Today sees the release of the James McAvoy and Mark Strong-starring “Welcome To The Punch,” and as you’ll know if you’ve read our review, it’s a slick, unusually ambitious, gorgeous-looking and absorbing British cops-and-robbers flick. It’s also the latest film (with Danny Boyle‘s even better “Trance” following sharp on its heels next week) to prove that our cousins across the pond can take on the crime movie with the best of them.
U.K. crime cinema doesn’t necessarily have the immediate iconography or obvious movements of the 1930s Warner Bros gangster pictures, film noir of the 1940s, the Coppola and Scorsese epics of the 1970s and 1980s, or the quirky comedies from the Coens and Tarantino in the 1990s. But there’s a long history of thieves, robbers, murderers and more in British movies, in a variety of films that may have flown under your radar. And so with “Welcome To The Punch” on VOD and in limited released, and “Trance” on the way next week, we thought it was a perfect time to pick out some of our favorite crime pictures from the Sceptred Isle. Read our picks below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
“Brighton Rock” (1947)
We hope we wouldn’t have to say this, but if you’re after a cinematic take on Graham Greene‘s seminal novel “Brighton Rock,” you should run a million miles from the recent, impressively-cast (Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, John Hurt) but ill-conceived remake, and stick with the 1947 original. Richard Attenborough (reprising the role that brought him to fame on the West End stage a few years earlier) stars as Pinkie, a fresh-faced psychopath in a gang in the coastal town of the title, who finds himself rising up the ranks after killing a newspaper reporter. To avoid the rap, he marries besotted waitress (and witness to the crime) Rose (Carol Marsh) to stop her from being able to testify against him, but with the law and rival gangs closing in, Pinkie decides he might have to take more drastic action. Penned by Greene and “The Deep Blue Sea” author Terrence Rattigan, and directed by the somewhat forgotten filmmaker John Boulting, it’s one of the seminal, and probably earliest, examples of the British gangster film (retitled, for its U.S. release, “Young Scarface,” marking quite the contrast with its earlier namesake), melding Boulting’s fine, almost proto-noirish sense of place, the seedy underworld of the picturesque seaside locale, with Greene’s ever-simmering Catholic moralism. It’s stylishly made and dark as you like, but what really stands out is the astonishing, terrifying bug-eyed turn from Attenborough, a million miles away from the avuncular star of “Jurassic Park” and director of “Gandhi” he’d become in later years. Attenborough became one of the most important figures in the British film industry, but this acting role is the one he’ll always be remembered for.
This cool neo-noir follows the aspiring writer Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), who ends up taking a job as a casino croupier in order to make ends meet, which leads him both to juggling three women — a store detective (Gina McKee), a fellow croupier (Kate Hardie), and a high-rolling South African gambler (Alex Kingston) — and being the inside man of a heist of his workplace set up by the latter. It’s pretty thin on plot, or even much in the way of the staples of the genre, but makes up for it with lashings of atmosphere, a realistic and lived-in sense of the world, and most of all, the casting of Clive Owen — in his breakout feature film role — who commands the movie in a lead turn that’s both suave and self-aware. Owen’s narration — taken from the thinly-veiled novel he’s writing, gives it echoes of both classic crime fiction, and a more complex examination of narrative. It mostly disappeared when it debuted in the U.K. in 1998, but became a critical darling in the U.S. two years later, earning a devoted following and placing on the National Board Of Review list of top ten films for 2000. So all in all, a fine return to the genre for Mike Hodges, who perhaps made the seminal British crime film with “Get Carter” (see below), and he reteamed with Owen soon after for the lesser, but still worthwhile “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”
“Down Terrace” (2009)
If you’re looking to find a fairly unusual “British Crime” film that barely fits into this motley crew of movies, Ben Wheatley’s debut, “Down Terrace,” could be the one. As English as Marmite, “Down Terrace” can seem like an acquired taste with its pitch black and Sahara-dry humor, mixed with truly disturbing and purposefully banal sequences, but when it connects, “Down Terrace” is wicked, and wickedly funny. A dysfunctional family film centered around murder and betrayal, set in Down Terrace in Brighton, the movie chronicles the Hill family, who soon unveil themselves to be genteel sociopaths and criminals. Upon release from prison Bill (Robert Hill), his son Karl (his real life son Robin) and his wife Maggie (Julia Deakin) decide they should try and flush out who ratted on the two criminals. This doesn’t really mean bloody recriminations (at least not at first) and but more the very English manner of bringing friends and suspects over for tea and dinner to talk. One by one, associates are politely dispensed with and Karl — who has recently learned he is going to be a father — begins to fray and come unhinged, wanting to leave this life of crime behind to just become a good dad. Featuring the use of hilariously ironic folk music and blues (Karen Dalton, Robert Johnson), much of the humor in the film is derived by the absurd mundanity of the situations (the Hills arguing with a friend to come out of a bathroom so they can let him go, deciding he’s not a culprit, only to kill him anyway). It’s not quite as accomplished as Wheatley’s other films, “Kill List” and “Sightseers,” but it’s brilliant in spots and certainly announced the arrival of fresh new voice in English cinema, who has risen to be one of the best indie auteurs we’ve got at the moment.
