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The 40 best crime movies

11. Angel Heart (1987)

As slick private investigator Harry Angel Mickey Rourke was an unusual choice to lead Alan Parker's atmospheric thriller, yet a clear superstar at the time of its production. A confident, chain-smokin', whiskey-drinkin' sleuth whose world takes a hellish turn when he meets the mysterious Louis Cyphere, Rourke's performance, like the movie itself, has only gotten better with age.

Parker's Faustian parable is a layered beast. It's a film best enjoyed and savoured across multiple viewings, as the various production elements and story twists become deeper ingrained upon repetition. Casting Robert De Niro as Cyphere is the most enjoyable aspect, a small yet showy part that's equal parts engrossing and just plain gross.

10. L.A. Confidential (1997)

A seductive, flawless portrait of 1950s Los Angeles told through the corrupt cops at the heart of its police department. Director Curtis Hanson wasn't deterred by the commonly-held belief that James Ellroy's novel couldn't be adapted. Together with screenwriter Brian Helgeland, he set out to continue forth on his early-90s good streak and deliver a polished period piece.

Exacted with confidence and zeal, the tough script - slimmed down from Ellroy's complex plot - attracted a classy cast including Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey and James Cromwell. Yet it was Hanson's decision to cast two practically-unknown Aussies as the detectives eager to sniff out the crooks that paid off. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe never looked back.

9. Klute (1971)

Alan Pakula's seventies take on voyeurism kickstarted his unofficial 'paranoia' trilogy and landed Jane Fonda one of her two Academy Awards for the role of Bree, a high-class New York call girl targeted by a stalker.

In this troubling neo-noir, Donald Sutherland's private investigator John Klute works in tandem with Bree to track down his old friend -- the man thought to be harassing her. Praised for its progressive depiction of gender, Klute harnesses its complex female character to drive forward the story, a feat that only works because of Fonda's performance. Tracking down the villain might be the objective, but it's she who brings a sense of mystery and suspense.

8. Brighton Rock (1947)

Forget the recent attempt at remaking Graham Greene's seminal novel. The 1947 adaptation is a powerful realisation of that same source, with a few slight changes, bringing a sinister atmosphere to an otherwise cheerily-lit seaside town.

Casting Richard Attenborough as Pinkie Brown was a masterful decision by director John Boulting. The violent gang leader takes out the journalist who killed his predecessor, his remorseless gaze and hypnotic personality a trap for his followers.

Its approach to British gangland culture drew comparisons to its Stateside counterpart, landing the film a different title in the U.S. Young Scarface.

7. Touch of Evil (1958)

A classic of the late noir period. Touch of Evil garners most attention for its tense opening sequence, a tracking shot that traces a car containing two honeymooners as they journey across the Mexico border into the US. It explodes, the result of a hidden bomb, and so begins Orson Welles' racially-charged crime fable.

Since its release the film has steadily accrued good favour from critics, in spite of its humble theatrical opening. What's more interesting is that the finished product was far from what Welles' intended, with the studio taking control over the final cut. Often seen as a sign of an inferior product, there's no mistaking Welles' flourishes throughout the picture. As well as playing the barrel-bellied cop investigating the incident, he crafts a compelling tale of corruption and unease, perfect ingredients in this his last Hollywood outing.

6. Vertigo (1958)

Hitchcock's masterpiece unravels as a standard by-the-numbers thriller, with James Stewart's private eye Scottie at the centre of its plot as he accepts a gig from an old friend that soon turns him into a less than upstanding character. One of many instances where Hitchcock cast against type to winning effect.

Tasked with tracking down said friend's wife, played breathlessly by Kim Novak, Scottie's descent into the macabre is realised via some of Hitchcock's most inventive techniques - particularly the dolly zoom, jarring empathy from viewers towards Scottie's vertigo and use of Bernard Hermann's disorienting score. But no technical wizardry can better the twisted collapse of the insecure private eye, as he nurtures a love that can never be true, than the simple revelation that he's not the man he thought he was.

5. The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola very nearly didn't direct The Godfather after reading the first fifty or so pages of Mario Puzo's original novel, a piece of work the author admits he penned 'for the money'. It's hard to imagine the gap this might have left in modern moviemaking, as Coppola's take on the source material has become a critically-heralded piece of American cinema.

Without a doubt, the film reinvigorated the gangster era. A three-hour long delve into the inner workings of a Mafia dynasty it's a tour-de-force of acting, with all of its leading stars delivering some of their best work as scheming mobsters. Both Coppola and Puzo's almost sympathetic - and at times, admirable - view of the Corleone family brought to life by the stellar performances of Al Pacino and Marlon Brando.

There's so many stand-out scenes that have become lodged into popular culture. "Leave the gun, take the cannoli", the severed horse's head in the studio mogul's bed, and of course, Sonny's restaurant ultimatum.

4. Chinatown (1974)

Equally as infamous for its taboo ending as it is for the notorious off-screen pranking of Faye Dunaway, Chinatown is perhaps the last true noir to emerge from American cinema. Each facet of Robert Towne's screenplay borne from his own nostalgia for a time when grizzled detectives encountered femme fatales.

Jack Nicholson puts in a career best performance as Detective Jake Gittes, the world-weary LAPD guy out to crack a case that morphs from a straight-up murder into a sprawling takedown of 1930s corruption. It would turn out to be the last movie Roman Polanski filmed in the U.S., and one that scored awards aplenty, a hefty box office haul and universal acclaim.

Chinatown is not only a great entertainment," said Roger Ebert in his original review, "but something more, something I would have thought almost impossible: Its a 1940s private-eye movie that doesnt depend on nostalgia or camp for its effect, but works because of the enduring strength of the genre itself. It accepts its conventions and categories at face value and doesnt make them the object of satire or filter them through a modern sensibility, as Robert Altman did with The Long Goodbye.

3. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)

Sergio Leone contributed to the spaghetti western genre before presenting the world with his eighties gangster masterpiece. Ten years in the making, Leone dedicated that developmental decade to researching, planning and designing every element of the movie before a single shot was lensed.

The tale of two gangster kids - Max and Noodle - rising through the criminal ranks begins in Prohibition-era New York and carries right through to their adulthood. James Woods and Robert De Niro take over during the later stages.

What sets Leone's film apart from its contemporaries is the almost fractured narrative approach, the three distinct eras interwoven across its lengthy running time via flashbacks. More of a broad landscape on which the themes of friendship and betrayal unfold than a by-the-numbers story, it's a gangster classic underlined by Ennio Morricone's iconic score.

2. Heat (1995)

Michael Mann pitted two of cinema's greatest heavyweights against one another, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, for an ambitious L.A. crime epic. Lifting certain elements from the duo's real-life counterparts Neil MacCauley and Chuck Adamson, Mann longed for a wider canvas so added in supporting characters also inspired by real-life criminals to thicken the plot.

The film follows Pacino's cop Vincent Hanna as he intends to take out De Niro's professional jewellery thief. Secondary plot lines intersect, but it's the main duo's tension that drives much of the action. And there's plenty of that. The blistering bank robbery shootout sequence still stands as a masterclass in high-paced, multi-angle frenzies, alongside some of the more understated moments.

A three-hour movie inevitably has lulls. Yet in Heat Mann rewrites the rules, pitting his two opponents against each other for some of cinema's best dinner banter.

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