Cops and robbers, kidnappers and gangsters. Since the beginning of cinema, there’s been a fascination with the dark underbelly of society. From small-time crooks to international criminal empires, we’ve flocked to theatres for decades to indulge our fascination with the criminal element.
For this list, we’re staying away from movies that fit more squarely into another genre. So, heist movies such as Ocean’s 11 are out, as are psychological thrillers such as The Silence of the Lambs. Here we’re just looking at straight up crime movies.
But what makes a crime movie truly great? As with any other genre, they have to have well-rounded characters, be they the good guys or the bad guys. Also, the crime itself has to matter. A simple pickpocket scheme isn’t interesting if it’s merely the latest iPhone being stolen, but if it’s an iPhone with nuclear codes, you’ve got yourself a movie (But no stealing, because that’s OUR idea! IPhone Apocalypse, hitting theatres near you, probably never…)!
These are the 20 Best Crime And Gangster Movies, Ranked!
20. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
British cinema is rife with many, many brilliant crime movies. The Krays, Legend, The Long Good Friday, and The Italian Job all take a look at the often notoriously violent criminal empires that exist in the land of bowler hats, cricket, and cups of tea. But by the 1990s, most of these movies had been and gone and British cinema needed a fresh voice. Along came Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn, and a fresh-faced cast (including a former athlete by the name of Jason Statham) to breathe new life into the genre.
Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels is largely comedic and loaded with witty banter between the primary cast. But, it also takes violence to a place that few movies of its era dared to. Many American movies of the time that used violence to tell the story – Fight Club, for example – were heavily criticized for it. And yet, audiences cheered for the excessive violence of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Let’s face it: the traffic warden had it coming.
What set the movie apart, aside from the near-perfect dialogue, was the feeling that the main four cast members really were family. They fought, argued, and bumbled, but when it came down to it, they were covering each other’s backs as family tends to do. While the various crimes, from the theft of antique shotguns, to stealing cash from drug dealers, overlapped in hilarious and unforeseen ways, each plot thread was tied up neatly for audiences. Unlike Ritchie’s Rock ‘n’ Rolla, it managed to be smart.
19. The Usual Suspects
What often marks a movie as truly great is when you walk away from it and are left satisfied, yet still wanting more. Throughout The Usual Suspects, minor criminal Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) sits in front of his interrogator, Customs agents Dave Kujan, and recounts the story of how he and his companions were brought together to complete a job at the behest of uber-criminal mastermind, Keyser Soze and caught up in various robberies and eventually a lethal shoot-out which only Verbal appears to have survived.
Verbal tells the story, we the audience see, and Kujan deduces that former cop Dean Keaton, part of the criminal gang, is in fact Keyser Soze based on Verbal’s story. After Verbal’s bail is posted and he leaves the station, Kujan looks at the notice board behind him and sees wanted posters, and various other clues which all tie to Verbal’s story. The entire narrative had been made up on the spot by the lone survivor of the shoot-out, and the supposedly crippled Verbal was in fact Keyser Soze all along.
Celebrated for being one of the finest plot-twists in cinematic history, The Usual Suspects leaves the audience wondering which aspects of the story actually happened, and which parts were simply Verbal’s misdirection. While the hijackings, jewel heists, and the shoot-out over the cocaine shipment all happened, the details are all provided by Verbal, making him the very definition of unreliable narrator.
18. Once Upon a Time In America
Once Upon a Time in America is a masterpiece, but a difficult one in many ways. It’s also the perfect conclusion to Sergio Leone’s career. Initially released in a heavily edited form, the movie was a flop. Later, the definitive four and a half hour movie was released and it became rightly seen as a truly great epic masterpiece of cinema, and one of the best gangster movies of all time.
Unlike most movies on this list, Once Upon a Time in America is an incredibly slow burn. But there’s no sense that any part of the movie is superfluous. Scenes are deliberately stretched out, moments deliberately linger in the air to give the movie a distinctly European feel. Leone does this, largely, due to the movie making of the ‘80s having become increasingly drawn to fast-paced action, which simply didn’t suit him. He’s an old-school director, the equivalent to a master composer in a world full of techno-music. He’s out of step, but not a dinosaur. He’s got one last epic in him and he makes the most of it by delivering some of the finest scenes in cinema.
