The crime movies of the 80s shifted the film industry and inspired the coming generation of films in almost all aspects. Some of these movies are still close to our hearts and keep us on the edge of our seats. They are packed with suspense, non-stop action, intrigue and deception.
The combination of crime and violence makes cinematic material that’s inherently compelling, which is common in all the greatest hits of the 80s. Let’s start with some of the most popular and highly rated crime and thriller movies.
A tale of drug cartels, greed, guilt and retribution, Brian DePalma’s Scarface still has some serious cult following even after 35+ years of its release. The movie is known for its rawness and is different from other gangster classics because of its crude approach.
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) is an angry, uneducated, mentally unstable and tacky Cuban refugee who migrates to America to live the American Dream. He starts working as a nighttime taxi driver in the NYC. He end up taking over a drug cartel, succumbs to greed and brings violence in Miami to the next level.
After becoming the king of the drug world and reaching the top of his trade, his outrageous and aggressive behavior makes him a target and everything starts to crumble down. With more than 180 ‘F’ words and some very violent scenes, the film leaves nothing to imagination of the viewer and comes to them like a raging bull.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Full of surprises, suspense and drama, this is another masterpiece of the 80s by Sergio Leone that forces viewers to stay glued to their screen till the end. It takes some serious concentration to fully understand the story and keep track of different characters and their relationships.
The film unfolds the story of NYC’s four gangsters, which is spread over five decades. It opens with scenes of horrifying violence and moves back and forth in complex series of dreams, memories and flashbacks. The childhood friends and merciless criminals had a special bond of loyalty before one of them started believing he has broken the bond.
Guilt haunts him until late in his life, but he discovers that he was the one who was betrayed. The movie unfolds bits and pieces of life of Noodle (Robert De Niro) and his confrontation to regrets of his earlier life. The movie is much more than just a crime movie and shows the relationships and truth about friendship and betrayals.
The Untouchables (1987)
Brian de Palma’s The Untouchables revolves around the story of a Federal Agent who is on a mission to stop Al Capone (Robert De Niro), a ruthless gangster during the era of Prohibition in the US (when a ban on alcoholic beverages was placed from 1920 to 1933). The ban was meant to keep people from drinking, but instead it opened a multi-billion-dollar industry of illegal sales of alcohol.
As the mafia jumped onto the bandwagon, Al Capone also hand-picked a small team to get a piece of the pie. In an era of widespread corruption everyone had a price, whether police officers or the judges of the highest court. Eliot Ness (Treasury Agent) stood on the opposite side and also handpicked a team of honest cops to clean Chicago.
Many viewed Ness’s initial efforts as an exercise in futility, but he had no plans to quit and went after Capone and his gang. After his initial efforts proving to be disaster, Ness recruited Malone, a veteran cop and Stone to peel through Capone’s multiple layers of protection. The story violence-ridden story is full of action and drama and stands tall with other classics of the 80’s including Palma’s Scarface.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
The British crime film by John Mackenzie keeps a certain level of suspense throughout the movie as things gradually start to unfold after the dramatic start. The English gangster Harold (Bob Hoskins) runs the London docks and wants to transform his criminal empire into legitimate or semi-legitimate businesses.
However, a mysterious syndicate tries to muscle in when he is about to close a lucrative real estate deal, which happens to be one of the biggest in Europe. Bloody mayhem ensues after he finds out about the mysterious syndicate and Harold’s empire starts to crumble down after 10 years of peace.
His gang members and friends start getting brutally killed as bombs rock his businesses. Bursts of graphic violence, the intricate script and excellent dialogue makes The Long Good Friday one of the best crime and gangster movies that still holds its ground today.
Blood Simple (1984)
Directed, written, edited and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple revolves around Marty, a jealous and not-so-nice Texas bar-owner. Marty suspects his wife Abby and Ray (one of his bartenders) are having an affair. Abby and Ray soon realize that Marty has found out about their relationship and start planning to get away from him while being upfront about the matter.
Marty hires a shady private investigator to Kill Abby and Ray and dispose off their bodies. But things start to get more complicated than Marty had anticipated. The detective fabricates photos to make Marty believe he has killed the couple and collect his fee. He ends up shooting Marty using Abby’s gun and leaves the gun on the floor. Visser (the detective) forgets his lighter and the fabricated photo, which Marty placed in his safe.
And that’s just the beginning of a sequence of surprising events that keep viewers hooked to the screen. The twisted storyline and cinematic tricks create a constant suspense and makes it hard to guess what’s going to happen next. This makes Blood Simple one of the best crime movies and film noirs in the recent history.
Frank is an expert safecracker and after spending years in prison, he wants to settle down with his girlfriend and live a normal life. In his pursuit to become a model citizen, he tries to accelerate things and by making one last big score. Little did he know that his employer Leo, a powerful gangster would want to keep him and make it very difficult for him to return to ‘normal’ life.
Frank loses his freedom and ultimately his American dream. Following the $4mn diamond heist, everything turns upside down and violence and double crossing taking the center stage. Michael Mann’s Thief oozes with style and masterfully propels the story of a man who wants to live a normal life but gets pushed into crime and violence.
