Since I am bad at blogging I'm making a blog post out of a twitter thread about some of my 2020 first-watch crime flick favorites by decade. Sorry I'm so behind. Because of my own prejudices and tastes there are some wild swings in quality and flavor in some of these decades. A fair amount of classics in earlier decades and heavy on trash and exploitation in others.
It's not you, it's me.First up - favorite first watch crime movies from the 1940s. I didn't see a lot of new to me films from the decade in 2020, but these were swell.
Criss Cross - Robert Siodmak - No excuses for not getting to this one earlier, but I finally knuckled down and watched it for a podcast appearance on Jen Johans' Watch With Jen. On the episode we discussed crime flick remakes of the 1990s (and the originals). This one was remade by Steven Soderbergh as The Underneath, but there's no beating the heat between Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo. And the ending is perfect.
Duel in the Sun - King Vidor - This one's been on my list something like fifteen years, but somehow I still wasn't prepared for how great the climax would be. There's plenty to provoke in this romantic western melodrama, but it's the breathless bloody expressions of lust in the ferocious finale that really are worth everything that came before whether you found it hokey or offensive. Never would've predicted Gregory Peck could be such a great shitweasel. Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Harry Carey, Charles Bickford and the disembodied voice of Orson Welles all add to the lush hyper-reality of the production.
The Fallen Sparrow - Richard Wallace - Another one I watched while doing homework. This time I was prepping for an appearance on The Projection Booth podcast to discuss Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse based on the Dorothy B. Hughes novel with Mike White and Carol Borden (also listen for an interview with Sarah Weinman who knows from Hughes). I watched everything I could find that had anything to do with Dorothy B. Hughes. I enjoyed John Garfield and Maureen O'Hara in this adaptation of Hughes' book about a damaged-goods veteran come home to find out who killed the policeman who helped him escape torture in a prison camp.
Rope of Sand - William Dieterle - Burt Lancaster, Peter Lorre, Claude Raines... exotic locale, diamond smuggling, colonialism, sadism... fuckin, good fuckin shit.
Walking Hills - John Sturges - A bordertown backroom card game comes to a screeching halt when someone mentions having seen some wagon tracks in the desert that happen to line up with a local legend about a wagon full of gold swallowed up by the sand. The whole group immediately set out to find and share their fortune, but things never go well when you've got partners in a scheme to get rich. The cast of casual comrades quickly break up into factions and then fractions as everybody's story and character come under scrutiny if not quite into focus and you can bet they're not all going to walk out again. Randolph Scott leads a cast that includes Ella Raines, John Ireland, Arthur Kennedy and Edgar Buchanan.
You'll perhaps note as I go on that I'm heavy on westerns for while. Reasons for this... I've never been a big western guy, so outside of John Wayne stuff that seemed to always be on TV when I was a kid (and ran together in my mind) I didn't really "find" westerns till late. So as I continue to look for new-to-me crime films I find rich veins of unexplored material in there. Also they just made a hell of a lot of them in decades past. And I've purchased some sweet DVD box sets of westerns recently. Finding some good stuff inside.
Favorite first watches from the 50s (listed alphabetically). Hey look, more westerns! And jeez, some heavy hitters among the film makers and reputations.
Bad Day at Black Rock - John Sturges - Yeah yeah yeah, you all told me it was great and I took a long time to get around to it and nobody needs me to tell them it's great, but it's great. First that cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. Second it's sturdy as hell and just moves right along. We get a fleshed out story with dramatic arcs and everything in just 80 minutes. Plus, it's shot sharp and feels big. Yeah yeah yeah it's great.
Day of the Outlaw - André De Toth - Easily the pick of the bunch. This sharp, stylish and deeply moody western about humanity and morality recognizing neither culture nor law resonates far beyond the runtime, frames' edge and performances. It's lovely to look at and chilling to behold. Robert Ryan and Burl Ives do the heavy lifting. Would make a great double or triple feature of handsome snow-bound westerns with The Great Silence or The Hateful Eight.
Guilty Bystander - Joseph Lerner - Saw this one for free on Nicolas Winding Refn's site (you can too). Like a lot of the stuff on the site it's been nearly lost to time. Glad it's been dusted off and given another platform.
House By the River - Fritz Lang - Nasty little noirgget of sexual obsession, fraternal jealousy and class.
Man of the West - Anthony Mann - Gary Cooper, Julie London and Arthur O'Connell are strangers stranded in the wilderness in the aftermath of a train robbery. When they stumble upon the desperadoes counting the loot their odds of survival get even longer. But Coop's got a history with the outlaws, one that he'll have to go back to to get any of them out alive. It starts off a little goofy, but it's just an act to put the audience off balance so that the slow peeling of layers on Cooper's former and not-so-former bad-man status really lands hard. I can hear Tony Soprano lamenting 21st century masculinity from here.
3:10 to Yuma - Delmer Daves (1957) - Glenn Ford and Van Hefflin are a great pair as the outlaw and ordinary citizen charged with getting him on the titular train - they get to know each other over the course of a couple of days with the bad man's gang in pursuit. Tense, turse, bromantic drama from Elmore Leonard source material. Still surprised that neither adaptation of the short story used Leonard's terrific ending though.
Mise à sac - Alain Cavalier - Michel Constantin plays Georges, the Parker role, in this adaptation of Richard Stark's The Score. The job this time around is an entire small mining town in badlands middle America including a couple of banks and retailers and will mean incapacitating police and all of the town's communications on top of the usual concerns of safes and security. The extra ambitious nature of the heist in this story, with the larger than usual team and multiple moving parts, is nicely juxtaposed by the stripped down simplicity of the film's approach. No high-energy editing, score or flamboyance in performances, just straight-forward procedural thievery and the character moments at the end add an unexpected emotional element to the finale.
