Peter Bradshaw on crime
Controversially, the cinema has always made criminals look cool. The big screen loves bad guys and, to modify Blake's description of Milton, has often been of the devil's party, while knowing it perfectly well. Yet crime and transgression are the stuff of drama and real life, too. Howard Hawks's Scarface in 1932 gave us Paul Muni's criminal sociopath Tony Camonte, brilliantly reinvented by Brian De Palma in 1983 with Al Pacino in the lead role.
The gangster genre showed how criminal networks operated inside their own fiercely moral codes and stood in direct opposition to courtroom dramas such as Twelve Angry Men, with its formal endorsement of the letter of the law. The noir genre of the 40s and 50s conversely found criminality to reside not in dynastic cultures or parodic societal norms but in individual acts of cynicism, obsession and desperation.
Crime becomes lighter with the caper genre, such as The Italian Job, whereas the Ealing comedies found the bitterest black comedy in murder and a queasy celebration of the entrepreneurial daring in crime.
Has Martin Scorsese made a better film in the last two decades than this visceral insider's view of New York mob existence, drawn from the real-life story of Henry Hill? Whatever you make of its morals, and the charge that it glamorises the mafia, it's hard to deny the sheer explosive power of Goodfellas, still undiminished 20 years after its release. Mafia allure is precisely what the film is about. Ray Liotta's Henry Hill says it loud and clear at the very start: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States."
To this young, half-Sicilian half-Irish kid growing up in an impoverished Brooklyn, joining the local mob opens up a world where everything exists for the taking. It means sharp suits, flash cars, gold watches, beautiful women. It means being able to ignore the line at the Copacabana and swagger through the kitchens with your girlfriend while a table is being laid for you up front – a scene that Scorsese unfolds in a masterful 184-second tracking shot, one of the most celebrated in cinema. The photography, by Michael Ballhaus, is one of many pleasures here. Thelma Schoonmaker's editing, notable for its use of jump cuts and freeze-frames, gives this two-and-a-half-hour movie its blistering speed.
The ensemble cast is magnificent, particularly Robert De Niro as Henry's mentor Jimmy Conway and, in a gleefully nasty turn, Joe Pesci as his partner-in-crime, Tommy DeVito. DeVito shows how instantly the good life can give way to horrific violence. And Henry's trajectory through the film, as he spirals into drug use and paranoia in the late 70s, reveals an altogether more bleak vision of criminality. But the overriding impression we are left with is of the irresistible appeal of being a gangster. It's driven home in the final scene with Henry, in witness protection, bemoaning the awfulness of living as an "average nobody". This, depending on your point of view, is the film's fatal flaw, or its masterstroke. Killian Fox
Hidden opens with a long, static shot of a house on a quiet Paris street. Credits roll. Very little happens. A closer shot shows a couple leaving the house, and the camera pans after the man. We hear a terse interchange. On screen, the film fast-forwards and suddenly – unnervingly – we realise we have been watching a piece of surveillance on video. The tape has turned up, without explanation, at the house of the couple we saw on screen, and they are watching it with us. They are Georges (Daniel Auteuil), a well-known TV intellectual, and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), a book publisher. The video is immediately interpreted as a threat. More tapes arrive, along with crayon drawings depicting scenes of bloody violence. The effect of these intrusions is singularly disturbing, and Hidden unfolds with the fearful air of a thriller, but it avoids most of the conventions of the genre. Dramatic music is absent. The one truly shocking moment of violence arrives without a suspenseful build-up, and the victim is who we least expect it to be.
One tape leads Georges to the run-down apartment of an Algerian man named Majid, who Georges knew as a child. It transpires that Georges bears responsibility for how this man's life has turned out, and his guilt points to the more widespread malaise in French society concerning the Algerian war. The film interrogates western attitudes towards the Muslim world, exposing how fear is also based on guilt and repressed memories. The political subtext never detracts from the film's chilling dramatic effect and the air of intrigue, which intensifies in the very final scene. KF
8. Pulp Fiction
1994 was Quentin Tarantino's year. With audiences reeling from the shock of Reservoir Dogs two years earlier, the mantle of world's coolest film director was his for the taking. His second feature, the ambitious but oddly leisurely thriller Pulp Fiction, premiered at Cannes, where Clint Eastwood's jury awarded it the Palme d'Or. A year later, it had grossed $213m, faced off against Forrest Gump at the Academy awards and planted an entire library of offbeat references and quotable lines in the heads of susceptible cinemagoers. It would not be overstating the case to call it a phenomenon.
