Cell at Eastern State

Cell at Eastern State

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Trip to the Movies

(Repost from Moments in Crime, St. Martin's Minotaur)

All the crime writers I know love movies. We talk about our favorites, trade recommendations and argue nearly as fiercely and passionately as we do about books. There are as many ways to approach crime movies as there are ways to approach crime writing, and when a movie has been adapted from a book, part of the fun of watching is critiquing the thousand choices the director and actors made about interpretation.

I think nearly all of us who write crime aspire to write screenplays, and not just for the promise of better financial rewards. When we read, we “see” characters and setting and action, sometimes very vividly, and we get proprietary about how we want to see books interpreted. Movies, as much as books, shape our expectations of what crime stories should deliver, and they show us criminal behavior and the repercussions of violence with an immediacy to which fiction can only aspire. They form the cultural landscape, and they influence not just other filmmakers, but also writers, and sometimes, criminals themselves.

I thought it would be fun to put up a short list of some crime movies I love and stimulate a little discussion about the differences in the experiences of watching a crime movie and reading crime fiction. I’ve picked some more obscure films here – I figure you already know the usual suspects, like Chinatown, The Godfathers I and II, and The French Connection.


Rififi. – 1955. Jules Dassin was in France because he’d been blacklisted when he was invited to interpret Auguste le Breton’s short, vicious crime novel for the screen. He wrote the screenplay in English and had it translated into French. It’s the archetype for just about every heist film you’ve ever seen. Jean Servais plays Tony le Stéphanois, a tough-but-tender hood who is one of the classic noir anti-heroes. The centerpiece of the movie is the wordless, nearly silent, seventeen-minute burglary of a jewelry store. Amazing. Dassin himself shows up as the charming safecracker Cesare, whose indiscretions bring on the inevitable final mêlée as rival gangs scramble for the loot.

The Killing – 1956. Director Stanley Kubrick wrote the screenplay with Jim Thompson, based on the novel Clean Break, by Lionel White. It centers on the robbery of a racetrack led by Sterling Hayden, and features some of the most memorable character roles of the period, including Elisha Cook Jr. doing yeoman work as the henpecked loser chained to grasping harpy Marie Windsor, the crazily-intense Timothy Carey, and cheerful Kola Kwariani as a chess-playing strongman who rips his shirt off to get it on with the cops. Everyone in the cast seems barely in control, and the paroxysm of violence at the end seems not just earned, but inevitable.


High Sierra – 1941. Written by W.R. Burnett and John Huston, Burnett’s novel. Bogie leads a great cast on a caper that’s bound to go wrong. As Bogart’s sadder-but-not-wiser ex-con Roy Earle puts it, “Of all the 14 karat saps... starting out on a caper with a woman and a dog.” Of course, things go bad, and then worse, and Roy’s gal Marie, played with a great alternating toughness and vulnerability by Ida Lupino (who went on to become a significant director in her own right) watches from a police blockade as the cops close in on her man. “Tell me mister, what does it mean when a man crashes out?”



City of Industry – 1996. Harvey Keitel is a force of nature in this terse, muscular heist movie directed by John Irvin. When wheelman Stephen Dorff kills Keitel’s brother, the wonderfully aimless Timothy Hutton, and absconds with the loot from a Palm Springs jewelry store robbery, Keitel moves like a runaway train through the underworld of Los Angeles to get his version of justice. The then-unknown Famke Janssen, new widow of one of Hutton’s accomplices, feeds Keitel lines that he brings off with a perfect, distracted understatement. “What are you going to do when you find him?” “You already know.”


Classe Tous Risques – 1960. I’ll let this one stand in for a dozen French movies I love, directed by guys like Jean Pierre Melville and Claude Sautet, who made this gritty, tense downhill slide starring the always-excellent Lino Ventura (probably most recognizable from the classic “Army of Shadows”). Lino’s fugitive gangster Abel Davos is on the run with a death sentence hanging over his head, and like most of the great French crime films of the period, it’s really about loyalty and treachery. It’s hard not to imagine the wartime experience of occupation subtly influencing postwar directors as they depicted tough, violent fugitives dogged by suspicion and doomed by betrayal.

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