Crime happens every day of our lives, affecting how billions of people live and go about their day-to-day lives. Some live in fear, some fight against it, and others perpetuate it. Whatever the case may be, crime films speak to each viewer in a unique manner because of their relatability. Whether they focus on the supposed glory of crime, the obsessions of law enforcement, or the devastations of those who are affected by it, there is something innately human about these stories and their places in the real world.
The world of cops and robbers has been fodder for a nearly infinite number of movies since the dawn of film. Early pictures sold the allure and violence of gangsters and their gritty worlds, but the genre quickly moved into far more complex and deep looks at what lives of crime mean for the larger world. The boundless creativity of writer and directors combine with stellar performances of actors and actresses to create stunning tales that range from sweeping epics to gritty character pieces.
A great crime story can be a devastating morality tale, a big budget shoot-‘em-up, or a comedy that plays laughs over thrills. The 30 movies selected here represent the best of this powerful genre, telling tales of crimes that come crashing into all manner of lives around the world. But most importantly, the films must have crime at the center of their narratives.
For #15 to #1, read Part 2 of The 30 Greatest Crime Films of All Time!
30. American Gangster
Based on the true story of Frank Lucas, director Ridley Scott’s American Gangster tracks the rise of a Harlem gangster and drug kingpin in the 1970s and the detective who is tasked with bringing him down. Led by dual leads – Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts – American Gangster weaves a double narrative around the rise of heroin in the 1970’s, with ties to The Vietnam War and ghettos in New Jersey and New York. Most interestingly, Washington and Crowe never come in contact for almost the entire length of the movie as Lucas is tracked by the detective without knowing it. It’s their two performances and the style infused throughout that add power to a somewhat typical crime story.
Best Moment: Roberts and his crew storm the apartment where Lucas has been running the majority of his heroin business, leading to a major shootout with some brutal deaths. But the fallout leading to the two leads characters finally meeting outside a church is the ultimate payoff.
29. The Usual Suspects
Who is Keyser Soze? That’s the mystery at the center of The Usual Suspects, which tracks the story of five career criminals as told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) in the midst of a police interrogation. In the wake of a massacre with few survivors, Kint tells his interrogator about the convoluted events that led a group of criminals to band together for mysterious boss Soze. Spacey is typically amazing, but every actor and character is unique and thoroughly memorable throughout. As the mysteries grow deeper and the plot becomes increasingly complex, it all unfolds in one major plot twist that works magic in the narrative.
Best Moment: SPOILERS! What makes The Usual Suspects so great as a whole is the way it all ends, with Verbal Kint being revealed as Keyser Soze himself, having cobbled together pieces of the story through phrases he found in the police station. But by the time it’s realized, he’s gone.
28. Once Upon a Time in America
Director Sergio Leone was best known for sweeping epics that ran heavy on time and spectacular visuals. Once Upon a Time in America is no exception, following David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his friends growing up in a New York Jewish ghetto in the 1920’s. The film tracks them as they grow up, stealing and fighting to survive until they find success during Prohibition, but brutal violence and betrayal break them apart. Leone makes a dark and unflinching tale that is not for the faint of heart, but the deeper themes and great performances make this more elegant than a simple tale of violence, with some eye-popping symbols thrown in for good measure.
Best Moment: Young Noodles and his friends are attacked by a neighborhood criminal, leading to the fatal shoot of his young friend and his attack on a police officer that leads to a decade in jail. It’s a brutal moment that shatters the little innocence they had left.
27. Reservoir Dogs
A simple bank robbery goes terribly wrong, pitting a group of criminals who cannot trust each other in the chaos and confusion that follows. Tarantino’s first film made a big splash on its debut thanks to his quick dialogue and unique plot structure, but it’s still one of his best movies. Being a film entirely centered on a bank robbery that is actually never shown immediately makes Reservoir Dogs far different than many other crimes films. Instead, the movie is all about the tension afterward and the violence that breaks out when the group realizes one of them is a cop. Add in dialogue that is just as focused on pop culture as it is on the plot, and this is what makes Tarantino great.