The idea of a portmanteau crime film had been cooked up by Tarantino and his old video store colleague, Roger Avary (who got a "story by" credit). But the picture's magic touch is the anti-chronological structure which enables its three stories to intersect in unusual ways – so the final story predates the first one, and a character who dies in the middle story reappears at the end, striding off toward a demise we have witnessed, but about which he can have no possible inkling. In the first chapter, two hitmen, Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L Jackson), take possession of a mysterious briefcase before Vincent goes on to chaperone his boss's girlfriend (Uma Thurman) on an evening that spins wildly out of control. The second story follows a boxer, Butch (Bruce Willis), whose failure to throw a fight as instructed leads him into territory which might reasonably be described as hellish. The closing episode has an unexpected air of sitcom about it as Vincent and Jules turn to a clean-up specialist named the Wolf (Harvey Keitel) when a misfired gun leaves a nasty mess in the back of their car. All this is bookended by scenes in a diner that is being held up by two excitable young crooks (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer).
For better or worse, the movie made possible the long reign of Miramax, revived Travolta's career and ratified Tarantino's reputation. Familiarity with the director's box of tricks has bred a touch of contempt, but it's becoming easier, now that the hype has cleared, to see the movie for what it really is: an audacious attempt to fuse visual chutzpah and expansive storytelling, movies and music, art and trash. It's a true one-off. Ryan Gilbey
7. Get Carter
At a distance of nearly 40 years, Get Carter has as much value as a piece of social history as it does as a thriller. The Tyneside it portrays isn't one of hen parties in Bigg Market, but of poverty that grinds Newcastle and its inhabitants into an inescapable and unendurable greyness. At times, too, it seems as if Mike Hodges has thrown his actors into real life – the faces of the old men in the pubs and betting shops, and the revellers at the dancehall take the movie into something akin to cinéma verité, even as mayhem erupts in the foreground.
As a thriller, though, it's colder and more brutal than anything British cinema has produced before or since; its mood so unyielding that the viewer does not even question whether Michael Caine really could be a Geordie hood returning home for his brother's funeral. There's humour, but it's so bleak it causes grimaces more than laughs: when the husband of Carter's lover (played by Britt Ekland) walks in on her having phone sex with Carter, he asks, puzzled: "What's the matter? You got gut trouble or something?" That's entirely fitting with regard to the subject matter, for when Carter investigates his brother's death, he discovers the dead man's daughter has been coerced into porn films by the local crime syndicate, setting Carter off on a trail of vengeance.
At the centre of it all is Caine, playing with such chilly authority that even his most geezerish moments – "You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself" – retain their threat, when a few years later they might have teetered over into self-parody. He's aided by a top-notch supporting cast, with the playwright John Osborne an unlikely but wholly convincing ganglord, and future Coronation Street mainstay Bryan Mosley as the hapless hanger-on Cliff Brumby, who makes one of British cinema's most notable exits, from the upper stories of the Trinity Square car park in Gateshead.
Watching Get Carter now is like reading accounts of the first westerners to cross the Gobi desert: did this world ever exist, and in such recent times? It seems wholly remote from 21st-century Britain, even as its themes of coerced sex and utter amorality chime with contemporary fears. Michael Hann
6. Double Indemnity
Cameron Crowe called Double Indemnity "flawless film-making". Woody Allen declared it "the greatest movie ever made". Even if you can't go along with that, there can be no disputing that it is the finest film noir of all time, though it was made in 1944, before the term film noir was even coined. Adapting James M Cain's 1935 novella about a straight-arrow insurance salesman tempted into murder by a duplicitous housewife, genre-hopping director Billy Wilder recruited Raymond Chandler as co-writer. Chandler, said Wilder, "was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence". Noir's visual style, which had its roots in German Expressionism, was forged here, though Wilder insisted that he was going for a "newsreel" effect. "We had to be realistic," he said. "You had to believe the situation and the characters, or all was lost."
And we do. Fred MacMurray, who had specialised largely in comedy until that point, was an inspired choice to play the big dope Walter Neff, who narrates the sorry mess in flashback, and wonders: "How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?" Edward G Robinson is coiled and charismatic as Neff's colleague, a claims adjuster who unpicks the couple's scheme. But the ace in the hole is Barbara Stanwyck as Phyliss Dietrichson, a vision of amorality in a "honey of an anklet" and a platinum wig. She can lower her sunglasses and make it look like the last word in predatory desire. And she's not just a vamp: she's a psychopath. There are few shots in cinema as bone-chilling as the close-up on Stanwyck's face as Neff dispatches Phyliss's husband in the back seat of a car. Miklós Rózsa's fretful strings tell us throughout the picture: beware. Stanwyck had been reluctant to take the role, confessing: "I was a little frightened of it." Wilder asked whether she was an actress or a mouse. When she plumped for the former, he shot back: "Then take the part." RG
A woman is raped in a forest by a bandit, and her samurai husband murdered. In court, the victim and her attacker give contradictory accounts of what happened, while the dead man, communicating through a medium, offers another differing interpretation. Finally, a fourth account is given by a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed the attack. But whose version can be believed? Rashomon, which won the Grand Prix at Venice as well as the Oscar for best foreign language film, is an example not only of the great Kurosawa at the height of his powers – working with his regular collaborator, the imposing Toshiro Mifune – but of cinematic storytelling at its most daring. With its multiple contradictory flashbacks conspiring to present truth as an amorphous entity, Rashomon has been hugely influential on film structure and vocabulary in the 60 years since it was made.
