“I miss the fact that there was a certain kind of energy that exists when people can live for nothing.” – Abel Ferrara
New York City is the greatest city on Earth; just ask any New Yorker. It’s also a setting which is home to an endless array of violent criminal stories. It is also home to an absurd amount of movies, some of which rank among the best movies of all time. New York City isn’t just any city, it’s a symbol of freedom and opportunity, but also, for decades of its existence, it was a symbol of broken dreams and urban blight. There is no shortage of stories from the Big Apple, and Hollywood knows that better than anyone.
Here are the 15 Best New York Crime Movies of All Time.
15. American Gangster
The 1970s is the era which, for many, still defines the city to this day. Many of the films on this list come from that grimy decade, and our first entry is a testament (though certainly not a love letter) to the themes of the greatest films of that period. Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is loosely based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Harlem’s kingpin of crime, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the cop assigned to the case.
While Lucas’s illegal empire makes him rich and successful, Richie’s futile pursuit of justice makes him bitter and costs him dearly in his personal life. It plays like a long-lost R-rated episode of Miami Vice, with prospering drug dealers versus acrimonious and broken cops, while also doing an admirable job of trying to replicate 1970s New York. Shot in all five boroughs of the city, American Gangster is the closest a modern movie has come to recapturing the grit and desolation of that bygone time.
14. The French Connection
William Freidkin has an incredibly diverse resume, from The Exorcist to Killer Joe to Jade, all films which have the ability to make the viewer incredibly uncomfortable. One of his best-known, and most unconventionally disturbing works is The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a ruthless New York cop, based on the real-life detective, Eddie Egan.
Inspired by advice from Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday) to make a grand chase movie, Friedkin has Doyle spending most of the film in dogged pursuit of Fernando Rey’s Alain Charnier, heroin smuggler extraordinaire. The film’s signature scene, in which Doyle chases an assassin’s hijacked El train through the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, was shot without permits and features breathtaking POV shots and unscripted collisions. What could have been another typical tale of cops and robbers is elevated by Freidkin’s approach to violence; it’s treated with such a matter-of-fact attitude, and human life is shown to be so cheap, that it’s hard not to be disturbed by the myriad violent acts in this most realistic of thrillers.
13. A Bronx Tale
Written by Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Robert De Niro. Set in The Bronx, and shot mostly in Queens, because it had more 1950s-style buildings than The Bronx did. You don’t get much more New York than this. Young Calogero, growing up in The Bronx in the mid 60’s, is torn between two father figures: his dad Lorenzo (Robert De Niro), a blue collar bus driver who believes in the virtues of hard work and traditional values; and the local mafia captain Sonny (Chazz Palminteri), who makes his money off the pain of others and follows Machiavellian philosophy, towing the line between fear and respect. Interestingly, Lorenzo, despite having virtue and hard work on his side, is shown to have deep flaws, such as when he suggests his son not date a black girl. Meanwhile, Sonny, despite being a mafioso killer, often dispenses precious wisdom and life lessons, and it is by following the correct examples of both men that our young protagonist can grow into a good man.
Recently, the film has been overshadowed by the fact that its star, Lillo Brancato, went to jail for four years for his role in a burglary which led to the death of an NYPD officer. Still, that doesn’t get in the way of the fact that A Bronx Tale is an all-time classic.
12. The Warriors
One of the premier “cult-classics” of the 70s, The Warriors takes the graffiti soaked gangland streets of 1979 Manhattan, The Bronx, and Coney Island, and turns it into the comic book fantasy version of gang warfare, with uniquely themed motifs on each of the various gangs of the city. The Baseball Furies dress like psycho versions of The New York Yankees and wield baseball bats as their weapon of choice, and the Hi-Hats dress like creepy mimes who let their fists do the talking.
The title gang, The Warriors, are framed for the murder of an underworld icon, and spend the entire film racing from the Bronx to their safe haven of Coney Island, with gangs blocking their way, cops on their tail, and only their relatively dim wits to guide them home. It’s a lot of fun, and definitely deserving of its cult status.
11. Death Wish
Death Wish is the original vigilante masterpiece and modern progenitor of the polarizing “man on the edge decides to be violent” genre of film. One of the greatest tough guys of all time, Charles Bronson, plays a mild-mannered architect who, after his wife and daughter are brutally attacked by a gang of street kids (including a young Jeff Goldblum), decides to cope with his loss by dispensing vigilante justice on the streets of New York.
