CIS: The 20 greatest classic crime movies of all time

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silenceofthelambs540Classic_Crime_150x150Part of the joy of reading a fantastic new crime novel is to later see it turned into a film. It’s happened just about since the dawn of cinema a century or so ago – if a book sells well, it’ll reach the big screen. You can then compare what you imagined as you read it with what the director and his crew have envisaged.

So, as part of this year’s Classics in September event here on Crime Fiction Lover, our team has collaborated to create this listing of the best classic crime films of all time. Everyone has contributed, and we used a complex and highly empirical voting system to determine the movies and their order. A good number of these are based on classic crime books, and the rest are simply wonderful films. Read on and see if you agree with our picks…

Note: You may also like our Top 20 best crime shows here.

3rdman20020 – The Third Man (1949)
The Third Man is well-known for its jaunty musical score performed on the zither, as well being one of the finest films of all times. There’s even a Third Man museum in Vienna dedicated to the movie. Directed by Carol Reed, this atmospheric British film noir is set in Allied-occupied Vienna, a murky post-war world where there’s money to be made on the black market. The story centres on the suspicious death of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and features some of cinema’s most famous scenes including a pursuit through the city’s sewers and a tense, chilling meeting on a Ferris wheel. The Third Man was elegantly scripted by Graham Greene, although it was Welles who came up with the film’s famous Swiss cuckoo clock speech.
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highandlow30019 – High and Low (1963)
Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai period dramas, but he also directed a range of films based on western literature: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and this 1963 classic. Its story comes from Ed McBain’s 1959 novel King’s Ransom, part of the 87th Precinct series. It’s about a case of mistaken identity, when kidnappers abduct and hold a chauffeur’s son for ransom, rather than the son of a wealthy businessman, with a 1960s Japanese twist. The exchange of money occurs through a drop out the window of a moving train, at a time when Japan’s high speed trains had windows you could open. The film shows Kurosawa’s mastery of black and white cinematography in what was a contemporary story rather than a celebration of samurai.
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vertigo20018 – Vertigo (1958)
Here Alfred Hitchcock directed James Stewart as the troubled detective Scottie, who has had to retire temporarily from active service due to severe acrophobia. He is called upon to investigate Madeleine, the supposedly suicidal and enigmatic wife of an acquaintance of his. He shadows her across San Francisco and falls in love with his quarry, but is unable to stop her jumping from a church tower. Profoundly shaken by this experience, he becomes withdrawn and obsessive. Then he meets a woman who reminds him of Madeleine… and that’s when things get dizzyingly complicated. In moments of real poignancy and understated terror, Hitchcock addresses themes of fear, guilt, betrayal, misinterpretation of events and the objectification of women.
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italianjob20017 – The Italian Job (1969)
This caper movie featured the bizarre but winning combination of screen heart-throb Michael Caine, comedian Benny Hill, and Noel Coward. Coward is a jailed criminal called The Master who bankrolls an audacious attempt by Cockney gangster Caine to steal a fortune in gold bullion in Italy. Aided by Hill’s computer expert, the gang escapes with the loot, but end up in a famous cliff-hanger ending. The real stars of the film may well be the Mini Coopers used in the getaway, which somehow show that a little quaint Britishness might outstrip Italian style. Many of the one-liners from the film’s dialogue have become catchphrases, most notably: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” There was a 2003 remake, but it didn’t blow the doors off anything…
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houndofthebaskervillesdvd20016 – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Of the many film and television versions of this classic tale by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the 1939 movie directed by Sidney Lanfield that really captures its essence. It featured the great pairing of Basil Rathbone as Holmes, and Nigel Bruce as Watson, but the headline star was the young romantic lead Richard Greene in the role of Sir Henry. Although some of the recent film versions have had more convincing special effects, the spine chilling mists of Dartmoor, the menace of Grimpen Mire, and the little-seen giant spectral hound have never been scarier. The later Holmes adventures with Rathbone and Bruce strayed much further from the original stories and this first film was the best they made.
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godfather20015 – The Godfather (1972)
Based on Mario Puzo’s bestseller, The Godfather sees Marlon Brando’s aging Don Corleone exert his family’s influence in both legitimate business and organised crime operations. They’ll intimidate a film executive using the horse’s-head-in-the-bed technique, but turn down offers to get involved in drug trafficking. The latter creates friction with the other New York crime families so Corleone is gunned down and barely survives. Returning from wartime service, his youngest son Michael, played by Al Pacino, must put aside his fiancée (Diane Keaton) and re-establish the family’s position in the face of corrupt cops and deadly gangster opponents. Excellent performances, utterly convincing dialogue, gripping action and perfect direction care of Francis Ford Coppola.
