5 The Public Enemy (1931)
The film that made stars of James Cagney and Jean Harlow, a hardboiled look at the rise and fall of cocky, sinister Prohibiton era thug. This was the true dawn of the gangster on film, one of three hit early talking films considered to be the greatest of the genre’s infancy (Little Caesar and Scarface are the others). Tom Powers (Cagney) comes up on Chicago’s North Side, at odds with his straight laced brother, and fawned over by his kindly mother. When the Volstead Act hits, he and his sidekick /partner Matt get rich beyond their wildest dreams and Tom grows nastier by the minute, famously smashing a grapefruit in a ladyfriend’s face in one of the film’s iconic moments. Perhaps the one image that haunts those who have seen the film in its entirety, is the final one, of a dead Tom, wrapped up like a mummy, with his eyes wide open, dropped at his mothers door by his enemies to fall over into the house when his brother opens the door. It still has the same impact it must have had eighty years ago, as does Cagney’s electric performance.
4 The Sting (1973)
This handsome production and Best Picture winner paired Robert Redford and Paul Newman as a couple of grifters in 1930s Chicago, and wins on its relatively breezy nature, as epitomized by its own ragtime score. The two embark on a quest of revenge against the Irish mob boss (Robert Shaw) that killed their buddy, but being as they are con men, and not killers, their revenge plot consists of simply conning the target real good, which requires a lot of skillful deception and a host of helping grifters. The film is not just nostalgic in that it was made in the 70s yet set during the Depression, even within the film itself, we are coming in at a time when confidence work is a dying art in Chicago (it was a booming practice there in the first years of the century, hence the ragtime music), its truest practitioners getting on in years. There’s something to be said of a crime film that ends in no significant (actual) deaths, yet leaves you completely satisfied.
3 Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a treasure trove of great characters, memorable dialogue and new twists on classic situations (body disposal dilemmas, prizefighters throwing fights for the mob, the sought after suitcase, etc.) that make it a must see and a giant of the genre. Also, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta cleaning a man’s cranial contents from the back of a car while bickering incessantly is quite simply, why movies are made.
2 Goodfellas (1990)
Scorsese’s own mob masterpiece, a livewire of a film that traces the life of criminal from an eager young boy to a man (Ray Liotta) cornered and out of options, Goodfellas is also funny as The Godfather Part II is tragic, thanks in no small part to the wise-guy posturing of Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro. Scene after scene of shocking violence is punctuated by the irritable tough guy rhetoric that comes so naturally to its authentic cast, making Goodfellas a perfect kind of modern, casual companion piece to The Godfather films’ more classical and rigid meditations on honor and family. Little moments like the group critique of a painting by Pesci’s mother (“One dog goes one way…”), help make Goodfellas a unique and memorable crime film experience for the ages.
1 The Godfather Part II (1974)
Godfather Part II purely wins out for its sheer beauty, epic scope (covering mafia life from 1890s Sicily all the way up to 1960s Nevada) and heartbreaking portrait of Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) ever darkening soul. Tracing the life of his father Vito (Robert DeNiro) and his entry into the world of organized crime in 1920s NYC, while paralleling his own battles with the Justice Department and slippery underworld rivals The Godfather Part II is a superbly acted, visually gorgeous and brilliantly written masterpiece, that like its predecessor, balances the warmth of family life with the coldness of the criminal, even as the former element shrinks further and further from view in this installment. The final shot of Michael all alone on the grounds of his estate, shown just after a pre-GF1 flashback of his days as the Corleone family straight arrow, is enough to moisten the eye of even the most hardened button-man. The two Godfather films are so perfect, you thank heaven a misguided third film that nearly wrecked their flawless legacy was never attempted. Moving on…
Heat (1995) – Michael Mann’s stunner puts DeNiro and Pacino in the same shot for the first time. The excellent climactic shootout also does not harm its case. The Usual Suspects (1995) – Bryan Singer’s twisty ensemble made a huge splash as did Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint/ Keyser Soze (spoiler).
Miller’s Crossing (1990) – Choosing from the Coen Brothers catalogue is tough as they’ve also given us Fargo and No Country For Old Men, but this prohibition era tale wins on all around charm
Scarface (1983) – It must be included if only for the iconic status of Pacino’s performance and the film itself, if for nothing else.
The French Connection (1971) – William Friedkin’s classic Best Picture sees Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle on the trail of heroin smugglers, the beginning of what’s arguably the greatest decade in crime cinema.
L.A. Confidential (1997) – Quite criminally passed over for Best Picture by Titanic, this gorgeous flick has great performances from all involved (Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger) and a killer script to boot.
City Of God (2002) – A chronicle of spreading street and organized crime in Rio de Janeiro — raw and terrifying.
That’s our take on the greatest crime films. You’re welcome to try and top it.