I used to sit around and talk movies endlessly with friends in high school and college. It helped that I went to film school and worked in a video store all through high school. Now with two kids and no discernable social life I turn to you, the anonymous cyber-masses to throw my petty opinions upon.
Of course if we were all hanging out on a basement couch like the good ol days, I’d tell you about my new books out – Dig Two Graves and Split Decision. But that would be shameless and I’ll let the string of 5-star reviews, year-end best of lists (A Nick Quantrill pick!) and author endorsements (Scott Phillips, Sean Doolittle) do that for me. I’m here to talk movies.
So I was thinkin’, what crime films embody their decades? Not even the best, but the films that say what it is, or was, to be a crime story in that era. Here’s what I ended up with. Tell me what you think – this is a dialogue.
1950s – I only went back so far for space considerations. We’ll do a follow up if you want. But for now, I vote The Asphalt Jungle (1950). It is the ultimate heist movie and right then, in the thick of Film Noir, is features an entire cast, top-to-bottom, of bad guys. And damn if you don’t root for every last one of them.
Also The Killing (1956). Still in the mold of a Noir Kubrick’s experiment in style both stubbornly stuck to the splintered structure of the novel (Clean Break by Lionel White) but it showed that art in crime cinema could exist.
1960s – Bullit (1968). In the 60s crime was cool. Of, rather, crime was allowed to be cool on screen. It doesn’t get cooler than Steve McQueen. Sure, he’s the cop in this one but Bullit shows a growing acceptance of the anti-hero not the mention a giant leap forward in the car chase.
Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Of course Bonnie & Clyde’s greatest contribution to the advancement of crime cinema was the violence. And once again, cool rules. Unapologetic, unredemptive and sexy as they committed crimes, Bonnie & Clyde reached back in time to show us what a film made in the 30s wouldn’t have been allowed to.
1970s – You think I’m going to say The Godfather, don’t you? I’m not. Both Godfather films are an island unto themselves. (I’m still in denial that #3 even exists, no matter what decade) But they didn’t influence other crime films so much. You don’t see endless copies of Godfather films. I think people knew better.
Dirty Harry (1971) signified something, I’m still not sure exactly what. But boy is it the 70s in a nutshell. Afraid of authority and yet acknowledging that vigilantism may be the only way to true justice. And if you want to talk about influence, few cop movies to come out from the next 20 years didn’t have some of Harry’s DNA in them.
Get Carter (1971) I was going to put The French Connection here but decided it was basically the same message as Bullit with a slightly better car chase. Great, no doubt, but Get Carter brought us revenge cinema, a genre that still gets play today.
1980s – To Live and Die in LA (1985) Talk about being of the decade. Soundtrack by Wang Chung, features a middle eastern terrorist, the line “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit”, tight jeans, a car chase in the LA river. Violent. It glorifies the criminals as much as the cops, excuse me – secret service agents. There are still some pleasures to be found here and points to the film for going dark as hell. Doesn’t hold up as much as I would have thought when I first saw it and thought it was awesome. But this was crime cinema in the 80s.
The Untouchables (1987) Sort of a redemption for the crime film. A reminder of where it came from and a challenge laid down by DePalma for the others to step it up and stop with synthesizers and neon and get back to story and character. I wish it had worked.
Really I should put Beverly Hills Cop (1984) or 48 Hrs (1982) in this spot because the crime comedy became the go-to for a while. Still is, really, but boy it seems like no one can get the formula right, can they?
1990s – Hard Boiled (1992) Yep, a Hong Kong actioner by John Woo. Did anything explode our notion of the crime film than Hong Kong in the early 90s? They were the cinema equivalent of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. Everyone who saw this or The Killer was influenced. And if you say you weren’t – you’re lying.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) Exhibit A of the Hong Kong influence and QT proved you could do it in America. And on almost no money. Dogs is always accused of being a copy of HK films and maybe that’s why the copies of Reservoir Dogs all seemed so lame. A copy of a copy.
2000s – Gone Baby Gone (2007) Sure, not enough people saw this and it has baggage in the form of Ben Affleck, but first of all I think this is a truly great film. Second, it is a prime example of the new morality in crime films of the new millennium. More crime stories deal with implications of the violence, the actions, the attitudes of the characters than ever before it seems. Or maybe I just love this movie a whole lot. (this is where the whole discussion part of this came in handy during college) And hey, after The Town, Affleck has been vindicated and we can’t deny he’s a hell of a director.
Memento (2000) Beyond launching Christopher Nolan as an A list director, this film encapsulates so many of what came before. Crazy structure like The Killing, high art on low budget like Reservoir Dogs. Morally questionable like Hard Boiled. And every now and then a film comes along that breathes new life into a genre dangerously in peril of growing stale.
So what’s next? The Aussie’s sure have been cranking out some great films lately. Aw, who am I kidding, I never get out anymore. That reminds me, TV sure has gotten good lately . . .
Bio: Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision (book #3 of Fight Card) co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Off The Record, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Murder In The Wind and the Million Writers Award: best new web voices. For more info visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com