“Gangster #1” (2000)
Much more a psychopath film or even a twisted serial killer movie, “Gangster #1” still obviously applies here, as it’s set in the London’s crime world in the 1960s. Bookended by a much older version of said numero uno gangster in the present day (played by Malcolm McDowell), “Gangster #1” opens up with some old, fatcat gangsters watching a boxing game, when one of them mentions that Freddie Mays is finally getting out of jail. This triggers an angry and upset McDowell’s trip down memory lane, which forces the narrative to flashback to the younger version of this top dog (now played by Paul Bettany) in the 1960s. The film then charts the rise of the anonymous gangster as he becomes muscle for the influential London gangster Freddie Mays (David Thewlis). But “Gangster #1” has much more on its mind than your typical crime film and the movie chronicles our lead’s mad obsession with Freddie’s power, wealth and status, to the point of wanting not just to become him, but to inhabit his soul. “Persona” for the gangster set? Maybe, as it’s just as much a picture about identity and rivalry as anything else. Directed by Paul McGuigan (“The Acid House,” “Lucky Number Slevin”), while “Gangster #1” looks appropriately vintage and does feature strong, unhinged performances by McDowell and Bettany (who became a star off the back of the film), that might be the only thing the movie does right other than its off-the-rails psychopath sequences that are as if Alex from “Clockwork Orange” grew up to be not only a raving loon, but a monstrous sociopath as well. Marred by constant, unnecessary voice over from McDowell, “Gangster #1″ just slathers it all on, never really takes a break in tone or defines to the audience why they should care. Even more ill-fitting is the finale. McDowell once again returns as the aged version of Bettany, but Thewlis, and co-stars Saffron Burrows and Eddie Marsan inexplicably stay the same. Uneven at best, we’ll admit the themes of “Gangster #1” make it far more interesting than it perhaps has the right to be, which just about allows it to sneak onto this list.
