You may be surprised to learn that authors will often do anything to avoid actual writing, particularly the agonising start to a new book. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the best crime films of all time. It was either that or clean the house and this was way more fun. So, take a look at my top ten and, if you don’t agree with them, let me know why I am an idiot in the comments section and put your own choice there too. You won’t change my mind but at least we listened.
10 best crime films of all time
The Godfather 1 & 2 (1972 & 1974)
I’m putting these two together because I still can’t choose between them. As a writer, I can tell you there isn’t a wasted line in the Godfather films, from those ironic opening words of the undertaker Bonasera, ‘I believe in America’, you fall into a beautifully crafted story about the insidious nature of corruption, coupled with the power of greed when it’s nurtured so effectively by organised crime. This is the flip side of the American dream and we get a front row seat in the battle for Michael Corleone’s soul. It’s hard to imagine now but the likes of Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro weren’t all that famous when the Godfather films cleaned up at the box office then the Oscars.
Best line? There are so many but I’m going for, ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli.’
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Five hardened criminals placed in a line-up hatch a plan to get revenge on the cops that put them there. Then things get complicated. A labyrinthine plot unfolds in which we are never really sure of the truth – and just who is the mysterious Keyser Soze: a man, a monster or a myth? Oh, and that ending! When Special Agent Kujan suddenly realises that everything he has been told is a lie and every piece of it came from the room he was sitting in but it’s too damn late to do anything about it. Wow, just wow!
Best line? ‘The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.’
‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’ So says Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he narrates the story of his violent life in a Mafia crew that includes the brutal Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and psychopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). It’s jaw-dropping stuff, as almost everyone who comes into contact with them ends up brutally injured, killed or in prison until Henry is finally left with a choice; rat out your friends or end up like them. Scorcese should have won his best director Oscar for this film, not the over-rated The Departed.
Best line? ‘Funny how?’ asks Joe Pesci in the unforgettable restaurant scene.
Double Indemnity (1944)
If you want a definition of film noir then look no further than Double Indemnity. This black and white classic has all the ingredients: from darkly lit rooms, a flawed hero (Fred MacMurray) falling for a classic femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) who might well prove to be his undoing and a dogged investigator, Keyes, (the incomparable Edward G Robinson) who smells a rat. If that isn’t impressive enough, the script was co-written by none other than Raymond Chandler with its acclaimed director, Billy Wilder, and they fought each other every step of the way.
Best line? ‘You were pretty good in there for a while Keyes… you said it wasn’t an accident, check. You said it wasn’t suicide, check. You said it was murder… check.’
Notable for the first time Pacino and De Niro shared screen time together (they were in separate timelines for Godfather 2). The former battles his personal demons to bring down the latter’s crew of ruthless bank robbers. The dialogue is cool and slick, with director Michel Mann coaxing terrific performances from a large supporting cast. Even Bravo Two Zero’s Andy McNab was enlisted to show them all how to handle assault rifles during the big post-robbery, shoot-out scene.
Best line? ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Often imitated but never bettered, this is the best-known serial killer story since Psycho. This is a multiple Oscar winner with a simple but brilliant premise: if you want to catch a maniac enlist the help of another. So, Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) helps Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to catch ‘Buffalo Bill’ in a series of chilling, quid-pro-quo interviews that send the rookie FBI agent to a very dark place indeed.
Best line? ‘It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.’
Get Carter (1971)
Once you get past Michael Caine’s dodgy accent (he’s no Geordie) this is classic British crime. Ted Lewis’ book might not have been set in Newcastle but his story is a great fit for its crumbling, post-industrial cityscape. Jack Carter risks the wrath of his London bosses to return home and solve his brother’s murder. Along the way, he has phone sex with Britt Eckland, walks out of a house naked holding a shotgun and throws a man to his death from a multi-storey car park, and that’s just a few of the highlights.
Best line? I’m going to avoid the obvious one and go for ‘Get yourself some Karate lessons,’ instead, uttered by Caine as he drops cash onto the bed of a severely beaten, very youthful Alun Armstrong.
LA Confidential (1997)
Micky Cohen’s Los Angeles is policed by the contrasting talents of Detectives Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the punch-first-ask-questions-later Bud White (Russell Crowe) and flash TV consultant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). Mickey’s gang are being 86’d by unknown rivals and this unlikely team finally uncover a shocking truth that’s closer to home than they ever could have imagined. Kim Basinger’s scene-stealing performance as world-weary, high-class escort, and Veronica Lake lookalike, Lynn Bracken, deservedly won her an Oscar.
Best line? ‘It’s off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.’
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Bob Hoskins’ finest hour as London crime boss, Harold Shand, dreaming of his big, deal with the New York mafia, to transform London’s derelict docklands into a lucrative, yuppie paradise. It all goes wrong when Harold’s men start dying and his pub is blown up right in front of him. His new nemesis is the IRA, thanks to a greedy right-hand man. But it’s okay because Harold is going to fix everything, leading to one of the best endings in British cinema history, when he tears a strip off his reticent mafia partners, before stepping into his car outside the Savoy, for a shock climax that needs no dialogue from Hoskins at all. The look on his face is enough.
Best line? ‘A sleeping partner’s one thing but you’re in a fucking coma.’
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Al Pacino in superb form yet again (for the fourth time on this list) as Lefty, a low-ranking hitman targeted by real-life, undercover FBI agent Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp), who brought down dozens of Mafiosi. The closer Donnie gets to Lefty, the more responsible he feels for the crooked mentor he must betray, even though the down-trodden killer has ‘clipped’ twenty-six guys.
Best line? I love Lefty’s comment ‘Thirty years I’m busting my hump. What have I got? Even a dog gets a warm piece of the sidewalk.’ But the very best line in Donnie Brasco? Hey, ‘Fuggedaboutit!’
Honourable mentions that almost made the cut: Mona Lisa, Chinatown, Carlito’s Way, Miller’s Crossing, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Body Heat, Seven, Casino, The Untouchables, Sexy Beast, Leon, The Sting, Cape Fear, The Big Sleep.