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brightonrockstill20014 – Brighton Rock (1947)
Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of the young, razor-wielding psychopath Pinkie in this 1947 film has ensured his big screen immortality – though in this world the actor sadly passed away in August. Graham Greene published the novel in 1938, and co-wrote the Brighton Rock screenplay with Terence Rattigan. Pinkie Brown is a petty criminal who works racecourses, and is involved in betting scams, debt collection and racketeering in the seaside town. Also starring Hermione Baddeley and William Hartnell, the film became an instant noir classic. Director John Boulting and his brother Roy went on to direct many other pictures in the UK, mostly of a more lighthearted nature.
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badlands30013 – Badlands (1973)
Badlands was directed by Terrence Malick who proved just what he could accomplish in terms of visceral, atmospheric filmmaking. Sissy Spacek’s Holly is a bored and unloved 15-year-old living in South Dakota. Falling for good-looking no-hoper Kit – played by Martin Sheen – she becomes an accomplice as, after deflowering her, he goes on a killing spree that begins with her own father. Their trip takes them into the Badlands of Montana and towards Canada. He kills without passion, she observes without judgement. The only reason for each successive murder is not to get caught for the previous one, it seems. Beautifully shot and gritty, the film’s amoral main characters slashed through the notion that the American heartland is uniformly wholesome.
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whiteheat20012 – White Heat (1949)
James Cagney never actually said, ‘You… you dirty rat!’ but thanks to impersonators he is remembered for that line and, of course, his gangster persona. The latter was never more to the fore or more terrifying than in this 1949 Raoul Walsh movie in which Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychopathic killer with a mother fixation. Two scenes will be burned into your memory. First, Jarrett goes berserk in a prison canteen after being told via Chinese whispers that his beloved Ma is dead. And the second one is the amazing climax when he perishes on top of a gas storage tank still yelling, “Top of the world, Ma.”
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39stepsstill20011 – The 39 Steps (1935)
The 39 Steps is based on John Buchan’s novel, and it’s just as thrilling but without the unpleasant antisemitism in the book. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the film stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, who’s suspected of the murder of an agent investigating an organisation of spies. He flees to Scotland, which is the only lead he has in tracking down the enemy agents and clearing his name. It’s obvious to the audience that Hannay is an upstanding chap, but the fun is watching him trying to persuade fellow train passenger Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) to help him. With Hannay desperately trying to evade capture by good guys and bad guys, there’s a masterful melding of comedy and peril by Hitchcock. The long-running London stage show is also an enduring, energetic treat.
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maltesefalconstill20010 – The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Both the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel The Maltese Falcon, and the movie made 12 years later, are rightly held in great reverence. Debut director John Huston assembled a cast of actors who would become legends in their own right, while he went on to make a frightening cameo in Chinatown (see below). Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Mary Astor, Elisha Cooke Jr and even a young Ward ‘Wagon Train’ Bond made this a dream ticket. As Sam Spade (Bogart) tries to outwit the chancers and crooks, the search for the jewel-encrusted falcon statuette becomes paramount. This was actually the third version of the story to be filmed, but it’s the one that’s regarded as noir gold dust by crime fiction lovers.
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frenchconnection2009 – The French Connection (1971)
This fast paced movie was based on a factual account – under the same title – of attempts to disrupt the circuitous but effective heroin trail which started in Turkey, and went via France and Canada to the USA. The image of Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, played by Gene Hackman wearing a trademark pork pie hat, has become a cinema icon. With nerve jangling car chases, atmospheric locations and great acting support from Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey, William Friedkin’s film won pretty much all the awards going at the time, and was the first R-rated film to take the Oscar for best film.
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bigsleepstill2008 – The Big Sleep (1946)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star in the classic film noir of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel. Bogart is the perfect Philip Marlowe, Bacall as Vivian Rutledge is the perfect femme fatale. Marlowe is summoned to the mansion of a wealthy retired general to resolve his daughter’s gambling debts, but the general’s other daughter, Vivian, suspects other reasons. Though Chandler’s plot was altered slightly to avoid some sexual elements of the story deemed too spicy in the 1940s, this cannot not dislodge it from its place among the all-time classic crime movies.
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se7en2007 – Se7en (1995)