Highly controversial for seemingly condoning, if not outright encouraging, vigilante justice, the film was made as a response to New York’s skyrocketing crime rates at the time. Though the series eventually became a parody of itself with endless sequels redeemed only by Bronson’s incontestible coolness, the original will always be remembered as a trailblazing classic in terms of its characterization, addressing of real-life issues, and (of course) brutally satisfying levels of violence.
Serpico, one of the greatest films of the 1970s, is the true story of Detective Frank Serpico, a hero cop who fought against corruption among his peers in the NYPD and was nearly murdered for it. Famed director Sidney Lumet dives deep into the psychology of the powerful NYPD, exploring the roots of corruption in a “boys club” of machismo and graft.
Al Pacino was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the title character, a man whose righteous passion for justice and belief in the badge nearly cost him his life. New York circa 1973 is practically the second lead in the film, as no soundstage or Los Angeles backlot could possibly result in a city half as believable as the violent, hostile, and downright gritty true-to-life version of New York seen in the film.
9. The Naked City
This 1948 classic is the original modern New York detective story, and the gold standard by which all others are judged, from The French Connection to Law and Order. A surprisingly grisly (for its time) tale of murder, infidelity, and betrayal in Manhattan, The Naked City would be a pretty standard mystery/action story if it were not for its incredible and unequaled aesthetics; shot in brutally oppressive black and white, The Naked City inspires cinematographers, writers, and directors to this day with its stark documentary style, influenced by the photographs of Weegee; the producers even bought the rights to the title of his 1945 book of NYC photographs, Naked City). The movie inspired an equally classic television series in the late 50s, called Naked City, which is available to stream on Hulu.
“There are eight million stories in the naked city, and this has been one of them.”
8. Midnight Cowboy
Simpleton Joe Buck (Jon Voight) moves from Texas to New York in hopes of making a living as a male prostitute. It doesn’t work out. Making friends with local con artist “Ratso” Rizzo, Buck finds his every move is doomed from the outset. 1969’s Midnight Cowboy is a story about loneliness, the lack of a viable American Dream, and how the city has a funny way of stomping on dreamers.
It’s kind of like Of Mice and Men, but even more depressing. Still, despite the palpable foreboding hanging over the whole film, it’s also a great travelogue of Manhattan in 1969, with scenes showcasing the Hotel Claridge, overlooking Times Square, and the Mutual of New York building featuring prominently, among many street-level scenes all over midtown. It was also the first (and only) X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but its rating has since been revised to an R.
7. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
One of the most perfect snapshots of 1970s New York City, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three shows the city in a very relaxed, matter-of-fact light, following Walter Mathau’s Zachary Garber, transit police, a refreshingly chill dude, as he tries to save a hijacked train car. The hijackers include Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue and Hector Elizondo as Mr. Grey. Everyone in the film is so strangely relaxed, so generally lacking in maliciousness despite the stakes of big money and numerous hostages, that the film still feels unlike anything else it could possibly be compared to. Perhaps this is why it influenced Quentin Tarantino when he was writing Reservoir Dogs, another story about affable robbers with color-coded nicknames.
Oh, and skip Tony Scott’s 2009 remake, which, despite featuring a script by the great Brian Helgeland, comes across as a milquetoast thriller with little to remember outside of John Travolta’s performance and a complete disregard for the geography of the 6 train.
6. Run All Night
The way The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was an excellent snapshot of New York City in 1974, Run All Night will be remembered as a snapshot of NYC in 2015. Unfortunately, this action/drama didn’t make waves upon its release in March of last year, perhaps because of the perceived fall of Liam Neeson’s action hero phase, as well as a pretty weak trailer and generally undercooked marketing campaign.
Still, we are confident in our belief that this overlooked gem will find a second life on cable and Blu-ray, as it contains a dramatic film noir script, a pained and nuanced performance from Neeson, and strong turns from a great supporting cast which includes Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Nick Nolte, Common, and Vincent D’Onofrio. It also has a strong and accurate sense of New York geography, something with which most Hollywood films take considerable license.