“Get Carter” (1971)
Perhaps best defined by its jazzy and supercool funk score by Roy Budd (which you can bet your ass was listened to closely by David Holmes when he scored Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” films), Mike Hodges‘ outstanding 1971 crime pic, is brutal, but also refined, elegant and chic in a way most British crime films are not. Featuring as magnetic a performance as Michael Caine ever gave, it’s also one of the best British films ever, wherein the star plays the eponymous Carter, a Newcastle-born, London-based gangster. The plan is to run away with his boss’ girl (Britt Ekland), but Carter’s life takes a turn for the unexpected when his brother is killed (seemingly in a drunk driving accident) and he has to return home for the first time in several decades. Setting out to track down the man responsible, Carter uncovers all kinds of corruption, betrayal and insidious acts in the process. Caine stalks the north-eastern industrial wasteland like he owns the joint, burying his charm deep down; he’s magnetic, but never pleasant, getting up to some truly abhorrent acts, and coming across as nothing less than a Cockney Angel of Death. And when combined with the assuredness with which Hodges directs, and the bleak, almost existential feel of the script (right down to the ending), it adds up to something of a crime classic. Stay far, far away from the Sylvester Stallone-starring remake (which Caine cameos in); this one’s the real deal.“Hell Is A City” (1960)
Produced by Hammer Film Productions, the studio that famously made the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing horror movies throughout the sixties and seventies, “Hell Is a City” is a pulpy dime store novel of a British crime movie, and just as enjoyable as that sounds. Stanley Baker plays Inspector Harry Martineau, who at the start of the movie is deeply concerned because a heavy-duty bad guy he sent away, named Don Starling (the oddly American John Crawford), has recently escaped. Martineau uses his underworld contacts to try to figure out where Starling will head next, thinking that he’ll try to collect on the job that got him sent away by robbing a local bookie (Donald Pleasance). While the hard-boiled criminal activity is pretty wonderful, especially after Starling kills a young woman involved in a robbery he and his gang pull (sample dialogue: “Sorry, Don, the traffic was murder!” “A lot of things are murder!”), the fascinating heart of “Hell is a City” lies in the relationship between Martineau and his put-upon wife (Maxine Audley). She always wants him home and anytime he is there, she complains about his long hours and obsessive mindset, while he thinks that she should busy herself with other things. At one point he (honest to God) says to her, “Why don’t you justify your existence by having a baby or two?” And he is our hero in the seemingly progressive sixties. It’s really outrageous, nuanced, complicated stuff, and while “Hell is a City” is full of thrills (including a climactic rooftop chase), nothing comes close to eclipsing the knotty emotional stuff for sheer, rousing intensity.
“The Hit” (1984)
A rarity on this list in that it’s barely set in Britain itself (like the later, and temperamentally similar, “Sexy Beast,” it takes place predominately in Spain), “The Hit” is nevertheless a British crime flick through and through. A breakthrough for director Stephen Frears (who’d brushed against the crime genre over a decade earlier with the Albert Finney-starring “Gumshoe,” but hadn’t made a theatrical feature since), it stars Terence Stamp as Willie, a criminal who gave up his compatriots in exchange for immunity. A decade on, he’s living comfortably in exile in Spain, when the past finally catches up to him, in the shape of hired killer Braddock (John Hurt) and his brash young protege Myron (Tim Roth). They bundle him away, with the intention of delivering him to the boss he gave up in Paris, but after taking a hostage, in the form of Maggie (Laura del Sol), things go as awry as you might imagine. The film’s not really about the plot; it’s a mediative, almost philosophical character study that’s about death as much as anything else and it pits Stamp, who long ago seemingly accepted that his day was coming, against Hurt, who’s much more inscrutable. Frears matches a low-key naturalism with some stylized flair to show the impressive filmmaker he’d become, and the performances, from both the two leads and an impressive early turn from Roth, are outstanding. It might be a little opaque for some, but it’s become a favorite of cinephiles over the years; it was added to the Criterion Collection a few years back, Wes Anderson calls it one of the best British films ever made, and Christopher Nolan sang its praises recently too, saying: “That Criterion has released this little-known Stephen Frears gem is a testament to the thoroughness of their search for obscure masterworks. Few films have gambled as much on a simple portrayal of the dynamics between desperate men…”
“It Only Rains On Sunday” (1947)
Londoners know that it doesn’t just always rain on Sunday, it always rains on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday too. But even the drizzly weather of the city in real life doesn’t compare to the constant sheet of rain that accompanies the events of Robert Hamer‘s semi-forgotten classic, one of the best British films of its period, and perhaps the most convincing example of the London noir picture. Rose (the excellently-named Googie Withers) is an ordinary woman in Bethnal Green — not a stone’s throw from where the Olympics took place last summer — not long married to an older man (Edward Chapman) with two teenage daughters, and struggling to get through the day in a post-war Britain still suffering from rationing. It’s all upended one Sunday when her first and truest love Tommy (John McCallum) appears after breaking out of prison. Still in love with him, she hides him away, but the pressure gets greater and greater as the police and press close in, leading to tragic consequences for all. What’s most impressive about the film is the way that Hamer (who’d made his Ealing directorial debut with a segment of classic portmanteau horror “Dead Of Night,” and would next go on to helm the comedy classic “Kind Hearts & Coronets“) keeps the tension impossibly taut, even while expanding the world of the film wider and wider, bringing in more and more characters to paint a picture not just of this one family, but of the East End as well. It’s surprisingly realistic and uncompromising too, given the time period, and formally forward-looking, with flashbacks and a complex narrative structure.
