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8 brilliant classic crime adaptations

With crime such a rich genre full of twisting plotlines and action a-go-go, it’s not surprising that film-makers have turned to it so many times over the years as well. In fact, some of Tinseltown’s finest ever crime movies have their original source material residing in your local library. To prove it, we thought we’d run you through a few of our favourite classic crime adaptations. Here are our top picks.

8 brilliant classic crime adaptations

classic crime adaptations

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled introduction to the mean, double-crossing world of private detective Philip Marlowe is flat out one of the best novels ever written, crime or otherwise. There have been two adaptations, one starring Robert Mitchum in the late seventies and the most famous, the post-war noir classic with Humphrey Bogart in the lead role. Co-starring Lauren Bacall, it’s this version that people turn to when they want the ultimate in fedora-wearing and chain-smoking movie mystery. And rightly so.

classic crime adaptations


Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated crime classic goes down as an all-time favourite movie of many. It’s held in such high esteem that it’s often forgotten that the Raging Bull director adapted it from New York crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s mob chronicle, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Starring Ray Liotta, Goodfellas keeps pretty close to the book as it charts the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill. In fact, Pileggi co-wrote the screenplay to the movie that begins with the almost iconic line, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”

classic crime adaptations

The Silence of the Lambs

Thomas Harris’s wonderfully visceral and razor-sharp Dr Hannibal Lecter books have spawned some great films – Michael Mann’s Manhunter being a particular triumph. But it’s this 1991 horror thriller that’s best remembered by audiences. The film brings to life the vulnerable but tough Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and psychotic gender-confused serial murderer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). However it is, of course, Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Harris’s tremendous Lecter figure that we remember most of all. And to think, producers only settled on the Welshman after deals for Sean Connery, Gene Hackman and even Cadfael himself, Derek Jacobi, fell through!

classic crime adaptations

Strangers on a Train

The perfect combination of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock. Adapted by the great man just a year after being published, the eponymous train hosts two strangers in the shape of Farley Granger, a meek tennis player (an architect in the novel) and Robert Walker, a charming but psychopathic mummy’s boy dandy. Their chance encounter kickstarts a deadly pledge to ‘exchange murders’. Not only do we have Hitch behind the camera and excellent source material here, we’ve also got the legendary pulp writer Raymond Chandler on scripting duties. Look out for the vein of homoeroticism throughout, which is as pleasing as it is surprising – it was 1951, after all.

classic crime adaptations

Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie was a hard woman to please. She had always been very vociferous in her objection to adaptations of her books – and although she wasn’t exactly effusive about this 1974 outing starring Albert Finney as her Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, she did admit it was the best she’d seen. Others agree and were slightly more positive than Christie, rightly calling it one of the best whodunnit movies ever filmed.

classic crime adaptations

L A Confidential

Many Hollywood insiders branded James Ellroy’s twisting, turning crime novel virtually unfilmable. With dozens of intertwining stories and a multitude of complex characters, it just couldn’t work on screen. Or so they thought. Shot by Curtis Hanson and starring an ensemble cast including James Cromwell, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and newcomer Guy Pearce, this early ’50s potboiler of intrigue, murder and corruption is now regarded as one of the best crime movies ever burnt to celluloid.

classic crime adaptations

Brighton Rock

Graham Greene’s archetypal British gangster murder thriller was recently remade with Sam Riley, Andy Serkis and Helen Mirren and was gritty with some great performances, but not a shade on the first adaptation. 1947’s version sees the recently-departed Richard Attenborough in the lead role as the psychotic and ambitious young hood called ‘Pinkie’. America, presumably unfamiliar with both Brighton and sticks of seaside rock, renamed the film Young Scarface. Which really is a rubbish title, isn’t it?

classic crime adaptations

The Godfather

The quintessential crime film The Godfather is now considered one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time. But at the time of production, Mario Puzo’s book was almost toxic in Hollywood. Almost every film about the Mafia had bombed since the mob flick’s heyday. When filming started, there were rows and disagreements between everyone about almost everything. Luckily, the guidance of superstar producer Robert Evans saw everything come together perfectly. And thank God – what a picture we were given…

Have we missed your favourite? Let us know your top classic crime adaptations in the comments below!

Steve Charnock

Steve Charnock is a freelance writer who writes news stories, features, articles, reviews and lists. But *always* forgets to write his mum a birthday card.

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    For me, La Confidential is one of the greatest films of all time. Curtis Hanson, really got the best out of a stellar cast.

    Think Godfather II just fractionally better than the first. My opinion for what it’s worth.

    Looking forward to John Malkovich as Poirot: Branagh and his daft moustache just didn’t cut it for me. Attenborough’s Pinkie in Brighton Rock was indeed memorable

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