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Good Crime Movies (1980-85): A Most Violent Era

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Michael Taylor itcherThe 1980’s saw a drastic rise of violent crime in America, and the cinema of the time reflected the nation’s fascination and fears in films like ‘American Gigolo’, ‘The Pope of Greenwich Village’, and ‘Blood Simple.’ ~ Michael Taylor

Criminally Good Movies

America was gripped by fear during the 80’s when violent crime incidents rose in record numbers. Opinions on the causes vary: a depressed economy, the crack cocaine epidemic, mob-based drug trafficking, lower staffed police forces, and most interestingly, a theory that increased lead exposure led to behavioral issues with juvenile males.

Films of the era like ‘Scarface’ exploited our fixation with violent criminal activity, provoking outrage from censors and law enforcement that accused Hollywood of glamourizing the criminal element. But such claims merely enticed audiences to see such films in record numbers.

So let’s look at some underrated good crime films from 1980-85 that dealt with the phenomenon in a variety of fascinating and unnerving ways.


Pulse-Pounding Crime Drama Film Recommendations

‘American Gigolo’ (Paul Schrader, 1980)

I’ll do fag tricks. I’ll do kink. I’ll do anything you want me to do…

Richard Gere plays Julian, a high priced male escort living a narcissistic lifestyle. But his seemingly carefree ways are threatened when he is blamed for the murder of a client that he didn’t commit.

With no one to vouch for his whereabouts and his slippery pimp feeding his paranoia, Julian fights against the clock to clear his name.

Gere is perfectly cast as a character with more resolve and intelligence than he first appears. And Schrader’s neo-noir visuals are sonically embellished by Giorgio Moroder’s shimmering synth score.

‘Bad Boys’ (Rick Rosenthal, 1983)

I killed your little brother, but he’s dead because you didn’t look after him…

Mixing a crime flick with a coming of age drama, ‘Bad Boys’ features Sean Penn as Mick O’Brien, a troubled Chicago teen sent to prison after the accidental killing of a rival gang member.

O’Brien is caught in a living nightmare, struggling with bullying cellmates and prison staff while his girlfriend (Ally Sheedy) on the outside becomes a target of a gang leader (Esai Morales) out for revenge for his murdered brother.

There is an emotional undercurrent to ‘Bad Boys’ that cuts deeper than most gang pictures, elevated by Penn’s vulnerable performance.

It’s also a poignant look into the plight of inner-city youth that has unfairly faded from view, deserving far more attention than the Will Smith actioner that shares its name.

‘Blood Simple’ (Joel & Ethan Cohen, 1984)

If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you…

The filmic debut from the Coen brothers stars Dan Hedaya as a wealthy Texan bar owner convinced that his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with Ray (John Getz), one of his employees.

He hires a shady private eye named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to keep tabs on their activities, eventually hiring him to kill them both.

But Visser has a plan of his own, leading to a surprising double cross, plenty of plot twists, and Abby and Ray fighting for their lives.

‘Blood Simple’ is a markedly assured debut containing all of the Coen’s most iconic elements: taut suspense, gallows humor, and inventive, immersive cinematography.

‘The Pope of Greenwich Village’ (Stuart Rosenberg, 1984)

When somebody says they got ‘honest work’, you know what they got? They got a shit job, that’s what they got…

Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts play Paulie and Charlie, cousins planning to rob a rich merchant in their New York City neighborhood.

But their scheme goes bad fast: they accidentally get a police officer killed in the process, and discover that their target is a mob boss who sends thugs to get back his money by any means necessary. 

Paulie and Charlie must come up with the perfect scheme to escape their fate, or die trying.

An intoxicating mix of heist thriller, character study, and black comedy, ‘Greenwich Village’ shows Rourke and Roberts at their peak, in a quietly confident film that still flies under-the-radar, even to fans of the crime genre.

‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (Sergio Leone, 1984)

It’s 10:25. And I’ve got nothing left to lose. When you’ve been betrayed by a friend, you hit back. Do it…

This sprawling crime period drama features Robert DeNiro as David “Noodles” Aaronson, a legendary mobster reflecting on his brutal rise to the top from the 1920-60s in New York City.

But his nostalgia isn’t rose-tinted. Aaronson has pained nostalgia about his past, which the film revisits in flashbacks, sending him on a journey of violence, betrayal, failed romance, and regret, which also involves his close friend and former partner Max (James Woods).

‘Once’ is the final film in a trilogy from director Sergio Leone, along with the Spaghetti Western ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and ‘Once Upon a Time… The Revolution’.

But despite its epic scope, lush visuals, critical acclaim at film festivals, and cult status in Europe, it never got its full due in the country that shares it title.

This was largely due to its immense 229-minute running time, which spooked studio heads. They demanded a shorter cut, which gutted much of the narrative, confusing audiences and enraging critics.

Thankfully, Leone’s complete vision was released on Blu-ray in 2014, containing both the 229-minute cut, with the even longer director’s cut included as well.

It’s the perfect time to discover a mob film every bit as nuanced as elegant as ‘The Godfather’: fitting, because Leone actually turned down making that film to direct ‘Once Upon a Time’ instead!


Cinematic Crime Scene Examination

As the 80’s wore on, violence in cinema remained a hot-button political issue, with many claiming those who watched said films would be inspired to commit acts of violence or theft.

This, of course, is as old as “the devil made me do it” argument, and never bore substantial fruit.

Thus, those complaints fell on deaf ears, most notably in Hollywood, as compelling crime films lasted throughout the decade. Speaking of: be sure and check back soon when I’ll be looking into the best crime films of 1985-1990!

But now, I turn it over to you, dear reader. What 80’s crime films get your heart racing? Be sure to tell me in the comments.

And for similar recommendations, be sure to check out my list of movies like ‘John Wick,movies like ‘The French Connection’, and movies like ‘Heat,’ along with some other notable honorable mentions below.

Honorable Mentions: ‘Thief’, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’, ‘Ms. 45’, ‘Johnny Dangerous’, ‘Scarface’, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, ‘The Cotton Club’, ‘Witness,’ ‘Cutter’s Way.’

My name is Michael Taylor and I′m your go-to source for finding the best in Alternative rock in all its various genres, such as Goth, Grunge, Post-punk, Shoegaze, Britpop and Electronica, with some metal thrown in for good measure. Film-wise, I′m all about sci-fi and horror, comic book movies, and cult classics. I love checking out all the best concerts and film events in my hometown of Austin, TX. I′ve written for sites such as Cracked, and I cover all my various pop culture obsessions on my site
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