Best Moment: Also its most violent, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) decides to violently torture a cop in a warehouse while listening to “Stuck in the Middle with You.” It’s shocking violence is only outdone by the reveal of the undercover cop.
As a mix of old school film noir and the renaissance of New Hollywood, director Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is a masterwork, combining the best in directing, acting, and writing for something that is both classic and unconventional. The film follows private eye Jakes Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who investigates strange happenings in the L.A. area surrounding the city’s water supply, only to be pulled into a deep and twisted mystery. Like the best film noir, the crime at the center is only the impetus for the electric clashing of characters. It’s a perfect blend between Robert Towne’s script, Polanski’s direction, and top of the line acting, including Faye Dunaway and John Huston.
Best Moment: It all comes together in Chinatown, where tragedy unravels the mystery and Jake is left devastated. The only consolation is the idea that was brought up at the beginning of the movie – “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
25. Taxi Driver
The story of one lonely man in New York City who decides to make his life mean something, except that he thinks killing someone is the best way to do so. Director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro team up once again to create a chilling and difficult movie on what violence means and how so many justify it. While Travis is directionless for much of Taxi Driver, his encounter with a young prostitute puts him on the path to saving her from her pimp and the life she is in by killing everyone else involved. The brutal violence and twisted path of one very disturbed man is not an easy journey, but the questions is raises are well worth the trip.
Best Moment: After all is said and done, Bickle is lauded as a hero in the newspapers, somehow unravelling all the lunacy he has created. But back on the taxi beat, strange sights and sounds signal something strange. Is he actually dead, or worse, is he falling back into insanity?
24. American Hustle
As a whole, director David O. Russell’s American Hustle owes a great deal to Goodfellas¸ with its fast paced tone, narration, and playful direction close to Scorsese’s classic. But more on that movie later. In its own right, American Hustle is incredibly fun and remarkably produced. Based on the ABSCAM FBI operation from the late ‘70s, the film takes creative license with much of the narrative for the sake of a fun and compelling movie. Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence all play against their typical casting to consistently hilarious results. While there are plenty of high stakes and twists to the story, American Hustle is largely a comedy that slickly plays with the audience until the very end.
Best Moment: While every character has hilarious run-ins with one another, its Cooper’s Richie DiMaso’s manic and impatient interactions with his boss (played by Louis C.K.) that elicit some of the biggest laughs thanks to the insanity of it all.
23. Dirty Harry
As one of the early blueprints for the rough and tough detective genre, countless films are indebted to Dirty Harry, but few of them can match it, even its many sequels. Inspired by the then-still occurring Zodiac murders, the film pits Clint Eastwood Detective Harry Callahan against the Scorpio killer, who picks off targets in the heart of San Francisco. But unlike the rest of the police, Harry doesn’t play by the rules, often resorting to brutality as a means to an end. Eastwood’s charisma makes you root for Harry despite his violent ways, especially when he’s the only one capable of taking down Scorpio. It’s a classic that says volumes about the early 1970s.
Best Moment: Scorpio kidnaps a bus full of children, but Harry is right on him. Eventually saving the children and chasing the killer into a rock quarry, Harry asks his enemy if he knows how may shots he fired. “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Scorpio feels lucky. He isn’t.
22. The Maltese Falcon
Director John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is only one of hundreds of film noirs made during the 1930’s and ‘40s. It isn’t even the only adaptation made of author Dashiell Hammett’s novel. But there are so many fantastic things about it that is has easily stood the test of time and become a highly influential piece in the crime genre. That’s because it gets the mystery and twists of the story just right, following one private eye (Humphrey Bogart) and the numerous shady characters he encounters on the trail of the mythical Maltese Falcon statue – one of film’s greatest MacGuffins. The script by Huston is impeccable and the stellar cast, many of whom would team up again in Casablanca, owns every scene they are in from start to finish.
Best Moment: When all is said and done, the value of The Maltese Falcon is still a mystery. What is it really? “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
21. The Third Man
American writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) travels to Vienna in wake of the news that his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) was recently killed. But when he realizes that it may have been murder, he begins investigating the truth of Lime’s life. The danger he’s put in quickly spirals out of control, as the return of Lime and his true criminal nature endanger Martins and many more. Stylistically, The Third Man is way ahead of so many of its contemporary crime films, using expressionist cinematography and Dutch angles to portray the danger, lies, and cynicism experienced by so many characters throughout.
