I've been on an insane crime movie kick of late. It started when I decided to write a crime movie spec, and assessed all the movies I had and had not seen in the genre.

Like any writer, I let this procrastination take me into a deep dive into the crime genre and I wanted to bring what I learned to all of you here.

Crime movies offer a thrilling escape into a world of high stakes, moral ambiguity, and fascinating puzzles of human behavior.

They explore the darkest corners of society and often illuminate deeper social issues.

So let's dig in and see what we can glean.

What is a Crime Movie? 

A crime movie centers around criminal acts and those involved in them. This can include the perpetrators, law enforcement figures, victims, or others drawn into the web of crime.

Tropes of the Crime Genre

Tropes of the Crime Genre

Body Heat


Like any genre, crime comes with a biunch of tropes that you can play with as a writer, you can lean into them or subvert them.

These kinds of movies share certain recurring elements that make the genre so compelling:

  • The Heist: Films like Ocean's Eleven and The Italian Job focus on meticulous planning and the execution of complex robberies.
  • The Detective: Whether it's the hardboiled private eye or the relentless cop, detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe embody the tireless pursuit of justice.
  • The Gangster: From Al Capone to Tony Montana, the gangster film explores the rise and fall of criminal empires.
  • The Undercover Mission: Agents go deep behind enemy lines in films like The Departed and Infernal Affairs.
  • The Femme Fatale: These seductive and dangerous women, like in Body Heat, manipulate those around them.

The History of the Crime Genre

The History of the Crime Genre in Movies

White Heat

Warner Bros.

I still remember sitting in grad school and being taught the early origins of gangster movies. They were some of the first feature films ever made, and dug deep into the American consciousness of the time.

Of course, this also was reflected globally, as people took their societal concenrs and put them on screen.

Let's take a look at how this manifested through the ages.

The Early Days: Gangsters and Grit (1910s – 1930s)

  • Silent Era Pioneers: Films like D.W. Griffith's controversial The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) offered proto-crime narratives. These showcased urban crime alongside themes of social struggle.
  • Rise of the Realistic Gangster Film: In the 1930s, iconic films like Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) offered unflinching, gritty portrayals of Prohibition-era gangsters. These films mirrored public anxieties about organized crime and bootlegging.

Film Noir: Shadows and Cynicism (1940s – 1950s)

  • The Birth of a Style: Inspired by German Expressionism and hardboiled detective novels, film noir emerged with its trademark shadowy visuals, cynical tone, and morally ambiguous characters.
  • Iconic Noir: Masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and Touch of Evil (1958) established the noir aesthetic and its recurring themes of betrayal, obsession, and the futility of fighting fate.

New Hollywood: Revolutionizing the Genre (1960s - 1970s)

  • Breaking the Mold: Films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969) introduced graphic violence, glamorized anti-heroes, and challenged conventional morality.
  • Mafia Epics:The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) redefined the gangster genre with operatic narratives of crime families and explorations of power and corruption.
  • Gritty Realism:Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), and Serpico (1973) brought uncompromising portrayals of urban crime and police procedures.

From Blockbusters to Indie Gems (1980s - 1990s)

  • Big Budget Crime Thrillers: The 1980s saw action-packed hits like Scarface (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and Lethal Weapon (1987), often blurring lines between cops and criminals.
  • Neo-Noir Revival: Films like Body Heat (1981), Blood Simple (1984), and Miller's Crossing (1990) paid homage to classic noir while updating themes and visuals.
  • Tarantino's Impact:Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) injected crime films with pop-culture references, stylish violence, and a revitalizing twist on nonlinear narratives.

Modern Trends: Global and Gritty (2000s - Present)

  • The Crime Film Expands: Crime elements mix with other genres in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), superhero films (The Dark Knight), and sci-fi (Blade Runner 2049).
  • Global Crime Wave: South Korea (Oldboy, Memories of Murder), Hong Kong (Infernal Affairs), France (A Prophet) and others contribute critically-acclaimed crime films with unique cultural perspectives.
  • True Crime Takes Over: Docuseries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx grip audiences, leading to a true-crime boom across formats.