While two of the finest veterans of the crime movie genre are undoubtedly Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, they hadn’t been face to face in the same movie until 1995’s Heat. While each had been in The Godfather Part 2, they were in stories set in different time periods. Here, they are set as each other’s nemesis, both playing parts that were far from the roles that had cemented their place in the genre. Pacino, as LAPD Robbery/Homicide Detective Lt Vincent Hanna is a world away from Michael Corleone, or Frank Serpico. DeNiro’s master thief Neil McCauley is a professional criminal, unencumbered by the emotional connection he had to the criminal world he shows as the young Vito Corleone. Despite this, each actor wears their part like a finely-tailored suit.
Much of the movie’s success is down to Michael Mann’s flawless direction which still looks great two decades later. His use of the colour blue to evoke feelings of sombre professionalism before a heist was used many times in The Dark Knight as an obvious homage.
One of the finest moments in the movie is where professional cop and professional criminal sit down and talk, face-to-face in a diner. Beautifully understated, the scene shows just how much Hanna’s relentless pursuit of McCauley has cost each man. Their lives are solitary, each has sacrificed everything, but there’s a respect each man has for the other which is rare in crime cinema.
16. The Maltese Falcon
To today’s audiences, the archetypes of: Mary Astor’s Femme Fatale, Peter Lorre’s weasel-like gangster, Sydney Greenstreet’s fat man who plots in the background, and of course Humphrey Bogart’s world-weary private detective all seem like clichés. But that’s because The Maltese Falcon is the 1941 film-noir that established these tropes to begin with.
While John Huston’s direction is incredible for a first-timer, his use of low-key lighting and interesting camera angles were revolutionary for its day, it’s largely accepted that the movie succeeds thanks to Humphrey Bogart’s performance as the morally ambiguous Sam Spade. He’s chronically cynical, greedy and yet honourable. He’s a son of a bitch, but a likeable one at that.
While the riddle of the Falcon itself is never fully solved, the many people prepared to kill and double-cross to poses it serves as a cautionary tale for all those who would choose untold riches over anything else.
15. Reservoir Dogs
Possibly the greatest independent movie ever made, Reservoir Dogs pays homage to numerous crime movies (Tarrantino has gone to great lengths to state that he played deliberate homages as opposed to being a plagiarist) such as The Killing, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Django, and City on Fire.
Shot on a tiny budget of 1.2 million dollars, Reservoir Dogs never actually shows the central crime, in this case a heist, and uses non-linear storytelling (a favourite of Tarrantino’s) to show the planning of the crime, where each character is given a colour to use in place of a name, and the aftermath where Orange is wounded and Nash is brutally tortured while tied to a chair.
While the central heist wasn’t shot due to budgetary restrictions, it allowed Tarrantino to focus on the criminal’s themselves with each character given a little more to do than merely take part in the caper. The numerous references to pop-culture, the group’s debate over the ethics of tipping a waitress, even the scene where Blonde pulls out a straight razor, all made Reservoir Dogs a classic and made huge stars of almost everyone involved.
14. Get Carter
Widely regarded as one of the greatest crime movies ever produced by British cinema, Get Carter is based on Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return. Michael Caine plays the titular Jack Carter, a London hard-man who travels to Newcastle in the north of England to investigate the death of his brother and unleash hell on those responsible.
While Get Carter is also a revenge-thriller, the bone crunching violence along with the grim and moody atmospherics help to highlight how Carter’s life mirrors the world he lives in. He’s become a little more dapper since living in London, but when he returns to his roots he becomes as bleak and brutal as his once-familiar surroundings.
Caine is at his best here, and he delivers his brilliant dialogue flawlessly. The supporting cast of Ian Hendry, George Sewell, and John Osborn round out what is arguably one of the crowning moments of British crime-classics and heavily influenced the Brit-Flicks of the late ‘90s which sought to imitate Get Carter’s clever dialogue and stylish violence. Not only did Jack Carter get there first, he did it best.
