteaux, work to unravel the mystery surrounding the murders".

The Last of Sheila, hard to match, for films that come anywhere close for keeping you watching for what happens next/delightfully twisty: Sleuth [1972] or Deathtrap [1982].

Docteur Petiot, I got about 20 minutes in at the last attempt, it starts very <i>domestique</i> in a way that is characteristically French and I lost patience before it got going, may have to dig it out again, if I can find my copy?

Freebie and the Bean, what a strange period it was, [much too long to get into, but the film was directed by Dick Rush and nobody tittered]. As a comedy it would pair nicely with 'Cops and Robbers' [1973] a caper plot written by Donald Westlake, in which two beat cops decide not to wait for their pension and come up with their own plan, but will they get away with it?

['Le Cop' aka 'Les Ripoux' can't be that obscure, given I've seen it, probably hasn't aged well despite Phillipe Noiret's comic performance which lifts the film out of the merely ordinary.]

Christopher Fowler Sat, 05/09/2020 - 11:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This is really the tip of the lesser-known crime film pile, but I was in a rush to post the piece. I should have added 'Ferpect Crime', the brilliant 'Dogman', 'Marshlands' and 'The Body'. Interestingly there are few Italian crime films, even fewer French ones and lots of Spanish ones!

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 05/09/2020 - 14:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra ogni sospetto" is a strangely interesting and original Italian crime film. It must take a prize for the long, clumsy and half misleading title.

Steve B (not verified) Sat, 05/09/2020 - 23:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Compartent Tueurs I really like
Of course it's probably not underrated!
There's also sans mobile apparent but maybe Im going down the list now
Crimson Rivers became a tv series

SteveB (not verified) Sat, 05/09/2020 - 23:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oops compartiment tueurs
Well worth searching out if you havent seen it

Liz Thompson (not verified) Sun, 06/09/2020 - 14:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

After your comments, I decided to buy the dvd of Knives Out. But my daughter told me, very indignantly, that it was free to view on Amazon Prime, and what's more, she'd already recommended it to me, and I had ignored her.
Cue, hasty cancellation of Amazon order, profound and humble apologies to daughter, and both of us watching it on Amazon Prime. It was, as you said, brilliant and hilarious, with all the clues fully revealed in the film. But more interestingly, she said watching it for a second time had allowed her to appreciate the bits she'd missed first time round, and she was really glad I hadn't taken her up on her original recommendation!

Matt Gibson (not verified) Sun, 06/09/2020 - 15:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Could you send a tow truck, please, to 618 Elm Street? Hold it. It's the, uh, third floor, apartment 304..."

I taped Freebie and the Bean off the telly when I was far too young for it (even the bowdlerised ITV version) and I still remember the high points with fondness :)

Helen Martin (not verified) Mon, 07/09/2020 - 19:53

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've just watched Kind Heaarts and Coronets and was surprised to learn that there is an alternate American ending. Since I couldn't imagine what they could possibly have added I watched it. The original ending, with credits running over it, shows the duke's memoir on the desk. The American ending shows a guard handing the memoir to the prison governor. This was put in because American rules said that no one must be allowed to benefit from their crime. Did they think we couldn't create that inserted scene in our minds? We didn't have to be hit over the head with it.

Derek J Lewis (not verified) Mon, 07/09/2020 - 20:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The last true Ealing film "The long arm" is a cracking, underrated procedural with a superb Jack Hawkins and a view of the short-lived BEA terminal on the south bank. I've also a soft spot for Guillame Canet's French language version of Harlan Coben's 'Tell no one'