“The Ladykillers” (1955)
Considered the last of the great Ealing comedies, “The Ladykillers” follows a gang of criminals as they disguise themselves as musicians to rent a flat from an octogenarian in order to plan a robbery and hilarity ensues as the scheme unravels ending with their little old landlady having all of the loot. Alec Guinness plays the criminal mastermind “Professor” Marcus with dastardly teeth and a mind just as eccentrically twisted. The Professor’s gang is rounded out by the Major (Cecil Parker), a young Cockney rogue Harry (Peter Sellers), a kindly ex-boxer ‘One-Round’ (Danny Green), and a menacing Louis (Herbert Lom). This quintet faces off against indomitable Mrs. Wilberforce played by 77 year-old Katie Johnson. As Mrs. Wilberforce inadvertently thwarts each step of the gang’s scheme, Professor Marcus becomes even more unhinged and eventually each of the gangsters meets a ghastly demise. Mrs. W ends up with all of their ill-gotten gains and the police won’t take the money back as they don’t believe her outlandish story. If you’re thinking, “who could have dreamt up that plot?” it was William Rose, who claimed to have dreamt the entire film and merely had to remember it to write the BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated screenplay. “The Ladykillers” marked director Alexander Mackendrick’s last British film; he went on to direct the Hollywood noir classic “Sweet Smell of Success”. The film was remade in 2004 and even the Coen Brothers couldn’t recapture the original’s spark, it didn’t help that they turned the professor into a Southern dandy (Tom Hanks) and the robbery into a casino heist. Number 13 on BFI’s Top 100, “The Ladykillers” is a distinctly British crime movie and comedy, and one of the finest examples of Ealing’s best work.
“The Lavender Hill Mob” (1951)
Not every film can say that it gave birth to an entire sub-genre, but the heist comedy, seen since in everything from “To Catch A Thief” to “Bottle Rocket,” didn’t really exist before 1951’s “The Lavender Hill Mob.” One of the very best of the Ealing comedies, it stars Alec Guinness as a timid bank clerk (a great, Oscar nominated performance) who comes up with a plan to steal gold bullion from his workplace. Teaming with a group of unlikely crooks (Stanley Holloway, Alfie Bass and the great Sid James), they work out that they can smuggle the bullion to France and melt it down, disguising their loot as souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower. Like a comic take on Kubrick’s “The Killing,” the heist goes off without a hitch, but it all falls apart in the aftermath, as a misunderstanding sees the statues sold as actual souvenirs. It’s strangely gripping — the film was originally conceived as a straight drama — and director Charles Crichton (who at the age of 78 would direct another British heist comedy classic, “A Fish Called Wanda“) had one of the surest comic hands in the business, but what’s impressive is the level of pathos that Guinness and Holloway generate: you will want the group to succeed, and considering it’s a comedy, the ending is deeply moving. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Audrey Hepburn too.“Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) (plus Guy Ritchie’s follow ups)
Few filmmakers are as single-mindedly obsessed with British crime as Guy Ritchie. (Forgiving, of course, his brief detour with an ego-stroking remake of “Swept Away,” starring Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna.) With his debut feature, “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) Ritchie combined British crime hallmarks with the snappy style of the wry, post-Quentin Tarantino cinematic landscape. The results were crude (the movie still looks like it was shot through a dirty pub glass) but Ritchie’s energy and talent was undeniable. It also established the Ritchie plot blueprint, wherein a bunch of underworld thugs tussle over an object with nearly magical magnetism (in ‘Lock, Stock…’ it’s a pair of antique guns). His second feature (and still probably his best), “Snatch” (2000), was a refined version of “Lock, Stock…” – it looked better, it moved better, and, thanks to the splash his previous film made, it had a big, starry supporting performances from (briefly) Benicio del Toro, Dennis Farina and Brad Pitt, playing an unintelligible gypsy boxer. (The magical item this time around was a fist-sized diamond.) Ritchie was smarter about how he handled violence and what songs he chose for the impeccable soundtrack, and the entire thing feels like the movie Ritchie was trying to make the first time around, but didn’t have the skills or money to accomplish. Ritchie combined his love of gangster theatrics with metaphysical underpinnings and an increased interest in Israeli mysticism with “Revolver,” a Luc Besson-produced oddity that was so poorly received in England that it