These days, many modern crime movies deal with the same themes – and many are still very good – especially those of British origin. I have a long love affair with English literature, London and the surrounding countryside so I can always appreciate a great British crime drama. Indeed, I sometimes get more of a kick out of the backgrounds than the procedural plot, which can be clichéd even with the highly developed and complex characters. Here I have listed five classic crime movies that have resonated deeply with me over the years. I have found these movies to be the most impactful, all of which I have noticed deal greatly with familial relationships. Much to my surprise, my top five classic crime movies happen to be American films. Let me know what you think about these movies and what your favourites are.
5 – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a relatively recent movie (US version, 2011), it is a classic in my book. I voraciously read this trilogy with great interest when it was first published in the United States, predicting that it would not only become a bestseller but an enduring one too. Many modern movies today deal with the same repetitious themes, which can be enjoyably familiar sometimes, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is strikingly dark, gritty and different. It has a twisted underlying family drama in the plot, following Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist who investigate the disappearance and assumed death of a business magnate’s grandniece. The compelling and dark Scandinavian setting makes this crime thriller all the more alluring; I couldn’t help but name this my fifth favorite crime movie.
4 – On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront was equally moving and deals with lost dreams – a favorite subject of mine. Marlon Brando stars as Terry Malloy, a once promising boxer who becomes caught up with the mob and its corruption. The characters in this movie are conflicted emotionally and morally – making them genuine depictions of human nature – especially the dynamic between Terry and his brother Charley. Somehow the spectator believes in the characters and is willing to follow them throughout the story. Without a belief in the characters no movie can be successful, especially in the crime genre.
3 – The Public Enemy
The Public Enemy made in 1931 (not to be confused with the 2009 movie, Public Enemies) traces the rise and fall of a prohibition-era mobster, Tom Powers who is played by James Cagney. The dynamic between Tom and his brother Mike is very similar to the relationship between Tom and Charley in On the Waterfront: two brothers are divided by the life of crime the other has chosen.
Tom also has a close relationship to his mom who dotes on him, although she is unaware of his criminal involvement. The Public Enemy is engraved in my mind, especially the last scene showing Cagney as a bandaged corpse falling into his mother’s house as she opens the door.
2 – White Heat
As with the previous movie, White Heat is another Cagney flick that is rooted to a family dynamic. Cagney’s character, Cody, has an unusually close relationship to his ‘Ma’ who is his only true confidante. They are both ruthlessly corrupt partners in crime who become consumed by their way of life. The scene of Cagney on top of a burning tower shouting, “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!”, is another image that is engraved in my mind. Odd, but both Cagney films, The Public Enemy and White Heat, stressed the feeling of a son for his mother – a primal emotion that still soars in my memory.
I love the character, mood, mystery and suspense of the crime genre, but I truly believe it is the fantasy of the crime genre that makes these sort of movies so alluring. We enjoy seeing the fantasy of gaining money and power fleshed out; sometimes we even enjoy seeing those who reach these goals end in disaster, like Cody whose ruthlessness is hard to empathise with. Perhaps we tell ourselves it is a battle between good and evil that makes us feel some comfort in reinforcing the presumption that we are on the good side.
1 – The Godfather
I loved the original novel and it seemed that the movie captured the atmosphere and characters portrayed in the book, especially the ruthless Godfather who was played by Marlon Brando. As with all the movies I mentioned, I believe that every effort was made to create familiar characters in a family setting as the family unit gropes for more and more power, playing out as a them against us struggle for dominance. These are Shakespearean themes that pique our interest because we are all engaged in some form of this familial dynamic.
Perhaps, too, my feelings for The Godfather stem from the original book by Mario Puzo. I knew him as my classmate at the New School in 1949 and 1950. We studied together at a kitchen table writing group during that period, both of us struggling to make our bones as writers. My choice might be slightly biased, but then again the US National Film Registry ranked The Godfather as the second best American film ever made.
Warren Adler is the author of the bestselling novel turned box-office hit, The War of the Roses, and author of the nine-book Fiona Fitzgerald Mysteries series, along with his stand-alone cozy mystery, Flanagan’s Dolls. For more about Warren and his books, click here.