The Professionals - Richard Brooks (1966) - Holy hell, I wish I'd sought this one out earlier. Handful of these last-job-of-aging-mercs-and-thieves westerns that I love and that stand apart and superior to The Magnificent Seven heroic stories for my money. This one fills the gap between The Wild Bunch's nihilism and the uh slightly cornier aspects of Vera Cruz and seems to have H-I-T writ all over it. No idea how it was originally received, and I know several folks who love it, but I'm genuinely surprised I've not heard it listed as one of the all-time favorite westerns of more folks. Seems like a no-brainer to me based on the cast alone: Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale.
Time to Die - Arturo Ripstein - Oh man, one of my favorite subgenres (man out of prison) gets a great new to me entry here. Written by Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez from a Márquez story, Jorge Martínez de Hoyos is Juan, the just-released convicted killer come back to town and trying to pick up where he left off with the woman he loved eighteen years ago. In the meantime she married, had a kid and is widowed and unsure what to do about her complicated feelings for Juan. Most people seem happy to see Juan again, seems like he was generally well-liked, but the wealthy sons of his victim have sworn vengeance for their father and hound him at every turn trying to incite him to fight. The older son is driven by honor and rage to avenge his father and the younger brother, having met Juan on his way into town before knowing who he was, is somewhat less eager to kill him. Will Juan be allowed to live in peace or will he once again be driven to violence? Terrific Mexican melodrama I was entirely absorbed by.
Topkapi - Jules Dassin (1964) - Huge fan of Dassin's noirs, but he did other good work, like this comic caper, too. This one's no Rififi, but it's got a hell of a heist sequence that was clearly an influence on future films from Mission Impossible to Ocean's 11. My favorite bit though is the wonderful hundred muscle-bound dudes slathering each other with oil to wrestle in the arena. A hoot was had watching the entire crowd get very very horny, but WTF with sticking your arm down your opponent's pants, how is that not illegal?
Violent Four - Carlo Lizzani (1968) - Went through another round of crossing poliziotteschi off my to-see list and after a couple dozen samples the bloom's coming a bit off the rose now. I very much enjoyed Mike Malloy's Eurocrime documentary and was a little flabbergasted to learn the sheer volume of the crime pictures cranked out in such a brief time and naturally the overlap between pictures breeds a little contempt, but this nasty little picture from the beginning of the movement is a good example of why it was such a popular one.
The 70s though... holy moly did I have a good year for first watches there...
The Black Panther and 10 Rillington Place are both based on true crime stories. Panther relying on minimalism and effectively dank atmospherics, while the performances from Richard Attenborough and John Hurt carried the story of killer John Christie.
The Offence is also one of several potent problems with police institution pictures in this group - but Report to the Commissioner, The Spook Who Sat by the Door and Top of the Heap focus brilliantly and boldly on race in America. Incredible to think that Top of the Heap is the only scripted feature from writer/director Christopher St. John. Likewise writer/director Ivan Dixon got a mere two features out but made them count with The Spook Who Sat by the Door and the really terrific and fun Trouble Man.
Those were thoughtful, serious (even when fun) works from black film makers, but a couple from Arthur Marks sure do qualify as blaxsploitation. I dug Bucktown and J.D.'S Revenge.
Like westerns, I don't know gialli very well and I frequently find them hard to stick with - the pacing, the performance style and often the score make them pretty distinct and sometimes not for me, but when they're trashy, splashy, gory and groovy I can be swept up just fine. I enjoyed Torso and Strip Nude For Your Killer more than most
Some more of the same in the 90s (Dobermann, Freeway 2: Confessions of a Trick Baby, Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl), but very impressed with the grimy gringo noir La Cucaracha, the surreal Perfect Blue and the amazing cast of Hand Gun.
From the 2010s I didn't choose any that were eligible for consideration for my favorites of the year (english language stuff from 2019/2020 - or foreign language stuff from 2018 or newer).
Borgman - Alex van Warmerdam - A few years before Parasite won best picture this spooky-ass fable of otherness from beneath subsuming upper-middle-class reality was out there waiting to be discovered and to give you waking, walking nightmares. Fucking fantastic.
The Foreigner - Martin Campbell - Jackie Chan is the titular character intent on getting justice for his daughter killed in a terrorist bombing in London. Frustrated by the lack of progress the Scotland Yard investigation is making, he takes it upon himself to find the Irish Nationalist group who've claimed responsibility and exact his revenge. Pierce Brosnan plays a politician and outspoken former IRA member who may be linked to the group. Both Brosnan's and Chan's characters' pasts are going to catch up to them. Based on Stephen Leather's novel The Chinaman I remember when this one came out thinking that grim Jackie Chan wasn't really a thing I was interested in, but it popped up on Netflix and I'm so glad I gave it a go. I'd recommend you do too.
Tramps - Adam Leon - This low stakes romantic shaggy-dog of a crime oddyssey through New York City stars Callum Turner as a reluctant participant in a criminal transaction of an unknown nature. He's trying to do his incarcerated brother a solid by taking a package and delivering it to someone else, but things go wrong pretty quick and he finds himself partnered with Grace Van Patten chasing the misplaced goods around the city. There's a series of unanticipated complications and crises that test their wits and guts and the bonds of their new relationship. I was charmed and disarmed by this one that plays like a rom-com version of the Safdies' Good Time.