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20 Great British Crime Movies

by The Playlist Staff
March 27, 2013 12:34 PM
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British Crime Films Feature

Today sees the release of the James McAvoy and Mark Strong-starring "Welcome To The Punch," and as you'll know if you've read our review, it's a slick, unusually ambitious, gorgeous-looking and absorbing British cops-and-robbers flick. It's also the latest film (with Danny Boyle's even better "Trance" following sharp on its heels next week) to prove that our cousins across the pond can take on the crime movie with the best of them.

U.K. crime cinema doesn't necessarily have the immediate iconography or obvious movements of the 1930s Warner Bros gangster pictures, film noir of the 1940s, the Coppola and Scorsese epics of the 1970s and 1980s, or the quirky comedies from the Coens and Tarantino in the 1990s. But there's a long history of thieves, robbers, murderers and more in British movies, in a variety of films that may have flown under your radar. And so with "Welcome To The Punch" on VOD and in limited released, and "Trance" on the way next week, we thought it was a perfect time to pick out some of our favorite crime pictures from the Sceptred Isle. Read our picks below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. 

Richard Attenborough in "Brighton Rock"
Richard Attenborough in "Brighton Rock"
"Brighton Rock" (1947)
We hope we wouldn't have to say this, but if you're after a cinematic take on Graham Greene's seminal novel "Brighton Rock," you should run a million miles from the recent, impressively-cast (Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, John Hurt) but ill-conceived remake, and stick with the 1947 original. Richard Attenborough (reprising the role that brought him to fame on the West End stage a few years earlier) stars as Pinkie, a fresh-faced psychopath in a gang in the coastal town of the title, who finds himself rising up the ranks after killing a newspaper reporter. To avoid the rap, he marries besotted waitress (and witness to the crime) Rose (Carol Marsh) to stop her from being able to testify against him, but with the law and rival gangs closing in, Pinkie decides he might have to take more drastic action. Penned by Greene and "The Deep Blue Sea" author Terrence Rattigan, and directed by the somewhat forgotten filmmaker John Boulting, it's one of the seminal, and probably earliest, examples of the British gangster film (retitled, for its U.S. release, "Young Scarface," marking quite the contrast with its earlier namesake), melding Boulting's fine, almost proto-noirish sense of place, the seedy underworld of the picturesque seaside locale, with Greene's ever-simmering Catholic moralism. It's stylishly made and dark as you like, but what really stands out is the astonishing, terrifying bug-eyed turn from Attenborough, a million miles away from the avuncular star of "Jurassic Park" and director of "Gandhi" he'd become in later years. Attenborough became one of the most important figures in the British film industry, but this acting role is the one he'll always be remembered for.

The Croupier - Clive Owen
"Croupier" (1998)
This cool neo-noir follows the aspiring writer Jack Manfred (Clive Owen), who ends up taking a job as a casino croupier in order to make ends meet, which leads him both to juggling three women -- a store detective (Gina McKee), a fellow croupier (Kate Hardie), and a high-rolling South African gambler (Alex Kingston) -- and being the inside man of a heist of his workplace set up by the latter. It's pretty thin on plot, or even much in the way of the staples of the genre, but makes up for it with lashings of atmosphere, a realistic and lived-in sense of the world, and most of all, the casting of Clive Owen -- in his breakout feature film role -- who commands the movie in a lead turn that's both suave and self-aware. Owen's narration -- taken from the thinly-veiled novel he's writing, gives it echoes of both classic crime fiction, and a more complex examination of narrative. It mostly disappeared when it debuted in the U.K. in 1998, but became a critical darling in the U.S. two years later, earning a devoted following and placing on the National Board Of Review list of top ten films for 2000. So all in all, a fine return to the genre for Mike Hodges, who perhaps made the seminal British crime film with "Get Carter" (see below), and he reteamed with Owen soon after for the lesser, but still worthwhile "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."

Down Terrace - Robin Hill
“Down Terrace” (2009)
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.

Gangster Number One - Paul Bettany
"Gangster #1" (2000)
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.

Get Carter - Michael Caine
“Get Carter” (1971)
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.

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  • Jack Purvis | October 24, 2013 1:13 AMReply

    An excellent list. I thought I knew ALL the great British crime/gangster/thriller pictures but I did not know The Hit. Now I do! Thank you.

  • dave | October 6, 2013 6:40 AMReply

    Have yet to find a list of great British gangster films that includes on of the greatest. roeg and Cammel's Performance.

  • Dave | October 6, 2013 6:42 AM

    Oops it got a mention. Well done.

