10 Classic Crime Movies That Everyone Should See
If the recent surge of interest in true-crime documentaries and podcasts is any indication, we simply can’t get enough crime stories. It’s an interesting fascination. After all, no one would like for the crime content of our favorite films or books to creep into our daily lives, so what is it that draws us to it? According to Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University who was recently featured in Time Magazine, the answer isn’t so simple.
The simplest conclusion he comes to is that to watch crime unfold is akin to watching a traffic accident or a natural disaster — we can’t look away because of the spectacle. He also found that people receive jolts of adrenaline and euphoria when they witness terrible crimes, but that the biggest draw is the emotion of fear that can be experienced in a safe environment. Think of it the same way a horror film works on audiences, providing them the powerful chemical response associated with fear, but without the actual danger associated with it. Basically, brain chemicals are a hell of a drug and crime seems to provide us with a lot of it.
If any of these reasonings ring true for you, chances are you’re a crime junky. But don’t worry — you’re definitely not alone. And if recent crime content has given you a hankering for more, make sure you’ve seen these 10 classic and modern-classic crime movies.
1. Zodiac (2007)
Zodiac is a film in director David Fincher’s filmography that tends to get lost in the crowd, but it’s without a doubt among the best movies he’s made thus far. The film follows the investigation of the still unsolved Zodiac killings of the late ’60s and early ’70s by police and reporters, painting a realistic portrayal of the manhunt and the media frenzy that accompanied it. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Robert Graysmith, who is portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film, Zodiac manages to be thrilling from beginning to end despite the fact we know there won’t be a satisfying conclusion.
2. Rashomon (1950)
Director Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1950 film Rashomon was one of the first films to explore a crime from different perspectives in order to meditate on the meaning of truth. In later years the term “Rashomon effect” has become synonymous with multiple eyewitness accounts conflicting with one another. The film revolves around the murder of a samurai and his wife’s rape by a bandit, but as several witnesses present their vision of events it becomes clear that the truth is far more complicated than it originally appears. Rashomon is today considered to be one of Kurosawa’s best films and one of the greatest films ever made.
3. Badlands (1973)
Today, Terrence Malick is known for his lyrical and meditative filmmaking, but his first film Badlands is a relatively straightforward crime film — and it may be his best. Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the film is loosely based on the true-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate as they rampaged across the Midwest in the late ’50s. While the film isn’t as flashy as his later films, Badlands displays early signs of his stylistic flourishes to come, including beautiful visuals, carefully rendered performances, and a lyrical voiceover that often contrasts with what you see on-screen.
4. The Godfather (1972)
What can be said about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather that hasn’t already been said? To call it one of the greatest crime films of all time doesn’t even do it justice. The Godfather is consistently ranked as one of, if not the greatest film ever made with the American Film Institute placing it at the top of the list just behind Citizen Kane and Casablanca. The story of Michael Corleone’s reluctant rise to power as the leader of the Corleone family, The Godfather is endlessly re-watchable. It features a script that continues to be taught in film schools across the country and the assured directing of a master at the top of his craft.
5. Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas is Martin Scorsese’s The Godfather when it comes to his films revolving around organized crime. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction novel Wiseguy, Goodfellas follows the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill over the course of 25 years. Beginning with the line, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” the film traces the highs and lows of being in the mafia with the kind of manic energy and humor that has defined Scorsese’s career.
6. City of God (2002)
Co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the Brazilian film City of God features one of the most unflinching depictions of organized crime ever committed to film. Adapted from a novel of the same name — and influenced by real events — the film depicts the rise of organized crime in the Rio de Janeiro suburb Cidade de Deus from the late 1960s to the early 1980s from the varying perspectives of the film’s ensemble cast. Featuring stunning performances from a cast of mostly non-actors and visuals that will leave you breathless, City of God is a film that can’t be missed.
7. Heat (1995)
Quite possibly the greatest film of director Michael Mann’s career, Heat’s 170-minute run-time feels tauter than most 90-minute films. The movie features a cast of actors at the top of their game and quite possibly the most sensational action sequence ever recorded to film. Revolving around the cat and mouse game between a professional bank robber and the LAPD detective tasked to stop him, Heat paints the two characters — who actually share very little screen time together — as two sides of the same coin destined to collide with one another. But let’s be honest — the movie is worth watching just for the unbelievable 10 minute bank-robbery-turned-shootout on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles.
8. Chinatown (1974)
Arguably the greatest film of both director Roman Polanski and actor Jack Nicholson’s careers, Chinatown is frequently listed among the greatest films ever made and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards in 1975. Inspired by the real-life California Water Wars at the turn of the 20th century, Chinatown follows private detective Jake Gittes as he finds himself up against forces he can’t hope to stop or understand. Featuring a masterful script from screenwriting legend Robert Towne — for which he won Best Screenplay — and the assured directing of Polanski at the peak of his game, Chinatown is essential viewing.
9. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Bonnie and Clyde is considered a landmark film that ushered in a new wave of American filmmakers. It was this group of filmmakers that would dominate the ’70s and ’80s while breaking Hollywood taboos associated with the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code that was in effect from 1930 to 1968.
Directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde follows the crime spree of the real-life Bonnie and Clyde during the Great Depression up until their death at the hands of police in a hail of gunfire. The film was heavily influenced by the then-contemporary French New Wave movement along with the counterculture of the 1960s culminating in a film that was highly influential at the time and in the years since.
10. M (1931)
Don’t let the year M was released turn you away because the film is truly one of the finest crime thrillers ever made. The film was directed by legendary German director Fritz Lang, who considered the film his best. M stars Peter Lorre as a serial killer whose murder spree puts Berlin in a frenzy, leading both police and criminals to hunt him down after his murders begin to affect criminal activity. M is also significant for being Lang’s first sound film, and to watch the film is to see a master director begin to explore the possibilities of sound in film without any existing rules.
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