A little while back, I wrote an article for Dead Good listing the top ten best crime films of all time. This was a bit controversial, because the list was entirely my subjective choice. Not many people argued against the films I chose but there were quite a few tweets of the ‘How could you not include this classic…?’ variety. It also got me thinking about the lesser-known, underrated crime movies. The great ones that never seem to quite make it into anyone’s all-time list.
Read on now for my top ten underrated crime movies, in no particular order, and if your favourite under-appreciated movie is not here then tell us about it, preferably with the words ‘How could you not have included this classic…?’
1. The Hit (1984)
This little gem of a film, directed by Stephen Frears, stars the nearly always brilliant Terence Stamp as London gangster turned grass, Willie Parker. His former criminal associates are out for revenge so they hire a hit man, Braddock – played by John Hurt – and his young apprentice Myron – a youthful Tim Roth – to kidnap Parker, who accepts this turn of events with such calm even his would-be assassins are astonished. They take him to meet his fate, along with Maggie, Laura del Sol, a civilian who gets in their way, while the police are on their trail. The performances here are all spot on and you never stop wondering what the outcome will be. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a page turner.
‘I think you’re crazy, but I admire your attitude.’
2. Body Heat (1981)
Shortly before William Hurt became a multi-Oscar nominee for Kiss of the Spider Woman, Broadcast News and Children of a Lesser God, he was perfectly cast as Ned Racine, the lead in this updated, steamy remake of crime classic Double Indemnity. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, before his Indiana Jones and Star Wars films, Body Heat also featured a young Mickey Rourke, as well as Ted Danson of Cheers fame. It launched the career of none other than Kathleen Turner, who steals every scene as femme-fatale Matty, tempting Racine to murder her husband and free her from a loveless marriage, so they can be together. Of course, when a film is this noir, you just know it is never going to be that simple.
‘You aren’t too bright. I like that in a man.’
3. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The Cohen Brothers have made some pretty weird films but I prefer them when they stick to a crime story like Blood Simple, Fargo or the almost forgotten Miller’s Crossing. Actually, even this one isn’t a simple tale but it is bloody good. Gabriel Byrne stars as Irish gangster Tom Reagan, right hand man to the older O’Bannon, played by Albert Finney. The two men have a falling out that seemingly pits one against the other from now on – and of course there’s a woman involved. What follows is a complex tale involving friendship, loyalty and betrayal, with some darkly comic scenes. The best one? When Byrne is forced, at gunpoint, to find the corpse of a man he was ordered to kill in the woods, but didn’t, in order to prove that he did, or he’ll be next. Still with me? Good. How the hell does he get out of this one, you might well ask. Watch Miller’s Crossing and find out.
‘If you want me to keep my mouth shut, it’s gonna cost you some dough. I figure a thousand bucks is reasonable, so I want two.’
4. Mona Lisa (1986)
This might not be Bob Hoskins’ absolute finest hour – that was when he played Harold Shand in one of the best British crime films ever made, The Long Good Friday – but Mona Lisa is still pretty damned good. Hoskins plays George, a lowly gangster recently released from prison, a tough guy but so far down the food chain he is reliant on crime boss Mortwell (Michael Caine) to get a job back in his firm. George is tasked with driving a high-priced prostitute, Simone (Cathy Tyson), from client to client. They clash to begin with but then start to get along, and George begins to have feelings for her. Trusting him to help her, Simone asks George to find her missing friend Cathy, bringing him into the dangerous orbit of Simone’s former pimp, Anderson. Directed by Neil Jordan, Mona Lisa builds to a violent, underworld climax when the naïve and trusting George finally opens his eyes and discovers the truth.
‘Being cheap is one thing. Looking cheap is another. That really takes talent.’
5. The Secret In Their Eyes (2009)
I’ve not seen the Hollywood remake but this joint Argentine/Spanish crime drama is worth a few subtitles for the build up to its mind-blowing final scene. The story darts back and forth across twenty-five years, starting with the initial investigation into a rape and murder case that is never fully resolved then picking up again when the chief investigator looks back on it years later. Oh, and that final devastating scene. No spoilers but the simple words ‘Please… Tell him… Tell him to at least talk to me,’ are chilling.
‘If you keep going over the past, you’re going to end up with a thousand pasts and no future.’
6. The Crying Game (1992)
Another Neil Jordan directorial effort to make this list, The Crying Game launched Stephen Rea and also starred Adrian Dunbar, Miranda Richardson and Forest Whitaker, but much of the movie is stolen by newcomer Jaye Davidson as Dil, a cabaret singer. Rea plays Fergus, a disillusioned IRA man who flees Ireland following the death of an abducted British soldier, whose partner, Dil, he tracks down and becomes obsessed with. The IRA are not going to let him go that easily though. When they find Fergus in London, they order him to carry out a hit on a British judge, threatening to kill Dil if he does not comply. That in itself is a pretty good plot but there is a twist in this film that is so unexpected, cinema audiences actually let out a collective gasp when I first saw it. Bloody brilliant.
‘Have you ever tried to pick up your teeth with broken fingers?’
7. Hell Drivers (1957)
The oldest film on this list, directed by Cy Endfield and starring Stanley Baker who teamed up memorably nine years later to make Zulu together, Hell Drivers features Patrick McGoohan as a memorable villain. Ex con Tom Yately (Baker) starts work as a lorry driver, transporting loads from a nearby quarry. He has to drive at speed on bad roads to make his quota and earn a bonus or be fired if he fails. The other drivers, led by the bullying Red (McGoohan), try everything to stop him. Tom realises the dangerous driving and large quotas are part of a scam to charge for drivers that are not actually on the payroll. He is soon heading for a high-speed confrontation with Red and his boss Cartley, played by William Hartnell, the first Doctor Who. This is the kind of gritty, black-and-white British crime film you’d end up watching on your granny’s TV as a kid, on a rainy Friday afternoon when there was nothing else to do. That’s how I discovered it.
‘Yes, it’s true. I wasn’t framed and nobody talked me into anything. And the judge didn’t give me a raw deal. Happy?’
8. The Last Seduction (1994)
Famously noir director John Dahl made his name with films like Red Rock West, Kill Me Again and Rounders. This is the pick of the bunch, thanks to a cracking script and a scene-dominating performance from Linda Fiorentino, ably supported by Bill Pullman and Peter Berg. Bridgit (Fiorentino) cons her crooked-doctor husband Clay out of the proceeds from a drug deal and goes on the run, hiding in a small town, where she hooks up with local guy Mike (Berg) and runs him ragged in classic femme-fatale manner. Basically, Mike has a big secret, Clay is out to get Bridgit, a loan shark is after Clay but Bridgit wants out with his money, so something has to give. The sparkling dialogue and cold-hearted characters turned The Last Seduction into a nineties classic.
‘Anyone check you for a heartbeat recently?’
9. The Player (1992)
Director Robert Altman rounded up dozens of celebrities to make cameo appearances in this superior Hollywood-set crime film. Tim Robbins plays film studio executive Griffin Mill, one of those select guys who can green-light a movie but he hears so many 25-words-or-less pitches he is a jaded, cynical figure, hated by the writers he rejects – one of whom starts sending him death threats. Griffin’s job is threatened by a rival who has just started work at the studio. More on edge than normal, he confronts his suspected blackmailer, hoping to appease him with a development deal but they quarrel, then fight, and Griffin kills the man. The police suspect him, especially when he becomes obsessed with his victim’s wife, but that’s not the worst part. The threatening letters don’t stop. It turns out Griffin killed the wrong guy.
‘Twenty-five words or less? Okay. Movie exec calls writer. Writer’s girlfriend says he’s at the movies. Exec goes to the movies, meets writer, drinks with writer. Writer gets conked and dies in four inches of dirty water. Movie exec is in deep shit. What do you think?’
10. Grifters (1990)
Annette Bening first came to prominence playing con artist Myra Langtry in the second film on this list directed by Stephen Frears. Another stellar cast is completed by Angelica Huston, J T Walsh and John Cusack. They are all Grifters, working cons in a film based on cult writer Jim Thompson’s gritty crime novel, adapted by Donald Westlake. The plot centres around the money that Lily (Huston) has been slowly stealing from her crime boss, which is coveted by Myra (Bening), who is seeing Lily’s son, Roy (Cusack). It turns out no one can trust anyone in this world, not even a mother and her son.
‘I gave you your life twice. I’m asking you to give me mine once.’
What are your favourite underrated crime movies? Let us know in the comments below!