But this formalist significance should not overshadow the picture's visual eloquence, and the extraordinary cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, which uses the intricate woodland setting as a metaphor for the story's tangled emotions. "[The] strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow," wrote Kurosawa of his preparations for the film, which he adapted in part from the short story, Yabu no Naka (In a Grove), by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. "In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness …"
The bristling beauty of the film emerged from Kurosawa's quest to reconnect with the roots of the art form, which he worried were in danger of being eclipsed. "Since the advent of the talkies in the 30s," he said, "I felt we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again ..." There may be something a shade too reassuring about the final deference to truth and idealism. But this is easily offset by the rigorous psychological work-out to which Rashomon – arguably Kurosawa's greatest work – subjects its audience. RG
Terrence Malick based his peerlessly poetic debut on the real-life story of Charles Starkweather, a teenage James Dean wannabe who fled across the midwest on a killing spree, his 14-year-old girlfriend in tow. But the film couldn't be further from a pulpy true-crime tale, or a hip New Wave homage like Bonnie and Clyde. It's a true original: eloquent about the intersection of crime, romanticism and myth-making in America, and highly innovative in its use of colour, editing and voice-over. Martin Sheen, who was cast as the Starkweather surrogate, Kit, believed Badlands was the best script he had ever read. "Still is," he says. "It was mesmerising. It disarmed you. It was a period piece, and yet of all time. It was extremely American, it caught the spirit of the people, of the culture, in a way that was immediately identifiable." Sissy Spacek played Holly, the baton-twirling schoolgirl who elopes with Kit after he kills her father (Warren Oates).
The film's dislocated emotional effect arises almost entirely from Holly, whose banal narration goes starkly against the grain. Traditionally, a voice-over fills in the blanks, but Badlands is defined by the contradiction between what we see and what we hear. Holly's blank reaction when Kit guns down her father makes the slaying more shocking than any amount of hysterical identification. "She isn't indifferent about her father's death," Malick pointed out. "She might have cried buckets of tears, but she wouldn't think of telling you about it. It would not be proper. You should always feel there are large parts of her experience she's not including because she has a strong, if misplaced, sense of propriety." This suggestion that we may not be getting the full story is crucial to appreciating Malick, who is more likely, at a moment of drama, to turn his camera on a quivering blade of grass. RG
The rehabilitation of Hitchcock's Vertigo is now fully complete – its reputation is as assured as that of Citizen Kane, and can only have been helped by a long period in which it was out of circulation – but what an oddity it is. Viewed as a conventional thriller, this adaption of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's 1954 novel, D'Entre les Morts (aka The Living and the Dead), is hardly the tightest of constructions. And there is also the notorious left-field touch of giving away the twist some distance before the end. But then, plot matters far less in Vertigo than the machinations of desire and obsession – and about those there is no finer film.
James Stewart plays Scottie, an acrophobic private eye who receives an unusual assignment: to follow Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of an old friend, who is drifting around San Francisco in a dazed funk. She seems to be under the spell of a long-dead ancestor named Carlotta, who committed suicide, but soon Scottie is lost in his own reverie.
At this point, the plot takes a sharply disorienting turn, and Vertigo moves into darker and even more unsettling territory. Stewart's performance as a prototype stalker is especially troubling as we watch his soft features harden and his wholesome persona become mangled and corrupted; along with Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, it is one of cinema's most effective instances of casting against type. Meanwhile, Novak is a model of fraught beauty in her tombstone-grey suit. She was always a reluctant star, and her natural anxiety contributes to her character's vulnerability, which peaks in the heartbreaking line to Scottie: "If I let you change me, will you love me?" No wonder the writer David A Cook said of the film that it "suggests not only the fraudulence of romantic love, but of the whole Hollywood narrative tradition that underwrites it."