Global Crime Movies

Global Crime Movies

Le Samouraï


Some of the best crime films of all time were not made in America, but are global stories. These movies transcends borders, with countries across the world producing exceptional entries:

  • France: Known for stylish thrillers like Rififi and Le Samouraï.
  • Japan: Renowned for Yakuza films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Sonatine.
  • South Korea: Acclaimed for gripping crime dramas like Oldboy and Memories of Murder.
  • Hong Kong: Famous for action-packed crime flicks such as A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiled.
  • Italy: Celebrated for its gritty mafia films like Gomorrah.

The Best Crime Movies of All Time

As always, this is just a list of movies I think are amazing. They're not in order, just on here to let you know what you should check out.

  • The Godfather (1972): A sprawling epic about the Corleone mafia family, exploring themes of power, loyalty, and the corrupting influence of organized crime.
  • The Godfather Part II (1974): Parallel storylines trace the rise of young Vito Corleone and the struggles of his son Michael, cementing the saga as a masterpiece.
  • Goodfellas (1990): Martin Scorsese's stylish and electrifying look at the life of mobster-turned-informant Henry Hill, filled with brutal violence and darkly comedic moments.
  • Pulp Fiction (1994): Tarantino's iconic neo-noir revitalized crime cinema, its interconnected stories and memorable characters creating a pop-culture phenomenon.
  • Heat (1995): A meticulously crafted cat-and-mouse game between a veteran detective (Al Pacino) and a ruthless master thief (Robert De Niro), culminating in an unforgettable shootout.
  • The Silence of the Lambs (1991): A chilling psychological thriller where a rookie FBI agent seeks the help of the brilliant but twisted Hannibal Lecter to catch a serial killer.
  • The Usual Suspects (1995): A twisty narrative unfolds through unreliable flashbacks, culminating in one of cinema's most shocking reveals about the mysterious Keyser Söze.
  • L.A. Confidential (1997): Three cops with clashing styles investigate corruption in 1950s Los Angeles, unraveling a web of deceit and ambition.
  • Fargo (1996): A quirky, darkly comedic crime film where a kidnapping plot goes disastrously wrong in the snowy landscapes of Minnesota.
  • Seven (1995): Two detectives hunt a serial killer whose murders are inspired by the seven deadly sins, creating a bleak and atmospheric thriller.
  • Ocean's Eleven (2001): A slick and stylish remake, following Danny Ocean's crew as they execute a daring Las Vegas casino heist.
  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950): A classic heist film where a mastermind assembles a team of experts for a complex jewel robbery that begins to unravel.
  • Rififi (1955): Famous for its almost wordless, 30-minute heist sequence, this French film follows a group of ex-cons in a meticulously planned jewel theft.
  • The Italian Job (1969): A charming British caper where a group of thieves plan a gold heist in Turin, Italy, leading to iconic Mini Cooper chase sequences.
  • The Killing (1956): Stanley Kubrick's early noir masterpiece follows a meticulously planned racetrack heist and its chaotic aftermath.
  • City of God (Brazil, 2002): A visually stunning and brutal portrayal of gang violence in the Rio de Janeiro favelas, told through the eyes of a young photographer.
  • Oldboy (South Korea, 2003): A twisted revenge thriller where a man is imprisoned for 15 years without reason, and upon release seeks brutal vengeance.
  • Memories of Murder (South Korea, 2003): Based on a true story, two detectives in a rural town struggle to solve a series of serial killings.
  • Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong, 2002): A gripping cat-and-mouse game between an undercover cop in the Triads and a mole in the police force (which inspired The Departed).
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina, 2009): A retired legal counselor revisits a haunting rape and murder case, uncovering layers of corruption and obsession.
  • The Long Good Friday (1980): British gangster classic where an underworld boss faces a violent reckoning when his empire is attacked by unknown rivals.
  • Get Carter (1971): Michael Caine stars as a ruthless gangster seeking revenge for his brother's death, unleashing a trail of violence in his pursuit of the truth.
  • Sexy Beast (2000): A retired gangster is pulled back into the criminal world by a psychopathic former associate, in a darkly comic and violent thriller.
  • Layer Cake (2004): A stylish British crime film where a cocaine dealer plots his retirement, only to be pulled into a series of increasingly dangerous tasks by his boss.
  • Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998): Guy Ritchie's iconic debut, filled with quirky characters, interconnected storylines, and a botched card game that sets off a chain of hilarious and violent events.
  • Double Indemnity (1944): The quintessential film noir, where a seductive woman lures an insurance salesman into a scheme of murder and betrayal.
  • The Maltese Falcon (1941): Humphrey Bogart stars as sardonic private eye Sam Spade, entangled in the hunt for a priceless statue and surrounded by untrustworthy characters.
  • Chinatown (1974): A neo-noir classic where private detective Jake Gittes uncovers a web of corruption and dark secrets in a water conspiracy gripping 1930s Los Angeles.
  • Touch of Evil (1958): Orson Welles' masterpiece, a visually dazzling noir with a morally ambiguous Mexican detective and a corrupt American cop amidst a border-town murder.
  • The Third Man (1949): Set in post-war Vienna, an American writer investigates the mysterious death of his friend, uncovering a world of secrets and betrayal.
  • Body Heat (1981): Steamy neo-noir where a Florida lawyer falls for a femme fatale, becoming ensnared in a plot of murder and double-crossing.
  • Blood Simple (1984): The Coen Brothers' debut, a darkly humorous and twist-filled noir where a jealous bar owner sets off a chain of violence and misunderstanding.
  • Brick (2005): A stylish neo-noir set in a high school, where a teenage loner investigates his ex-girlfriend's disappearance, uncovering a world of criminal intrigue.
  • The Long Goodbye (1973): Robert Altman's revisionist take on Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, filled with wisecracks and a meandering, cynical tone.
  • Nightcrawler (2014): Jake Gyllenhaal gives a chilling performance as a sociopathic videographer who becomes obsessed with filming gruesome crime scenes.
  • Dirty Harry (1971): Clint Eastwood's iconic role as rogue cop Harry Callahan, who disregards rules in his relentless pursuit of a sniper terrorizing San Francisco.
  • The French Connection (1971): Two hard-nosed NYC detectives go on the hunt for a heroin smuggling ring, culminating in a legendary car chase sequence.
  • Serpico (1973): Al Pacino stars as a real-life cop who exposed widespread corruption in the NYPD, facing ostracization and threats as he fights for justice.
  • Donnie Brasco (1997): Johnny Depp infiltrates the Bonanno crime family as an undercover FBI agent, forming a dangerous bond with an aging mobster (Al Pacino).
  • Training Day (2001): Denzel Washington won an Oscar as a corrupt LAPD narcotics officer, taking a rookie cop (Ethan Hawke) on a brutal and morally compromising ride-along.
  • Memento (2000): Christopher Nolan's ingenious thriller follows a man with short-term memory loss as he tries to piece together the murder of his wife, told in a fragmented reverse chronology.
  • The Conversation (1974): A paranoid surveillance expert becomes obsessed with a couple he's been recording, believing they are in danger.
  • Prisoners (2013): A gripping thriller where two young girls go missing, and a desperate father takes matters into his own hands, blurring the lines between victim and perpetrator.
  • Zodiac (2007): David Fincher's meticulously detailed recreation of the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, following detectives and journalists who become obsessed with the case.
  • Rashomon (1950): Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece explores the subjective nature of truth, as four witnesses recount different versions of a crime.
  • Mulholland Drive (2001): David Lynch's surreal neo-noir follows an amnesiac woman and an aspiring actress as their lives intertwine in a dreamlike mystery.
  • Blow Out (1981): Brian De Palma's homage to Hitchcock, where a sound recordist believes he accidentally captured audio of a political assassination.
  • Shutter Island (2010): Scorsese's psychological thriller where two US Marshals investigate the disappearance of a patient from an asylum on a remote island, uncovering twisted secrets.
  • Mystic River (2003): Three childhood friends are forever marked by a tragedy, and reunite decades later when another family is struck by violence.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden, 2009): A disgraced journalist teams up with a brilliant but troubled hacker to investigate the decades-old disappearance of a young woman.
  • The Big Lebowski (1998): The Coen Brothers' cult classic follows "The Dude," a laid-back bowler who gets mistaken for a millionaire and drawn into a kidnapping plot.
  • In Bruges (2008): Two hitmen hide out in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges after a job gone wrong, leading to darkly comedic and philosophical conversations.
  • Snatch (2000): Guy Ritchie's fast-paced crime comedy with intertwined storylines involving stolen diamonds, rigged boxing matches, and a cast of eccentric characters.