was drastically reworked for America. It’s honestly pretty daring, artistically, and as entertaining as anything Ritchie has done (there’s a great sequence with Ray Liotta getting smashed under a table that ranks amongst his best, most suspenseful set pieces). By the time 2008’s “RocknRolla” came around, Ritchie had ditched any of his artistic pretense and plunged right back into his crime-riddled world, to super satisfying results. “RocknRolla” nearly bests “Snatch” in the outright enjoyment department, though “RocknRolla” pauses to comment on the state of modern London — something that, in the past, wasn’t a concern of his. (Maybe his moneyed status has given him perspective.) One of his most boldly stylized movies (which is saying something), “RocknRolla” plays like a big, gangster-filled comic book. It’s a blast. Not directly connected to Ritchie, but inexorably linked in the public’s eye was “Layer Cake,” which marked the directorial debut of his long-time producer Matthew Vaughn. A little sadder and more sophisticated than Ritchie’s pictures, with more of a flavor of the 1970s, it has a terrific performance from Daniel Craig that landed him the Bond gig, and remains Vaughn’s best film by about a million miles.
“The Long Good Friday” (1980)
For all of the revival of the London-set gangster movie that Ritchie caused, the high watermark still remains John Mackenzie‘s terrific 1980 film “The Long Good Friday.” Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London gangster sitting at the top of the tree, and hoping to move into legitimate territory with a huge property development in the Docklands era of East London, in the hope that it might serve as the site for a future Olympics (ooh, prescient). But he’s under attack from an unknown enemy (the IRA, it would seem), causing the U.S. Mafia (led by Eddie Constantine) to pull out of the agreement, leaving Harold desperate to salvage his deal. It’s firmly a film that sums up its era — timed perfectly to the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in government, with Harold as the kind of figure who would have flourished under her, and its tie to the real-life redevelopment of the Docklands serves as a neat time capsule for a London in transition. But it’s also simply a gripping thriller, with a star-making performance from Hoskins (and Helen Mirren, as his lover), showing both the peaceful, honorable man Shand wants to be, and the psychotic thug that lies underneath. His final scene, as he’s confronted by an IRA hitman (Pierce Brosnan, in his first screen role) is something of an acting masterclass.
“Mona Lisa” (1986)
Neil Jordan‘s career is fascinating, but arguably a very patchy one. However one early indisputable crown jewel is the unlikely romantic crime drama “Mona Lisa” largely due in part by Bob Hoskins, who in an intriguing flip-side to the role that made his name six years earlier, plays as a good-hearted, but meek underling just getting out of prison. Having covered for his old mob boss (Michael Caine), Hoskins’ George is still a flunkie doormat with few options allowing him to go straight , but eventually, is given a cushy job as a chauffeur for a high-class black prostitute (Cathy Tyson). As George becomes friendlier with Simone, affections begin to bloom and George becomes entangled in her life when she pleads with him to track down one of her abused friends from her shady past. Hoskins’ range has illustrated that he can playing raging boils or soft-hearted patsys, and in “Mona Lisa,” he convincingly plays a low-level stooge with soft devotion in a wonderfully minor key. He’s a man lost in an England he no longer recognizes, and even among a strong cast (Caine, somewhat against type, is a great villain, Tyson should have gone on to better things than she did, and you can spot early appearances from Robbie Coltrane as well as future “The Wire” star Clarke Peters), he dominates; quite rightly, he won Best Actor at Cannes, and was nominated for an Oscar. Larry Clark was planning a remake a few years ago with Mickey Rourke and Eva Green. One breathes a sigh of relief that it somehow never came to pass…
“Never Let Go” (1960)
It’s always an effective move to cast an actor against type, particularly when it comes to putting comic actors in serious fare. But some (Robin Williams, for instance) fare better than others (Will Ferrell), and in general, people would tend to suggest that Peter Sellers falls in the latter category; even in his most acclaimed fare (“Being There,” or even Kubrick’s “Lolita“), he tended to have some kind of comic tinge to the performance. Not so in “Never Let Go,” however, a home-grown British picture which Sellers made relatively early in his film career, and the bad reviews for which essentially scared the former “Goon Show” star away from more dramatic roles for good. Which is a shame, because he’s actually terrific in the