Something happened to crime movies in the 1990s. The genre had disreputable roots in penny dreadfuls and Grand Guignol, and provoked moral indignation in the era of Warner Brothers gangster movies, but through the last century gradually scraped together critical respectability by increments of film noir, courtroom drama and sociopolitical comment. In the 1960s and 1970s, relaxed censorship, shifts in moral certainty and the continental influence culminated with the crowning of Chinatown, The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II as epics for the ages. The criminals in these films weren’t just illustrating a moral point, or showing us the dark side of the American Dream – they were incarnations of America itself.
Film-makers such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese had always co-opted lowlife elements for their own artistic purposes, but in the 1990s the genre was pretty much hi-jacked by hipsters and auteurs. Stories told from the points of view of gangsters or hitmen or amoral scumbags which might once have been made into B-movies or formed the bottom half of a double-bill, were suddenly elevated to centre stage, and everyone was making them – especially film-makers whose only experience of criminal lowlife had been gleaned from the old movies they’d studied on video or at film school. At least Scorsese had actually grown up in Little Italy.
Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made crime films trendy, and the floodgates were open to a superabundance of stylised, semi-jokey faux-gangster or heist movies by Tarantino wannabes, some more successful than others. The Tarantino Effect even spilled over into the work of established directors such as Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers) and Tony Scott (True Romance), blending cartoony pulp conventions with fashionable ultraviolence, cynical and jokey dialogue (bonus points for getting your hitmen to discuss something totally unrelated to their job), and juggling with chronology in Chinese Box-style storytelling, sometimes just for the sake of it. This reached its apogee in The Usual Suspects, which, when you unpick its labyrinthine plot, turns out to be not so much a crime film as a film about storytelling.
Meanwhile, the Coen brothers put their own auteurial stamp on the genre with the more classically constructed Miller’s Crossing and Fargo; John Dahl pretty much cornered the market in neo-noir pastiche with films like Red Rock West and The Last Seduction; Abel Ferrara gave it a darker, quasi-operatic spin in King of New York, Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral; Gregg Araki injected Californian pop-artiness into The Doom Generation, and the work of hardboiled pulp writer Jim Thompson (The Grifters, After Dark, My Sweet) was hauled back into the limelight.
Most people’s Top Ten best crime movies of the 1990s would include some of these titles, as well as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Michael Mann’s Heat, Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way and Snake Eyes, Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco and Mike Figgis’ Internal Affairs. But I’m not here to write about these films, which have substantial fanbases and already get plenty of critical attention. My intention is to remind you of some of the crime movies that have slipped through the cracks – that never got blanket press coverage, that maybe lack the sort of A-list credits that would make buffs sit up and take notice, or that have been dismissed as failures.
Here, then, is my Top Ten of The Most Undervalued Crime Movies of the 1990s. These films have never been trendy; it’s no coincidence that the names Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe come up more than once in my reviews. For the most part there is an absence of flip dialogue, trendy temporal juggling, and fashionable ultra-violence – which is not to say there is no disturbing violence in them, nor are they lacking in humour or narrative audacity. Many of them are more character studies than action thrillers. The themes tend towards the regretful and reflective, and in several cases the characters are ageing and looking back at ill-spent lives and the unfortunate choices they’ve made. In the 1990s, predictably, none of these things appealed to hip young audiences who preferred their criminals cool and stylish.
But these are all films for grown-ups, and they’re not messing around.
MIAMI BLUES (1990)
Charles Willeford’s world-weary cop, Hoke Moseley, makes it to the screen with his seedy charm intact in this wicked little slice of pulp noir, cannily directed by George Armitage. Fred Ward is a perfect Hoke, whose investigation into the death of a Hare Krishna fundraiser leads to him getting beaten up and having badge, gun and dentures stolen by a psychopath called Junior (Alec Baldwin, never better). Jennifer Jason Leigh rounds off a trio of terrific performances as the dimwitted hooker who pins her dreams of domesticity on the wrong man.
Long before 30 Rock, when the rest of the world finally caught on, it seemed obvious to we Baldwin watchers that Alec Baldwin was an ace character actor hiding inside matinee idol good looks, and squandered in the conventional heroics of The Hunt for Red October or as the straight man in Beetlejuice. We accordingly paid close attention to his career, knowing the occasional scene-stealing turn in Glengarry Glen Ross (“Get them to sign on the line which is dotted”) or Malice (“I am God!”) would tide us nicely through the more subdued performances.
