Crime on Film

Not only did I read crime/thriller books during August, but I also watched a fair few DVDs.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Early Tarantino, dialogue rich, but restrained compared to what was to come from him. I bought the ‘Petrol Can’ DVD set for a bargain price in a closing down sale somewhere (and yes, I did feel like a vulture, circling and waiting for something to die). A criminal ‘mastermind’ assembles his dream team for the perfect heist, only one of them is an undercover cop and another is a psychopath, so all in all it’s a recipe for distress, and of course things go horribly wrong, with much firing of guns and copious blood loss. Michael Madsen excels as the toe tapping, ear slicing lunatic who’ll shoot you as soon as look at you, while Harvey Keitel is brilliant as ever as a career criminal who can’t help but wonder what he’s got himself into. In fact all of the cast fit perfectly into their roles, with even Tarantino himself turning in a stellar performance (and perhaps playing to type) as the garrulous know it all Mr Brown. It’s very much an in-your-face film, with everybody shouting at each other and obscenities flying, but also a film with moments of humour and pitch black comedy (the already mentioned Madsen soft shoe shuffle, the scene where the gang argue about names etc). No happy ending, just a set littered with dead and bleeding bodies, like some modern day Elsinore as the curtain falls. I loved it.

Narc (2002)

Jason Patric is Nick Tellis, a narcotics officer involved in a fatal shooting, who gets the chance to redeem himself by investigating the murder of an undercover policeman, but for a partner he’s stuck with Henry Oak (Ray Liotta), a friend of the dead man who is renowned for getting results, but not too fussy about the methods he uses to do so. The two of them tear up the underworld, beating the crap out of anyone who won’t tell them what they want to know, with Tellis slowly coming round to Oak’s way of thinking, even as his family are alienated by his behaviour. But of course there’s more to it than there appears to be, and as the trail leads them to a chop shop Tellis must make a decision about how far over the line he’s prepared to go. I wasn’t so keen on this. The plot all seemed a bit routine and predictable (of course Oak killed his cop friend, though his reasons for doing so are interesting), and visually it was trying a bit too hard for the grunge look courtesy of Heat with a blue filter and everyone sporting designer stubble, except the women. The two leads turned in decent performances – Patric as the good man led into temptation, Liotta as the self-righteous evangelist – but they weren’t De Niro and Pacino, not even close. And there was the tendency for the characters to mumble, something you often get with US crime movies. It was okay, but I won’t be in a hurry to watch it again.

The Untouchables (1987)

I didn’t like this when it came out, and I still don’t like it now. Costner stars as the idealistic but green behind the ears Eliot Ness, given the task of bringing down Al Capone’s criminal empire, while Sean Connery is the streetwise Irish cop who talks some sense into him. Yeah, yeah, the shootout at the railway station with the baby in the pram is spectacular, but for the rest of its overlong running time the film is slow, tedious even in places, with little feel for the bootlegging era that it’s set in and no great tension, even as and when they shoot up the shop. Costner is pretty flat, never really grabbing the role by the throat as it needs to be, while quintessential Scotsman Connery seems to be parodying himself with a dodgy Irish accent and shamrock green underpants, quoting the Irish cop equivalent of koans to Costner’s ‘grasshopper’. De Niro as Capone acts them both off the screen (and, to be fair, he has the meatier role) with a larger than life performance, one that makes the gangster seem both charismatic and a stone cold killer. Other than that, the film didn’t really appeal to me, and there were times when I found myself almost drifting off.

Goodfellas (1990)

I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t seen Scorsese’s film before. Based on a true story, it stars Ray Liotta as Henry Hill, a youngster fascinated by the gangster culture that rules his neighbourhood, who goes on to become a leading light of the local mob, before turning against his former associates to save his own neck. Liotta is excellent as the man who thinks not only that he can have everything but that he’s entitled to it, slowly growing in selfishness and becoming ever more indulgent as the story progresses. De Niro is as good as ever as older mobster James Conway, at first an examplar for the impressionable Hill, but with age growing paranoid and eventually becoming somebody Hill has to guard against. And special mention to Joe Pesci, an actor who hasn’t impressed me much over the years, but here superb as nutcase Tommy DeVito, a man with a hairtrigger temper and absurd sense of his own dignity. He’s somebody who makes the others want to laugh, but they daren’t laugh just in case he takes it the wrong way: that kind of sociopath. The story is long but never boring, not so much crime film as a film about criminals, a history come screen capture of the times in which it was set, an age when the mob ruled the roost and everybody else danced to their tune. At least that is the impression given by viewpoint character Hill, though how accurate that view is generally is another matter. What comes across clearly is the ‘glamour’ of the mob, and the cultural values they promote, that being a goodfella means something other than just a criminal. For Hill, as for Billy Bathgate in Doctorow’s novel, the mob is a lifestyle choice, an integrated part of society, with graft to grease the wheels of the machinery of justice, and civilians largely left alone as long as they pay their dues and accept the status quo. Central is the idea of a finely tuned balance between the forces of law and the mob, with the applecart upset to the detriment of all when one side gets too ambitious, and the sense that the times they are a changing, epitomised by the younger mobsters moving into drugs, something their elders wouldn’t touch, and the betrayals that come at the end, which would have been unthinkable to the previous generation, the portrayal of a community, albeit a criminal one, whose values are undermined and destroyed. I thoroughly enjoyed this, though I was disappointed that it didn’t seem to have anywhere near as much bad language as I’d been led to expect.

