THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider. Dir. William Friedkin

 “All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddamnit! All winter long I gotta hear him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.” - Popeye Doyle to a perp
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“You pick your feet?” That’s Popeye Doyle’s line, the question he asks all the hoods. What does it mean? Absolutely no idea. To this day, I still don’t get what he’s talking about, and I’m all the better for it. Popeye is dangerous, and he’s a reckless, racist, shit-stirring cop who operates on hunches that more often than not get people killed. Does he ever rethink his plans? Nope. He just knows he’s the good guy, they’re the bad guys, and he’s gotta be right in the end. Gene Hackman was Popeye in this film and its sequel, it was his Oscar winning role, and he inhabited it fully. A great character actor for the majority of his career, Popeye was his most memorable. Here he’s partnered with the straight edged Roy Scheider as they seek to bust a major international drug deal in the slums of New York. Sort of the other end of Bullitt, The French Connection had a more complicated plot, main character, AND car chase, believe it or not. I have a hunch the goal of this movie from its inception was probably to outdo Bullitt, and to that end you have to give them credit for succeeding. I personally can’t choose between them, which is why they’re both on this list, but my affection for Bullitt doesn’t blind me from seeing the superior filmmaking and more ambitious goals at work here. Aside from the intricacies of the plot, the atmosphere of this movie is intrusive at every turn. You’re entirely placed in the ghettos of New York City in the 70’s, a universe away from Woody Allen’s upper class neighborhoods. Popeye himself apparently resides in a filthy hole of an apartment some of the time, but lives and breathes violence 24/7, obsessed with busting criminals that can never really be eliminated. It’s a game of wack-a-mole, and no above the law crazy cop can conquer it, only adding to the chaos of what’s right and wrong. Popeye strolls the streets day in and day out, but what’s he doing really? What is he accomplishing? He never questions himself and you’re on his side from the beginning, but by the end you find yourself wondering if you should have been. Is he well intentioned, but sloppy? Crazy like a fox? Or is he just another one of the rats in a sewer that can never be rid of them?

Original 1971 Trailer:

 

THE BIG HEAT (1953) Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame. Dir. Fritz Lang

"I'm through with you- but your friends aren't. I'm gonna spread the word that you talked. You're out of business, thief."- Dave Bannion, after shaking down a mob underling
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One of the last film noirs of the 1940’s noir era, a period which spawned some of the most lasting and influential movies of the crime genre, with its antiheroes, femme fatales, and bleak atmosphere crowding into every corner of the screen. This particular one however, is my personal favorite. As dark, unsentimental, and cynical a movie as you’ll ever find to come out of the 1950’s, for the most part a decade that was wholesome, cheery, and brimming with Eisenhower sunniness, at least on the surface. That surface is glimpsed in this film, and then the dark underbelly exposed in a rich and satisfying labyrinth of storytelling. Fritz Lang, the brilliant German director, had a penchant for exploring the dark underworld of corruption and crime. In this, Glenn Ford is Dave Bannion, the hard edged, reckless and somewhat irresponsible cop who singlehandedly takes on the mob after his wife is murdered. He’s a decent guy but pushed to the breaking point, as his entire department is owned by the crime syndicate, forcing him to make rash decisions, further endangering himself and the people he knows. Gloria Grahame (pictured above) is the girlfriend and victim of one of the mobsters (Lee Marvin), and both of them turn in ferocious performances as each one's ultimate role in the plot is methodically unraveled, bit by bit. The brilliance of this movie though, is in the gradual reveal of the true nature of Ford himself, who you uneasily realize will stop at nothing in pursuit of his ultimate goal. There are all kinds of ambiguous undertones here, but part of the fun is trying to figure out what Lang is really saying about human nature, about corruption, and what is or is not justifiable action in pursuit of revenge and exposing the truth. Besides all that, it’s also just a really great detective story. One more note: there is an incredibly famous and still shocking scene in the film involving Grahame and Marvin, so be on the lookout, but trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.

