There’s an old saying that crime doesn’t pay – but one thing’s for sure: it certainly does make for excellent movies. It’s almost troubling just how many acclaimed films revolve around illegal activity, including underworld-based classics like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction.
It has to be said that American filmmakers and audiences appear to have a particular appetite for crime flicks. In addition to the movies listed above, there have been numerous brilliantly executed additions to the genre courtesy of directors hailing from America, so much so that more than a few have gone unnoticed.
If you’ll forgive the pun, we think this in itself is criminal, which is why we’ve rounded up this list of 10 Overlooked Masterpieces of American Crime Cinema – are you guilty of letting any of them escape your notice?
1. Blue Ruin
Proof positive of the power of crowdfunding, Blue Ruin was financed through a combination of a successful Kickstarter campaign and writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s own savings. Those who invested in the project certainly got their money’s worth: this lean thriller picked up the FIPRESCI Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and landed on several critics Top 10 lists for 2013.
A revenge flick with a twist, Blue Ruin sees Macon Blair’s Dwight kill the man responsible for murdering his parents, making himself a target when the murderer’s family come looking for vengeance! The situation quickly spirals out of control, as hostilities between Blair and the bloodthirsty Cleland clan continue to escalate, resulting in several casualties along the way.
Toss in at least one shocking revelation and a heady moral predicament – just how far should Dwight go to protect himself and the people he cares about from the Cleland family? – and you’ve got everything you need for a top shelf crime movie.
2. Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a tricky film to categorize. Is George Clooney’s directorial debut a spy movie? A biopic? A comedy? The truth is, it’s all of these things and more – and it’s to Clooney’s credit that this adaptation of game show host Chuck Barris’ memoirs works because of these contradictions, rather than in spite of them.
See, according to Barris – played to perfection here by the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell – he lived a double life: alongside his 1960s showbiz career, he was also a covert assassin for the CIA. These claims have since been debunked (Barris himself came clean shortly after his book was published), yet this helps Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, rather than hindering it.
Drawing upon a “true” account they know to be nothing more than a tall tale allows Clooney and screenwriter Andy Kaufman to inject a surreal undercurrent to proceedings. This leaves audiences questioning how much of what they’re seeing is actually happening, even as they find themselves caught up in the intriguing world that Barris conjured up.
3. The Asphalt Jungle
A hybrid of the film noir and heist film genres, The Asphalt Jungle garnered considerable critical acclaim when it was released in 1950, but has since fallen into obscurity. Adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name by director John Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow, this gritty jewel robbery caper benefits immensely from its strong commitment to character development.
Huston and Maddow invest easily as much time into fleshing out Doc and his band of crooks as they do on covering the theft itself – and that’s saying something, considering they lavish a full 11 minutes on depicting the crime! It doesn’t hurt that they have a willing and able cast, with acting legends like Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe and even a young Marilyn Monroe eager to make the most of an uncommonly sharp script.
Then there are the visuals, which are flat out gorgeous. Cinematographer Harold Rosson was nominated for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Asphalt Jungle’s lush black-and-white imagery – and boy, was he unlucky not to nab either. Sure, a lot of the goings on in this picture are ugly from a moral standpoint…but viewed through Rosson’s lens, it all looks undeniably beautiful!
Before the Wachowskis rose to prominence with The Matrix, they made this 1996 ultra-low budget, neo-noir effort. To be honest, Bound actually feels more ahead of its time than the filmmaking sibling’s subsequent sci-fi cyberpunk smash hit, due to its nuanced portrayal of the lesbian relationship at its core.
That’s not to say the film – which sees lovers Violet and Corky rip off the mafia and then face the inevitable consequences – skimps on the violence associated with the genre. On the contrary, the bloodletting in the film borders on the gratuitous – although even at this early stage in their career, the Wachowskis were assured enough stylistically to get away with it.
Stars Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon also deserve plenty of credit for helping to keep things grounded (and deserve kudos for not baulking at the screenplay’s rather graphic sex scenes, either). Bound may have tanked at the box office – and it’s definitely not going to be everybody’s cup of tea – but those looking for something different in a crime drama should do themselves a favor and check it out.
5. Killing Them Softly
Not to be confused with the similarly titled (and less-than-amazing) erotic thriller starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes, Killing Them Softly is yet another modern day noir outing, based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins. Australian Andrew Dominik calls the shots on this story about a trio of thieves who make the mistake of stealing from the Mob, putting them in the cross-hairs of hitmen Jackie and Mickey, played by Brad Pitt and James Gandolfini, respectively.
Bleakly funny and uncompromisingly brutal in equal measure, Killing Them Softly rises above its fairly tired premise mostly thanks to its roster of top-notch acting talent. In addition to Pitt and Gandolfini (who are both on good form here), the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta and Scoot McNairy lend there considerable talents to Dominik’s briskly-paced script.
Is it the most subtle movie out there? Heck, no – despite offering a provocative discussion on the mundane economics underpinning organised crime (and by extension, a thinly-veiled jab at capitalism), Killing Them Softly is the opposite of understated. But it is a compelling viewing experience, all the same.