Prince of the City (1981)
Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City revolves around a NYC narcotics detective involved in shady police practices. U.S. Justice Department approaches and offers him a chance to expose police corruption in exchange for keeping himself and his fellow crooked cops off the hook. He reluctantly agrees to the offer, but soon discovers that’s it’s next to impossible to keep his promises.
Situation forces him to make tough decisions and either he can save himself or bring his friends down. The movie accurately reveals the prosecutor/informant relationship and uncovers the moral dilemmas associated with being an informant.
An 8-years-old boy (Samuel) is the sole witness to a brutal murder of an undercover cop that takes place inside one of Philadelphia train station bathroom stalls. The young boy points out a narcotics officer as the murderer to the police detective (John Book) investigating the murder.
Book soon realizes that the culprit knows about the investigation and his life is in great danger. He is forced to hide out in the Amish community, where boy’s mother Rachel grew up. As he learns to live among the Amish community, which revolves around agriculture and non-violence, he finds himself in a romantic relationship with Rachel.
However, the Amish standards forbid such a relationship and while their cautious romance continues, the culprits find out about their whereabouts. Determined to keep their wrongdoings a secret, the corrupt cops come looking for them to silence them forever.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Richard Chance, a reckless US Secret Service Agent who mainly works on cases related to counterfeiting, sets up a scheme to nab Ric Masters, a long-time counterfeiter. Chance vows revenge after Masters kills his partner and sets up a scheme to nab the killer. He along with his new partner Vukovich try to nab Masters, but his partner sees his unethical and illegal practices as a big problem.
The scheme results in the accidental death of an officer who was working undercover. The turn of events force Vukovich to question the reckless methods Chance employs and his obsession to nab masters without considering the prevailing laws.
Interesting Facts About the top 80s Crime Movies
- Oliver Stone, who wrote the screenplay for the 1983 film Scarface, drew inspiration from his own experience as a cocaine addict. Stone was in the process of kicking his cocaine habit at the time he wrote the script, and some of the scenes even draw directly from his own life.
- Originally, Scarface was given a rating of X. In 1983, a movie could receive an X rating simply for having excessive foul language and graphic violence. The director, Brian De Palma, made numerous alterations to the film to change its rating. Universal filed an appeal, and the MPAA decided to give it an R in the end.
- Everywhere but Miami was used to film Scarface (1983). L.A., New York, and Santa Barbara were among the locations. Miami protests by Cuban-Americans would have deterred the shoot.
- It was depicted in the film “Once Upon a Time in America (1984)” that Sergio Leone passed up the opportunity to direct The Godfather film to make it. According to Leone himself, Once Upon a Time in America was the project he was most passionate about and the one he spent the majority of his adult life working on. During the production of Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968, he first became intrigued by the story. He became so preoccupied with it that when Paramount approached him a few years later with the offer to direct The Godfather, he politely declined the offer. Perhaps he would have been more willing to accept the offer if he had known that the production of Once Upon a Time in America would not begin for another 12 years.
- Even though the movie is called “Once Upon a Time in America,” only a small portion of it was shot in the United States. The majority of the movie was shot in Rome, at the illustrious Cinecitta Studios, which is where a lot of Italy’s best movies that were made after the war were shot. Additional sequences were filmed in improbable locations all over the world, including Montreal, Paris, and St. Petersburg, Florida.
- The Italian film director’s health was ruined by the film “Once Upon a Time in America,” and it was a contributing factor in Leone’s passing. The drawn-out and physically demanding process of filming a four-hour epic would be taxing for anyone, but it would be especially difficult for someone who was already overweight and in his 50s. Leone’s preexisting heart condition was made worse by his work, and the subsequent conflict with distributors over the film’s length and his emotional distress over the film’s poor performance in the United States only served to exacerbate the problem. Leone suffered a fatal heart attack in 1989, leaving him unable to finish another film before his passing.
- One of the most well-known gangster movies to come out of the 1980s was called “The Untouchables.” It was directed by Brian De Palma and starred big names like Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro. It was based on the real-life takedown of famous mafia boss Al Capone by Eliot Ness and his crew.
- In the movie “The Untouchables,” there were numerous references to the real Al Capone. Al Capone, a notorious gangster who is portrayed in the movie by Robert De Niro, serves as the primary antagonist of the picture. The actor Robert De Niro is known for being a method performer, and the film does incorporate some aspects of the life of Al Capone. In the opening scene of the movie, which takes place in a barbershop, Al Capone is shown getting a shave, and the set features several items including cologne bottles, shaving brushes, and foam cans that belonged to the real Al Capone.
- In the movie “Witness,” Sylvester Stallone declines to participate in the movie. When Harrison Ford’s agent, Phil Gersch, brought him a copy of the script for the film Witness, it only took him four days to commit to appearing in the movie. On the other hand, the producers had someone else in mind, and that someone was Sylvester Stallone. Unfortunately for Stallone, he declined the offer, which resulted in him missing out on some serious award buzz and acting cred.
- Back in the day, there wasn’t much use for green screens or computer-generated imagery (CGI). In addition, budgets were cut down. This meant that movies relied heavily on the quality of their practical effects and the quality of their storytelling. The script is what drives the acting itself.
If you want to discover more classic crime shows, read our article about the 1950s TV show Stand By for Crime.