Stylistically, Vertigo features some of Hitchcock's most expressionistic work; the film includes the famous zoom-in/track-out shot, also known as the "trombone shot" (and later appropriated by Steven Spielberg for Jaws), which gives the impression of both moving toward and away from the subject simultaneously. Even the misstep of the nightmare sequence created by John Ferren, which sees Scottie's disembodied face floating in a psychedelic void, cannot undermine the stifling atmosphere of romantic intensity epitomised in the ripe colours and Bernard Herrmann's grand, encircling score. RG
2. Touch of Evil
In the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson – the source material for this movie – the hero is an American with a Mexican wife (in a marriage that is nine years old). It was Orson Welles who flipped the racial mix, and made the marriage brand new. Welles intended a story of three frontiers: the rancid Mexican-American border; the way a good detective becomes a bad cop; and a provocation on interracial sexuality. To be sure, it's a recognisable Charlton Heston in makeup as Mike Vargas, with Janet Leigh as his Susie – but in 1958, that bond disturbed a lot of viewers. Moreover, the overtone of honeymoon is a wicked set-up for threats of rape. Will the horrendous border scum get to Susie before Mike? If you doubt that suggestiveness, just notice how the car bomb explodes as the honeymooners are ready to enjoy their first kiss on American soil. This is a crime picture in which coitus interruptus has to be listed with all the other charges.
Metaphorically and cinematically, it's a picture about crossing over – in one sumptuous camera set-up we track the characters over the border. That shot is famous, but it's no richer than the single set-up in a cramped motel suite that proves how Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) plants dynamite on the man he intends to frame. These scenes were a way for Welles to say, "I'm as good as ever", but they are also crucial to the uneasiness that runs through the picture and the gloating panorama of an unwholesome society. The aura of crime has seeped into every cell of ordinary behaviour: the city officials are corrupt; the night man (Dennis Weaver) needs a rest home; and the gang that come to the motel to get Susie are one of the first warnings of drugs in American movies. Not least, of course, Quinlan – a sheriff gone to hell on candy-bars.
So evil is not just a "touch". It is criminality in the blood. Marlene Dietrich's Tanya watches over this doom like a witch or prophet, and a bleak reminder that there is no hope. Fifty years later, that border is still an open wound. David Thomson
The near perfection of Roman Polanski's Chinatown starts with Diener/Hauser/Bates's haunting art nouveau poster for the film: an emblematic Hokusai wave breaks against Jack Nicholson's silhouette as the smoke from his cigarette floats up to merge with Faye Dunaway's medusa-like hair. The movie ends equally unforgettably with the line "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown!", as lapidary a pay-off as Scarlett O'Hara's "After all, tomorrow is another day."
Behind the angst-ridden film noirs of the 40s and 50s lie the social and political tensions of the second world war and the postwar decade. Similarly, Chinatown was conceived, written, produced and released in the troubled period that included the last years of the Vietnam war, Watergate and Nixon's fraught second term in the White House. But it retained its freshness, vitality and timelessness by being set so immaculately in an earlier period – Los Angeles in the long, hot summer of 1937 – and it deals with the scandals of that era, those touching on the complex politics of water in the arid west.
While gathering divorce evidence on behalf of a suspicious wife, Gittes (Nicholson) is sucked into a world beyond his comprehension involving municipal corruption, sexual transgression and the power of old money. He encounters the rich, ruthless capitalist Noah Cross (John Huston) and his estranged daughter, the beautiful Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), whose husband, head of the Los Angeles Water and Power Board, dies under mysterious circumstances.
In his screenplay, Robert Towne develops two dominant metaphors; the first centres on water. During a period of drought someone is dumping water from local reservoirs, and it becomes clear that this most precious of human resources is being manipulated by land speculators in their own interests. The name of Evelyn's husband, Hollis Mulwray, evokes William Mullholland, the Los Angeles engineer responsible in the 20s for the deals that, in the old Western phrase, "made water flow uphill in search of the money". The name Noah Cross suggests the loveable Old Testament patriarch, played in the 1966 blockbuster The Bible by John Huston, but here reprised in a less benevolent mode as a self-righteous plutocrat who has harnessed the flood in his own interests.
The other metaphor is that of Chinatown, an inscrutable place which outsiders either stand back from or misread in a way that demonstrates the futility of good intentions. Jake worked in Chinatown during his days in the LAPD and, at the end of the picture, returns there in a bid for redemption that turns out to be an act of tragic pointlessness. He's in every scene, frequently with the camera just behind him. We see and experience everything from his point of view, with Polanski composing every frame, dictating each camera movement.
The movie captures the city in a summer heatwave: the blinding exteriors dazzle the eye and blur the judgment; shafts of light create a sinister atmosphere as they penetrate the dark interiors through venetian blinds. Jerry Goldsmith's superb score uses strings and percussion during moments of suspense and a distant, bluesy trumpet for elegiac, contemplative scenes. Above all there is Nicholson's Gittes, a cocky, confident man losing his social moorings and ending up as the proverbial drowning man reaching out for straws. Philip French
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