20 Great British Crime Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
March 27, 2013 12:34 PM
25 Comments
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"Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) (plus Guy Ritchie's follow ups)

Few filmmakers are as single-mindedly obsessed with British crime as Guy Ritchie. (Forgiving, of course, his brief detour with an ego-stroking remake of "Swept Away," starring Ritchie's then-wife Madonna.) With his debut feature, "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) Ritchie combined British crime hallmarks with the snappy style of the wry, post-Quentin Tarantino cinematic landscape. The results were crude (the movie still looks like it was shot through a dirty pub glass) but Ritchie's energy and talent was undeniable. It also established the Ritchie plot blueprint, wherein a bunch of underworld thugs tussle over an object with nearly magical magnetism (in 'Lock, Stock…' it's a pair of antique guns). His second feature (and still probably his best), "Snatch" (2000), was a refined version of "Lock, Stock…" – it looked better, it moved better, and, thanks to the splash his previous film made, it had a big, starry supporting performances from (briefly) Benicio del Toro, Dennis Farina and Brad Pitt, playing an unintelligible gypsy boxer. (The magical item this time around was a fist-sized diamond.) Ritchie was smarter about how he handled violence and what songs he chose for the impeccable soundtrack, and the entire thing feels like the movie Ritchie was trying to make the first time around, but didn't have the skills or money to accomplish. Ritchie combined his love of gangster theatrics with metaphysical underpinnings and an increased interest in Israeli mysticism with "Revolver," a Luc Besson-produced oddity that was so poorly received in England that it was drastically reworked for America. It's honestly pretty daring, artistically, and as entertaining as anything Ritchie has done (there's a great sequence with Ray Liotta getting smashed under a table that ranks amongst his best, most suspenseful set pieces). By the time 2008's "RocknRolla" came around, Ritchie had ditched any of his artistic pretense and plunged right back into his crime-riddled world, to super satisfying results. "RocknRolla" nearly bests "Snatch" in the outright enjoyment department, though "RocknRolla" pauses to comment on the state of modern London -- something that, in the past, wasn't a concern of his. (Maybe his moneyed status has given him perspective.) One of his most boldly stylized movies (which is saying something), "RocknRolla" plays like a big, gangster-filled comic book. It's a blast. Not directly connected to Ritchie, but inexorably linked in the public's eye was "Layer Cake," which marked the directorial debut of his long-time producer Matthew Vaughn. A little sadder and more sophisticated than Ritchie's pictures, with more of a flavor of the 1970s, it has a terrific performance from Daniel Craig that landed him the Bond gig, and remains Vaughn's best film by about a million miles.

"The Long Good Friday"
(1980)
For all of the revival of the London-set gangster movie that Ritchie caused, the high watermark still remains John Mackenzie's terrific 1980 film "The Long Good Friday." Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London gangster sitting at the top of the tree, and hoping to move into legitimate territory with a huge property development in the Docklands era of East London, in the hope that it might serve as the site for a future Olympics (ooh, prescient). But he's under attack from an unknown enemy (the IRA, it would seem), causing the U.S. Mafia (led by Eddie Constantine) to pull out of the agreement, leaving Harold desperate to salvage his deal. It's firmly a film that sums up its era -- timed perfectly to the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in government, with Harold as the kind of figure who would have flourished under her, and its tie to the real-life redevelopment of the Docklands serves as a neat time capsule for a London in transition. But it's also simply a gripping thriller, with a star-making performance from Hoskins (and Helen Mirren, as his lover), showing both the peaceful, honorable man Shand wants to be, and the psychotic thug that lies underneath. His final scene, as he's confronted by an IRA hitman (Pierce Brosnan, in his first screen role) is something of an acting masterclass.

