The Crime Movie Pantheon

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December 5, 2012 by NowhereButPop

By Steve Secular

When I was in 10th Grade, I started to become obsessed with film. I had always enjoyed movies, ever since my days as a 4-year-old Robocop and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fiend, but this was different. I saw Reservoir Dogs for the first time and the rest was history, the floodgates had been opened. I fell in love with crime films, and we’ve been happily married ever since. Well, for the most part. There was a brief while when I felt a little unfulfilled and started having an affair with horror movies… SCARY. TIME.

So anyway, I’ve been obsessed for a lot of years now. And in my free time, I sometimes debate with myself the “Tiers of Crime Films,” and the different canonical rankings of the various crime movies I’ve either seen over the years, or simply know but haven’t gotten around to actually watching. So at long last, I’ve decided to write it all out for the masses, with a few asterisks:

*These are clearly not all of the great crime films. I’m sure there are more I’m leaving out.

*Some movies aren’t being included simply because I wouldn’t consider them crime films. Taxi Driver could maybe be considered a crime film. But that’s not its primary function.

*The 30s and 40s are likely going to be underrepresented. I’ll have some, but certainly not enough for those who know that era better than myself. James Cagney, for example, is sorely missed.

*This is partially a “which is best” ranking, but also a “which is most popular” ranking. The Hit is one of my favorite crime movies ever, and I’d argue one of the best. But walk down the street and most people won’t have heard of it. It’s not making Tier 1.[1]

*It will consist mostly of a straight list, with some spotlight films that I have particular comments on.

*Films are not listed in any particular order within each tier.

*Feel free to comment with suggestions.

So here it is. Hopefully, this helps give some direction to those about to embark on the crime film path. Or it gives someone a blog post to angrily dismiss and yell about with their friends. We all win!

Without further delay, your 60 or so top crime movies:

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Tier 5: The foreign films. At first I tried spreading them out across the other tiers, but it became far too complicated. It’s impossible to account for other people’s acceptance or disdain for foreign language films. So they’ll just hang out here, sort of like Limbo in Dante’s Inferno. Yes, I am comparing this to Hell. CRIME MOVIE HELL. Anyway:

  • Hard Boiled (1992)
  • The Killer (1989, Dir. John Woo): Together, these films total John Woo’s admittance into the canon. Elegant, artistic, and poetic, Woo’s crime films amount to a ballet set to gunfire. The Killer is arguably the deeper, more complex film of the two, but nothing can compare to the major action sequences of Hard Boiled. From the grand opening in the tea house to the final showdown in a hospital, the film constantly outdoes itself.
  • Leon: The Professional (1994, Dir. Luc Besson)
  • Le Doulos (1962)
  • Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
  • Le Samouri (1967, Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville): Along with Le Doulous and Le Cercle Rouge, these are the entries of French director Jean-Pierre Melville. Sleak and cool French gangster pictures, with effortless, slight dialogue, and subtle, washed out colors. Each one is a loving testament to the conventions of the American film noir, wherein Melville took the tropes of the genre and brought them into the icy coolness of his contemporary France. Huge influence on Martin Scorsese.
  • Rififi (1955, Dir. Jules Dassin): One of the greatest heist sequences ever filmed, in complete meticulous silence.
  • Tokyo Drifter (1966, Dir. Seijun Suzuki)

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Tier 4: The lesser of the great crime films, serving the needs of only the most diehard of fans. While they’re still good films, they do have their flaws, and the average moviegoer is more likely to skip over them when they play on TNT on a Sunday. Think Narc and Point Blank as the most representative films.

  • Point Blank (1967, Dir. John Boorman): Lee Marvin as the hardened Walker, who is double-crossed and left for dead on a deserted Alcatraz. He recovers, returning to Los Angeles to seek his money and his revenge on the men who set him up. Lee Marvin in one of his most Lee Marvin-y performances. The source material was later readapted as Payback with Mel Gibson, a strong Tier 3 selection.
  • Collateral (2004, Dir. Michael Mann)
  • The Hot Rock (1972, Dir. Peter Yates)
  • A Bronx Tale (1993, Dir. Robert De Niro)
  • Eastern Promises (2007, Dir. David Cronenberg)
  • Narc (2002, Dir. Joe Carnahan): Jason Patric and Ray Liotta as Detroit cops trying to solve the murder of an undercover narcotics officer. Frenetic and gritty, with a few twists and turns, it’s an entertaining and brutal modern crime film. And Busta Rhymes has a fairly sizable role, in case you weren’t convinced yet.
  • Matchstick Men (2003, Dir. Ridley Scoot)
  • Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007, Dir. Sidney Lumet): The last film of the late, great Sidney Lumet, the movie explores the lengths two brothers go to weasel their way out of financial problems. It’s a small town crime film with big time implications.
  • House of Games (1987, Dir. David Mamet)
  • Smokin’ Aces (2006, Dir. Joe Carnahan)
  • The Getaway (1972, Dir. Sam Peckinpah): It isn’t the best movie, especially with the dream pairing of director Sam Peckinpah and star Steve McQueen on its side. It can be slow and meandering at times, but it’s impossible to deny the talent of two creative powerhouses in their prime, especially when pairing McQueen with co-star Ali McGraw. It’s a dirty American crime movie about two lovers on the run. You can’t really go wrong with that.
  • Heist (2001, Dir. David Mamet)
  • Croupier (1998, Dir. Mike Hodges)
  • Criminal (2004, Dir. Gregory Jacobs): John C. Reilly towards the end of his run as a dramatic actor, playing a small time con man. Complete with all of the tricks and twists you’d want from movie about con men. One of the best of Tier 4.
  • The Hit (1984, Dir. Stephen Frears): Terrence Stamp. John Hurt. A young, brash Tim Roth. Directed by Stephen Frears. Music by Eric Claption and Roger Waters. And an existential contemplation on the life of a hit man. Seriously, guys.

