Films involving criminals, drugs, robberies, gangsters, murderers, and cops. We have all seen them, and we all have our favourites. There are the big blockbusters, the old Hollywood films, and some that are legendary. The following selection offers some that are not that well-known, and perhaps give a different slant on the genre, or maybe they don’t. You decide.
The Outfit. This 1973 film hands Robert Duvall a starring role as Macklin, a small-time crook, just released from prison. He learns that the Syndicate are after him, and have killed his brother, as they were unaware that they had stolen money from this ‘Outfit’. Accompanied by his girlfriend (Karen Black), he enlists the help of his friend Cody ( Joe Don Baker), and sets out to get revenge. He does this by robbing all of the undercover operations run on behalf of The Outfit, stealing a fortune in the process. Over time, he gets ever nearer to the head of this anonymous organisation ( Robert Ryan, in one of his last films), becoming a thorn in their side. This feels like a B film, in every way imaginable, yet is none the worse for that. The 1970’s cars and clothes, the flat colours of the cinematography, and uninspired locations, all seem to add to the atmospheric feel. The lead actors are all suitably dowdy, and therefore more believable, and there are a few wonderfully overblown cameos from some bit-part actors on the way. This is certainly not a landmark film, but it is interesting, and different, so worth a watch. Here’s a good clip.
Atlantic City. This is a 1980 film, one of two made in America, by the French director, Louis Malle. It stars Burt Lancaster, as Lou, in one of his best performances, alongside Susan Sarandon, as the trainee casino worker, and the object of Lou’s desire. Lou is like the city he lives in, trading on former glory, fantasies, and a faded past. He is a small-time hustler, who likes to pretend he was once a big-time gangster. He spends his time spinning yarns about the old days, running a small numbers racket, and living off his ageing girlfriend Grace, played by Kate Reid. One day, he spots the young and attractive Sally, who is working selling shellfish to fund her casino training, and becomes obsessed with her, forming an unlikely relationship. Her ex-husband turns up, a low-life who has stolen drugs from the mob, and is on the run. He is tracked down by them, and killed, leaving the drugs behind with Sally. She and Lou decide to sell them, and the elderly Lou finally achieves some credibility, at least by his reckoning, as an Atlantic City drug dealer. This film is surprisingly warm, and often humourous. The acting standards are high, and performances impeccable. The slow pace is both understandable, and welcome, and the whole thing screams class, at every turn. Here is Burt Lancaster, the worm turning.
The Limey. This is an American film, directed in 1999, by Stephen Soderbergh. However, it stars Terence Stamp, the superb English actor, famous for his films in the 1960’s. There is even frequent use of clips from one of these films, ‘Poor Cow’, used for the flashback sequences in this film, to portray Stamp as a younger man. Stamp dominates this film as Wilson, the ruthless English criminal, just released from a long sentence. He learns that his daughter has died in a car crash in Los Angeles, where she had been living with a famous record producer (Peter Fonda). Wilson flies out to the city, determined to find out the truth for himself. He enlists the help of one of his daughter’s friends (the always reliable Luis Guzman), and sets about tracking down those responsible. This film is not about the action, though when it comes, it does so in realistic, short, sharp bursts. It is about recrimination, the longing for a wasted youth, and failure as a father. It also has something to say about modern pop culture, and its disposable attitude to everything, including people. Stamp is never less than riveting throughout the film, and a satisfying pace, as well as a prevailing sense of edginess, lift this work above much else in the genre. As you may gather, I like it a lot. This clip shows Stamp at his menacing best.
Donnie Brasco. A big budget, and a cast of Hollywood A-list stars, does not necessarily guarantee a great film. I am sure you can think of many examples where this is true, I know I can. In this film, directed in 1997, by Mike Newell, that combination comes together perfectly, and the casting is the main reason why. Johnny Depp takes the title role of Donnie, the assumed name of an FBI agent, who spends his life undercover, infiltrating the Mafia. This was a true story, and is based on the book by the actual agent. Al Pacino was born to play the part of Lefty, a tired hit-man, with little influence in the organisation, always broke, and struggling to make ends meet. He is passed over for promotion in his gang, watching this hoped for step-up go to Sonny Black, played with his usual wry grin, by Michael Madsen. Seeking to increase his income, and to find favour with the new boss, Lefty brings Donnie into the group, falling for his cover story, and believing him to be a ‘stand up guy’. Meanwhile, Donnie’s real life is coming apart. His wife wants to leave him, as he is never home, and she has no idea what he is doing. His children hardly know him, and his FBI superiors feel that he is getting in too deep. The interplay between Pacino and Depp is pure joy, and marks Johnny Depp as a truly great actor. Pacino gives the performance of his life, as the hot and cold hoodlum, capable of incredible violence, then going home to watch wildlife films in his tiny apartment, unable to control his own drug-addicted son. As Donnie infiltrates ever deeper, things begin to fall apart around Lefty, and the downward spiral of his life begins. A brilliant gangster film, every bit as good as the others that will spring into your minds; and possibly better than all of them. Here is the trailer.
The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coen brothers. Like them, love them even, or loathe them, you cannot deny talent when you see it. I might argue that they have good and bad days, resulting in good and bad films. If so, this was one of their better days, and produced an exquisite work. Set in 1949, with a perfect feel for the period, enhanced by wonderful black and white photography, this 2001 film recalls the film noir of that era; the smoky rooms of small-town America, on the other side of the post-war boom. Billy Bob Thornton is Ed Crane, town barber, second chair in his brother-in-law’s shop. He cuts hair, smokes constantly, and shoots the breeze with his customers. Inside, he dreams of better things; his own dry-cleaning business, something to support his attractive wife Doris. (Played by Frances McDormand, who is almost always in Coen brothers films, as she is married to Joel Coen. Good actress though, despite the obvious nepotism.) Doris meanwhile, is having an affair with her department store boss, (James Gandolfini) drinking too much, and aspiring to nicer things. Ed decides to exploit the situation by blackmailing the boss, and getting the money he needs for the new business. Even without plot spoilers, you can probably guess what happens. It doesn’t really matter though, as this captivating film would still be worth the effort, even if they showed the ending first. Here is the short trailer.
There you have five choices, about various crimes. They include a couple of my very favourites, and one lesser, though still interesting, example of the genre. If you don’t like them, I will be sorry, but that’s up to you, isn’t it?