The Coen Brothers have used elements of crime or criminal activity in many of their movies, but this is by far the best example in their impressive repertoire. As much a black comedy as a straight-up crime drama, Fargo juxtaposes the colourful residents of a backwater Minnesota town against the bleak and snow-covered landscape they find themselves in.
While the plot isn’t especially original, in that William H Macy hires two criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife and attempts to extort a hefty ransom from his wealthy father-in-law, it’s Fargo’s style and sense of humour that ensures its place as a cult-classic.
Aside from Francis McDormand’s Academy Award-Winning performance as the cop assigned to solve the case, Fargo’s other characters work specifically because they don’t fit normal cinematic tropes. The movie is authentic, simply because the characters don’t always behave as one would expect a movie character to behave, but people often behave unpredictably in real life. Also, the grand plan each character has is quickly undone by the banality of simple real-life events. There’s no deus ex machina to allow for things to fall into place.
Fargo doesn’t really fit into a specific box. It’s not afraid to be funny, but it’s also not afraid to be violent. It simply does its own thing, and tells its story in its own way. It neither follows established tropes, or deliberately tries to circumvent them.
12. L.A Confidential
L.A Confidential is a rare and wonderful thing: an instant classic which only grows better with repeated viewings. The movie follows the story of three very different 1950s cops who are each drawn to the Night Owl murder case. The cops themselves couldn’t be more different. There’s the by the book Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the son of a hero cop who is desperate to escape his father’s shadow; the blunt instrument Bud White (Russell Crowe) who is called in to beat a confession out of suspects; then there’s Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) who is as slick as the Hollywood types he associates with and desperately wants to be. The pitch-perfect set designs and costumes immerse the viewer in the era so much so that the movie feels like a time-capsule come to life.
Set against 1950s scandal-filled Hollywood, L.A Confidential plays out as a complicated whodunit which leaves it to the last minute to reveal the full extent of corruption and cover-ups at the highest levels of the police. With multiple plot threads interweaving with each other, L.A Confidential could have easily fallen over itself but manages to keep its story straight. Like Chinatown, L.A Confidential not only raises its game to become a classic, it asks the audience to raise their game too. It’s a movie you have to pay attention to, but you’ll feel so much more satisfied if you do.
11. Bonnie and Clyde
Beautiful looking bad guys might not seem so revolutionary now, but back in 1967 it was an extremely fresh idea. Instead of bad guys who looked as crooked as their schemes, here were bad guys that oozed charm and sex appeal. Sitting at a key moment of sea-change between the old-Hollywood and the new wave of American cinema, Bonnie and Clyde re-wrote the rulebook on realistic violence and tense sexuality. The movie dares to be different and set much of the tone for the experimental film-makers of the 1970s.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have never been better playing the real-life pair of bank robbers and would-be Robin Hoods as they carve a bloody trail across Depression-hit middle America. Even for those who know their history and know all too well the final fate of the pair can’t help but jump at the gut-wrenching and bloody finale. Even fifty years later, it still stings.
Much like Once Upon a Time in America, Martin Scorsese’s Casino takes its time in building a carefully crafted universe in which to tell its story. It lets the audience fully immerse itself into a world they will never ever find themselves in. The criminals literally stack the deck in their favour and while we know they’re out to con us, we can’t help but be drawn into their world and become more than a little seduced by the allure of money and power.
While DeNiro headlines as Ace Rothstein and delivers a perfect performance, it’s familiar territory for him and he’s not stretched. Joe Pesci also treads familiar waters as his friend Nicky Santoro. Sharon Stone however lights up the movie as Ginger, the leggy former prostitute with a taste for the finer things in life. She was born to play this part and is a million miles away from the generic pretty blonde of her earlier roles, or the crazy femme-fatale from Basic Instinct. It’s a role that would have pushed many actresses to the limit, but she takes it to another level entirely. It’s her movie and her performance is breath-taking.
The movie neatly folds into two acts as Ace, Nicky, and Ginger work their way to the top and build an empire in the first half, only to see it taken apart by mob bosses and corrupt officials in the second.
9. The Departed
Despite being a remake of the insanely popular Infernal Affairs, The Departed manages to be its own entity by shifting the story to South Boston and immersing the audience in the world of the Irish Mafia as well as the city itself.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is a rookie cop thrown in to deep undercover work due to his high IQ and his ability to blend in. Matt Damon’s Collin Sullivan is a cop on the rise to the top, but he’s been corrupted by Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello who has been secretly bribing and training Collin to be loyal to him since Collin was a boy.