What I like about Junior is that he’s not an evil genius or supervillain, but your average, common-or-garden type of dumb psychopath. His attempts to impersonate a police officer are hilarious.
THE TWO JAKES (1990)
Sixteen years after Chinatown, Jack Nicholson directed himself as private eye Jake Gittes in this flawed but interesting sequel that sank without trace at the box-office, perhaps because, at heart, it’s more of a 1970s film than a 1990s one. Or perhaps because the pacing is just a little off, here and there (its director had other things on his mind). Or perhaps the film’s reputation was irreparably damaged by all the vindictive lawsuits flying around.
Robert Towne, whose screenplay for Chinatown is a model of impeccable structure and psychological resonance, was again the screenwriter (he envisaged a Gittes trilogy, with a third movie set in the 1950s), and initially hoped to direct – that he didn’t is a mixed blessing; Towne was never a shoddy director, exactly, but he wasn’t in the top rank. Neither, of course, was Nicholson, who eventually stepped in. But look on it as the actor’s love letter to one of the best roles he ever had, with the genius of Roman Polanski replaced by a gifted amateur, and it acquires a bittersweet edge almost worthy of its predecessor.
The setting is Los Angeles in 1948, where an older-but-no-wiser private eye Gittes once again finds himself immersed in a divorce case that isn’t as simple as it looks, and somehow manages to overlook a massive clue that will seem glaringly obvious to anyone familiar with Chinatown. This time it’s not water but oil on the agenda as Jake’s past again comes back to haunt him. Harvey Keitel plays the second Jake, a role originally intended for producer Robert Evans; when Towne decided Evans wasn’t up to playing the part and sacked him, the film almost fell apart. “I had to work my schedule around the lawsuits,” Nicholson told the New York Times. That the film is as good as it is is a miracle – hats off to Jack.
Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is gorgeous. Madeleine Stowe provides scorching sex appeal in a fluffy cardigan, and there’s solid support from Meg Tilly, Eli Wallach, Frederic Forrest, David Keith and Richard Farnsworth. And say hello again to our old friend from Chinatown, Perry Lopez as Captain Lou Escobar.
David Mamet’s directing efforts aren’t exactly undervalued, but con-man capers like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner still tend to overshadow his third feature (despite recognition from the Criterion Collection). Which is a shame, because it’s beautifully structured, features a superb performance by Joe Mantagna, and delivers at least two major “oh my God” moments.
It starts off like a standard cop thriller, but then sets off down a lot of intriguing byways as detective Mantegna investigates a possible case of anti-Semitic murder which forces him to confront the Jewish heritage he himself has been suppressing in order to blend in with his Irish, Italian and Afro-American colleagues. Next thing you know, he’s entangled in a web of Neo-Nazi conspiracies and Zionist counter-terrorism, with devastating consequences.
As always, Mamet’s rhythmic, repetitive dialogue is ace. Mantegna has one of those not-exactly-handsome faces you could happily watch all day, and there’s good support from William H. Macy and Ving Rhames.
ONE FALSE MOVE (1992)
Carl Franklin’s impressive crime drama starts off with a drugs-related massacre so horribly realistic you may have to peek at it through your fingers. But once the killers flee Los Angeles and head for a sleepy Arkansas town, the film shows itself to be as much character study as hardboiled thriller. Bill Paxton gets one of the best roles of his career as the naïve smalltown sheriff excited by the prospect of a High Noon-style showdown, and blissfully unaware that a) the visiting big-city FBI agents think he’s a prat and b) he’s about to be confronted by a dirty little secret from his past.
When One False Move was released in the U.S. there was some controversy about the opening scenes; some reviewers seemed to think the film had no business putting such grim violence right at the beginning, instead of building up to it, and they also seemed discomfited by the realism – as though stylisation, slo-mo, or other distancing effects are necessary to spare tender audience sensibilities. But this, you imagine, is how a scene like this would really go down in real life when hardcore amoral criminals clash with petty law-breakers – grim, depressing and genuinely frightening, a long way from the jokey smart-arse dialogue when John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson gun down Frank Whaley and his cohorts in Pulp Fiction.