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Tier 3: The “good” crime movies. There’s nothing wrong with them; they just aren’t the BEST of the genre. This is the list that separates the genuine fans from the general film fanatics. They’re very genre-heavy here, and proud of it. The Long Good Friday as most representative.

  • The Long Good Friday (1980, Dir. John Mackenzie): The big break of Bob Hoskins, as London gangster Harold Shand, who becomes tied up in shady real estate and all sorts of political corruption. It may sound nice and light, but it’s far from it: there’s even an appearance by a younger Alan Ford (Brick Top in Snatch) torturing crooks in a meat locker. And Shand is one of the most intricate and complex characters in crime film history.
  • The Long Goodbye (1973, Dir. Robert Altman)
  • Bullitt (1968, Dir. Peter Yates): The car chase of all car chases. Steve McQueen in a dark green 1968 Ford Mustang. No music, just the screaming tires and burning engines of the pursuit.
  • The Seven-Ups (1973, Philip D’Antoni): D’Antoni, who had produced Bullitt, decided to step into the director’s seat for The Seven-Ups, churning out an arguably superior film. A longer, improved chase scene, along with inimitable location shooting in 1970s New York City.
  • Jackie Brown (1997, Dir. Quentin Tarantino)
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976, Dir. John Cassavetes): The 135-minute director’s cut is an absolute masterpiece.
  • Lucky Number Slevin (2007, Dir. Paul McGuigan)
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973, Dir. Peter Yates): Yates strikes again. The embodiment of the 1970s American crime film. See this for more details.
  • Fargo (1996, Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): An amazing film, sliding down the list due to the Coen Brothers Effect. It’s arguably the Coen brothers at their best, but it’s difficult to rate as a crime film, and so it ends up sliding down into Tier 3.[2]
  • Payback (1999, Dir. Brian Helgeland)
  • The Killing (1956, Dir. Stanley Kubrick): The beginning of Stanley Kubrick as KUBRICK. 1950s crime thriller, and towards the back end of the film noirs, so it’s able to freely experiment within the genre. It’s “Kubrick makes a gangster movie,” so really, what’s there not to like?
  • Touch of Evil (1958, Dir. Orson Welles)
  • Asphalt Jungle (1950, Dir. John Huston)
  • A History of Violence (2005, Dir. David Cronenberg): A subdued, slow burning crime thriller about a man’s (potentially) violent past coming back to haunt him after he kills two robbers in self defense at his diner. An intense, powerful film.
  • Mean Streets (1973, Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • Layer Cake (2004, Dir. Matthew Vaughn)
  • The Grifters (1990, Dir. Stephen Frears)

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Tier 2: Now we’re getting to the best of them. These are the absolute best crime films short of the Pantheon. The first movies you’d go to once you realize, “Hey! I think these movies are for me!” The Usual Suspects and The French Connection are the best representatives of this group.