Billy and Collin are both undercover in each other’s organization, both seeking to uncover the other’s identity as the net closes in around them both. With time running out, both Billy and Collin go to extreme measures to find the other and stay alive in a world where lives are cheap and death is an everyday occurrence.
While the all-star cast is excellent, it is the city of Boston itself that stands as a true juxtaposition to the events that occur in its underbelly. Unlike many crime-flicks, Boston looks pristine. It’s never grimy or dirty. Even scenes in bars or construction zones seem tidy and organised. She’s not a city on the verge of chaos and depravity, she’s the lady all the boys are fighting over. They want her because she’s beautiful.
8. The Long Good Friday
British crime movies have featured heavily on this list for good reason, it’s a genre that the Brits do just as well as anybody else and The Long Good Friday is their greatest accomplishment. Set at a time of great political and social change, The Long Good Friday weaves together themes of political and police corruption, the ever-looming threat of the IRA, the decline of traditional British industry, and Britain’s entry to the free-market economy of the EEC.
The story is influenced by real-world events to a degree, as the American mobsters of Vegas worked alongside the London-based Kray twins to establish their criminal empire in the ‘60s. here, the fictional Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is attempting to develop the London dockland, and build a casino, with the financial backing of American criminal money. His world is rocked when key friends and allies are murdered around him by persons unknown.
Through numerous double-crosses, a personal war with the IRA, and eventually the end of the British/American criminal cartel, Harold believes he has dealt with the problem by sending the American investors away and forging a new deal with German backers (symbolically highlighting Britain’s new closer relationship with Europe). However, despite lambasting the Americans for arrogance, he falls prey to his own as he underestimated the Irish and the movie ends with Harold surrounded by the IRA, sure to be murdered.
Scarface is Brian De Palma’s ultra-violent remake of the original 1932 gangster classic. Here the story is set in 1980s Miami, with cocaine deals replacing the prohibition-era bootlegging of the original. Scripted by Oliver Stone, Scarface is a distorted, even perverted, take on the American Dream which sees Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Al Pacino) work his way from dishwasher to terrifying crime-lord.
The movie sees Tony rise, and fall, with nothing but dead bodies and lost loved ones to show for it at the end of it all. With many of his enemies dead at his feet, some courtesy of his “Little friend”, Montana seems to have it all. By the end of it all, he loses his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and his best friend (Steven Bauer).
What sets Scarface apart from the crowd (other than the violence, in particular the notorious chainsaw scene) is that it isn’t really about crime. It’s about people who are criminals. Each individual is carefully crafted and more than a mere cliché. And while Tony Montana is modelled after Al Capone, his excess and bloodthirsty nature isn’t shielded by a veneer of respectability. He’s a brutal product of his environment and a jab in the eye to the cocaine-fuelled excess of the ‘80s.
Terrence Malik has crafted a reputation for visionary filmmaking over the years and has often pushed the boundaries of visceral and atmospheric filmmaking. In Badlands he takes the notion that America’s heartland is uniformly wholesome and turns that upside down.
Holly (Sissy Spacek) is a bored and unloved girl living with her father in South Dakota in 1959. She falls for the 25 year old handsome no-hoper Kit, who Holly notes resembles James Dean. Kit charms Holly, and while the film’s narration by Holly describes their adventures in terms of romantic clichés, the movie begins to show Kit’s true character as an amoral psychopath. When Holly’s father shoots her dog as a punishment for spending time with Kit, Kit shoots her father dead without hesitation.
Despite faking their deaths and living peacefully for a time, their past catches up with them and they go on the run. Kit kills several people, each murder is seemingly to escape punishment for the last as Kit kills without passion or hesitation, and Holly merely observes without and form of judgement.
5. Double Indemnity
Can an old black and white movie from the 1940s about life insurance and adultery be entertaining to a modern audience? You bet it can! With cinematic legend Billy Wilder directing a script by both himself and author Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity holds up against any modern movie.