Original 1953 Trailer:


SCARFACE (1932) Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak. Dir. Howard Hawks

"In this business, there's only one law you gotta follow to keep out of trouble: Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it." - Tony Camonte
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Forget the Al Pacino version, THIS is the one you want, people. One of the early gangster films, this along with two other classics from the 1930’s, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, comprised the holy trinity of pre-code gang violence. Scarface was actually based on the life of Al Capone, who even provided advice on the script (not kidding). Paul Muni plays the hitman with a fierce energy that blows Pacino’s hamminess out of the water. He starts off a hired thug who rises in the ranks to take over the local operation, and soon faces down brutal clashes with rival gangs and unrelenting cops. Muni is never less than mesmerizing in the title role, holding your complete attention for every frame of the brisk 93 minutes. You’ll also be shocked at the level of violence in this film. Most boundary pushing pre-Production code films reveled in a raunchy sexuality (and this one is no exception), but here there are also multiple scenes of gangland executions, dead bodies paraded as threats, and loads of innocent bystanders dying in a hail of gunfire. There’s an underlying level of dark humor throughout the whole enterprise, maybe to distract from the consistent violence and brutality, but it has the effect of making the film seem decades ahead of its time, an obvious influence on the newer gangster movies revived in the late 60’s, from Bonnie and Clyde to Taxi Driver and even Goodfellas (Scorsese himself has credited this movie as being one of his major influences). Check this one out, and then do yourself a favor and look up Paul Muni’s other films as well. One of the earliest character actors, you won’t believe how he was able to inhabit this borderline crazy and merciless mobster and then turn around and play the 18th century physicist Louis Pasteur (1936’s The Story of Louis Pasteur) or the wrongly accused WWI vet in 1933’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (a film just as powerful as Scarface in its own way). Nominated 6 times for Best Actor, he’s one of the most underrated and unjustly forgotten stars of the movies.

1979 Re-release Trailer:

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) Christian Bale, Heath Ledger. Dir. Christopher Nolan

"See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."- The Joker
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Full disclosure: I was not the biggest fan of Batman Begins, the prequel to this film and the official relaunch of the Batman franchise. The first movie was slow, muddled and more than a little pretentious. In fact, I’ll be quite honest- I’m not really a big Nolan fan, period. It may be blasphemy to say so among a certain group of people but mostly I think his movies tend to be wildly overpraised. Now, having said that, I LOVE The Dark Knight. I really do. I think it’s not only probably the greatest superhero movie ever made, but stands alone as a great crime epic. What makes it so different from the pretension of Nolan’s usual fare? Well, a number of things, but let’s start with the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker. It was an iconic turn practically from the moment the trailers came out, when you heard that evil cackle and glimpsed the painted and mutilated grin. A sadistic and murderous loon who spreads chaos for the pure joy of it, he thoroughly dominates the screen and is genuinely scary in his portrayal of a psychopath. It never feels like a comic book, more like the psychotic serial killer of your worst nightmares. Made all the more haunting by Ledger’s tragic death before the movie’s release, he won a much deserved posthumous Oscar for his work here. Though he makes the movie in large part, he’s not all that makes TDK triumph. The script tackles all kinds of interesting themes about taking on the crime syndicate and what line is acceptable to cross, whether power gives you alone the right to take matters into your own hands at any price, trampling on civil liberties along the way and sacrificing a few innocents for the greater good. It was powerful stuff, made more timely by the ongoing debate over wiretapping and the erosion of our own civil liberties in the years after 9/11. The film was a massive hit in the summer of 08, ultimately robbed of its deserving Best Picture nomination and sparking outcry to reform the rules of the Academy (the next year would see the Best Picture nominees expand to 10, largely due to TDK’s snub). With a huge ensemble cast delivering great performances all the way around (Bale, Michael Caine, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman to name a few), The Dark Knight was that rare comic book superhero movie fated to transcend its genre and stand the test of time.

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BULLITT (1968) Steve Mcqueen, Jacqueline Bissett. Dir. Peter Yates

 "You work your side of the street and I'll work mine"- Frank Bullitt to a corrupt senator
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The King of Cool. That was McQueen’s nickname, and he earned it in nearly every film he made. In the pinnacle of this career, as Det. Frank Bullitt, he was the prototype for the good cop gone rogue, a theme which practically became its own genre immediately after this film came out (see The French Connection and Dirty Harry). Maybe in the era of ‘Nam and Watergate it hit home that corruption was everywhere and the only chance the good guys have is to take matters into their own hands, outside the law. Cynicism was in, idealism out. Bullitt is a good cop, but he lives his life quiet and isolated (quiet indeed, try to count exactly how many words come out of McQueen’s mouth in this movie). But he's not totally alone, as every tough guy needs a girl, and that’s what Jacqueline Bissett serves as here: the Girl. But really, she has a tiny part, only two scenes, and the plot is about Bullitt tracking down an assassin who killed the witness he was assigned to protect. That serves as the setup to a chase movie filled with a LOT of them, on foot and by car (in what is one of the most famous car chases in movie history). Through Bullitt’s quest we get to see a lot of the San Francisco hot spots of the late 60’s, and it serves as kind of a cool little time capsule for the era in which the film was made. The social changes happening in the background (for example, a prominent role is a doctor who happens to be black, something rarely seen before ’68) gives the atmosphere of the movie a new significance in retrospect. But mostly it’s Steve McQueen’s rugged face and hard-edged persona that gives the film its lasting power. Every decade tends to have its defining movie stars, and his was one of the brightest magnitude.

