As a confessed crime film junkie, I’m looking forward to Ben Affleck’s film, The Town, his second adaptation of a Boston crime novel (Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves). Cynics may assume he’s repeating the formula that was successful for Gone Baby Gone. I’d like to believe he’s finding a niche.
Location is key in the crime genre—it matters as much, if not more, than plot. Affleck may well understand this. Here are a five other films that understood did.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973):
Thanks to the Criterion Collection—their DVD is its first video incarnation of any kind—Peter Yates’ adaptation of George V. Higgins’ debut novel will awe a new generation of film lovers. Robert Mitchum’s performance as Coyle, a penny-ante gunrunner, is arguably the finest celluloid portrayal of criminal desperation. The film plays as a series of transactions (guns, money, information), traded in Boston’s most banal settings: coffee shops, parking lots, shitty bars, public parks. By thoroughly deglamorizing these criminals’ lives, these locations raise the film’s stakes, making it far more brutal than its body count.
L.A. Confidential (1997):
The title suggests correctly that Los Angeles is the main character here, protagonist and antagonist both. Many are murdered in this film, but the harshest scene is completely nonviolent: Two cops meet Lana Turner at the Formosa Cafe; one assumes her to be a prostitute look-a-like (one element of the sprawling plot) and gets a drink thrown in his face for his mistake. In L.A., the ugly and the glamorous often collide, and this film shows how fine the line is between the two.
The Naked City (1948)
The plot is a somewhat garden-variety police procedural, but Jules Dassin”s documentary-style direction showed New York’s reality for the first time in a fiction film: a city of constant activity, some of it unscrupulous, most of it simply routine. Even the thrilling final chase on the Williamsburg Bridge keeps itself grounded in reality, while remaining unsurpassed by the countless cop shows that imitated it.
Rarely has a “serial killer” film exuded such palpable menace while avoiding unnecessary violence. This arises from the well of obsession that drives the plot and from David Fincher’s directorial eye, as he pries off the pleasant veneer of the San Francisco area. Mundane, normal situations—a lover’s lane, a lakeside afternoon, a cab ride—are turned into horrific showcases of the Zodiac’s narcissistic evil. The murders stop thirty minutes into the film, but the shock resonates long after its haunting final line.
Monument Ave. (1998)
Like its director, Ted Demme, and its star, Denis Leary, Monument Ave. remains sorely underappreciated. Its deep sadness elevates it beyond its familiar story—a thief struggling to escape his hopeless neighborhood. As Leary’s character Bobby slowly boils with rage, Demme shows us Charlestown’s grim landscape of bars and row houses as a place that desiccates most of its residents, leaving their spirits to die.