Crime films have been around for almost as long as cinema itself. To celebrate one of the most popular genres, Jonah Rice is giving his rundown of the greatest crime movie directors of all time.
Though defining the genre is difficult, some of the most lauded films ever made fall into the crime category. From Goodfellas (1990) and Pulp Fiction (1994) to The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983), crime has been a go-to in the last several decades for Hollywood. While some filmmakers like John Carpenter and Wes Craven are known for their horror movies, others like John Ford and Clint Eastwood are associated with Westerns. Several directors throughout history are also known for their crime films.
And, for what it’s worth: don’t expect guys like Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher on here—they’re primarily directors of thrillers. Hopefully I’ll shine light on the difference of the two while in tandem giving the crime lords their due.
This list is for the gangsters, heists, and police procedurals of Hollywood and beyond. Billy Wilder also missed the cut because, when he did make a crime film, the result was almost entirely focused on either comedy or romance, and could hardly be categorized by subgenre. There’s nothing wrong with that, and he might just be more talented a filmmaker than anyone on this list. But here, I’m looking for movies with plots revolving around police solving a crime, a crime being committed, or an organization of criminals.
All that said—let’s get to it with the top ten crime film directors of all time.
10. Jean-Luc Godard
While modern American audiences might not be too familiar with Godard and his films, he’s perhaps the most influential guy on this list. His feature directorial debut, Breathless (1960), is a prominent illustration of French New Wave cinema. It’s also a brilliant film of reckless crimes.
His magnum opus, in my opinion, came in 1964 by way of Band of Outsiders. This crime classic has elements of a hangout movie, similar to Rio Bravo (1959) and Dazed and Confused (1993). But it also resembles a thriller on many accounts. It’s a story of three friends committing a robbery—clearly based in crime, but its charm shines through elsewhere, particularly in character moments. The featured dance scene in Band of Outsiders is one of the more influential French New Wave sequences ever.
Godard is cited as a direct inspiration on the filmmaking efforts of—and I kid you not—half of the people on this list. I won’t detail who exactly, but considering he influenced five other filmmakers on a crime film list, cinephiles would put me behind bars if I chose not to include him. However, he only really made two or three crime films throughout his career. Everyone else has a pretty high crime rate.
Band of Outsider’s Dance Scene
9. Michael Mann
Here we have a director that found success in an array of genres such as sports dramas (Ali in 2001), historical dramas (The Last of the Mohicans in 1992) and even horror (The Keep in 1983). Most of the films on Mann’s resume, however, have a clear-cut focus on crime.
His criminal record began with his directorial debut, Thief (1981), starring James Caan as a professional safecracker. The movie received widespread reverence from critics despite a poor performance at the box office. And this was only the beginning. He followed up his eighties run with Manhunter in 1986 before moving on to the defining decade of his career.
In 1995, Michael Mann released Heat, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It’s regarded as perhaps the greatest and most influential heist film ever, and I’d struggle to argue those viewpoints. This is the seminal release of his career, though he had an admirable run in the 2000s, too—particularly with Collateral (2004). Nothing against Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009). They’re solid crime films, but there’s just something special about Tom Cruise as a hitman with Jamie Foxx as a taxi driver transporting him to and from his hits. The premise alone is awesome, let alone the execution.
The Diner Scene From Heat
8. Quentin Tarantino
His first three films—Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997)—are clearly crime films. Not thrillers, not dramas. Crime films. And all three are well-known by cinephiles today, with Pulp Fiction viewed as a masterpiece of modern cinema.
And while Kill Bill (2003/2004) does feature the Yakuza with lots (and lots) of killing, it’s more easily defined as a martial arts film. He then made a War movie with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and followed with a string of Westerns: Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015).
His most recent film—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)—is most aptly categorized as crime. You could argue it’s a western, though. Either way, at least three of Tarantino’s most revered titles fall into the heist and gangster subgenres. And considering their quality, that’s more than enough for my money.
Reservoir Dogs – Opening Credits
7. Sidney Lumet
Of the eight crime films Lumet directed, only one was subpar: Family Business in 1989. But that was his only movie of this genre in the eighties. His crime streak in the subsequent decade was much more acclaimed, with titles like Q&A (1990) and Gloria (1999). And in 2007, he ended his career on a brilliant note with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
However, it was his crime spree in the 1970s that places him so high on this list. After The Anderson Tapes (1971) and Serpico (1973), he gained widespread acclaim for his direction of Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Then, in 1975, it was off to the Academy Awards for Dog Day Afternoon.
Nominated for six Oscars (and winning Best Original Screenplay), Dog Day Afternoon stars Al Pacino as bank robber Sonny Wortzik. This was the second collaboration between Lumet and Pacino, and one could argue it’s the best of their respective careers. It’s funny, poignant, and brilliant to the end.
The Trailer for Dog Day Afternoon
6. Akira Kurosawa
Though commonly known for his samurai films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s criminal history is arguably the deepest of his chosen genres. You could even argue Yojimbo is classified as a crime film just as much as it is a samurai movie.
However, Kurosawa’s first true crime movie was also the director’s first collaboration with Toshiro Mifune: Drunken Angel from 1948. Their next collaboration would come one year later with Stray Dog (1949), a film noir crime drama. Then they teamed up for the most important crime film of their respective careers: Rashomon in 1950. This one opened up Western audiences to Japanese cinema, which sparked international acclaim for other Japanese filmmakers. Rashomon’s influence is unmatched.
And still, Kurosawa wasn’t done with the underworld. He put out The Bad Sleep Well in 1960 before releasing the final crime title of his career. A police procedural, High and Low (1963) remains one of the most respected films of his career. It rounded his career out to a tee.