Best Moment: Martins confronts Lime in the light of finding out that his theft of penecilin killed countless people. In response, Lime takes him to the top of the Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel to show him how he views other people – tiny ants that are meaningless to him.
20. Raising Arizona
While the Coen Brothers are known to swing widely between the dark and the funny, often mixing the two through black humor, they fully embraced silliness that still fulfilled their love of the crime genre in Raising Arizona. The story follows married couple H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and Edwina (Holly Hunter) McDunnough, who decide to steal one of the recently born quintuplets in town when they find out they cannot conceive. While kidnapping may be a dark development in real life, here it’s balance by silly laughs and lovable characters who just can’t seem to get their lives together. Every character is fascinating in his or her own right, with the Coens’ creating a fantastic vision for this strange little world out in the desert.
Best Moment: H.I. gives into his old thieving ways, robbing a convenience store for a box of Huggies and the cash in the register while his wife and new son are in the car outside. Of course, it all goes terribly wrong, leading to a chase full of wild dogs, trigger-happy clerks, and yodeling insanity.
A twisty British crime film, director Guy Ritchie’s Snatch tracks the stories of more than a dozen different criminals, each with their own stories that slowly become intertwined with the fate of a giant stolen diamond. The movie is filled with laughs and strange characters that border on the cartoonish, but the violent developments keep audiences on their toes, with many of the large cast falling to bad fates. The countless jokes and stylish Cockney slang plants this one firmly in London, giving some fresh air to ideas that would feel worn out if they took place in New York like a million other films of the genre.
Best Moment: The film hits its climax when Pikey bare knuckle boxer Mickey is forced to fight in the ring again, with him being made to throw the fight for dangerous mobster. And when he doesn’t? All hell breaks loose.
18. The Untouchables
Based on the true story of the Chicago police officers who were tasked with bringing down mobster Al Capone, The Untouchables is a modern crime thriller with all the style of a 1930’s film noir. But for a film that is well known and loved, The Untouchables is actually incredibly brutal, as director Brian De Palma and writer David Mamet refusing to pull any punches when it comes to the grisly fates so many characters meet before the end. On the other hand, the movie is just as much about the relationships forged and broken in pursuit of Capone, with Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, and Robert De Niro all showing the different sides of the intense Prohibition conflict.
Best Moment: Elliot Ness (Costner) and George Stone (Andy Garcia) intercept Capone’s accountant at Union Station, leading to a shootout on the station steps that echoes the famous Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin. This one is a classic in its own right, too.
17. No Country for Old Men
There are no easy answers in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel on greed and violence. While the majority of the story centers on Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) steals two million dollars from the aftermath of a drug deal, causing hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to track him down, leaving horrific death in his wake. All the while, the men are pursued by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). Themes of death and the changing of America are personified in subtle means, with characters often subjected to cruel fates out of their own control. It’s carefully crafted and impeccably executed, leaving a lasting and chilling impression on audiences.
Best Moment: Moss and Chigurh clash in a Mexican hotel, where their firefight lights up dark rooms and leaves both bleeding out. It’s intense, realistic, and chilling in all the right ways.
16. L.A. Confidential
Set firmly in the heart of Los Angeles during the 1950’s, writer/director Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (adapted from writer James Ellroy’s novel of the same name) shows the corruption at the heart of the police force in L.A. and the intersection of law enforcement and celebrity. Detectives Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and drawn into Hollywood star scandals and murders, but it’s police corruption that stands as their greatest threat. The two hate each other, but must work together to survive, all while falling for call girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). As a neo-noir, L.A. Confidential gives new life to classic film noir, creating contemporary commentary while still being a thrilling murder mystery.
Best Moment: After finding out who is really behind so much of the corruption and crime, Exley and White are forced to hole up in a dingy motel while a squad of police officers come down on them. It’s an intense nighttime shootout that flips the typical cops and robbers climax on its head.