Because there are humans everywhere, crime happens everywhere. The location and the culture shape the people involved, the specifics of the deed, and the nature of the justice served — if and when it’s served.
The same holds true for crime fiction. Plenty of different national strains of pulp have cropped up, but crime stories set in Britain or following subjects of the crown have flourished in particular. (This week, in fact, sees the release of King of Thieves, starring Michael Caine.) As Bob Hoskins’s Harold Shand explains to some doubting mafiosos in The Long Good Friday, “Us British, we’re used to a bit more vitality, imagination, a touch of the Dunkirk spirit.” These characters have a quick, dry wit and are usually enmeshed in a calcified class system, two features that typically mix to dire ends.
The sub-genre of British crime is vast and varied (and not always confined to the U.K.), but for a condensed syllabus of the last 70 years, these are the essential films that capture the breadth of it — from Cockneys to Caine, hoodlums to the high-class.
The Night and the City (1950)
Bright lights shining through the foggy 1950s London air is the memorable backdrop of Jules Dassin’s story of a two-bit American hustler, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), doing everything he can to stay ahead of his arrears and the doomed end pursuing him. Fabian’s primary scheme involves creating a rival wrestling promotion to the only outfit in town and pitting father against son — pro wrestling versus Greco-Roman. Even with an American in the lead role, there are traces of the British crime subgenre that would emerge over the following decade. Watching Harry’s literal mad dashes across town, his quick-talking hucksterism, and the broadly European cast, you can practically feel the future U.K. filmmakers waiting to remix it all.
The League of Gentlemen (1960)
British crime movies often distinguish themselves within the larger genre by reflecting the country’s history in its characters. Basil Dearden’s heist movie, The League of Gentlemen, follows a team of disgraced British army officers who set out to rob a bank in London. They use the know-how they acquired in the war a decade-and-a-half prior to infiltrate army bases and steal the weapons they need for the job. The entire operation is pulled off with the sophistication of the officer class and the military precision that helped them survive the wartime. The film is an example of how a crime movie can be more than shootouts and heists: They can be character studies of a specific group of people and the things that would drive them to the other side of the law.
Get Carter (1971)
Director Mike Hodges’s adaptation of Ted Lewis’s book is a violent and entertaining trip inside the male ego. Michael Caine’s Jack Carter is essentially a questing knight traveling across a sexually liberated England to investigate the suspicious death of his brother. He is bound by honor and family to take bloody action against those who have done him wrong. All women want him, and despite their conniving ways, they can always be overcome physically. But it’s not entirely a relic of a more patriarchal past. Depending on how it’s viewed, Get Carter may shade some of its machismo cynically (while reveling in it too, of course). The end of Carter’s story suggests that his adventure in vengeance was futile and misbegotten, the product of his testosterone run wild.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
While the Stanley Kubrick classic might follow the leader of a gang (Malcolm McDowell) in a dystopian near-future, and is often thought of outside typical genre confines, it’s still essentially the story of a gang leader in London. Technicalities aside, A Clockwork Orange’s qualifications as a British crime film are nearly as important as its many innovations. The movie examines topics likes crime, sex, violence, and masculinity — like many of the other movies on the list — but it does so with such a sense of wild invention. The evil on display doesn’t to conform to our time or reality. It’s heinous and colorful and anarchic and classically scored, all while reflecting a dark, eternal truth.
The First Great Train Robbery (1978)
An indelible characteristic of a British crime movie is its characters’ relation to class. Usually this means that we’re following men hoping to rise in society. But what about the crooks who are already at the top? The third feature film from Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton as director follows Edward Pierce (Sean Connery) as a seemingly dignified gentleman who, in reality, is anything but. He is, in fact, a master thief with his eyes set on a train full of gold. In adapting his own book, Crichton relishes in the excesses of upper-class Victorian-era London, which makes for a caper that wears its Britishness like the fancy top hat on Connery’s head.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
What makes the Bob Hoskins–starring gangster movie an all-timer is succinctly summarized in a speech given by the main character, Harold Shand, to some wavering mafia partners near the end of the film. “What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an ‘ot dog, know what I mean? … The Mafia? I’ve shit ‘em.” Barrie Keeffe’s ingenious script is a bold statement of British crime’s unique identity within the genre and also a black comic tragedy about one hood’s attempt to legitimize himself and his hometown.
The Hit (1984)
What if the mark of a two-person hit squad wasn’t afraid to die? What does removing that fear from the scenario do to the operation and the men expected to carry it out? Those are the questions posed by this early road movie from director Stephen Frears. Terence Stamp is utterly charming as a former hood-turned-informant, who is kidnapped by men tasked with delivering him to Paris before killing him (John Hurt and Tim Roth). Naturally, the trip does not go as planned, thanks in equal part to Roth’s bleach-blond novice and Stamp’s acceptance of the inevitable. The Hit brilliantly mixes disparate tones — being simultaneously light and violent — and picks apart a central tenet of the genre: that the worst place to be is on the wrong side of a gun.