5. Brooklyn’s Finest
Written for a screenwriting contest which he didn’t win, writer Michael C. Martin was nonetheless able to sell his script for $200,000. Directed by the earthy Antoine Fuqua and shot on the familiar streets of New York City, Brooklyn’s Finest tells the story of three very different cops who work in Brooklyn: Ethan Hawke has turned to stealing money from drug busts to make ends meet; Don Cheadle is undercover and desperate to get out but his handlers won’t allow him the freedom he gravely needs; and Richard Gere is an aged nobody cop ready to retire without having ever left his mark on the job.
A gritty crime drama that plays a bit closer to an Aesop’s fable or a biblical parable, Brooklyn’s Finest tells these three disparate but occasionally intersecting stories simultaneously, cutting all the filler and moving from scene to scene at a pleasant pace, all building towards, of course, an inevitable hailstorm of bullets. When a wordy drama has the pacing of a fast action movie, you know you’re watching a classic.
4. Bad Lieutenant
Abel Ferrara spent his career pushing the envelope, but he arguably never went farther than in Bad Lieutenant, his magnum opus about criminal cop Harvel Keitel. Addicted to drugs, gambling, and sex, the Lieutenant finds himself on a quest for redemption while investigating the violent rape of a nun. Keitel, the big screen’s roughest tough guy since John Wayne himself, spends the film displaying his incredible range, from the righteous fury of God’s left hand to a sad shell of a man begging forgiveness for his endless list of irredeemable sins. The film is beloved by many, but also loathed by others for its grim subject matter, melodramatic tendencies, and surreal sensibilities, like if David Lynch directed an episode of Law & Order in which Jerry Orbach spent the entire episode in a heroin and cocaine-fueled haze.
Also see the equally classic but even more polarizing King of New York, starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, David Caruso, and Wesley Snipes, and Fear City, with Billy Dee Williams and Tom Berenger.
3. The Godfather
This one is pretty much a no-brainer. The Godfather is such a classic that when people ask “What’s your favorite movie,” they often add in, “and you can’t say The Godfather.” It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won three, including for Marlon Brando as Best Actor. Al Pacino was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but boycotted the ceremony because he felt he should have been nominated for Best Actor, since his role was considerably larger than Brando’s. True story. (Brando also famously boycotted the ceremony to protest the United States treatment of Native Americans, and sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award on his behalf.)
Anyway, everybody knows the tale of Michael Corleone’s rise to power, going from idealistic army veteran to the Don of New York’s most powerful crime family, and the two sequels it spawned. The Godfather Part II is even more beloved than the original, and Part III is fiercely debated, although some have started to warm up to it in recent years, seeing it more as an epilogue to the series rather than an equal entry, which is decidedly for the best.
What more can one say about Goodfellas that hasn’t already been said a dozen times already? Martin Scorsese’s crime epic about the rise and fall of Henry Hill invented much of the shorthand most of us take for granted today, such as the jukebox soundtrack of tunes from various time periods, the operatic cinematography, and the witty voice-over narration. Goodfellas essentially became the template for a massive suite of films to follow, including Scorsese’s own Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street.
There’s a bittersweet joy that comes from the final act, in which, as Hill’s life has fallen into a mess of drug-fueled paranoia, so too does the film’s style, with the long fluid takes, practically short films in and of themselves, replaced by frantic jump cuts and staccato editing. Sure, he has it coming, but he is the protagonist. The relationship between the lead character and the audience is something Scorsese has always made sure to keep in mind, whether its Henry Hill or Travis Bickle…
1. Taxi Driver
If there’s one thing that’s consistent about New York City, it’s that it’s full of freaks. Be it the past, present, or the future, every single person one sees on the street has a decent chance of being some kind of psychopath. Still, it’s rare when one of those people gets to be the lead character in a movie. Enter Travis Bickle, the titular misanthopic Taxi Driver. Possibly shellshocked from his experience in the Vietnam War, though his circumstance appears to be more a result of mental illness than psychological damage, Bickle scares away his dates, suffers from insomnia, and is otherwise unable to fit into any reasonable role in society and decides to do something about it, arming himself to the teeth and vowing to clean up his city.
There are numerous interpretations of the meaning of the film, and particularly its ending, but it’s also a warning to the viewer: in a city of eight million, you never know what’s going through the mind of the people you pass on the street.
There you have it, the greatest New York-set crime dramas of all time. Some of them are depressing, and some of them are uplifting, and many of them are quite exciting. Did we miss any New York City stories? Name your picks in the comments below!
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