Holding many of the same tropes as The Maltese Falcon, in particular the femme fatale, this gritty noir sees an insurance representative Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) fall for his client Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) scheme to murder her husband in order to collect the insurance money. Neff aids Phyliss and kills her husband and makes it look as though he perished on a train by falling off the back while smoking a cigarette.
Arguably the finest film-noir, Double Indemnity aspects of storytelling themes that had rarely been seen before. The infidelity and sleaziness of Phyllis, the broader psychosexual themes, even the non-liner storytelling were all written in new ways as they were, for the most part, told through the eyes of the criminal. Even the direction, which used low key lighting and dark and claustrophobic framing to at times conceal and other times to project the characters internal feelings, was ground-breaking.
4. Infernal Affairs
While Scorsese’s The Departed may not be his finest work, it’s certainly one of his most carefully crafted and exciting movies. So, it may surprise you to learn that it’s a remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs. But when the re-make features DiCaprio, Damon, Nicholson, Wahlberg and many more, is it worth even checking out the original? Yes, absolutely yes!!
Where The Departed went for style and subtlety, Infernal Affairs is a balls-to-the wall Hong Kong action film that stands alongside The Raid as one of the finest action flicks ever made outside of Hollywood. And while the plot is essentially the same as The Departed, the movie itself looks and feels completely different. It’s got a faster pace, thanks to the fast cuts made in the editing process. It also features far more tension as the two undercover men circle ever closer to each other and are tantalizingly close to exposing each other throughout.
Few directors can claim to have mastered crime dramas, but Scorsese has done so in a way few others can ever hope to match. After The Godfather, it was unthinkable that another crime drama could enter the collective consciousness and be as instantly beloved and quotable. Goodfellas is the movie that changed that view. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s memoir Wiseguys, Goodfellas tells the story of real-life mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he goes from a wannabe kid to a major player in the rise and fall of the Lecchese crime family.
DeNiro gives one of the finest performances of his career and manages to show a different side to the Italian Mafia than he did in The Godfather part 2, but it’s Joe Pesci who steals the entire movie as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito and his “How am I funny?” speech is still quoted whenever the movie is mentioned.
Classic Hollywood film noir may have fallen out of favour by the 1960s, but the new wave of filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s introduced neo-noir and Chinatown is certainly the finest example of this sub-genre. Easily director Roman Polanski’s most recognisable movie, Chinatown looks at the more disturbing aspects of 1930s Hollywood, away from the glitz and glamour.
While using many tropes of the classics, Chinatown manages to infuse them with a fresh energy in this revisionist take on the hard-edged private eye, With Jack Nicholson’s J.J “Jake” Gittes what makes Chinatown stand out from the crowd. Seen as a cynical reaction to the decade that preceded it, Chinatown’s screenplay by Robert Towne is often regarded as the finest example of the craft and is taught in film schools to this day.
1. The Godfather parts 1&2
It may seem a cop-out to make The Godfather and The Godfather part 2 a joint entry as they are distinctly different movies, but they are almost impossible to rank in order of sheer quality. The original features a more linear story and is less complicated, the sequel crafts a wonderful juxtaposition of Michael’s downfall against Vito’s rise. They are both amazing!
Truly, The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 aren’t simply the greatest crime movies of all time, they are possibly the finest movies of any genre to ever be made. The attention to detail, the perfect performances of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Dianne Keaton, and Robert DeNiro, among so many others, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s flawless direction make The Godfather 1&2 masterpieces which are proof (as if it were needed) that cinema is one of the most wonderful art forms.
Michael’s rise, his transition from gangster to legitimate businessman, and fall from grace are epic and play out over a lifetime. The majesty of the opening wedding scene, the understated simplicity of Vito’s passing, the tension of Michael’s first kill, even the shock of Sonny’s assassination, are all scenes which would make a movie legendary. The Godfather movies have these scenes in spades. And then there’s the horse’s head in the bed, and the many quotable lines “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” which take the legend of The Godfather into the cultural zeitgeist more than almost any other movie.
So, that’s it, the greatest crimes movies of all time. Got a favourite which didn’t make our selection? Do you think The French Connection should be here? Or even a modern classic like Drive? Let us know in the comments!
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