Mona Lisa (1986)
Starring two legends of the category, Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine, Neil Jordan’s crime-romance dives deep into the seedy streets of London and the characters that thrive there. Hoskins plays George, a recently released convict who lands a job driving around a high-price call girl (Cathy Tyson). The bond that driver and client form is built on the promise of a better life for both of them, which ultimately turns out to be a lie. Few movies in the genre embed themselves as deeply into the street-level scene like Mona Lisa does — or, for that matter, take on the perspective of the woman, too often seen as expendable in these films.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Guy Ritchie’s arrival on the scene essentially changed the tenor of the British crime drama forever after. His films amplified the humor and wit of the entries that came before them, and his dialogue was infused with the velocity and precision of the sort that Tarantino’s characters had been delivering since the early ’90s. That influential blueprint started with this classic, featuring a poorly planned heist, high-level filmmaking, and a few unknown actors — Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones among them. Ritchie would ultimately have a hard time breaking free of the style he presented here, with his best subsequent films — Snatch and RocknRolla — re-creating it rather than expounding upon it.
The Limey (1999)
While technically an American film, we’ll still give love to the Terence Stamp-headlined The Limey. Steven Soderbergh’s follow-up to the terrific 1998 Out of Sight is a playful remix of the British crime genre, transplanting a classic Cockney hood into the eternal, post-’60s malaise of Los Angeles’ hillside mansions. The result is part Raymond Chandler, part Get Carter, packaged inside a dreamy structure that evokes grief and memory. Stamp plays Wilson, a recently released convict and bad dad who travels to California for answers about his daughter’s suspicious death. The journey brings him into the orbit of a wannabe actor (Luis Guzmán), a shady record exec (Peter Fonda), and his fixer (Vanishing Point’s Barry Newman). The Limey is a hybrid crime movie that transcends the sum of its parts to become something all its own.
Sexy Beast (2000)
From the outside, Jonathan Glazer’s feature debut plays safely within the confines of the gangster flick. A retired criminal, Gal (Ray Winstone), wants out of the business, and things get messy when an acquaintance from London (Ben Kingsley) drops by his sun-drenched retreat to recruit him for one more job. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of Sexy Beast. Kingsley’s Don Logan is a force of nature, much like the literal boulder that nearly crushes Gal. He is unrelenting, seemingly unassailable, and out of his mind. Then, there are Gal’s nightmarish visions of a demonic rabbit, beating Donnie Darko to the punch by mere months. The film dives deeper into the criminal psyche than the rest of the genre dares to go, illustrating the ugly fear that lives inside these men who work so hard to seem so cool.
Eastern Promises (2007)
For most of this list and the category on the whole, “British” means “native-born British,” rather than being a reflection of the country’s actual population. David Cronenberg’s second criminal effort, after A History of Violence, partly corrects that. Written by Steve Knight, Eastern Promises is the story of first- and second-generation immigrants trying to lead better lives in a new country. Also, Viggo Mortensen gets extremely naked. The now-infamous bathhouse fight is expertly done and a prime of example of Cronenberg not settling for anything but uncomfortable realism. You see feel every slash of the knife and each stroke of a straight-edge razor in a pair of scenes previous to that. For Cronenberg, this is what crime in Britain looks like. It’s ugly, bloody, and doesn’t always speak with a Cockney accent.
Layer Cake (2004)
If we’re talking about the films that are absolutely essential to the British gangster canon, there is the temptation to group Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut in with the early work of Guy Ritchie. Vaughn served as producer on both Lock, Stock and Snatch; Layer Cake, his adaptation of screenwriter J.J. Connolly’s novel, hails from roughly the same house of style. However, Vaughn’s sure-handedness allows the film to succeed on its own terms. Additionally, this is the film that — in the public eye, at least — made the best case for Daniel Craig as James Bond ahead of Casino Royale. His role here as a pragmatic, nameless London drug distributor has all of the hallmarks of what would become Craig’s star persona: tough, emotionally distant, but attractive all the same.
In Bruges (2008)
Let’s be clear: This is an Irish crime movie with an English crime movie bad guy. Considering the Emerald Isle’s rich and complicated history, Irish crime fiction could easily justify its own list — with a large part of those films taking place post-American immigration — but for the sake of completeness here, I’m going to cheat a bit. (Besides, it’s a U.K. production with a number of British awards under its belt.) The story of In Bruges is that of two Irish contract killers (the blessed pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) running afoul of their English boss (Ralph Fiennes) when a hit goes wrong. Though the rest of the plot mechanics involve head-exploding bullets, hypothetical conversations about future race wars, and more than one suicide, it’s really a (very Catholic) morality tale. As Farrell’s Ray miserably wanders through the purgatory of Europe’s best-preserved medieval city and spouts writer-director Martin McDonagh’s delicious dialogue, he takes an emotional journey far more introspective and spiritual than the genre would usually allow.
Red Riding (2009)
A relic from a more naive time when an indie distributor could release a three-part British television anthology into American theaters and critics and list-makers could say, “Yes, that’s a movie.” Based on three out of David Peace’s four books in his Red Riding Quartet, the series took a novel approach to adapting the set: three different directors, shooting on different formats (16mm, 35mm, and digital), and casting the British Character Actor All-Stars (Mens Division). Each story takes a different approach to a series of child murders in the north of England, with the two most compelling following Andrew Garfield as a journalist and Paddy Considine as a police investigator. The expertly made triptych is a mostly bleak affair that tries to grapple with the arc of history and evil — bad men undone by time and the sacrifice of the good.
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