This week the Guardian revealed, amongst other genres, its Top 25 Crime Films of all time.
Barry Forshaw, whose books include The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, along with books on Italian Cinema, Film Noir and a biography of Stieg Larsson, also edits Crime Time. He picks a very personal list of his favourite crime films.
WHITE HEAT directed by Raoul Walsh
"Made it, ma! Top of the world!" One of the greatest of all gangster films, Raoul Walsh’s masterpiece White Heat vies with other memorable Cagney crime movies, The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties (the latter with Bogart as sparring partner) for top spot. Even today, Cagney’s kinetic fascination leaps off the screen: a stylised but un-actorly blue collar presence that often makes those around him look workaday. But Walsh’s film showcasing the definitive Cagney gangster, the psychotic Cody Jarrett, is the locus classicus: as blistering in the 21st century as when it was made, and the most scarifying excoriation of momism (in the person of the fearsome Ma Barker figure brilliantly played by Margaret Wycherly) in the American cinema before Mrs Bates gave Norman a hard time over his sex life.
LE CORBEAU directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
The rarely seen poison pen crime drama Le Corbeau/The Raven is even more caustic than the bitter Otto Preminger remake. Henri-Georges Clouzot is a director whose reputation seems to be growing stronger than ever, after its temporary eclipse in the days of the French Nouvelle Vague.
BRIGHTON ROCK directed by Roy Boulting
There are those who consider that the first serious British gangster movie is Mike Hodges’ Get Carter. The recent cinema re-release of this gritty adaptation of Graham Greene’s powerful crime novel is a salutary reminder that the Boulting Brothers had been there before. Mesmerising viewing, not least for Richard Attenborough’s chilling turn as the psychotic Pinkie. It’s a shame that the famous censorship cuts of the day (notably, Pinkie’s razor wielding) have not been restored, but it’s probable that the materials no longer exist. Nevertheless, an unmissable British crime film.
NIGHT AND THE CITY directed by Jules Dassin
Jules Dassin’s classic Night and the City (1950) is the definitive film of Gerald Kersh’s celebrated London underworld novel, with Richard Widmark as a low-rent tout at the edges of the wrestling rackets of post-war London.
THE 39 STEPS directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The 39 Steps is, of course, the favourite of aficionados of the director’s British period, and encapsulates all the virtues of the young director’s pyrotechnic talent. It is a very free adaptation of John Buchan’s classic novel, but it’s none the worse for that. Interestingly, one of the great films of the director’s American period, North by Northwest, is, in many ways, a remake of the earlier classic.
FORCE OF EVIL directed by Robert Rossen
The astonishingly persuasive, poetic style of Abraham Polonsky’s screenplay for Force of Evil helped define many of the elements of post-war film noir and John Garfield’s portrayal of a corrupt mob lawyer went on to set the standards of the noir hero. The plot revolves around corruption in the numbers racket and the conflict between two brothers. It won an Oscar for best film editing and was Oscar nominated for best actor (Garfield) and best writing (Polonsky). There have been few films since so ambitious in the use of blank verse – a glorious, bleak experiment that produced few progeny.
DEAD RECKONING directed by John Cromwell
A hard-edged Bogart gem: this is film noir raised by direction, acting, cinematography and writing into the upper echelons. This is the one in which Lisbeth Scott smoulders as in no other movie, which is saying something.
RIFIFI directed by Jules Dassin
It doesn’t date an iota – and, in fact, Dassin’s Du Rififi Chez les Hommes makes Guy Ritchie and co. look like small beer indeed. Acknowledged as the forerunner of (and the inspiration behind) many modern day crime capers (including The Usual Suspects and Reservoir Dogs) Jules Dassin’s French noir classic remains the quintessential heist movie; there is a DVD with the original French dialogue (anyone who’s suffered the dubbed horror that has circulated in the past will be grateful for that).
VERTIGO directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Recommendations for one of the great Alfred Hitchcock masterpieces are, of course, unnecessary. But there are always compelling reasons for looking again at his dreamlike adaptation of the Boileau and Narcejac novel, D’entre les Morts.
TONI directed by Jean Renoir
A landmark in French cinema. Based on a police dossier about a provincial crime of passion, it was shot by Claude Renoir on location (highly unusual for the time) in the small French town of Les Martigues where the actual events happened. The director’s use of recorded sound, authentic patois, lack of makeup and a large ensemble cast of local citizens in supporting roles have given the film the reputation of the first neo- realist movie (in fact, Visconti worked on the film). Its power may have diminished over the years, but it remains essential viewing.
RED RIDING TRILOGY Various directors
TV broadcasts emphasised the dark visuals of this much-acclaimed series of adaptations of David Peace’s scarifying Yorkshire-set crime novels; the DVD issues render detail far more clear and accessible. Scripted by Tony Grisoni and directed by Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker, Red Riding is a grim but utterly compelling trilogy of films built around the six-year police investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper, folded in with other fictitious crimes. The re-working of the novels by David Pearce (1974, 1980 and 1983) are handled with immense assurance, though this is deeply uncomfortable viewing. It’s perhaps a legitimate point to make that the treatment of the West Yorkshire Police – while consummately acted and directed – has something in common with Mel Gibson’s treatment of the British in such movies as The Patriot: they are presented as brutal Nazi storm troopers, utterly corrupt and beyond any law. But there is no gainsaying the skilfulness of the realisation here. The powerful, resolutely unconsoling dramas are bolstered with remarkable performances from a stellar cast including Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield, Paddy Considine, Warren Clarke, Peter Mullan, David Morrissey, Maxine Peake, Rebecca Hall and Mark Addy.
CALL NORTHSIDE 777 directed by Henry Hathaway
Henry Hathaway’s seminal crime movie is celebrated for its gritty, documentary feel – a quality that it’s easy to underestimate these days, when such techniques are commonplace. But such is Hathaway’s quietly assured, undemonstrative skill that the film still exerts a powerful grip. Hathaway reconstructs a true story with a realism and attention to police procedure. Reporter P J McNeal (James Stewart) is asked to investigate the wrongful imprisonment of a man charged with the murder of a policeman 11 years. Stories of police corruption were new in the era of Call Northside 777, and it remains a cogent piece of work.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE Directed by John Huston
Sometimes, all the elements come together and produce that diamond-hard piece of work in the crime genre that shrugs off the vicissitudes of fashion over the years. John Huston’s gritty urban crime thriller The Asphalt Jungle is in that category, and despite Huston’s very variable subsequent career (though this writer has a soft spot for his much-maligned Philip McDonald adaptation The List of Adrian Messenger). The Asphalt Jungle still bids fair to be the definitive heist movie and a locus classicus of the film noir genre. Huston did justice to Burnett’s wide array of rich and complex characters in this hard-boiled piece about a group of thieves who mastermind a million-dollar jewellery store heist. The film’s superb ensemble cast includes Sam Jaffe, Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore and an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe in only her seventh film role. The bleak urban backdrop, beautifully shot by Henry Rosson, is a key element.