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Big City Crime Movies

Favorite films from the rotten core of the Big Apple

May. 14, 2014
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In Chicago in1934, notorious mobster John Dillinger had just finished watching Manhattan Melodrama, an archetypal New York crime movie, before being gunned down by FBI agents near the Biograph Theater. Since then, many fine vintage films about wrongdoers and their pursuers have been set in the big city.

Among the best are Kiss of Death (1947); Detective Story (1951); Pickup on South Street (1953); The Young Savages (1961); The Anderson Tapes and Shaft (1971); Mean Streets, Serpico and The Seven-Ups (1973); Death Wish (1974); Dog Day Afternoon and Report to the Commissioner (1975); Taxi Driver (1976); The First Deadly Sin (1980) and Goodfellas (1990).

Worth noting about many memorable big city crime movies is that not all are set against the background of mid-Manhattan skyscrapers. They also include telling scenes in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. And this has increased over the years.

As a long-time vintage film buff, here are seven of my very favorite New York crime flicks. To me, they’re in a class by themselves:


The Naked City (1948): Mark Hellinger narrates his cinematic masterpiece directed by Jules Dassin, who shot many scenes on crowded streets. The awesome cityscapes were never more stunning in this realistic, black-and-white beauty, which also spawned a successful, long-running television series.

This quintessential New York movie tells the story of cops solving the murder of a beautiful model. A memorable chase on foot precedes a crackerjack ending atop the Williamsburg Bridge.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950): In this classic film noir, directed by Otto Preminger and scripted by Ben Hecht, a violent police detective (Dana Andrews) seeks to cover his tracks after accidentally killing a man. At the same time, he runs into more trouble gathering evidence against his nemesis, a slimy crime boss.

Strong support is provided by Gene Tierney and Karl Malden. The haunting street scene opening and closing theme music perfectly complement this gritty depiction of big city life on the seamy side.

Madigan (1968): Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda head a top-notch cast in this probing look at a stressful weekend in the life of big city cops on and off the job. Detective Madigan and his partner try to take down a depraved killer, while the police commissioner (Fonda) deals with possible corruption in his inner circle.

Noted action director Don Siegel sets it up with a breathtaking opening of citywide street scenes and the Manhattan skyline.

The French Connection (1971): Director William Friedkin’s sizzling five-Oscar-winner features a tingling car chase as headstrong cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) careens through Brooklyn streets after an elevated subway-riding sniper. Its fact-based plot details a big sale by European heroin smugglers to New York dealers.

Outstanding supporting work by Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco and Bill Hickman, as well as real-life “French Connection” cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, adds authenticity.

Across 110th Street (1972): Although not blaxploitation, it’s one of the first black-oriented action films set in Harlem. A good cop (Yaphet Kotto) and a bad one (Anthony Quinn) track down black crooks in police uniforms who heist $300,000 from a Mafia money drop. Authentic locations and graphic violence provide edge-of-the-seat excitement.

Director Barry Shear’s superior cast includes the late, great Richard Ward as a Harlem crime boss, along with Anthony Franciosa and Paul Benjamin as an ill-fated thug with a medical problem. A real knockout.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): The taut original directed by Joseph Sargent involves the hijacking of a New York subway train for a million dollars in cash to be delivered in one hour. The three ruthless crooks, led by Robert Shaw, are dogged by a Transit Authority cop (Walter Matthau) and a chief inspector (Julius Harris).

Jerry Stiller and Lee Wallace (as an Ed Koch lookalike mayor) offer fine support. As a long-time New York subway rider, I can vouch for the realistic settings in this astounding thriller with a memorable ending.

Prince of the City (1981): The disturbing true-life tale of investigating big city cops on the take features outstanding performances by Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Bob Balaban and Lindsay Crouse, among others. Director Sidney Lumet provides a tough-as-nails look into the pressures on members of the NYPD facing charges of corruption.

Striking location photography helps lift this emotionally powerful story, as dirty cops reluctantly come to grips with revelations that one of their own (Williams) is a flawed whistleblower for a special investigations unit. It’s a truly gripping New York crime movie.


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