Psychiatrists call it “morbid curiosity.” Sociologists argue that it’s akin to slowing down to a gawk at a traffic accident. As a race, humanity seems fixated on the real and the tragic. Taken to extremes, we really do love our films and other media offerings that center specifically on crime and the (usual) lack of punishment. Even when spiced up and spoofed — as in the ABSCAM stings of the late ’70s which turned into fodder for David O. Russell’s Oscar favorite American Hustle — we’ll take such tales whenever we can find them. Of course, it also helps that many of these movies are amazing, examples of the craft amplified to epic, sometimes operatic proportions. In that regard, here are our selections for the 10 best true crime films of all time.
Though he’s more of a fringe filmmaker than a mainstream movie name, James Van Bebber created what has to be one of the most harrowing reenactments of the famed Helter Skelter crimes that officially closed the 1960s. This well-researched version of the gruesome events that took the lives of actress Sharon Tate and six others resonates with a raw realism that makes the various TV movie versions of this story pale by comparison.
Martin Scorsese is the master of the mob movie, and in this case, he highlights how a Jewish handicapper (Robert De Niro, of course) helped the Mafia “run” ’60s and ’70s Las Vegas. With his usual flourishes of detail and gore, the director paints a portrait of an outlaw West where money talks, muscle helps, and marriage is both a personal and professional liability, especially if your bride (Sharon Stone) is a hustler who wants to take you as badly as the gaming tables do.
One of the most disturbing movies ever made, based on the crimes of one of this country’s most notorious spree killers. The real Henry Lee Lucas and his buddy Otis may not have been as charismatic as actors Michael Rooker and Tom Towles, but their sadism sure sent shockwaves through the mid-’80s media. Made on a low budget and filled with legitimate local color, director John McNaughton found the proper way to illustrate this duo’s diabolical desires without resorting to the kind of extreme splatter that undermines most horror films.
Before he became the Tolkien King, Peter Jackson was a genre fan who dabbled in zombies and gory fiends from outer space. This first legitimate leap into standard storytelling found him dealing with one of New Zealand’s most sensational crimes. Two teenage girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme fear that their parents will put of stop to their “too close for comfort” relationship. So they decided to kill Pauline’s mom. Featuring amazing performances by a young Kate Winslet (as Juliet) and a then-unknown Melanie Lynskey, it’s one of Jackson’s best.
Following in the footsteps of the boundary- and envelope-pushing exploitation films of the era, director Arthur Penn and stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway decided to emphasize the sex and violence of these true-life Depression era outlaws — and the first fleeting steps toward the post-modern film movement of the ’70s was born. While it was condemned for glamorizing violence and the perpetrators of same, it stands as a benchmark in true crime filmmaking, a guide that gave names like Scorsese and DePalma their bloody blueprints.
Critics — including yours truly — love to disparage director Paul Greengrass for his overreliance on the filmmaking gimmick known as “the shaky cam.” While it definitely creates a “you are there” kind of aura, it also inspires confusion, and in some situations, nausea. In this case, however, being right there with the victims of the September 11th attacks (Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania) puts that horrible day into perspective, allowing us to celebrate the heroics of those who fought to protect our country and our freedom.
Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco are The Lonely Hearts Killers, a pair of accidental lovers turned murders who preyed upon the desperate and dateless during the 1940s (though the movie moves its narrative up to then-contemporary times). She is overweight and sad. He is slick and slightly psychotic. Together, they target the personal ads, luring their marks with promises of affection and the reality of a gruesome end. Director Leonard Kastle relies on the starkness of black and white to give these crimes a neo-noir feel.
Al Pacino, in one of the many roles he should have won an Oscar for (he was beat out by Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that year), plays a bank robber hoping to gain the money to pay for his “partner’s” planned sex change operation. Over the course of a balmy, humid Manhattan day, his entire life (including an angry ex-wife) becomes the fodder for a fascinating back and forth between this conscientious criminal and the various law enforcement agencies out to capture him.
David Fincher finds the proper balance between old-fashioned police procedures and the post-modern fetishizing of crime to focus on the still unsolved murders which occurred in and around San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Sprawling, and peppered with the kind of old-timey investigative work mostly missing from contemporary crime films, this clever character study wasn’t a huge box office smash. Over the years, however, it’s become a creepy cult expose that does a terrific job of capturing the paranoia of the time.
This remains Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, a telling depiction of growing up in organized crime which both highlights the benefits — and the deadly detriments — of such an association. Ray Liotta is electrifying as Henry Hill, a half-Irish mobster wannabe who ends up under the tutelage of Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and enforcer Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci, in an Oscar-winning turn). Unfolding like a symphony in three distinct movements, the events that unfold are so fantastical that it’s hard to believe they happened. But they did.