Skip to main content

The 40 best crime movies

21. Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is the very definition of film noir. Introducing a slew of new characteristics rarely trotted out on screen before, the femme fatale, complex plots and ominous cinematography, are all components of the film's success.

There would be no film were it not for James M. Cain (who penned Mildred Pierce)'s novel, that simmers on a tense relationship between housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred Murray). Their interactions a twist on the seemingly bored stay-at-home spouse and pushy salesman routine; she is the one who coerces him into committing murder against his better judgement.

Out of his normal comedic wheelhouse is director Billy Wilder, who drew Stanwyck out of her shell to create one of cinema's most fearsome fatales.

20. Brick (2005)

Watching Brick is like seeing all the hard-boiled literary tropes of Hammett and Chandler's day thrown into a contemporary tale set amongst the California elite. Joseph Gordon Levitt's youthful sleuth takes it upon himself to uncover the secrets behind his girlfriend's murder; a task that has him blurting out curt one-liners with panache.

Along the way he encounters a ton of shady characters (Lukas Haas does a killer job playing a drug baron) who seldom appear in teen-driven drama. But Brick isn't your typical teen indie. Rian Johnson takes a risk mixing the fickle world of high school with hard-boiled sensibilities, a gamble that breathes new life into the murder mystery concept.

19. Zodiac (2007)

The Zodiac killer struck the Bay Area in the sixties and seventies killing five people during his reign of terror. The fact that he remains at large is no doubt what attracted David Fincher to the film, based on cartoonist-cum-investigator Robert Graysmith's books on the topic. No clear-cut resolution, a murderer not yet brought to justice, an even more terrifying idea than a killer given the lethal injection.

Zodiac is Fincher at his unadulterated and underrated best. Its lengthy running time matches the decades-long span of Graysmith's amateur sleuthing - played like a live-wire neurotic by Jake Gyllenhaal - all drawn out via long takes in gloomily-lit archives, basements and rain-flooded streets.

The real thrills come when you least expect; with a seemingly innocent interview turns into one of the most chilling scenes Fincher's ever created.

18. The Long Goodbye (1973)

A slice of seventies cinema reflective of its era, on The Long Goodbye Robert Altman took up the responsibility of adapting Raymond Chandler's last novel, casting Elliot Gould as the anti-hero private eye drinking and smoking his way through life.

Leigh Brackett's adaptation focuses the narrative thrust of Chandler's work into set-pieces for Marlowe to endure. And to mock, with the counter-culture movement of time the subject of much of the film's pointed criticism. Indeed, Gould's comically hopeless Philip Marlowe is a sharp contrast to previous incumbents who brought seriousness to the role. He on the other hand plays up Marlowe's flaws; an unknowingly cool snoop whose only steadfast commitment is feeding his cat.

17. The Thin Man (1934)

William Powell and Myrna Loy collaborated on 14 movies throughout their careers, so it's no wonder they frequently played marrieds. In The Thin Man the pair star as sleuth couple Nick and Nora Charles, married detectives who seek out quick tipple along with their investigation. More screwball comedy at times than murder mystery, it's a sign of the times that the couples' slurry half-baked humourous squabbles happen when they're both knocking back Martinis.

Still, the Dashiell Hammett adaptation boasts a lot more than Code-era innuendo. Director W. S. Van Dyke convinced execs to cast against type with Powell and Loy, and their brisk, honeymooner energy is infectious.

16. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Mickey Spillane was less than pleased with Robert Aldrich's adaptation of his novel Kiss Me Deadly. Ruffled that Aldrich and screenwriter Arthur Bezzerides spun his trusty potboiler scenario into a commentary on the societal upheaval of the era, and had a less-than-sympathetic view of Spillane's character Mike Hammer. Ralph Meeker plays the part with a thuggish braggadocio, which is no doubt partly why Spillane hated the film: no-one applauds the detective's misogyny or sleazy schtick.

One of the more telling pieces of American cinema to emerge from the fifties, Kiss Me Deadly is a beautifully-lensed piece of noir grit.

15. Pulp Fiction (1994)

"I didn't go to film school, I went to films", Quentin Tarantino famously said when referring to his filmmaking education. Proven by his sophomore effort that wears its influences on its sleeve, from the self-aware title Pulp Fiction throws together the established tropes of fifties pulp and casts a contemporary eye over their presentation.

Tarantino's postmodern homage to his favorite filmmakers wraps together three story strands in a non-linear narrative - meaning, they're presented out of order. He lovingly guides us through a world of pop culture savvy crooks and the minutae of the criminal class, each vignette ripe with cinematic nods and fantastical elements. The passion of his visual style pairs together perfectly with his keen sense of detail, character and mystery. After all, twenty years later do we really know for certain what's in Marsellus Wallace's briefcase?

14. Rope (1948)

Hitchcock's Rope is practically seamless, a series of approximately ten long, uninterrupted shots edited together so as to appear like one take.

Choosing to deliberately attempt to fool the audience is something the famed suspense master is known for. However, with his 1948 murder mystery comedy it's a decision that heightens tension as Hitchcock planned to transplant the play format into a movie. There's no misdirection here because, let's face it, we - the viewer - are present in Brandon and Philip's Manhattan penthouse living room right from the start, as they're murdering their friend David.

The rest of the film follows the pair as the night progresses. A cocktail party at their apartment sees their abode flooded with guests; their own youthful hubris in getting away with murder tested to the limits as the corpse remains in a chest that's in full view of the party. A cool, calculated moral parable that's endlessly compelling, even if its subjects are deplorable.

13. The Big Sleep (1946)

Howard Hawks installed Humphrey Bogart at the centre of The Big Sleep as the private eye Philip Marlowe in his one and only attempt at noir. And even that genre tag continues to be debated in film circles today.

All the hallmarks of that particular cinematic mode are present - the dark ambiance, moody lighting, and a convoluted mystery - but Hawks seizes the opportunity to reduce those elements turning the film into a screwball comedy for which he was famous. His decision to cast Bogart alongside Lauren Bacall is spot of genius. As real-life marrieds they both sass each other at every opportunity, which is really what makes the film a classic slice of cinema.

12. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

A criminally-underrated crime caper. Shane Black's stab at the hard-boiled detective milieu oozes with confidence, a reflection of its lead character Harry Lockhart played with brio by a pre-Stark Robert Downey Jr.

The film's complex mystery plot is presented with tongue fully embedded in cheek, Downey Jr's laconic voiceover prodding us to attention and adding his own commentary at key moments in the film ("Don't worry, I saw Lord of the Rings. I'm not going to end this 17 times.")

Black's screenplay harbours an awareness over its own aspirations, not poking fun at noir or brazenly recreating what's come before, he just has tons of fun giving his characters mouthfuls of spiky dialogue. Worth watching alone for Val Kilmer's detective Perry Van Shrike ripping into Lockhart.

Gem Seddon
Gem is GR+'s west coast entertainment news reporter. She’s a bit obsessed with all things Aliens and Terminator.