If you’re looking to find a fairly unusual “British Crime” film that barely fits into this motley crew of movies, Ben Wheatley’s debut, “Down Terrace,” could be the one. As English as Marmite, “Down Terrace” can seem like an acquired taste with its pitch black and Sahara-dry humor, mixed with truly disturbing and purposefully banal sequences, but when it connects, “Down Terrace” is wicked, and wickedly funny. A dysfunctional family film centered around murder and betrayal, set in Down Terrace in Brighton, the movie chronicles the Hill family, who soon unveil themselves to be genteel sociopaths and criminals. Upon release from prison Bill (Robert Hill), his son Karl (his real life son Robin) and his wife Maggie (Julia Deakin) decide they should try and flush out who ratted on the two criminals. This doesn’t really mean bloody recriminations (at least not at first) and but more the very English manner of bringing friends and suspects over for tea and dinner to talk. One by one, associates are politely dispensed with and Karl -- who has recently learned he is going to be a father -- begins to fray and come unhinged, wanting to leave this life of crime behind to just become a good dad. Featuring the use of hilariously ironic folk music and blues (Karen Dalton, Robert Johnson), much of the humor in the film is derived by the absurd mundanity of the situations (the Hills arguing with a friend to come out of a bathroom so they can let him go, deciding he’s not a culprit, only to kill him anyway). It’s not quite as accomplished as Wheatley’s other films, "Kill List" and "Sightseers," but it’s brilliant in spots and certainly announced the arrival of fresh new voice in English cinema, who has risen to be one of the best indie auteurs we’ve got at the moment.
Much more a psychopath film or even a twisted serial killer movie, “Gangster #1” still obviously applies here, as it’s set in the London’s crime world in the 1960s. Bookended by a much older version of said numero uno gangster in the present day (played by Malcolm McDowell), “Gangster #1” opens up with some old, fatcat gangsters watching a boxing game, when one of them mentions that Freddie Mays is finally getting out of jail. This triggers an angry and upset McDowell's trip down memory lane, which forces the narrative to flashback to the younger version of this top dog (now played by Paul Bettany) in the 1960s. The film then charts the rise of the anonymous gangster as he becomes muscle for the influential London gangster Freddie Mays (David Thewlis). But “Gangster #1” has much more on its mind than your typical crime film and the movie chronicles our lead's mad obsession with Freddie's power, wealth and status, to the point of wanting not just to become him, but to inhabit his soul. “Persona” for the gangster set? Maybe, as it’s just as much a picture about identity and rivalry as anything else. Directed by Paul McGuigan (“The Acid House,” “Lucky Number Slevin”), while “Gangster #1” looks appropriately vintage and does feature strong, unhinged performances by McDowell and Bettany (who became a star off the back of the film), that might be the only thing the movie does right other than its off-the-rails psychopath sequences that are as if Alex from “Clockwork Orange” grew up to be not only a raving loon, but a monstrous sociopath as well. Marred by constant, unnecessary voice over from McDowell, “Gangster #1" just slathers it all on, never really takes a break in tone or defines to the audience why they should care. Even more ill-fitting is the finale. McDowell once again returns as the aged version of Bettany, but Thewlis, and co-stars Saffron Burrows and Eddie Marsan inexplicably stay the same. Uneven at best, we’ll admit the themes of “Gangster #1” make it far more interesting than it perhaps has the right to be, which just about allows it to sneak onto this list.
Perhaps best defined by its jazzy and supercool funk score by Roy Budd (which you can bet your ass was listened to closely by David Holmes when he scored Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” films), Mike Hodges' outstanding 1971 crime pic, is brutal, but also refined, elegant and chic in a way most British crime films are not. Featuring as magnetic a performance as Michael Caine ever gave, it’s also one of the best British films ever, wherein the star plays the eponymous Carter, a Newcastle-born, London-based gangster. The plan is to run away with his boss' girl (Britt Ekland), but Carter’s life takes a turn for the unexpected when his brother is killed (seemingly in a drunk driving accident) and he has to return home for the first time in several decades. Setting out to track down the man responsible, Carter uncovers all kinds of corruption, betrayal and insidious acts in the process. Caine stalks the north-eastern industrial wasteland like he owns the joint, burying his charm deep down; he's magnetic, but never pleasant, getting up to some truly abhorrent acts, and coming across as nothing less than a Cockney Angel of Death. And when combined with the assuredness with which Hodges directs, and the bleak, almost existential feel of the script (right down to the ending), it adds up to something of a crime classic. Stay far, far away from the Sylvester Stallone-starring remake (which Caine cameos in); this one's the real deal.