An often overlooked and under-appreciated sub-genre in international filmmaking, British Crime films are a lot like a good dive bar: questionable and somewhat shady looking at first glance, but unbelievably satisfying and full of surprises once you find out what’s really going on.
A sub-genre that is praised more through word of mouth rather than critical acclaim, British Crime films are often marked by their stylistic flourish, addictingly clever dialogue, manipulation of plot structure, bold use of violence and super catchy soundtracks.
Because of their similarities to the post-modern genre-bending films of Quentin Tarantino and gangster films of Martin Scorsese, British Crime films are often dismissed rather than celebrated for the witty entertainment and unrestrained visceral experience that they offer. Below is a list that celebrates and rejoices 15 films that best display what the genre has to offer.
15. Essex Boys (2000)
The most clear-cut genre piece on this list, “Essex Boys” doesn’t try to be anything more or anything less than what it is: a highly stylized, excessively violent, and undeniably fun British crime film.
The story begins with a naive and young Billy (Charlie-Creed Miles) being hired to drive around the unstable and tormented convict Jason Locke (played by Sean Bean.) Locke has recently been released from prison, and he has some things to take care of now that he’s out.
What starts off as relatively simple job as a driver quickly escalates as Locke begins to set his eyes on bigger things and more dangerous scores, with Billy along for the ride as Locke begins to form a new crew and ignite fires all over England. It’s hard not to enjoy the performances of a volatile Sean Bean and a super-cool Tom Wilkinson, as the two men carry the films energy throughout.
A film often panned and criticized for its similarities to more sophisticated British (and American) crime films, what earns “Essex Boys” its spot on this list is how unabashedly fun it is, and how it has no desire to hide where its influence comes from or who its influenced by. Its ripe with all the stylistic flourish, in-your-face violence, and never-ending energy that have come to define British crime films, and it wastes no time concerning itself with being anything other than what it is: good fucking entertainment.
14. Croupier (1998)
The film that did for Clive Owen what “Layer Cake” did for Daniel Craig, Croupier’s most defining factor is the magnetism and suave nature of its protagonist, and the eventual success that it would give its lead actor in his career.
The film tells the story of a writer named Jack, played by Owen, who takes a job as a croupier in a high class casino and ends up getting romantically involved with 3 women as a result. When one of the women assembles a plan to rob the casino and use Jack as the inside man, the mysterious writer is thrown in over his head as things become more and more complicated and dangerous for him.
Noted for giving Owen his breakout film role, the directing of Brit director Mike Hodges (the director of the original Get Carter), and its old-fashioned but equally sophisticated use of voice-over narration, “Croupier” stands as a fairly simple film thats elevated exponentially through the creative skills of its lead actor and director.
13. Hell is a City (1960)
A Brit pulp novel in cinematic form, “Hell is a City” remains a classic in 60’s Brit crime cinema. The story follows a British Inspector played by Stanley Baker who is hot on the trail of a convict he put in jail that is now free on the streets. Things continue to grow more and more intense as Baker’s inspector gets closer and closer to his foe, while also neglecting the needs of his wife played by Maxine Audley.
Full of old-school thrills and enough hard boiled dialogue to fill a Raymond Chandler book, “Hell is a City” is an essential of the Brit crime genre before it reached its pinnacle in the 80’s and 90’s.
12. Gumshoe (1971)
“Gumshoe” is a 70’s throwback to private eye films of the 40’s and the hard-boiled detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Starring Albert Finney in the lead role as a newly self-appointed private investigator, the film follows Finney’s character Eddie Ginley as a simple response to his PI ad in the newspaper leads him into a convoluted mystery involving heroin smuggling, gun running, and African politics.
An under-appreciated gem in the filmography of renowned British filmmaker Stephen Frears, “Gumshoe” earns its spot on this list through its satirical but equally loving dedication to the private-eye mystery crime genre and its full awareness of the classic films it borrows from. Featuring classic hard boiled dialogue but maintaining that same suave attitude that later Brit crime films like “Croupier” would later exude, “Gumshoe” stands as a fascinating period piece and a deeply enjoyable pastiche to a sub-genre of crime films long forgotten by most of today’s contemporary audiences.
11. Brighton Rock (1947)
One of the founding fathers of the Brit crime genre, “Brighton Rock” is a British noir gangster film about the tragic and inevitable fall of its lead character Pinkie. Starring British actor Richard Attenborough in one of his earliest (and darkest) roles, the film chronicle’s Pinky’s attempts to rule the underground of his hometown Brighton, and the complications that arise when he kills a newspaper reporter and begins to rise up in the ranks of the Brighton underworld.
Moody, tense and as gritty as its main character, “Brighton Rock” holds its forefather position thanks to the unforgettably malevolent performance from Attenborough combined with Graham Greene and Terrence Rattigan’s skillfully written screenplay, giving it a timelessly tragic and gloomy look at one man’s psychopathic desire for power and recognition.
10. Layer Cake (2004)
Layer Cake is often referred to as the long lost sibling to Guy Ritchie’s first two crime films “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” as a result of its similar stylistic flourishes, memorable cast of characters and clever writing. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering the fact that Layer Cake was the directorial debut of Matthew Vaughn, Ritchie’s best friend and producer of most of his films.
Starring Daniel Craig in essentially his breakout role as a lead actor, the story follows Craig as a successful cocaine dealer who is dealt 2 extremely difficult assignments on the eve that he was supposed to start his early retirement. As is classic Brit fashion, a rather complicated turn of events follows that throws Craig’s character into deeper and deeper trouble as he continually tries to find a way out.
More sophisticated and somber in its overall tone than any of Ritchie’s work, Layer Cake offers thought provoking themes of power, greed and working your way up in the world within the context of the world of drugs and crime that Ritchie often treats like a playground.
9. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
The most light-hearted and most definitely the quirkiest film on this list, “The Lavender Hill Mob” is a timeless caper heist film and one of the forefathers of the “Heist Comedy” genre.
Produced by the British company Ealing Studios, (the company that essentially created the British Heist Comedy), it revolves around a shy and awkward bank clerk (Brit legend Alec Guinness) who hatches a plan to steal a hefty amount of gold bullion from the very bank that he works at. Assembling a small team of an artist and two crooks to help him steal the gold, a hilarious turn of events occur as the four’s strategy of melting the gold down into the souvenirs and smuggling it out of England doesn’t exactly go according to plan.
Most noted and remembered for its undeniably witty script, wonderfully timid performance from Guinness, and a highly amusing but equally suspenseful climactic chase scene throughout England, “The Lavender Hill Mob” stands as the hilarious great-uncle of British crime films, with its influence still being clearly found today.