True Romance (1993)

Directed by Tony Scott and with Tarantino scripting, this was my favourite out of these five films. It’s not as arty or Oscar worthy as Goodfellas, but it was a ball of fun. Patricia Arquette is Alabama, the new hooker in town, paid to show store clerk Clarence (Christian Slater) a good time for his birthday, but they end up falling in love, as you do. He goes to fix things with her pimp, ends up killing the guy and absconding with a case full of pure cocaine. They set out for Hollywood in the hope of selling the white powder to a film industry bigwig, with the mob in hot pursuit. After various ups and downs, the scene is set for a three way firefight between Hollywood heavies, the mob and the cops. There’s a lot of lead, not to mention feathers, flying. Basically this film has everything, from the ridiculous one night stand seguing into ‘true romance’ through to the ludicrously over the top gunfight in the Hollywood Hills (well, a hotel actually). Along the way we get a fight in a night club, the torture of a retired cop with a marvellous cameo from Christopher Walken as an Italian thug in a silk suit, Arquette going head to toe with a professional killer, and a vomit inducing trip on a rollercoaster. Add in some humour courtesy of LAPD detectives who probably have Keystone Kop DNA in their gene pool, and you’re laughing. It’s the contradiction of a serious movie that never takes itself seriously, mainly because the cast are having too much fun hamming it up. I loved it, and if anyone wants to hire me a hooker for my birthday the date to put in your rolodex is November the 24th.

Okay, so what crime films do you guys and gals out there in the real world rate highly?

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5 Responses to Crime on Film

  1. Rick Boyer says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. Hi Pete, I’m a big fan of True Romance as well (which by the way was scripted by Tarantino—at one time it was meant to be part of a larger movie, the other part of which was later developed separately as Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone .) Tarantino is rightfully known as someone who can create great dialogue, but he’s also terrific at constructing scenes. Some of my favorites of his are the Christopher Walken torture scene you mentioned (with its wonderful, politically incorrect dialogue), the opening farmhouse scene in Inglorious Basterds, and later in that same film, the scene in the beer hall where each guest tries to guess the famous name written on the card stuck to his or her forehead. In each case, he knows how to slowly tighten the tension.

    One of my favorite crime films is To Live and Die in L.A., directed by William Friedkin (who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist.) The story itself is fairly simple (Secret Service agent William Petersen is investigating counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, who Petersen believes was responsible for the murder of Petersen’s partner), but the simplicity of the plot allows Friedkin to fully explore both men’s characters. Friedkin is known for making deliberate visual mistakes in his films (i.e., a right hand reaches for something, but in the close-up shot it’s the left hand that picks up the object) just to add a different texture to his films, and there’s some of that in this movie as well, for example in one scene where the Dafoe character walks up to a male dancer from behind, but in the next shot when he’s kissing the dancer, the dancer is female. Plus you get a great film score by Wang Chung.

    And of course there’s always Scarface (dir. Brian DePalma, scr. Oliver Stone.) Another film with carefully constructed scenes.

    Finally, the movie A Simple Plan, directed by Sam Raimi, who beforehand did the Evil Dead movies, and afterwards directed the Spiderman films. It’s a tale of a crime that slowly goes to pieces, with a great performance by Billy Bob Thornton.

  3. I’m not a huge fan of crime films – on her days off Mrs Theaker will often watch them in the afternoon while I’m working. But I liked Woody Allen’s London crime films a lot: Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, and although it’s more of a comedy, Scoop. I loved LA Confidential, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, The Dark Knight, and the Tarantino films.

  4. Ray Cluley says:

    I liked Brick, by Rian Johnson, for what it did with the genre, and I’d just been re-reading a lot of Chandler at the time and liked seeing the same sort of figures moved into a school setting.

    Also enjoyed Training Day, and Se7en. Oh, and the ending of The Pledge. And that one where he can’t sleep, set near the Arctic? Actually, there’s quite a few so I’ll stop writing…

  5. Ray, You’re probably thinking of Insomnia, with Al Pacino, and a terrific turn by Robin Williams. It is a great film.

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