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20 Great British Crime Movies

by The Playlist Staff
March 27, 2013 12:34 PM
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Odd Man Out - Kathleen Ryan and James Mason
"Odd Man Out" (1947)
While it's often something of a grey area in terms of financing or director's nationalities, we've excluded any Irish crime pictures like "The General," "I Went Down" or "In Bruges," due to it being, you know, a different country. But given that it's set north of the border, and that it's pretty much a solid-gold classic, we couldn't really fail to take a trip across the Irish Sea for Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out." Often overshadowed by the director's better known "The Third Man" which followed two years later, it stars James Mason as Johnny McQueen, the  leader of an IRA-like organization in a city that's clearly Belfast, even if it's never named as such. The rest of the crew believe he's going soft, as Johnny's starting to believe that they should turn to more peaceful methods of negotiation, but when a fund-raising robbery of a mill goes wrong, a wounded Johnny, ends up on the run, with his love Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) his only hope of safe passage away. As Johnny (played beautifully by Mason, in one of his best performances) creeps towards his inevitable doom, he encounters a succession of colorful and fascinating characters, including the poverty-stricken Shell (F.J. McCormick), who hopes to turn him in for a reward, and landlord Fencie (future Doctor Who William Hartnell). Fans of the later film should know that there's a lot in common with "The Third Man," from the atmospheric take on a city to some impressively suspenseful set pieces, but it's somehow more experimental, with Johnny carried along somewhat passively as he gradually bleeds to death. It's surpirisngly apolitical (an opening title states that the film "is not concerned with the  struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved") but if anything, it helps the emotional punch of the ending, when Johnny and Kathleen are gunned down by the police, land a little harder. Roman Polanski considers it his favorite film, calling it "a film which made me want to pursue this career more than anything else," and while we wouldn't quite go that far, Reed fans should seek it out post haste.

Red Riding - Andrew Garfield
"Red Riding" (2009)
For sheer, epic scope, and a kind of James Ellroy-level complexity, it's hard to beat the "Red Riding" trilogy, which originally aired on British television before running theatrically in America the following year. Based on four novels by David Peace (adapted by Terry Gilliam collaborator Tony Grisoni), each part of the trilogy is devoted to a different year with a different director and medium. The first (and arguably most enjoyable) section, "1974," was directed by Julian Jarrold, shot on 16mm and starred a then-unknown Andrew Garfield as a young reporter investigating a series of child murders. His investigation, of course, leads him into the arms of one of the mothers of the missing girls (Rebecca Hall) and has him uncovering a "Chinatown"-ish conspiracy that involves local business owners and higher-ups in the police force. The second section, "1980," directed by "Man on Wire" filmmaker James Marsh and shot in 35mm, concerns a detective (Paddy Considine), who is investigating the real-life Yorkshire Ripper killings, as well as the massacre that concluded the first section of "Red Riding." (Fact and fiction colliding!) Increasingly bleak, the second section centers around police corruption and the futility of trying to fight the good fight when so many around you are so very, very bad. The last section, "1983," shot on the digital Red One camera by Anand Tucker, tries to wrap up the entire shebang by re-contextualizing the first section and giving the entire series added scope and depth (minor characters become terribly important, the sons of other characters take center stage, etc.) Things seem a bit hurried here but it's the kind of thing that is kind of impossible to sew up so tidily (especially when a "1977" section was written and plotted before the funding fell apart). The "Red Riding" trilogy is also noteworthy, in the British crime canon, for focusing on the countryside instead of the city, where most of these criminal opuses take place. Artistic and ambitious, featuring an unimpeachable supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, Shaun Dooley, Eddie Marsan, David Morrissey, and Sean Harris, the "Red Riding" trilogy is a must for anyone seeking knotty, deep drama.

Sexy Beast - Ray Winstone
"Sexy Beast" (2000)
Just as Tarantino's rise saw many, many poor-quality crime pictures aping him in the next few years, the success of "Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels" saw the market flooded with British films hoping to cash in. Most ("Circus," "Love Honour & Obey," "Essex Boys") were terrible, but there were a couple that were worthwhile, and the best of all was "Sexy Beast." Marking the directorial debut of commercials veteran Jonathan Glazer, it didn't seem on paper to be anything particularly ground-breaking; safe-cracker Gal (Ray Winstone) is out of the joint, and happily retired in Spain, getting progressively more orange as time goes on. But suddenly Don (Ben Kingsley), an old associate appears, attempting to tempt Gal back for the archetypal one last job for their boss (Ian McShane). But the film has both a great, impossibly sweary, very funny Harold Pinter-esque script, and marries it with surreal, ever-inventive imagery from Glazer. The film does drop of a little towards the end, despite an innovative underwater heist sequence, and a lovely turn from McShane, but that's because it's lost its key ingredient: Kingsley, whose foul-mouthed terrier-like turn is a million miles away from Gandhi, and might stand as the actor's greatest achievement (earning him an Oscar nomination for his trouble, too). Much of the film is a two-hander between him and an equally-never-better Winstone, and it has the kind of fireworks that you couldn't get with a dozen action sequences. Glazer went on to even greater things with "Birth" in 2004, and later this year, his long-awaited third film, "Under The Skin," arrives. We can't wait.