The scene in which Paxton discovers what the FBI agents really think of him is heartbreaking. And this is the first time I encountered Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote the screenplay and plays the goofier of the psychos.
DEEP COVER (1992)
(reviewed in the Sunday Telegraph 24/1/1993)
Bill Duke is one of the new breed of black directors who realise that a well-crafted genre picture will do more for the self-esteem of African-Americans than any number of ear-bashing, issue-raising lectures from Spike Lee. Deep Cover looks long and hard at lifestyle choices, and packs a devastating anti-drug message, but one wrapped in a rattling good cop thriller.
From its Chandler-esque first-person voice-over to its hero confronting his dark side on the mean streets of Los Angeles, this is superior formula stuff. Larry Fishburne, who was 15 when he played the youngest member of the doomed boat-crew in Apocalypse Now, demonstrates that he is now up there with Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker and Wesley Snipes* as one of the new black superstars.
Fishburne plays a cop who is ordered to go undercover to infiltrate a cocaine cartel. As he works his way up the pyramid towards the barons who run the show, he is forced to do what he had always sworn not to do – deal drugs. Worse, he’s good at it. Even worse, he finds he’s having fun.
Jeff Goldblum is simultaneously funny and frightening as the yuppie partner who develops a taste for psychotic action. The screenwriters were Michael Tolkin (screenwriter of The Player; writer-director of The Rapture and The New Age) and Henry Bean (writer of the superb Richard Gere thriller Internal Affairs), and you can’t get a classier combination than that.
Deep Cover is frequently brutal – one man is beaten to death with a billiard cue – but it is a mark of the film’s quality that so many of its minor characters are memorable: the cop who thinks he is a one-man religious crusade, the dealer who quotes from Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, the crack-crazed mother who tries to sell her small son. Even the decorative female interest is allowed some decent verbal foreplay in the best Lauren Bacall tradition.
*This was written before Snipes lost the plot and started going straight to video.
THE UNDERNEATH (1995)
This reworking of the 1949 film noir Criss Cross is reportedly Steven Soderbergh’s least favourite of all his films, but I’ve always loved it, even if it sacrifices edge-of-seat thrills in favour of the slow psychological burn, with the action not really kicking in until the final reel.
It also gives a plum role to the always interesting Peter Gallagher, still probably best known for his role in Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape and often cast as cads, or in comic supporting roles – he manages to be hilarious even when his character is in a coma in the rom-com While You Were Sleeping, and his fleeting cameo as a lounge lizard crooner in The Hudsucker Proxy had me in fits.
In The Underneath, Gallagher plays it dead straight while still exercising his slightly sleazy charm as a shallow ne’er-do-well who comes crawling home to Austin, Texas several years after welshing on his gambling debts and running out on his girl (Alison Elliott). He promptly makes the mistake of trying to hook up with her again, even though she’s now been elevated to femme fatale status by her involvement with the local Mr Big (William Fichtner in scarily unpredictable Walkenesque mode). The cast is rounded out by Elisabeth Shue in the slightly thankless role of the Good Girl.
Elliot Davis’ widescreen cinematography is unfailingly handsome; Cliff Martinez’s score is exquisite (no-one else had put it on YouTube, so I uploaded the main theme myself; see below). The plot structure is perhaps needlessly complicated, but Soderbergh brilliantly weaves together the three separate time-frames and never once drops the ball as these losers start plotting a robbery that you just know is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (1995)
Denzel Washington exercises effortless star power – and looks terrific in his 1940s duds – as private eye Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins in this underrated “noir noir”, adapted from Walter Mosley’s crime novel by Carl Franklin, who also directed – this is the second of his films on this list. Like The Two Jakes, it’s set in Los Angeles in 1948.
With its period setting, voice-over, and WW2 veteran hero reluctantly agreeing to hunt for a missing femme fatale so he can keep up with his mortgage repayments, this has all the ingredients of a classic Philip Marlowe mystery, but the protagonist’s skin colour adds a sharp new edge to the Chandleresque clichés. Easy yearns for nothing more than a quiet life in a middle-class neighbourhood, but the cops don’t just arrest him when he’s framed for murder – they also administer a Rodney King-style beating.