  • Fargo (1996): The Coen Brothers' darkly comedic crime film where a kidnapping plot goes disastrously wrong in the snowy landscapes of Minnesota.
  • Pulp Fiction (1994): Tarantino's iconic neo-noir revitalized crime cinema, its interconnected stories and memorable characters creating a pop-culture phenomenon.
  • Reservoir Dogs (1992): Tarantino's brutal and stylish debut, following the aftermath of a diamond heist gone wrong, focusing on the tense dynamics between the surviving criminals.
  • Bound (1996): A neo-noir thriller where a female ex-con and her lover hatch a scheme to steal millions from the mafia, with a groundbreaking portrayal of a lesbian relationship.
  • Jackie Brown (1997): Tarantino's homage to blaxploitation films, where a flight attendant gets caught up in a scheme to smuggle money for an arms dealer.
  • The Departed (2006): Scorsese's Boston-set crime epic where an undercover cop infiltrates the mob, while a mole rises through the ranks of the police force.
  • No Country for Old Men (2007): The Coen Brothers' adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's chilling novel, where a hunter stumbles upon drug money and is relentlessly pursued by a ruthless hitman.
  • Eastern Promises (2007): A midwife uncovers the dark secrets of the Russian mafia operating in London, starring Viggo Mortensen in a critically acclaimed performance.
  • Drug War (Hong Kong, 2012): A mainland Chinese drug lord is forced to cooperate with the police after a meth lab explosion, leading to a tense cat-and-mouse game.
  • Night of the Hunter (1955): A chilling thriller with a menacing Robert Mitchum as a sinister preacher with hidden motives, preying on a vulnerable widow and her children.
  • The Raid (Indonesia, 2011): An elite SWAT team becomes trapped in a high-rise building controlled by a ruthless drug lord, leading to relentless, hyper-violent action sequences.
  • Badlands (1973): Terrence Malick's debut film, loosely inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree, follows a young couple on a violent crime spree.
  • Once Upon a Time in America (1984): Sergio Leone's epic crime saga charts the rise and fall of a group of Jewish gangsters in New York City, spanning decades.
  • Dog Day Afternoon (1975): Based on a true story, Al Pacino stars as a bank robber whose heist spirals into a hostage situation that captivates the nation.
  • Nightcrawler (2014): Jake Gyllenhaal gives a chilling performance as a sociopathic videographer who becomes obsessed with filming gruesome crime scenes.
  • Gomorrah (Italy, 2008): A gritty and unflinching look at the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples, told through interweaving stories of various people affected by its grip.
  • A Prophet (France, 2009): A young Arab man is imprisoned and rises through the ranks of the Corsican mafia, offering a brutal look at prison hierarchies.
  • The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976): John Cassavetes' gritty independent film follows a strip-club owner who becomes indebted to the mob, leading to a desperate attempt to save his business.
  • Pusher (Denmark, 1996): A raw and intense look at a week in the life of a low-level drug dealer in Copenhagen, as his debts and desperation escalate.
  • Sicario (2015): An idealistic FBI agent gets embroiled in the murky world of the US-Mexico drug war, questioning her own morality as the mission becomes increasingly dark.
  • The Town (2010): Ben Affleck directs and stars in this heist thriller about a group of Boston bank robbers, and the FBI agent determined to bring them down.
  • To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): An intense and stylish 80s crime thriller where a reckless Secret Service agent vows revenge after his partner is murdered by a counterfeiter.
  • Miller's Crossing (1990): The Coen Brothers' visually striking gangster film set during Prohibition, filled with double-crosses, memorable dialogue, and a haunting score.
  • Bonnie and Clyde (1967): A romanticized yet violent portrayal of the infamous bank-robbing duo, which revolutionized Hollywood's depiction of violence.
  • Narc (2002): A gritty undercover cop thriller where two detectives investigate the murder of a fellow officer, uncovering layers of corruption in the process.
  • The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973): A low-level hoodlum faces tough choices when forced to become an informant, resulting in a bleak and realistic portrayal of the criminal underworld.
  • Thief (1981): Michael Mann's directorial debut, a stylish neo-noir about a professional safecracker who longs for a normal life, but is drawn back into a dangerous world.

Let me know your favorite crime movies in the comments.