Original 1968 Trailer:

 

WHITE HEAT (1949) James Cagney, Virginia Mayo. Dir. Raoul Walsh

"Made it Ma! Top of the world!" - Cody Jarrett
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A comeback for James Cagney, who’d retired from playing gangsters at this point, only to return for one last explosive (in every sense of the word) go round. Cagney was one of the earliest movie stars of the sound era, and he made his mark as the tough guy, the hard as nails killer, although apparently in real life he was the sweetest guy you'd ever meet. He preferred musicals, and won an Oscar for playing song and dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (we'll get to that in July), but having had his fill of those, he made a triumphant return to form as ruthless killer Cody Jarrett in White Heat, his all time best gangster movie. Jarrett is the leader of a criminal gang and a mama's boy, whose equally villainous mother is in on the whole operation, the eyes and ears of every job he pulls. He’s married to Verna (Virginia Mayo), but devoted to “Ma” in a pathological way. Oh, and he also suffers from crushing migraines that cripple him periodically. The guy has issues, basically. When he turns himself in for a temporary prison sentence he’s befriended by an undercover fed (excellently played by Edmond O’Brien) who successfully infiltrates the gang until the explosive (again, literally) final confrontation at the chemical plant, Cody’s last stand. Thoroughly engrossing from beginning to end, you get caught up both in Cody’s psyche and in O’Brien and the fed's bid to catch up with him. It was always funny to me that Cagney was so typecast as the tough guy, considering his rather miniscule stature, but what he lacked in size he made up for in attitude, brazenness and surefire confidence, never less than in complete control of everything around him. The fact that he was able to be such a convincing killer and then be the joyous song and dance man he preferred is a testament to his remarkable talent. Even in this, the complicated character allows Cagney to show off a wide range of emotion (note the massive breakdown scene in the prison, when he hears of Ma’s death). White Heat is a can’t miss classic of the genre. Explosive, indeed.

Original 1949 Trailer:

 

THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis. Dir. Ridley Scott

"I know it's crazy but I just feel like I got a knack for this shit"- Thelma, after robbing a gas station
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It was way past time for a female buddy movie, so Ridley Scott took on the task from an eventual Oscar-winning script by Callie Khouri, and a new American classic was born. One of the best road movies ever made, the film displayed great respect for the complex characters, along with humor, action, and a genuine emotional connection between the two friends that doesn’t play as condescending, sentimental, or trite. Thelma and Louise are two working class Southern gals who take a much needed vacation from their dead end diner jobs and Thelma’s asshole abusive husband. But of course, things take a wrong turn when Louise kills Thelma’s attempted rapist at a bar, and now the girls are on the run from the law. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon delivered memorable and fully realized performances in the title roles, immortalizing their characters in pop culture forever (both were nominated for Best Actress). The chemistry between these two very different women was real and their emotions deeply felt, as you stay with them and their perspective on what they feel they have to do all the way through their journey, which spirals further and further out of control. But the men in this movie are great too. Harvey Keitel is the cop headed to track them down, who sympathizes with their ordeal and tries to help them out, Michael Madsen is Sarandon’s boyfriend who really does love her, and Christopher MacDonald is hilarious as Davis’s jerk husband who watches the charade unfold in disbelief. Oh, and you may have heard a bit about this other guy who shows up in the movie- Brad something or other? Yeah, this was Brad Pitt’s sensational breakthrough role, as the hot young stud Thelma picks up, who of course later robs them of their money, but not before giving Thelma the best sex of her life, which is nice for her- at least she gets to have that before riding off into the sunset with Louise by her side in that iconic final scene. Bittersweet, yes, but fitting, and really all they could do. A glorious tribute to female empowerment, but with none of the phony preachiness that usually comes with such a hard hitting message- just the story of two worn down women who’ve had enough, and end up going on the ride of their lives. We're glad they took us with them.

