Murder, armed robbery, conspiracy, betrayal; the crime genre has brought us some of cinema’s most ruthless villains and enigmatic heroes. It’s gritty and visceral storytelling at its finest, in worlds where the bad guys are cool and things rarely go to plan…
Alfred Hitchcock was famously the master of suspense, with the crime/thriller being perfect to utilise his uncanny ability to instil fear and helplessness into his characters and have those emotions spill into the audience. Hitchcock’s crime/thrillers are among cinema’s very best, with his voyeuristic, unsettling camera techniques seeing Psycho (1960), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), and many more sewn into the fabric of the genre.
Rope (1948) is filmed in such a way that it looks like a single long take, keeping the audience breathless. A murdered body hidden in their apartment, two young men challenge their crime by inviting the victim’s friends and family to a dinner party. The premise is already perfect for suspense, but the technical aspects elevate it.
Double Indemnity (1944) was key to defining Film Noir but also gave rise to some of the popular elements of the crime/thriller genre. Cynical, manipulative Phyllis Dietrichson enlists the reluctant Walter Neff into helping with her husband’s murder. Both criminal characters, but with wildly different outlooks.
In France, the modern heist movie originated with Rififi (1955) and the famous half-hour-long silent heist – the apex of suspense within the heist arm of the genre. Whereas heist movies that followed would have the main heist climax of the film, Rififi selects it as the centrepiece, using the third act to examine the human element of the fallout.
The themes of the crime/thriller tend to encompass the build-up to and the fallout from crime such as betrayal, ruthless ambition and conspiracy; pessimism and corruption derived from the setting’s policing; or the suspenseful results of mistaken identity and undercover work.
Chinatown (1974) sees private detective JJ Gittes caught up in a conspiracy around the city’s water supply, while initially investigating infidelity. He’s surrounded by lies, corruption and murder, leading him (and the audience) to be cynical and despairing of human nature.
In Training Day (2001), Jake’s first day on the job with the LAPD sees him explicitly exposed to the corruption of his partner Alonzo, and the moralistic rookie must decide whether to stand up or fall victim to Alonzo’s charms.
The brotherhood behind gangster films tends to go hand-in-hand with betrayal. The Godfather (1972) sees Michael Corleone forced to make a decision on his brother Fredo’s betrayal to the family. Anyone but his brother would be dead already. Instead, he tells him he knows it was him, and orders his execution only when their mother has died.
Crime Codes and Conventions
Cinema has a long history of glamorising criminals, particularly gangsters. In Goodfellas (1990), Henry Hill pursues the gangster life dazzled by the rewards, and in awe of the respect earned by the likes of James Conway. Respect between criminals is commonplace, but there is also a begrudging mutual respect binding cops and criminals. In Heat (1995), Lt. Hanna obsessively pursues bank robber Neil McCauley while they both also confront obstacles to their personal lives. In one of the best scenes of the film, Hanna and McCauley meet calmly at a restaurant, affirming to each other that neither of them will ever stop.
Another De Niro character, Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle, embodies the cinematic anti-hero. He has the best of intentions to ‘clean up the streets’ and it pushes him right to the edge of his own psyche. By the end of his violent journey, the trauma is enough to have him attempt suicide. But out of ammunition, it’s more symbolic, with his bloodied finger channelling a gun to his temple. With that gesture of atonement, Travis picks up his ‘normal’ life as a taxi driver.
Some of the most memorable villains are incredibly single-minded, their discipline and intelligence make them all the more formidable. Silence of the Lambs’ (1991) Hannibal Lecter would not be so successful and prolific with his crimes without his meticulousness. Lecter mutilates and kills with a degree of class, treating his cannibalism as a fine dining experience. The genuine pleasure he gets from his victims makes him all the more terrifying.
Characters operating under a moral code is very typical. The gangsters in films such as Goodfellas and The Godfather do not involve civilians in their dealings, which often results in them fighting within their own stables or families; the bank robbers of The Town (2010) aspire to be in and out without harming anyone – complicated in this instance James Coughlin, the token live-wire.