  • The Usual Suspects (1995, Dir. Bryan Singer): “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
  • Dirty Harry (1971, Dir. Don Siegel)
  • True Romance (1993, Dir. Tony Scott): Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as Clarence and Alabama, two young lovers on the run. On the way, they meet a who’s who of great actors, all with underrated performances: James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and the great Christopher Walken himself. And with biting dialogue from a script by the young Tarantino, it works today as a pop cultural crime film mecca.
  • The Sting (1973, Dir. George Roy Hill)
  • Snatch (2000, Dir. Guy Ritchie)
  • Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998, Dir. Guy Ritchie)
  • Ocean’s Eleven (2001, Dir. Steven Soderbergh): This is also a placeholder for the entire Ocean’s trilogy. Even if they don’t reach the same heights as the first film, the next two are thoroughly enjoyable, especially if you enjoy watchinga good ensemble heist.
  • The Departed (2006, Dir. Martin Scorsese)
  • Thief (1981, Dir. Michael Mann)
  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Dir. Sergio Leone): The rumor goes that Sergio Leone turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather in order to focus his energies towards his own pet project, the expansive Once Upon a Time in America, following nearly the entire lives of two young Jewish kids who rise through the ranks of organized crime. The original director’s cut clocked in at an insane 269 minutes.
  • Serpico (1973, Dir. Sidney Lumet)
  • Reservoir Dogs (1992, Dir. Quentin Tarantino): A heist movie where we never actually see the heist, instead opting to explore the paranoia revolving around a potential mole after the robbery goes horribly wrong.
  • Scarface (1983, Dir. Brian De Palma)
  • Get Carter (1971, Dir. Mike Hodges)
  • Casino (1995, Dir. Martin Scorsese): Much more than a retread of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, I’d argue that Casino is a superior film. It’s a gut-punching (and stylish) examination of money’s ability to corrupt. The story follows Ace Rothstein’s rise into wealth and the subsequent fall of everyone around him, as each succumbs to their own greed and hedonism.
  • The French Connection (1971, Dir. William Friedkin)
  • Dog Day Afternoon (1975, Dir. Sidney Lumet)

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Tier 1: The shortest list, as these are the real players, the Big Kahuna Burgers, the Royales (with cheese). These movies transcend the crime genre. They’re incredible films that just so happen to be crime movies. Most people have seen them, or at least know of them. And they’re among the first films any budding movie geek would turn to in order to start making sense of his or her newfound passion.

  • Out of Sight (1998, Dir. Steven Soderbergh): I afforded myself only one real wildcard pick in Tier 1 and here it is: Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. It doesn’t get as much publicity as the other greats, but it’s too good a film to leave out of Tier 1. The steamy romance between Clooney and J.Lo, with memorable bit parts (Albert Brooks! Dennis Farina!), and a throwback, jazzy score from David Holmes (who also did the Ocean’s movies), it just does so many different things right. At once an homage to the street-wise crime novels of Elmore Leonard and a modern beast all its own, Out of Sight comes highly recommended.
  • L.A. Confidential (1997, Dir. Curtis Hanson): A neo-noir about a group of LAPD officers in Hollywood-tinged 1950s Los Angeles, with all of the corruption and excesses that come with it. One of the rare instances where the past, present, and future of film all seem to come together on the same screen.
  • Heat (1995, Dir. Michael Mann): If Bullitt contains THE car chase, then Heat contains THE heist scene. And that’s not to mention the long-awaited pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, appearing on-screen together for the first time. If the wait meant performances this perfect, then it was well worth it.
  • Pulp Fiction (1994, Dir. Quentin Tarantino): It’s really an indescribable film. It takes place in L.A. in the 1990s, presumably. But does it really? With sharp suits, afros and mutton chops, mysterious briefcases, gimps, heroin overdoses, divine interventions, 50s-inspired diners, and a boxer who just won’t throw the damn fight. Oh and Christopher Walken, who kept a pocket watch up his ass. Have we ever seen a film like this before? Will we ever see another?
  • Goodfellas (1990, Dir. Martin Scorsese): “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” And so begins Goodfellas, a Scorsese crime masterwork. It’s brutal, it’s funny, and it captures a realism within contemporary organized crime life that hadn’t been seen since The Godfather. Iconic moment after iconic moment, with Scorsese’s trademark camera work and pin-point rock music stylings.
  • Godfather I and II (1972, 1974, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola): The granddaddy of the modern crime film. The film legitimized the gangster genre, which had been viewed earlier as very genre-fictiony. Coppola showed criminals as real people with real issues, which is no more present than in the film’s very opening scene: the lengthy wedding that observes all of its characters in their domestic lives. There was nothing like it at the time, and every crime movie with sympathetic killers owes a huge debt to The Godfather, the genuine Godfather of the modern crime film.

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And now I’ll just anticlimactically throw in some Honorable Mentions, that either didn’t make the cut legitimately, or because they fell into strange like-crime-but-not-quite-crime genres:

  • Se7en (1995)
  • Ronin (1998)
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
  • Traffic (2000)
  • Taxi Driver (1976)
  • From Dusk till Dawn (1996)
  • Night and the City (1950)
  • The Naked City (1948)
  • Drive (2011)
  • Killing Them Softly (2012)
  • Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
  • Sin City (2005)
  • Charley Varrick (1973)

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Well friends, there you have it, the completed CRIME MOVIE PANTHEON. We did it everyone! Now let’s go outside and do whatever normal people do to be productive.


[1] More like “Tier 1 Imports”! Steven, shut up already…. And don’t think we didn’t catch your horror movie pun earlier.

[2] If this was a Pantheon of greatest movies of all-time, I’m taking Fargo in Tier 2. But this is a crime movie list, so the rules are slightly different.

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