  • steve | July 31, 2013 6:29 AMReply

    yea, good list, and for sure the original Get Carter should be watched before the remake.... Incidentally, a friend of mine is about wrapped up on a gangster movie, a british gangster movie,

  • Martyn | July 16, 2013 9:11 AMReply

    Trying to recall a 70s British crime thriller. I remember robbers stopping a security van and spraypainting the windscreen and windows before dropping a smoke bomb through the roof. Rings any bells?

  • Thomas | June 16, 2013 5:05 PMReply

    It may technically be Hollywood, but for me Hitchcock's Frenzy is a classic British movie (along with some of his others).

    And how about London Boulevard?

  • Jamie | April 4, 2013 7:44 PMReply

    You can find Sapphire among others with this DVD Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden's London Underground (Sapphire / The League of Gentlemen / Victim / All Night Long) (The Criterion Collection) (1962)

  • John Ninnis | April 3, 2013 4:20 AMReply

    Great choices. I am a big fan of British thrillers Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. Glad you put in The Squeeze, a great undervalued film that should get recognisation.

    Face is another great crime film great cast and soundtrack.

    One film you forgot to put on the list is Buster. Not excellent like films above but a good film with Larry Lamb who steals the show.

  • John Ninnis | April 3, 2013 4:20 AMReply

    Great choices. I am a big fan of British thrillers Get Carter, The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. Glad you put in The Squeeze, a great undervalued film that should get recognisation.

    Face is another great crime film great cast and soundtrack.

    One film you forgot to put on the list is Buster. Not excellent like films above but a good film with Larry Lamb who steals the show.

  • rawknee | April 1, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    no mention of The Bank Job?

  • rawknee | April 1, 2013 3:13 PM

    Just noticed it mentioned among the honorable mentions.

  • Michael | March 30, 2013 10:55 PMReply

    Excellent list. Sapphire is easily available in Criterion's excellent set, Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden's London Underground (along with The League of Gentleman, also mentioned above). A nice little bit of British nasty, directed by Edward Dmytryk, can be found courtesy of Criterion via HULU--it's original title is 'The Hidden Room' but known as 'Obsession' (as it is on Hulu).

    Great list!

  • Mick | March 29, 2013 5:20 PMReply

    Your choices are great. It seems that the British are very good at making crime movies. Though its was a TV series, "THE TAKE" was one of the best things ever put on film. The cast was exceptional. A geat chemistry between actors and actresses. Tom Hardy.....Freddie...such a performance. Mind blowing acting ability. His performance sticks to you like glue. The Cohen Brothers need to put him something and get just part of what he can do and have a gigantic hit.

  • MDL | March 28, 2013 3:10 PMReply

    THE BLUE LAMP by Basil Dearden should at least get a mention. It's a seminal British crime film made in 1950 and is as good as Brighton Rock.

  • Jamie | March 27, 2013 9:04 PMReply

    Went hunting on Amazon and found this collection: Basil Deardon's London Underground which contains Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, and All Night Long

  • Jamie | March 27, 2013 8:55 PMReply

    I went through the whole list saying, "Where's Saphire?" only to get to the bottom and seeing that it has become difficult to find. I urge anyone who has not seen it to make the effort. It won the 1959 BAFTA as Best British film and deserved it. The conflict between crime, race relations and early rocker England plus a great mystery, make it a don't miss film.

  • Dan Ashcroft | March 27, 2013 6:51 PMReply

    THE ITALIAN JOB deserves a mention. Would have easily had LAYER CAKE in the list too.

  • Read | March 27, 2013 7:04 PM

    Layer Cakes is lumped in with all the Guy Ritchie films as they are all pretty similar (and from the same producing team).

  • JR | March 27, 2013 4:53 PMReply

    Uh... Layer Cake? I do not see it

  • fng | March 27, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    Not sure whether it qualifies or not, but I think ''Bronson'' at least deserves an honorable mention?

  • Read | March 27, 2013 7:04 PM

    Look up the honorable mention section. It is there.

  • dub | March 27, 2013 3:16 PMReply

    Where the hell is Layer Cake!?

  • Ana | March 27, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    I thought you'd have Followin by Nolan up here. That's as a great austere brittish crime film as you can get.

  • max | March 27, 2013 1:02 PMReply

    ROBBERY (1967) by the great Peter Yates is pretty damn great. Unfortunately it's not available in the U.S., except for those who have an all-region DVD player (they can be bought fairly cheaply nowadays - just over $100) and feel like ordering the disc (which is, also, inexpensive) through Amazon.UK.

  • Todd | March 27, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    "Time Without Pity" is a nice Joseph Losey crime and punishment film.

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