film, which is itself something of a hidden gem, and one can only imagine where his career would have gone had the notices been more positive. Sellers actually plays second fiddle to Richard Todd (“The Dam Busters,” “Saint Joan“) who takes the lead part of John Cummings, an unsuccessful salesman whose car is stolen by thief Tommy (pop star Adam Faith), who works for crooked garage owner Lionel Meadows (Sellers). Cummings, who faces ruin if he doesn’t have a car for work, becomes obsessed with Meadows, enlisting his mistress (Carol White) to bring him down. This isn’t a crime film where millions of pounds or hauls of jewellery are at a stake; this is bottom-of-the-ladder stuff, an ordinary man in conflict with an ambitious but small-scale hood, and it’s all the more engaging for it, particularly with a bravely impotent performance from Todd, and a quietly terrifying, and genuinely impressive turn from Sellers without a single laugh resulting. Director John Guillermin went on to success with “The Towering Inferno” in the U.S., but this might actually be his crowning achievement.
“Night And The City” (1950)
Legendary filmmaker Jules Dassin (“The Naked City“) was forced into making “Night and the City” in London by Fox chief Daryl Zanuck, who was concerned that, due to the blacklisting going on in Hollywood, it would be the last film Dassin ever made. (He would go on to make films for the next two decades, although mostly in France, most notably “Rififi” and “Topkapi“.) “Night And The City,” which deviates significantly from the novel by Gerald Kersh, concerns an American hustler (Richard Widmark) in London, convinced that he can rig the city’s underground wrestling circuit. Among other things, he plans on taking control away from the mob boss currently in charge (Herbert Lom) by appealing to his father, a retired wrestler (real-life former wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko, who many in the production assumed was dead). There’s something very nervous and dangerous about “Night and the City,” possibly informed by what was happening in Dassin’s real life, but it’s a palpable atmosphere that permeates the entire film. The cast of characters is appropriately colorful (we love the laid back menace Francis Sullivan brings as a club owner, Googie Withers as a tenacious female hustler and the slinky seductiveness of Gene Tierney, another Zanuck suggestion due to problems in her own life) and the lush black-and-white photography reeks of post-war desolation (its muted archways and underground vibe recalls Carol Reed‘s “The Third Man“). Two totally different versions of the movie were released in the U.K. and America (with two completely different scores); Dassin has endorsed the American cut, complete with a bleaker ending, as his preferred version.“Odd Man Out” (1947)
While it’s often something of a grey area in terms of financing or director’s nationalities, we’ve excluded any Irish crime pictures like “The General,” “I Went Down” or “In Bruges,” due to it being, you know, a different country. But given that it’s set north of the border, and that it’s pretty much a solid-gold classic, we couldn’t really fail to take a trip across the Irish Sea for Carol Reed‘s “Odd Man Out.” Often overshadowed by the director’s better known “The Third Man” which followed two years later, it stars James Mason as Johnny McQueen, the leader of an IRA-like organization in a city that’s clearly Belfast, even if it’s never named as such. The rest of the crew believe he’s going soft, as Johnny’s starting to believe that they should turn to more peaceful methods of negotiation, but when a fund-raising robbery of a mill goes wrong, a wounded Johnny, ends up on the run, with his love Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) his only hope of safe passage away. As Johnny (played beautifully by Mason, in one of his best performances) creeps towards his inevitable doom, he encounters a succession of colorful and fascinating characters, including the poverty-stricken Shell (F.J. McCormick), who hopes to turn him in for a reward, and landlord Fencie (future Doctor Who William Hartnell). Fans of the later film should know that there’s a lot in common with “The Third Man,” from the atmospheric take on a city to some impressively suspenseful set pieces, but it’s somehow more experimental, with Johnny carried along somewhat passively as he gradually bleeds to death. It’s surpirisngly apolitical (an opening title states that the film “is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved”) but if anything, it helps the emotional punch of the ending, when Johnny and Kathleen are gunned down by the police, land a little harder. Roman Polanski considers it his favorite film, calling it “a film which made me want to pursue this career more than anything else,” and while we wouldn’t quite go that far, Reed fans should seek it out post haste.