"Mona Lisa" (1986)

Neil Jordan's career is fascinating, but arguably a very patchy one. However one early indisputable crown jewel is the unlikely romantic crime drama "Mona Lisa" largely due in part by Bob Hoskins, who in an intriguing flip-side to the role that made his name six years earlier, plays as a good-hearted, but meek underling just getting out of prison. Having covered for his old mob boss (Michael Caine), Hoskins' George is still a flunkie doormat with few options allowing him to go straight , but eventually, is given a cushy job as a chauffeur for a high-class black prostitute (Cathy Tyson). As George becomes friendlier with Simone, affections begin to bloom and George becomes entangled in her life when she pleads with him to track down one of her abused friends from her shady past. Hoskins' range has illustrated that he can playing raging boils or soft-hearted patsys, and in "Mona Lisa," he convincingly plays a low-level stooge with soft devotion in a wonderfully minor key. He’s a man lost in an England he no longer recognizes, and even among a strong cast (Caine, somewhat against type, is a great villain, Tyson should have gone on to better things than she did, and you can spot early appearances from Robbie Coltrane as well as future “The Wire” star Clarke Peters), he dominates; quite rightly, he won Best Actor at Cannes, and was nominated for an Oscar. Larry Clark was planning a remake a few years ago with Mickey Rourke and Eva Green. One breathes a sigh of relief that it somehow never came to pass...

"Never Let Go" (1960)

It's always an effective move to cast an actor against type, particularly when it comes to putting comic actors in serious fare. But some (Robin Williams, for instance) fare better than others (Will Ferrell), and in general, people would tend to suggest that Peter Sellers falls in the latter category; even in his most acclaimed fare ("Being There," or even Kubrick's "Lolita"), he tended to have some kind of comic tinge to the performance. Not so in "Never Let Go," however, a home-grown British picture which Sellers made relatively early in his film career, and the bad reviews for which essentially scared the former "Goon Show" star away from more dramatic roles for good. Which is a shame, because he's actually terrific in the film, which is itself something of a hidden gem, and one can only imagine where his career would have gone had the notices been more positive. Sellers actually plays second fiddle to Richard Todd ("The Dam Busters," "Saint Joan") who takes the lead part of John Cummings, an unsuccessful salesman whose car is stolen by thief Tommy (pop star Adam Faith), who works for crooked garage owner Lionel Meadows (Sellers). Cummings, who faces ruin if he doesn't have a car for work, becomes obsessed with Meadows, enlisting his mistress (Carol White) to bring him down. This isn't a crime film where millions of pounds or hauls of jewellery are at a stake; this is bottom-of-the-ladder stuff, an ordinary man in conflict with an ambitious but small-scale hood, and it's all the more engaging for it, particularly with a bravely impotent performance from Todd, and a quietly terrifying, and genuinely impressive turn from Sellers without a single laugh resulting. Director John Guillermin went on to success with "The Towering Inferno" in the U.S., but this might actually be his crowning achievement.

"Night And The City" (1950)

Legendary filmmaker Jules Dassin ("The Naked City") was forced into making "Night and the City" in London by Fox chief Daryl Zanuck, who was concerned that, due to the blacklisting going on in Hollywood, it would be the last film Dassin ever made. (He would go on to make films for the next two decades, although mostly in France, most notably "Rififi" and "Topkapi".) "Night And The City," which deviates significantly from the novel by Gerald Kersh, concerns an American hustler (Richard Widmark) in London, convinced that he can rig the city's underground wrestling circuit. Among other things, he plans on taking control away from the mob boss currently in charge (Herbert Lom) by appealing to his father, a retired wrestler (real-life former wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko, who many in the production assumed was dead). There's something very nervous and dangerous about "Night and the City," possibly informed by what was happening in Dassin's real life, but it's a palpable atmosphere that permeates the entire film. The cast of characters is appropriately colorful (we love the laid back menace Francis Sullivan brings as a club owner, Googie Withers as a tenacious female hustler and the slinky seductiveness of Gene Tierney, another Zanuck suggestion due to problems in her own life) and the lush black-and-white photography reeks of post-war desolation (its muted archways and underground vibe recalls Carol Reed's "The Third Man"). Two totally different versions of the movie were released in the U.K. and America (with two completely different scores); Dassin has endorsed the American cut, complete with a bleaker ending, as his preferred version.
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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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