The Trailer for Rashomon
5. Steven Soderbergh
I like to refer to Soderbergh as “The Mastermind of Hollywood Heists”. In 1998, he released Out of Sight, starring George Clooney in their first of many collaborations. An adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, Out of Sight is amongst the more underrated of Soderbergh’s filmography. That’s especially true when considering his next string of heist films.
The Ocean’s trilogy (2001-2007) is perhaps the most prominent example of the subgenre, period. With tight scripts and star-studded casts, these movies—Eleven in particular—really defined an entire decade of crime. Two of his most recent films centered around robberies as well: Logan Lucky in 2017 and No Sudden Move in 2021.
However, while they may be his specialty, his crime films aren’t always focused on heists. Traffic in 2000 is one of the greatest crime films of all time—it won Soderbergh an Oscar for Best Director, made tremendous money, and holds a 92% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s commonly overlooked by modern audiences, and that’s a crime in itself.
Of his 35 features—which is, just, a crazy number in today’s industry—fourteen are crime films. He definitely branches out, but for the most part, he sticks to his scripts.
The Trailer for No Sudden Move
4. Francis Ford Coppola
While the first two Godfathers are cited amongst the greatest movies ever, Coppola’s career was similar to Tarantino and Mann’s. He dabbled in several genres: War dramas (Apocalypse Now in 1979), horror films (Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992) and even coming-of-age dramas (The Outsiders in 1983). He didn’t solely focus on crime.
But of course, there’s no way to overstate Coppola’s impact on the genre. Without The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), much of this list wouldn’t exist. They weren’t the only crime films he worked on, though. The Conversation (1974), while commonly seen as a thriller, could fit snugly in this genre on any day.
Among the more forgotten of his crime films include The Cotton Club (1984) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). It’s easy to see how the final entry in the Godfather franchise ultimately paled in comparison to its two predecessors, but The Cotton Club remains underappreciated, for my money. Nonetheless, neither entry impeded his ascendency to power on this list.
Famous Quote From The Godfather
3. Fritz Lang
At the time of release, M (1931) pushed the boundaries of cinematography with creative camera angles and a distinct noir style of lighting. To boot, the dialogue is intelligent from the start and the plot keeps you on your toes. There’s plenty left to write home about with this his breakthrough title, but doing so would be an injustice to the rest of his filmography.
He’s also made movies about ex-convicts like You Only Live Once (1937) and murder cases like The Woman in the Window (1944). I’d like to take this time to mention, though, that Lang is known as one of the preeminent directors of film noirs. And while they have a rich history in Hollywood, film noir isn’t exactly a genre. They’re usually based in two separate genres: crime and thriller.
Alfred Hitchcock was known for his noirs, but they were basically all thrillers. Billy Wilder is a famous noir filmmaker as well, and while they fit the crime mold opposed to thriller, most of Wilder’s films hinged more on romance and comedy than their propensity for crime.
But as for Lang: he made twenty-three feature length sound films, and over half of them were crime movies. If you aren’t familiar with his filmography, I urge you to check him out.
The Final Scene From M
2. The Coen Brothers
I’m sure this entry surprises some of you. By my genre-classification criteria, however, Joel and Ethan Coen have directed more crime films than anyone on this list save for Soderbergh and Lang. But, frankly, some of their crime movies—namely Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007)—are among the finest the genre can offer.
On a similar end of the spectrum: Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Burn After Reading (2008) are three of the most underrated crime films on the list. The Ladykillers from 2004 was nothing to write home about, but there are three others undoubtedly worth mentioning. Of course, one of them is O Brother Where Art Thou from 2000. While you may not have ever thought about it as such, I’d definitely call it a crime film.
Their first film, Blood Simple in 1984, hinges on noir more than any title in their catalog. Meanwhile, Raising Arizona (1987) is among their more recognizable crime pieces, and it put them on the Hollywood map. If you want to put Lang above them, I’d understand, but there’s no denying the number one pick.
The Trailer for Fargo
1. Martin Scorsese
Was there ever really an argument? While Goodfellas (1990) is considered Scorsese’s masterpiece, it’s far from the only crime film under his belt. Nearly every entry of his filmography features at least a trace of crime, and they’re all amongst the finest the genre has ever seen.
Scorsese’s crime roots can be traced back to 1972 with his sophomoric film Boxcar Bertha. He kept the ball rolling with another crime-based picture, Mean Streets (1973). It’s Scorsese’s first collaboration with Robert De Niro, and remains amongst the more underrated of his entire catalog. His next foray into the genre wouldn’t be until Goodfellas in 1990, but he continued the trend with Cape Fear (1991). Then he hit yet another milestone in 1995 with Casino. And, for what it’s worth: all three of these crime films from the 90s starred Robert De Niro.
Regarding the 21st century: Gangs of New York (2002) is one of his more popular works. But for my money, the best film he’s made in the last thirty years—and perhaps through his whole career—is The Departed (2006). After releasing The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013 and The Irishman in 2019, his reign as the Kingpin of Crime was set in stone. And with Killers of the Flower Moon set to hit theaters next year, his time atop the throne will likely continue for years to come.
The Trailer for The Departed
Thanks for Reading!
Before I sign off, I must give a few honorable mentions: Brian De Palma, Spike Lee, Don Siegel and Norman Jewison were all on my mind before penning this article. They didn’t quite make the cut—either because they didn’t have as much criminal output (like Jewison), or because some of their crime films were mediocre (like De Palma)—but their efforts are noted nonetheless.
Agree with the list?
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