Flashback: My Favorite Crime Film

This originally appeared in issue ten (Jan/Feb 2006)

When Jeremy asked me to write about my all-time favorite crime movie, interestingly one of the first films I thought of was Get Shorty. It’s certainly one of the most enjoyable crime movies I’ve ever seen. Director Barry Sonnenfeld captures the humor of Elmore Leonard brilliantly because the actors never play the script for laughs. All of the characters take themselves ultra-seriously which makes the deadpan crime farce even funnier. The whole cast shines, in particular John Travolta as a mobster/Hollywood wannabe, Gene Hackman as the desperately sleazy film producer, and, best of all, Delroy Lindo as the perfect Leonard psycho. And the script has many unforgettable lines, such as “It’s the Cadillac of mini vans” and “Look at me.” Okay, so maybe films with great quotable lines shouldn’t be a criteria for greatness—no one would argue that Airplane or The Naked Gun deserve greatest-film-ever-made status–but, given all the movies that are released each year, if a film has dialogue you remember years later that has to be an indication of something special.

But the main reason I couldn’t consider Get Shorty as my all-time favorite crime movie is that it’s probably not even the best Elmore Leonard adaptation. That honor has to go to Jackie Brown. When the adaptation of Rum Punch was released, it wasn’t universally loved, but it’s certainly one of the best pure adaptations of a crime novel I’ve ever seen. Although Quentin Tarrantino made several significant changes to the plot of the source material, the film captures the tone and flavor of Leonard’s prose and moves with a novel-like pace. Tarrantino abandoned the unwritten rule of screenwriting–never write that lasts longer than five pages or five minutes of screen time–and let scenes go on for as long as the material demanded, and he got a slew of great performances. Standing out: Bridget Fonda as the perfect air-head burnout, and Robert De Niro, who gives one of the best performances of his career–yep, right up there with Raging Bull and Taxi Driver–as a brooding ex-con.

Still, I had trouble picking Jackie Brown as my favorite when Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs fanatics would argue that it isn’t even Tarrantino’s best film.

Moving on, my next possibility was House of Games. In my opinion, David Mamet’s directorial debut was his finest film to date and talk abut great lines! Repeatable gems from Joe Mantegna such as“Watch my cards, I gotta go pee,” and “Yes, sir, may I have another?” occur throughout the entire script. The film also features a terrific con plot, full of twists and turns up until the final chilling scene. But, what with Mamet’s post-modern sensibility and the film’s “stagey” performances, I don’t consider House of Games a pure crime movie, and for the purposes of this article I wanted to choose a film from the golden age of crime cinema, that has withstood the test of time. I decided I had to choose a so-called film noir.

Naturally I considered Double Indemnity. This noir gem would make many people’s top ten lists. Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck–arguably the greatest femme fatale of all-time–are terrifically evil, and if a tighter screenplay for a crime film has ever been written I don’t know what it is. The film also happens to be based on one of my favorite novels of all time so it seemed like the obvious choice.

Yet I couldn’t pull the trigger on Double Indemnity for the same reason I couldn’t choose Get Shorty or Jackie Brown. While there’s no doubting the film’s lasting brilliance, the other major Cain adaptations, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, are also classics. Each of these films would probably make my top ten list, or top fifteen list, and I decided to choose a film that, if applicable, was clearly the best adaption of its source material’s author, as well as an example of the best work a director has done in the genre. When I began to the think in these terms the answer came to me right away: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

As far as I’m concerned, this project had three great things going for it from the get-go: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson, and horse racing. Toss in a sensational plot from the Lionel White novel and some fantastic pulp acting, and you have all the ingredients for a classic.

Although Thompson received the lame, insulting credit of “additional dialogue by” his influence is evident throughout the script, especially in the sadomasochistic dialogue between the femme fatale and her various lovers. But it’s the groundbreaking structure of the film and the standout directing that make The Killing such an unique and brilliant film.

The basic plot of the movie is fairly simple. A gang plans the perfect crime, a finely tuned racetrack heist, but when another gang gets wind of the plan, hell ensues. In the hands of a less talented director this material might’ve been fodder for the forgettable low budget B-movie which the studio undoubtedly intended it to be. But Kubrick had perfect command of the subject matter and employed a unique time-shifting device, telling the story in a stunning non-linear structure. We see the crime develop out of sequence and some scenes are shown multiple times, from different points of view. The execution is astounding and Kubrick achieves the seemingly impossible, discovering an entirely new way to create suspense.

Not surprisingly, after the initial screening the studio suits wanted Kubrick to re-edit the film and tell the story in a more linear fashion, but the auteur insisted on his original vision. The result was a film with a structure unlike anything previously seen, and which influenced many future films, including perhaps most notably, Pulp Fiction.

And it’s not just the structure that amazes; the The Killing also has sensational characters. Sterling Hayden as gang leader Johnny Clay is the perfect example of a noir anit-hero. He has absolutely no self awareness or morality. In one of my favorite scenes, where he’s hiring a hit man to kill a horse, he explains:

“Suppose by accident you do get picked up. What have you done? You shot a horse. It isn’t first degree murder. In fact, it isn’t even murder. In fact, I don’t know what it is.”

As the horse assassin, Timothy Carey is indescribably weird (see the film and you’ll understand). And the film has other memorable, quirky performances, especially Kola Kwariani–in the only role of his career!–as the brawler.

Some would say that Kubrick made better films than The Killing during his career, but there is no doubt that The Killing is his best crime film. He made another noir in the fifties, Killer’s Kiss; it’s worth seeing, but The Killing is far superior.

So there you have it, my favorite crime movie of all time. If you haven’t seen The Killing yet, all I can advise is rent it pronto. Better yet, buy it, because if you’re like me you’ll want to watch it again and again.