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20 Great British Crime Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
March 27, 2013 12:34 PM
25 Comments
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"Hell Is A City" (1960)
Produced by Hammer Film Productions, the studio that famously made the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing horror movies throughout the sixties and seventies, "Hell Is a City" is a pulpy dime store novel of a British crime movie, and just as enjoyable as that sounds. Stanley Baker plays Inspector Harry Martineau, who at the start of the movie is deeply concerned because a heavy-duty bad guy he sent away, named Don Starling (the oddly American John Crawford), has recently escaped. Martineau uses his underworld contacts to try to figure out where Starling will head next, thinking that he'll try to collect on the job that got him sent away by robbing a local bookie (Donald Pleasance). While the hard-boiled criminal activity is pretty wonderful, especially after Starling kills a young woman involved in a robbery he and his gang pull (sample dialogue: "Sorry, Don, the traffic was murder!" "A lot of things are murder!"), the fascinating heart of "Hell is a City" lies in the relationship between Martineau and his put-upon wife (Maxine Audley). She always wants him home and anytime he is there, she complains about his long hours and obsessive mindset, while he thinks that she should busy herself with other things. At one point he (honest to God) says to her, "Why don't you justify your existence by having a baby or two?" And he is our hero in the seemingly progressive sixties. It's really outrageous, nuanced, complicated stuff, and while "Hell is a City" is full of thrills (including a climactic rooftop chase), nothing comes close to eclipsing the knotty emotional stuff for sheer, rousing intensity.

"The Hit" (1984)
A rarity on this list in that it's barely set in Britain itself (like the later, and temperamentally similar, "Sexy Beast," it takes place predominately in Spain), "The Hit" is nevertheless a British crime flick through and through. A breakthrough for director Stephen Frears (who'd brushed against the crime genre over a decade earlier with the Albert Finney-starring "Gumshoe," but hadn't made a theatrical feature since), it stars Terence Stamp as Willie, a criminal who gave up his compatriots in exchange for immunity. A decade on, he's living comfortably in exile in Spain, when the past finally catches up to him, in the shape of hired killer Braddock (John Hurt) and his brash young protege Myron (Tim Roth). They bundle him away, with the intention of delivering him to the boss he gave up in Paris, but after taking a hostage, in the form of Maggie (Laura del Sol), things go as awry as you might imagine. The film's not really about the plot; it's a mediative, almost philosophical character study that's about death as much as anything else and it pits Stamp, who long ago seemingly accepted that his day was coming, against Hurt, who's much more inscrutable. Frears matches a low-key naturalism with some stylized flair to show the impressive filmmaker he'd become, and the performances, from both the two leads and an impressive early turn from Roth, are outstanding. It might be a little opaque for some, but it's become a favorite of cinephiles over the years; it was added to the Criterion Collection a few years back, Wes Anderson calls it one of the best British films ever made, and Christopher Nolan sang its praises recently too, saying: "That Criterion has released this little-known Stephen Frears gem is a testament to the thoroughness of their search for obscure masterworks. Few films have gambled as much on a simple portrayal of the dynamics between desperate men..."

"It Only Rains On Sunday" (1947)
Londoners know that it doesn't just always rain on Sunday, it always rains on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday too. But even the drizzly weather of the city in real life doesn't compare to the constant sheet of rain that accompanies the events of Robert Hamer's semi-forgotten classic, one of the best British films of its period, and perhaps the most convincing example of the London noir picture. Rose (the excellently-named Googie Withers) is an ordinary woman in Bethnal Green -- not a stone's throw from where the Olympics took place last summer -- not long married to an older man  (Edward Chapman) with two teenage daughters, and struggling to get through the day in a post-war Britain still suffering from rationing. It's all upended one Sunday when her first and truest love Tommy (John McCallum) appears after breaking out of prison. Still in love with him, she hides him away, but the pressure gets greater and greater as the police and press close in, leading to tragic consequences for all. What's most impressive about the film is the way that Hamer (who'd made his Ealing directorial debut with a segment of classic portmanteau horror "Dead Of Night," and would next go on to helm the comedy classic "Kind Hearts & Coronets") keeps the tension impossibly taut, even while expanding the world of the film wider and wider, bringing in more and more characters to paint a picture not just of this one family, but of the East End as well. It's surprisingly realistic and uncompromising too, given the time period, and formally forward-looking, with flashbacks and a complex narrative structure.

"The Ladykillers" (1955)
Considered the last of the great Ealing comedies, “The Ladykillers” follows a gang of criminals as they disguise themselves as musicians to rent a flat from an octogenarian in order to plan a robbery and hilarity ensues as the scheme unravels ending with their little old landlady having all of the loot. Alec Guinness plays the criminal mastermind “Professor” Marcus with dastardly teeth and a mind just as eccentrically twisted. The Professor’s gang is rounded out by the Major (Cecil Parker), a young Cockney rogue Harry (Peter Sellers), a kindly ex-boxer 'One-Round' (Danny Green), and a menacing Louis (Herbert Lom). This quintet faces off against indomitable Mrs. Wilberforce played by 77 year-old Katie Johnson. As Mrs. Wilberforce inadvertently thwarts each step of the gang’s scheme, Professor Marcus becomes even more unhinged and eventually each of the gangsters meets a ghastly demise. Mrs. W ends up with all of their ill-gotten gains and the police won’t take the money back as they don’t believe her outlandish story.  If you’re thinking, “who could have dreamt up that plot?” it was William Rose, who claimed to have dreamt the entire film and merely had to remember it to write the BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated screenplay. “The Ladykillers” marked director Alexander Mackendrick’s last British film; he went on to direct the Hollywood noir classic “Sweet Smell of Success”. The film was remade in 2004 and even the Coen Brothers couldn’t recapture the original’s spark, it didn’t help that they turned the professor into a Southern dandy (Tom Hanks) and the robbery into a casino heist. Number 13 on BFI’s Top 100, “The Ladykillers” is a distinctly British crime movie and comedy, and one of the finest examples of Ealing's best work.

"The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951)
Not every film can say that it gave birth to an entire sub-genre, but the heist comedy, seen since in everything from "To Catch A Thief" to "Bottle Rocket," didn't really exist before 1951's "The Lavender Hill Mob." One of the very best of the Ealing comedies, it stars Alec Guinness as a timid bank clerk (a great, Oscar nominated performance) who comes up with a plan to steal gold bullion from his workplace. Teaming with a group of unlikely crooks (Stanley Holloway, Alfie Bass and the great Sid James), they work out that they can smuggle the bullion to France and melt it down, disguising their loot as souvenirs of the Eiffel Tower. Like a comic take on Kubrick's "The Killing," the heist goes off without a hitch, but it all falls apart in the aftermath, as a misunderstanding sees the statues sold as actual souvenirs. It's strangely gripping -- the film was originally conceived as a straight drama -- and director Charles Crichton (who at the age of 78 would direct another British heist comedy classic, "A Fish Called Wanda") had one of the surest comic hands in the business, but what's impressive is the level of pathos that Guinness and Holloway generate: you will want the group to succeed, and considering it's a comedy, the ending is deeply moving. Keep your eyes peeled for a young Audrey Hepburn too.

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25 Comments

  • 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, http://hackneymovie.com/.

  • 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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