Sitting Target
“Sitting Target” (1972)
"You are looking at an animal!" the poster of this 1972 violent crime thriller screams. "A woman is his target... no cage can hold his lust for revenge." Is this lurid Douglas Hickox film a little misogynistic? Oh sure, it is, but maybe that was the point of this would-be shocking thriller starring Oliver Reed as Harry Lomart, a convicted murderer who plans to break out of prison and leave the country along with his fellow jailbird Birdy Williams (Ian McShane). But before the prison break, Harry’s estranged wife (Jill St. John) comes to visit and admits to the criminal she is pregnant with another man’s child and this changes everything. Harry explodes like a hurricane of anger, breaking the glass partition between them, having to be sedated by the prison guards. Featuring a prison break sequence so tense and thrilling it could be ranked among the classics, the plan is to lay low, but Harry cannot fight the temptation to enact revenge on his wife and like Jaws or Jason Voorhees spends the rest of the picture on a juggernaut-like mission to mow her and her lover down with the extremest of extreme prejudice. Seedy and sleazy, this film routinely finds itself added to William Lustig’s “Presents” series in New York of obscure, scuzzy and violent hard-to-find exploitation pictures of the 1960s and 1970s (a must-attend at least once). Though “Sitting Target” is much easier to find now thanks to the Warner Archive, which put out the picture on DVD a few short years ago.

The Squeeze
"The Squeeze" (1977)
An early film from director Michael Apted (his third feature, and released in the same year as the third in his famous long-running documentary series, "21 Up"), "The Squeeze" was caught at an odd time for the British crime genre; a few years after "Get Carter" and a few before "The Long Good Friday." As such, it rather got lost in the shuffle, and remains rather undervalued today, and if it's not a quite a lost classic, than certainly it's relatively undiscovered, and a very solid effort. The film toplines American actor Stacy Keach (who has a pretty solid British accent here, and would have his own real-life run-in with the law in the U.K a few years later, serving six months in Reading Prison after being caught with cocaine at Heathrow Airport) as a boozy ex-cop who gets out of rehab to be told by the wealthy new husband (Edward Fox) of his ex-wife (Carol White, of "Cathy Come Home," in sadly her last role; her career collapsed due to alcoholism, and she passed away in 1991) that she and their daughter have been kidnapped. There are plenty more twists and turns to come as Keach and Fox (along with U.K. comic Freddie Starr, in a strange but effective bit of casting) team up to take down the hoodlums responsible, including "Ben Hur" star Stephen Boyd, also in his final role, and David Hemmings. Based on a novel by a former crime reporter James Tucker, there's a low-key authenticity to the film, a griminess that extends beyond the frank and punchy violence and nudity; the city itself seems to be rotten to the core. Apted has a surprising and visceral feel for the genre, to the extent that it's a touch disappointing he's not gone in this direction more often, and his cast all do excellent, and quite often against-type, work. It's perhaps a little too much of a B-movie to figure as a bona-fide classic of the genre, but it's worth a watch if you happen across it on TV late at night.

Honorable Mentions: Obviously, this is just a brief overview, a combination of the classics we couldn't do without, and a few undersung gems. And we've tried to keep it to films in the classic definition of the crime genre, excluding things like "Bronson," "Scum," "This Is England," "Kind Hearts & Coronets" and "The Offence," which have a toe in the crime movie waters, but aren't quite all the way in. But there's plenty more where the 20 above came from. 

Among them, "Performance" (which has gangsters in it without ever quite being a gangster film), Mike Hodges' "Croupier" follow-up "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," decent Jason Statham vehicle "The Bank Job," David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises," J Blakeson's "Disappearance Of Alice Creed," Antonia Bird's underrated "Face," Michael Crichton's period piece "The First Great Train Robbery," Stephen Frears' debut "Gumshoe," biopic "The Krays," Paul Andrew Williams' "London To Brighton," and Danny Boyle's debut "Shallow Grave."

There's also a selection of films that have a good reputation, but are harder to track down these days. They include "They Drive By Night," "Dancing With Crime," "Noose," "They Made Me A Fugitive," "The Criminal,""Payroll," "The League Of Gentlemen," "Jigsaw," "Loophole," "Robbery," "Sapphire" and "Villain." And we're sure we've forgotten at least one key one -- feel free to remind us in the comments section.

-- Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Drew Taylor, Diana Drumm

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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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