Original 1991 Trailer:

 

LE SAMOURAI (1967) Alain Delon, Francois Perier. Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville

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A neo-noir from the French New Wave, this minimalist crime thriller from director Melville was slick, stylish, and ahead of its time, while simultaneously drawing from the past. Alain Delon (a former male model) is assassin Jef Costello, a too cool for school crook who espouses nothing of his inner motivations or drive. He’s virtually unbeatable, certainly no match for the stumbling Paris feds who can’t seem to catch him in the act, no matter what illegal trappings they attempt to set up. As a free agent killer, Jef is hired and then betrayed by his shady employers, so now he’s besieged on both sides from the cops and the mob. A moody, atmospheric thriller, Melville films in a way that seems to intensify action even when there’s nothing much happening in front of the camera. Our point of view stays with Jef, who is so internal that we remain removed from much investment in the outcome, but nonetheless our breath remains held for intense, suspenseful set pieces as Jef casually outwits every nemesis. Of course, just when you think you know where this is all going, a last second twist grabs you by the wayside, forcing you to come to terms with the smooth methodical way in which the plot has arrived at this now seemingly inevitable conclusion. You’ll marvel at the stone-age technology involved in early wiretaps, and the décor of Paris nightlife in the swinging 60’s, but Le Samourai is an exciting, suspenseful and unbearably cool exercise in style, mystery, murder, and the philosophy of zen that Jef purports to live by.

Original 1967 Trailer:

 

THE DEPARTED (2006) Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon. Dir. Martin Scorsese

 "When I was your age, they would say we can become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this: when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" - Frank Costello
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Many say the Best Picture of 2006 was a consolation prize for Martin Scorsese, who was long overdue for his win as Best Director, having been nominated 5 times before and overlooked each time for lesser fare (especially with such enduring classics as Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver long behind him). In the face of those classics, The Departed was an entertaining movie, maybe on the level of a Mean Streets, but not really deserving. Well, that was the consensus anyway, but I have to disagree on it being undeserving. Remember, we’re talking about best of the YEAR, not best of Scorsese’s career, and it was certainly that in 2006. As far as how it measures up to Scorsese’s previous work? Well, that’s hard to argue, and no one is going to say those films from the past weren’t better, but I would also say The Departed is a great movie, and certainly the best of his work from this decade, crushing Gangs of New York and The Aviator, for example. Scorsese had returned to his roots with this classic cops and robbers story of undercover rats, moles, and other garden variety insects; a remake of Infernal Affairs, a South Korean film about the twists and turns in a federal agency’s plot to infiltrate the mob and vice versa. Scorsese was relaxed and at home, and it showed in the filmmaking. Leo Dicaprio and Matt Damon are the undercover rats for each side, reporting back to their respective headquarters and trying desperately to keep from being caught. Jack Nicholson is the mob boss in a scenery chewing turn, but the rest of the cast tempers him with slick and solid performances, including Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Whalberg (a scene stealer himself in this and nominated for his efforts). It’s a thrilling, suspenseful and gloriously bloody ride to the very end. Even if the final shot is a little heavy handed, give him a break, will you? Scorsese was back in form, and we ought to applaud him for that- it had been too long.

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THE THIRD MAN (1949) Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten. Dir. Carol Reed

 “You know what the fellow said- in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace- and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”- Harry Lime
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A classic noir filmed in the devastated post war ravages of Vienna, a city that was then divided into sections among the Allied victors. Joseph Cotten is a writer who goes to Vienna at the invitation of an old friend, whom he finds to be dead when he arrives. As he stays in the city, he becomes suspicious about the circumstances of Harry Lime’s mysterious death, gets involved with Harry’s Russian girlfriend Anna (Allida Valli), and is caught up in the rivalries between military police forces in the dividing sectors of the city, each of whom are at various times plotting with or out to trap Lime in a bid to prove he faked his own death and is the head of a black market racket that’s poisoning children for profit. Well, spoiler alert: Lime ISN’T dead, as you may have guessed, seeing how he’s Orson Welles and has top billing in this movie. In fact, one of the most incredible effects of the script is how the movie is entirely centered on Harry Lime from start to finish, although he doesn’t even show up until some time past the halfway mark. Somehow, you remember it as being entirely his story, and that may be the result of Orson Welles leaving such an impact when he finally does arrive (in a sequence that’s one of the best grand entrances in movie history). Welles is such a dynamic presence that from the first few seconds of his opening lines you can see how he has managed to be the force everyone in his life revolves around. Rarely has such an amoral, cynical and heartless villain so charmingly and persuasively pulled you into his web of manipulation and deceit. The movie is directed with superb skill, showing you the twisted and dark streets of a Vienna that’s the heart of the black market and post war corruption, Harry Lime serving as a symbol of the times (he literally lives in the sewers). The final shot is one of the most famous endings in the movies, and not a second of it feels wrong. A close to perfect film.

Original 1949 Trailer: