In the glow of the Academy Awards, I wanted to do something that was both crime fiction and film-related, but I’ve seen too few of the current award contenders. I retreated to the past. Though I realize I have no special standing other than being a long-time fan, here is a revised list of my favorite crime films, most of them written about on this blog during the last four or five years.
1. Blade Runner — Is it possible for a robot to have a soul? Director Ridley Scott builds a fantastic marriage of noir and science fiction. Just as L.A. Confidential recreates the recent past, Blade Runner creates a believable near future. (Based on the novel, Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick)
2. No Country for Old Men — Heads or Tails, die now or later. It makes no difference — whatever you do, evil stalks you and yours. The typical Coen Brothers dark humor rides a desolately bleak thin line as the movie tells us there is no escaping evil or the collateral damage it brings. (Based on a book by Cormac McCarthy).
3. Gosford Park — This is an Agatha Christie tale on steroids, though it was not based on an Agatha Christie story. Before he created television’s continuing compulsion “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes created Gosford Park, a kind of murder-in-the-parlor mystery that tops the cozy sub-genre. Robert Altman directs a sterling cast.
4. Fargo — The Coen Brothers do it again and again. They can make you believe in the absurd. Unlike No Country, Fargo’s dark humor is laugh out-loud. The people are so real and yet what they do is so insane. That’s why we laugh. It’s so true.
5. The Godfather — This is the standard against which “mafia” movies are measured. However, it is much more than that. Francis Ford Coppola sets up the relativity and the complexity of right and wrong in a powerful, richly told tale that transcends genre. (Based on the bestselling book by Mario Puzo).
6. The Maltese Falcon —What can I say? As a mystery writer favoring private investigator fiction, this just might be as good as it gets. Unlike the uneven screenplays based on Raymond Chandler’s classics, this Hammett genre tale directed by John Huston may be the first best private eye film, perfectly rendered.
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (also Purple Noon) The second version is the American film, starring Matt Damon and directed by Anthony Minghella; while Purple Noon is the same film done earlier by the French with Alain Delon and directed by René Clément. Both are excellent portraits of the charming, ingenious sociopathic Ripley. The films are intricate, fun, and stylish. Cynicism at its best. Timeless. Ripley’s Game, with John Malkovich as Ripley, is also a fine crime film. (Based on novels by Patricia Highsmith)
8. L.A. Confidential — You can choose to watch a movie made in the 1950s. Or you can watch a 1950s film from the perspective of the late 1990s. Oddly, the rear-view mirror approach in this case gives us cinematography not available in the fifties. It was directed by Curtis Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy.
9. The Kennel Club Murder Case — William Powell stars as Philo Vance giving us an unintentional preview of his famous characterization of Nick Charles in the popular, light-hearted Thin Man series. The movie was based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine. It was directed by Michael Curtiz and costarred Mary Astor.
10. Chinatown — Roman Polanski may be one of the most underrated directors by American critics. However, this film shows up on nearly everyone’s list. There’s no question about its qualifications. It’s Los Angeles a couple of decades after L.A. Confidential. Being a cop in L.A. doesn’t get you a ticket to heaven. (A lesser-known Polanski film, Frantic, is also well-worth watching.)
11. Atlantic City — Burt Lancaster proves he was more than a big star — he was a fine actor. This is an unlikely, unpredictable and some would say “quirky” film about a gangster sent out to pasture. Directed by Louis Malle and written by John Guare.
12. Key Largo — Edward G. Robinson steals the movie from Bogart and Bacall, though it wasn’t fun seeing the old gangster in a bathtub, it’s a work of art. Black and white never looked better. Directed by John Huston and based on the play by Maxwell Anderson.
13. Laura — Gene Tierney (no relation, unfortunately) may have been the draw, but Clifton Webb makes a good and mysterious film extraordinary. Vincent Price and Dana Andrews also appear. Directed by Otto Preminger, and based on the book by Vera Caspary.
14. Red Rock West — Of all the definitions of noir — and I admit a bit of confusion — this one seems to hit all the marks. One bad, desperate, but seemingly harmless decision leads to trouble, followed by more trouble. Directed by John Dahl. For those who love to disparage Nicholas Cage, forget about it. He’s great in this one. Dennis Hopper is also featured.
15. Blood and Wine — It’s worth watching if for no other reason than to see Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson compete for the nastiest character in an entertainingly nasty film. Directed by Bob Rafelson.
16. The Good Thief — A sometimes dark, sometimes hilarious and often sexy caper movie. No one could have played the thief better than Nick Nolte. Directed by Neil Jordan, the film was based on Bob le flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville and Auguste Le Breton. The rare appearance of actress Nutsa Kukhianidze is a plus.
17. Rififi – Perhaps this should be higher on the list. Directed by American Jules Dassin, but based on a book by French author Auguste Le Breton, this meticulous heist film loses nothing in translation and is no doubt inspired by and an inspiration for US. Noir films of the 1950s. It stars Jean Servais.
18. Twilight — This is a small, but well-constructed film that may be the last best P.I. film. Add to this Paul Newman, James Garner, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon in masterful late-in-life performances, and you have a jewel. Directed by Robert Benton.
19. To Catch a Thief — Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are arresting, fascinating, and could be on this list. But none, in my opinion, combine acting, story and setting in as polished a way as To Catch A Thief, based on the book by David F. Dodge.
20. Point Blank — Lee Marvin dominates this near-perfectly rendered and unexpectedly stylish film directed by John Boorman. Point Blank was based on Richard Starke’s (Donald Westlake) book, The Hunter.