2013 has been a bonanza year for movies based on real-life crimes. As well as Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring – now on its second week in UAE cinemas – filmgoers have recently seen dramas based on true events such as Bernie with Jack Black, the gripping Compliance and The Iceman. Later this year Leonardo DiCaprio portrays the corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. There is certainly something fascinating about a crime movie based on a true story. We pick 10 classic true crime movies that everyone should see, and the best 21st-century flicks worth catching up with, too
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” says Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Martin Scorsese’s stunning Mafia movie based on Hill’s real-life experiences as he moved through the mob hierarchy during the 1960s and 1970s. Joe Pesci won an Oscar for his role alongside Robert DeNiro, Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino, but it’s still a shock to remember that the film didn’t win Best Picture or a Best Director gong for Scorsese (Dances with Wolves and Kevin Costner won instead). Nevertheless, stunning performances, taut direction, a great soundtrack, the long tracking shot through the Copacabana nightclub and the “What do you mean I’m funny” scene add up to one of the best movies of all time.
10 Rillington Place (1971)
Richard Fleischer had previously directed two true crime movies – Compulsion (based on the Leopold and Loeb murder trial) and The Boston Strangler (featuring a stunning performance from Tony Curtis as the killer Albert DeSalvo) – before tackling this British drama based on the book by Ludovic Kennedy. Richard Attenborough is mesmerising (and very creepy) as the serial killer John Christie, who hid victims in the garden of his London house during and after the Second World War, while John Hurt is haunting as mentally disabled lodger Timothy Evans, who was originally hanged for Christie’s crimes.
Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Made in the French New Wave style of the 1960s, Arthur Penn’s crime drama was both a critical hit and also a heavily criticised film for its graphic depiction of violence. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty star as the real-life partners-in-crime Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who robbed banks with their gang during the Great Depression but were eventually ambushed and killed by the police (depicted in the memorable slow-motion scene that The New York Times described as “one of the bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history”).
The Executioner’s Song (1982)
Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the execution of the murderer Gary Gilmore became a gripping TV movie (originally shown in two parts) that deservedly won leading actor Tommy Lee Jones an Emmy for his performance. The story itself is notable because Gilmore asked to be executed as soon as possible. The film covers the last nine months of his life, including the crime that led to his death sentence. Another TV true crime movie that’s worth seeking out is 1986’s The Deliberate Stranger, with Mark Harmon (now best known for his role in NCIS) as the 1970s serial killer Ted Bundy.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Al Pacino stars as Sonny Wortzik, whose bungled attempt to rob a bank in 1970s Brooklyn ended up with Sonny and his pal Sal (John Cazale) – on discovering there was hardly any money in the vault – taking hostages in the hope they could bargain their way out of the situation. Based on a Life magazine article about a similar crime, this drama from Sidney Lumet is packed with terrific performances, especially from Pacino, who had previously worked with Lumet on another true crime drama, the equally gripping Serpico, in 1973.
Other films have been made about the Zodiac Killer but this thriller from the director David Fincher (Seven) is far and away the best. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a serial killer terrorised the San Francisco Bay Area, taunting police with letters and symbols sent to newspapers. This drama focuses on the crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) and the newspaper cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who try to investigate the case and work out the identity of the killer. Tense and atmospheric, it’s one of the best serial killer thrillers ever made, and features great support from Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Brian Cox.
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Both stars, Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, made their big-screen debuts in this New Zealand drama from The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. Based on a 1954 murder case that took place in Christchurch, it’s the mesmerising story of an obsessive relationship between two teenage girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, who murdered Parker’s mother to avoid being separated from each other. Mixing fantasy sequences to depict the girls’ vivid imaginary life with recreations of real-life events, it is a fascinating movie handled splendidly by Jackson as the writer/director and the co-writer Fran Walsh (Jackson’s real-life wife).
At Close Range (1986)
Christopher Walken is at his creepy best here as the patriarch Brad Whitewood Sr, the leader of an organised crime family who convinces his own sons, Brad Jr (Sean Penn) and Tommy (the late Chris Penn) to become involved in his criminal activities and wreaks sadistic revenge when he thinks they will inform on him. Based on the story of the real-life a Pennsylvania crime family led by Bruce Johnston Sr, this is a standard – if very bleak – crime thriller raised by three gripping lead performances. Fact fans should note that Sean Penn’s wife at the time, Madonna, contributed Live to Tell as the theme song for the film.
The Onion Field (1979)
Harold Becker (Sea of Love) directed this drama based on the novel of the same name that focuses not only on the crime – the kidnapping and shooting of two Los Angeles police officers in 1963 – but also the events that followed as the two criminals tried to reduce their sentences from death to life imprisonment, and the surviving officer (John Savage) tries to come to terms with his actions on the night his partner (Ted Danson, in his first big-screen role) was killed. James Woods steals the show as one of the two killers, a role that secured him a Golden Globe nomination.
Dance with a Stranger (1985)
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and her dramatised story – leading up to the murder of her lover, David Blakeley, outside a North London pub in 1955 – is told in this classy period drama from the director Mike Newell. Rupert Everett is suitably caddish as Blakeley, but the peroxide blonde Miranda Richardson gives the movie its heart and most stunning performance as tragic nightclub hostess Ellis.
… and the best true crime movies made since 2000
With the exception of Zodiac, these 10 classic true crime movies were all released before 2000, but that doesn’t mean that the 21st century has been lacking. There have been mainstream dramas such as 2007’s American Gangster, with Denzel Washington as the gang leader Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as the cop doggedly trying to catch him; 2001’s Blow, with Johnny Depp as the cocaine smuggler George Jung; and, of course, Monster, with Charlize Theron starring (and winning an Oscar) as Aileen Wuornos, who killed six men in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Some of the best 21st-century crime films weren’t made in Hollywood. It is worth checking out the epic two-part French film Mesrine, based on the autobiographical book by the gangster Jacques Mesrine (played by a simply stunning Vincent Cassel) and two Australasian movies, New Zealand’s Out of the Blue (2006) and the Australian movie Snowtown (2011). Out of the Blue, starring Karl Urban, is based on the Aramoana massacre (one gunman fatally shot 13 people) that took place in November 1990, while Snowtown focuses on the small-town murders committed by the serial killers John Bunting, Robert Wagner and the teenager James Vlassakis.
If all these movies seem a bit grim, there have been lighter looks at true crimes, too, such as Steven Spielberg’s slightly-loose-with-the-facts 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can, about the brazen con man Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the FBI agent (Tom Hanks) on his trail; and I Love You Phillip Morris, the 2009 romantic comedy about a con artist (Jim Carrey) who escapes from prison to be with the man he loves (Ewan McGregor).
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