“Red Riding” (2009)
For sheer, epic scope, and a kind of James Ellroy-level complexity, it’s hard to beat the “Red Riding” trilogy, which originally aired on British television before running theatrically in America the following year. Based on four novels by David Peace (adapted by Terry Gilliam collaborator Tony Grisoni), each part of the trilogy is devoted to a different year with a different director and medium. The first (and arguably most enjoyable) section, “1974,” was directed by Julian Jarrold, shot on 16mm and starred a then-unknown Andrew Garfield as a young reporter investigating a series of child murders. His investigation, of course, leads him into the arms of one of the mothers of the missing girls (Rebecca Hall) and has him uncovering a “Chinatown“-ish conspiracy that involves local business owners and higher-ups in the police force. The second section, “1980,” directed by “Man on Wire” filmmaker James Marsh and shot in 35mm, concerns a detective (Paddy Considine), who is investigating the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings, as well as the massacre that concluded the first section of “Red Riding.” (Fact and fiction colliding!) Increasingly bleak, the second section centers around police corruption and the futility of trying to fight the good fight when so many around you are so very, very bad. The last section, “1983,” shot on the digital Red One camera by Anand Tucker, tries to wrap up the entire shebang by re-contextualizing the first section and giving the entire series added scope and depth (minor characters become terribly important, the sons of other characters take center stage, etc.) Things seem a bit hurried here but it’s the kind of thing that is kind of impossible to sew up so tidily (especially when a “1977” section was written and plotted before the funding fell apart). The “Red Riding” trilogy is also noteworthy, in the British crime canon, for focusing on the countryside instead of the city, where most of these criminal opuses take place. Artistic and ambitious, featuring an unimpeachable supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, Shaun Dooley, Eddie Marsan, David Morrissey, and Sean Harris, the “Red Riding” trilogy is a must for anyone seeking knotty, deep drama.
“Sexy Beast” (2000)
Just as Tarantino’s rise saw many, many poor-quality crime pictures aping him in the next few years, the success of “Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” saw the market flooded with British films hoping to cash in. Most (“Circus,” “Love Honour & Obey,” “Essex Boys“) were terrible, but there were a couple that were worthwhile, and the best of all was “Sexy Beast.” Marking the directorial debut of commercials veteran Jonathan Glazer, it didn’t seem on paper to be anything particularly ground-breaking; safe-cracker Gal (Ray Winstone) is out of the joint, and happily retired in Spain, getting progressively more orange as time goes on. But suddenly Don (Ben Kingsley), an old associate appears, attempting to tempt Gal back for the archetypal one last job for their boss (Ian McShane). But the film has both a great, impossibly sweary, very funny Harold Pinter-esque script, and marries it with surreal, ever-inventive imagery from Glazer. The film does drop of a little towards the end, despite an innovative underwater heist sequence, and a lovely turn from McShane, but that’s because it’s lost its key ingredient: Kingsley, whose foul-mouthed terrier-like turn is a million miles away from Gandhi, and might stand as the actor’s greatest achievement (earning him an Oscar nomination for his trouble, too). Much of the film is a two-hander between him and an equally-never-better Winstone, and it has the kind of fireworks that you couldn’t get with a dozen action sequences. Glazer went on to even greater things with “Birth” in 2004, and later this year, his long-awaited third film, “Under The Skin,” arrives. We can’t wait.