Sometimes characters on opposite sides of the law share the same sensibilities. In Se7en (1995), Detective Somerset and serial killer John Doe both despair of what they see on the streets. John Doe murders those deemed to be sinning in the style of the seven deadly sins, strictly condemning them, while Somerset warily pledges to clean up the streets through law and order. Pessimism surrounds the story and engulfs Somerset and Doe in different ways. Somerset finds himself powerless, while Doe relies on the emotional predictability of Somerset’s partner Mills in order to complete his work.
Inherently intimidating antagonists build tension very effectively, with the realisation of both the hero and the audience that they could turn at any moment. Goodfellas’ Tommy DeVito is an incredibly menacing ticking time bomb – famously hitting his peak in the “Do I amuse you?” scene. In Sexy Beast (2000), Don Logan is the unstoppable force trying to convince Gal, the immovable object, to come out of retirement for one last bank job. Both will not budge, with Gal happy in his peaceful new life, but Don does not take no for an answer. The relentless, unhinged nature of Don’s argument forces Gal into being proactive.
Panic Room (2002) sees a mother and daughter locked away safely from home invaders, the sense of claustrophobia contributing massively to the suspense and twists and turns of the story. The roles of the characters are clearly defined from the start. In Gone Girl (2014) the audience’s perception of the characters and the truth switch back and forth, as the different sides of the story are gradually uncovered.
Audience expectations are toyed with, continually asking what really happened and who we should believe. Rear Window is a good example of the audience seeing exactly what the hero does, we’re observing just as Jeff is, and as a result, draw the same conclusions as him. The twists arise when information is held back, and sometimes when fed information through false flashbacks, such as The Usual Suspects (1995).
Hell or High Water (2016) subverts the audience’s expectations through the unconventional structure and complex characters within the framework of a simple plot. While Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) creates a community of characters travelling between the stories of a circular, fractured narrative. The stories are simple but highly stylised, creating tension and fun alongside remarkable momentum.
Comeuppance for the antagonist remains typical of most stories of the genre. Se7en and Gone Girl eschew genre conventions with bittersweet endings. The antagonists win, and the helplessness flowing through the corresponding protagonists is justified.
Some truly iconic directors and actors have provided some of the most memorable crime/thriller films and characters. Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral (2004) Thief (1981)), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), Goodfellas) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs (1992), Jackie Brown (1997), Pulp Fiction) are all masterful at presenting flawed, empathetic heroes in unforgiving worlds. Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder (1954)) had audiences gripped by the scheming and manipulation of his protagonists. Christopher Nolan has seamlessly moved Batman into crime/thriller territory with his Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)), and used narrative structure and the natural elements to surprise audiences with Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002). Among David Fincher’s (Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Zodiac (2007)) successes are his notable use of sound as a device to build tension.
Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver, Heat, Goodfellas), Al Pacino (Scarface (1983), The Godfather, Heat) and Denzel Washington (Inside Man (2006), American Gangster (2007), Training Day) all lend their weight to create very memorable and varied heroes and villains.
Iconic villains and anti-heroes are born in Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Taxi Driver and Falling Down (1993). Moral codes are pushed in The Godfather, The Departed (2006) and The Dark Knight.
Heat, Chinatown, Mystic River (2003), Pulp Fiction, Collateral, The Usual Suspects and Nightcrawler (2014) are some of those offering audiences immense depth of plot and character.
Film Noir gave birth to the crime/thriller, and later spawned neo-noir comedies such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Nice Guys (2016), The more light-hearted crime capers such as The Ladykillers (2004), Burn After Reading (2008) and Oceans Eleven (2001) lean on wry humour and often foolish supporting characters.
Crime/thriller is also popularised through Anime, with Ghost in the Shell (1995), and gone into more depth with serials such as Death Note (2006).