Director David Fincher is exceptional when it comes to concept pictures, and in Se7en we have a meticulous and methodical killer who is governed in his violence by the Seven Deadly Sins. A fat man must be force-fed to death as he’s a glutton, a lawyer must bleed for his greed, and so forth. The sage-like wisdom of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is offset by the keyed up Mills (Brad Pitt), and as their investigation brings them ever closer to the killer it turns out that what he’s staging is not necessarily a sermon to society – he has a much more specific audience in mind. Just as Hitchcock had the wonderful Saul Bass create his titles in the 50s and 60s, Fincher turned to Kyle Cooper whose graphics really do add a little extra mystery to the proceedings.
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strangersonatrain2006 – Strangers on a Train (1951)
Alfred Hitchcock’s retelling of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller has a more cinematic climax than the novel, but doesn’t lack any of the book’s psychological punch. When young tennis star Guy Haines meets Bruno Anthony – a stranger, on a train – the latter suggests that they can solve one another’s problems. Haines wants to be rid of his wife, who refuses to divorce, and Bruno wants to get rid of his father. He suggests that if they swap murders, there will be no way that either will ever get caught. Haines originally ignores this, but finds himself drawn in when Bruno honours his half of the deal, and insists that Guy do the same. The film’s final confrontation sees Hitchcock at his best – creepy, dark and tense.
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rearwindow2005 – Rear Window (1954)
This excellent Hitchcock picture launched a thousand remakes, parodies, novels and reinterpretations including Blow Up and The Conversation. Photographer Jeff (James Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair one hot New York summer and starts making up stories about the neighbours in the building across the courtyard. Equipped with binoculars, he becomes less scrupulous about spying on them and is soon convinced he has witnessed a murder. Hitchcock plays with our love of cinema, storytelling and gossip, and thus mocks our voyeurism and the unreliability of our senses. The murder scene is never fully depicted, it is all about innuendo rather than hard facts. While the film is rife with suspenseful scenes, especially with Jeff a sitting duck target at one point, the most chilling and unforgettable moment is when the killer turns to stare at him directly, in close-up, via the telephoto lens.
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nightofthehunter5404 – The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Directed by Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter is a noir thriller featuring one of the most memorable villains in the movies. In a departure from more heroic roles, Robert Mitchum plays Reverend Harry Powell, a self-appointed preacher. He carries a switchblade, has ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckes and is partial to a bit of creepy crooning. He’s also a serial killer who weds then murders women. Powell’s latest target is the widow of a criminal in 1930s Virginia, but he’s holding out for a hidden stash of the late husband’s illicit money. However, her children don’t trust the preacher, which leads to a terrifying riverboat chase – you really believe that the preacher is intent on murdering them. Laughton’s only film as director went on to influence David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.
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getcarter2503 – Get Carter (1971)
Based on Ted Lewis’ 1969 novel Jack’s Return Home, and directed by Mike Hodges, Get Carter is widely regarded as the greatest crime film Britain has produced. Jack Carter, a London hard man (Michael Caine) travels back home to Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother, and unleashes a storm of retribution on those responsible. The crunching violence, the grim and atmospheric settings, and the brilliant dialogue have made this a cult movie. Caine is at his awesome best, but he is supported by a cast full of great character actors such as Ian Hendry, George Sewell and the playwright John Osborne.
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Silenceofthelambs1502 – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again.” The utterly deranged serial killer Buffalo Bill was something else, but aside from the film’s gory horror aspects what’s really outstanding about The Silence of the Lambs is the relationship that develops between FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and the caged, hyper-intellectual killer Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). She goes to him for help profiling Buffalo Bill. Used to macho and aggressive cops, Lecter is taken by her vulnerability and doesn’t miss the chance to bring out Starling’s own inner fears, which trouble her almost as much as the murderer she’s hunting. Forensics, procedure, psychology, terror – The Silence of the Lambs has it all. Based on the novel by Thomas Harris, no wonder it bagged five Oscars.
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chinatown5401 – Chinatown (1974)
This excellent movie was directed by Roman Polanski – who makes a brief appearance as a sadistic gangster – using a screenplay by Robert Towne. The dark tale about the corrupt land and water rights deals that went on in 1930s LA featured star performances from Jack Nicholson as a streetwise investigator, Faye Dunaway as a beautiful rich widow, and John Huston as her manipulative father. As Nicholson’s character puts his life on the line trying to find out who killed Dunaway’s husband, he gradually senses something very wrong is going on. The scene where Dunaway reveals the precise relationship between herself, her daughter, and Huston is gut-wrenching and unforgettable. The exchange, “What did you do in Chinatown?” / “As little as possible,” sounds trite, but certainly hints at the moral ambiguity of this undoubted classic.
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Have we missed one of your favourites? Tell us about it below.


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