“Sitting Target” (1972)
“You are looking at an animal!” the poster of this 1972 violent crime thriller screams. “A woman is his target… no cage can hold his lust for revenge.” Is this lurid Douglas Hickox film a little misogynistic? Oh sure, it is, but maybe that was the point of this would-be shocking thriller starring Oliver Reed as Harry Lomart, a convicted murderer who plans to break out of prison and leave the country along with his fellow jailbird Birdy Williams (Ian McShane). But before the prison break, Harry’s estranged wife (Jill St. John) comes to visit and admits to the criminal she is pregnant with another man’s child and this changes everything. Harry explodes like a hurricane of anger, breaking the glass partition between them, having to be sedated by the prison guards. Featuring a prison break sequence so tense and thrilling it could be ranked among the classics, the plan is to lay low, but Harry cannot fight the temptation to enact revenge on his wife and like Jaws or Jason Voorhees spends the rest of the picture on a juggernaut-like mission to mow her and her lover down with the extremest of extreme prejudice. Seedy and sleazy, this film routinely finds itself added to William Lustig’s “Presents” series in New York of obscure, scuzzy and violent hard-to-find exploitation pictures of the 1960s and 1970s (a must-attend at least once). Though “Sitting Target” is much easier to find now thanks to the Warner Archive, which put out the picture on DVD a few short years ago.
“The Squeeze” (1977)
An early film from director Michael Apted (his third feature, and released in the same year as the third in his famous long-running documentary series, “21 Up“), “The Squeeze” was caught at an odd time for the British crime genre; a few years after “Get Carter” and a few before “The Long Good Friday.” As such, it rather got lost in the shuffle, and remains rather undervalued today, and if it’s not a quite a lost classic, than certainly it’s relatively undiscovered, and a very solid effort. The film toplines American actor Stacy Keach (who has a pretty solid British accent here, and would have his own real-life run-in with the law in the U.K a few years later, serving six months in Reading Prison after being caught with cocaine at Heathrow Airport) as a boozy ex-cop who gets out of rehab to be told by the wealthy new husband (Edward Fox) of his ex-wife (Carol White, of “Cathy Come Home,” in sadly her last role; her career collapsed due to alcoholism, and she passed away in 1991) that she and their daughter have been kidnapped. There are plenty more twists and turns to come as Keach and Fox (along with U.K. comic Freddie Starr, in a strange but effective bit of casting) team up to take down the hoodlums responsible, including “Ben Hur” star Stephen Boyd, also in his final role, and David Hemmings. Based on a novel by a former crime reporter James Tucker, there’s a low-key authenticity to the film, a griminess that extends beyond the frank and punchy violence and nudity; the city itself seems to be rotten to the core. Apted has a surprising and visceral feel for the genre, to the extent that it’s a touch disappointing he’s not gone in this direction more often, and his cast all do excellent, and quite often against-type, work. It’s perhaps a little too much of a B-movie to figure as a bona-fide classic of the genre, but it’s worth a watch if you happen across it on TV late at night.
Honorable Mentions: Obviously, this is just a brief overview, a combination of the classics we couldn’t do without, and a few undersung gems. And we’ve tried to keep it to films in the classic definition of the crime genre, excluding things like “Bronson,” “Scum,” “This Is England,” “Kind Hearts & Coronets” and “The Offence,” which have a toe in the crime movie waters, but aren’t quite all the way in. But there’s plenty more where the 20 above came from.
Among them, “Performance” (which has gangsters in it without ever quite being a gangster film), Mike Hodges‘ “Croupier” follow-up “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” decent Jason Statham vehicle “The Bank Job,” David Cronenberg‘s “Eastern Promises,” J Blakeson‘s “Disappearance Of Alice Creed,” Antonia Bird‘s underrated “Face,” Michael Crichton‘s period piece “The First Great Train Robbery,” Stephen Frears‘ debut “Gumshoe,” biopic “The Krays,” Paul Andrew Williams‘ “London To Brighton,” and Danny Boyle‘s debut “Shallow Grave.”
There’s also a selection of films that have a good reputation, but are harder to track down these days. They include “They Drive By Night,” “Dancing With Crime,” “Noose,” “They Made Me A Fugitive,” “The Criminal,””Payroll,” “The League Of Gentlemen,” “Jigsaw,” “Loophole,” “Robbery,” “Sapphire” and “Villain.” And we’re sure we’ve forgotten at least one key one — feel free to remind us in the comments section.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Diana Drumm