There’s a classy R’n’B soundtrack, Jennifer Beals plays la femme who is being cherchée, and Tom Sizemore makes a suitably unpleasant heavy, while Don Cheadle puts himself on the Hollywood map with a sensational performance as Rawlins’s psychotic sidekick, Mouse. Franklin does such a smooth job of directing and Washington is so likeable that you wish they could have collaborated on other stories in the Easy Rawlins series. Alas, this wasn’t enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, which is a shame – it would have been fun to meet up with these characters again.
BLOOD AND WINE (1996)
(reviewed in the Sunday Telegraph 9/3/1997)
Blood and Wine is less a crime thriller than a portrait of a dysfunctional family in which some of life’s losers are locked in a tight little vipers’ knot of mutual mistrust. Jack Nicholson, in his fifth collaboration with director Bob Rafelson, plays a wine merchant who resorts to stealing a diamond necklace in order to fund his fancy Florida lifestyle.
His scheme goes horribly wrong when his downtrodden wife (the incomparable Judy Davis, managing to look fabulous even with a peculiar thatched cottage hair-do) finds out about her husband’s hotsy Latino mistress (Jennifer Lopez, in the days when she was an intriguing presence in interesting films) and inadvertently storms off with the necklace before he can fence it. No-one emerges unscathed from this tangled, rather Oedipal web, and that includes Stephen Dorff as Davis’ slacker son, who complicates matters still further by falling for his stepfather’s girlfriend.
There’s plenty of blood, not nearly enough wine, and the noir-ish story runs out of steam before the end, but the plot is incidental to the film’s pleasures. Chief amongst these are Nicholson doing the mamba with Lopez, patting down a dying car-crash victim in a desperate search for the missing necklace, and – best of all – exchanging some rattling bons mots with his partner-in-crime, an emphysemic chain-smoking safe-cracker played by Michael Caine, who seizes one of his best roles of the decade by the scruff of its neck to deliver a hilarious, hacking portrayal of reptilian lowlife. He’s so vicious and amoral that, if only Get Carter had ended differently, this could almost be Jack Carter a quarter of a century on.
Not to be confused with the vampire movie of the same title, Robert Benton’s elegiac film noir gives Paul Newman one of his best latterday roles, and is a rather lovely showcase for some of Hollywood’s more seasoned talents, harking back in pacing and style to a less frenetic, more chivalrous era.
Newman plays a down-at-heel former private eye who agrees to deliver an envelope for a terminally ill actor friend (Gene Hackman) and inevitably finds himself up to his neck in corpses. Susan Sarandon plays Hackman’s seductive movie-star wife, James Garner is Newman’s wry old cop buddy, and Stockard Channing is a charmingly raddled police lieutenant. The plot’s not hard to unravel – the dearth of suspects makes it fairly obvious who has done what to whom – but with a line-up of veteran performers like these you can’t go far wrong. Newman in particular is wonderful as a sort of superannuated Philip Marlowe.
CLAY PIGEONS (1998)
David Dobkin had a hit with Wedding Crashers, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, but earlier in his career he directed this noirish but lighthearted thriller – also starring Vaughn – set in the boondocks of Montana and offering plum roles to a couple of stars-in-the making. For reasons too complicated to explain here, Joaquin Phoenix ill-advisedly tries to cover up the suicide of his best buddy with whose wife (British actress Georgina Cates on magnificently slutty form) he has been having a fling.
Enter Vaughn as a genial serial-killer whose subsequent actions, like those of the title character in Harry, He’s Here to Help, seem intended to help the none too bright anti-hero, but only plunge him ever further into the moral murk. We could have done with a lot more of Janeane Garofalo as an unusually sympathetic FBI agent (I would gladly watch a whole spin-off TV series about her), but the film belongs to Vaughn, clearly having a ball as “Lester Long”, a disarmingly charming psychopath with cowboy hat and goofy giggle.
Of all the films on this list, this is probably the jokiest, the one with the glibbest dialogue, and the one with the coolest criminal, though it still had to work hard to find an audience. Let’s hope the second season of True Detective rescues Vaughn’s career from the doldrums. He’s capable of so much more than second-rate comedies.
All reviews are adapted from the Billson Film Database unless otherwise stated.