Ever since the 1940s, British film studios have been consistently making great crime and gangster films with a singular style and feel to them. Whether it’s the black comedies of the 1950s, the realistic, hard-boiled thrillers of the 1970s, or the flashy, fast-paced work of recent directors like Guy Ritchie, the following are ten of the best British crime movies that have been released over the years.
10. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
Made in 2003, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a little-known crime film directed by Mike Hodges and starring Clive Owen, who would go on to become a big star shortly after its release. The film is a classic revenge story, following a reformed crime boss who is forced to return to London’s underworld to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, who had become entangled with a shady car dealer, played by Malcolm McDowell. The film received very mixed reviews upon its release, with many critics complaining about its slow, contemplative pacing, but its defenders praised it for its nuanced performances and gritty style, as well as for its ending, which is about as hard-hitting as they come.
Snatch was acclaimed director Guy Ritchie’s second film, and features an ensemble cast including Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Dennis Farina, and Benicio del Toro. Set in the world of organized crime, the film’s labyrinthine plot follows a handful of characters, including a boxing promoter, a bounty hunter, an ex-KGB arms dealer, and a gypsy, all of whom are involved in the search for a priceless stolen diamond. Since its release in 2000, Snatch has gained a cult following for its energetic style, which features Ritchie’s trademark inventive camerawork and a great use of music. Its twisty plot is part of what makes it such a highly entertaining and often funny film, but it also makes for a rather clever exploration of chance and fate, and the film remains among Ritchie’s best work.
8. Layer Cake
Directed by Guy Ritchie’s producer, Matthew Vaughn, Layer Cake is a stylish, kinetic crime film released in 2004. The film was one of the breakthrough performances for Daniel Craig, who stars as a nameless London cocaine dealer. The Scarface-esque story charts Craig’s character’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the city’s criminal underbelly as he helps search for the daughter of one of his boss’s associates, all while simultaneously negotiating the sale of one million hits of stolen ecstasy. Like Guy Ritchie’s films, Layer Cake is chock full of plot and high on stylistic flourish, but it’s much more of a straightforward thriller than a movie like Snatch, and features some top-notch action scenes. The film was highly praised upon its release, and many have credited Daniel Craig’s cool and self-assured performance here with helping him to secure the role of James Bond.
7. The Lavender Hill Mob
A British classic, The Lavender Hill Mob is one of a few comedic crime films starring Alec Guinness that were released in the early 50s by the famed Ealing Studios. Guinness plays Henry Holland, a mild-mannered bank clerk in charge of the shipment of huge quantities of gold bullion. After devising a scheme to steal the gold, Holland teams up with a foundry owner and two small time crooks, and the four of them plot to melt the gold down and have it molded into small Eiffel Tower statues that can then be successfully smuggled out of England. The Lavender Hill Mob is beloved by many for its great performances (Guinness was nominated for an Oscar) and the relationships between the characters, who have been said to represent the strata of British social classes. It’s also fascinating for its period photography of 1951 London, which at the time was still recovering from bombings that had occurred during the blitz in WWII.
6. Sexy Beast
Sexy Beast centers on expert safecracker Gal Dove (played by Ray Winstone), a former London gangster who has quit the business and escaped with his wife to a beautiful Spanish villa. Gal’s peaceful retirement is interrupted with the arrival of the psychopathic and unbelievably foul-mouthed Don Logan, a career criminal who shows up in Spain with a single-minded determination to get Gal to participate in a London bank robbery. The film’s centerpiece is undoubtedly the performance from Ben Kingsley, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the hyper-aggressive and sadistically violent Logan. Kingsley’s performance is a must-see, if only to witness a few of his unbelievably caustic monologues, in particular a hilarious scene where he is kicked off an airplane. It’s difficult to think of a film where an actor does a better job of ranting, raving, and generally tearing up the scenery.
5. The Ladykillers
Along with The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers is another one of the famous post-war crime comedies made by Ealing Studios. The film follows a master thief called Professor Marcus (played to perfection by Alec Guinness) who rents out a room at a boarding house while he’s planning his next heist. In order to hide the plan from the house’s widowed landlady, Mrs. Wilberforce, the Professor and his accomplices are forced to pretend to be a string quintet. The film is a black comedy, and its dark tone only adds to the hilarity of its characters, who are played by a great assortment of actors including Peter Sellers and Katie Johnson, who nearly steals the show as Mrs. Wilberforce. A lackluster remake of the film was released in 2004, but the original 1955 version is definitely the one to see. Dark comedies rarely work this well, and The Ladykillers remains one of the downright funniest crime films ever made.
4. The Italian Job
Like The Ladykillers, The Italian Job also spurned an American remake, but few films can compare to the excitement and fun of the original version starring Michael Caine. Released in 1969, the film follows Charlie Croker, a career criminal who’s just recently been released from jail. Anxious to get back in the game, Charlie takes over a plan to steal a $4 million shipment of gold in Turin, Italy by artificially creating a traffic jam in the city streets. To do so, he enlists the help of a group of criminal masterminds, including characters played by Noel Coward and the famed comedian Benny Hill. The Italian Job features some great action scenes and car chases (this movie is responsible for making the Mini Cooper a must-have car), and the ending is one of the all time greats. Few movies have been copied as much as this one, which continues to have a huge cult following.
3. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
The film that popularized British gangster movies and helped launch the careers of Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, and Guy Ritchie, 1998’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is one of the all time great English crime films. The story follows a quartet of best friends who lose 500,000 pounds in a high stakes card game to a mercurial porn king, who gives them one week to pay up. With no way of coming up with the money that fast, the guys resolve to rob a group of low-level hoods who are themselves planning on holding up a group of underground marijuana dealers. This is the film that helped pioneer the style of insanely complicated plots and eccentric characters that would be cultivated by Ritchie and his imitators in later films like Snatch, Layer Cake, and RocknRolla, and it remains one of the most popular British films in recent memory. Like The Italian Job, it also features a fantastic final scene that is as funny as it is suspenseful.
2. The Long Good Friday
One of the most beloved gangster films ever made, 1980’s The Long Good Friday stars Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand, an aging London crime boss. Shand is one of the most powerful gangsters in the city, but for some time he’s been trying to go straight. His plan is interrupted when an unknown enemy starts targeting his organization with a series of bombings and murders. Desperate to preserve his gang so that he can make a deal to become a legitimate businessman, Shand goes on a desperate and often brutally violent search to find out who is behind the killings. The Long Good Friday is known for its detailed look into the inner workings of organized crime, as well as for its intelligent grasp of 70s era politics and social issues like IRA terrorist bombings and police corruption. It also features a number of unforgettable set pieces (the most famous of which is a brutal interrogation that takes place inside a slaughterhouse), as well as great performances from Hoskins and Helen Mirren.
1. Get Carter
When it comes to British crime films, I don’t think there’s any movie more synonymous with the genre than 1971’s Get Carter. The detailed plotting, underworld characters, and slangy dialogue unique to British gangster films were never done better than they were in this movie. Directed by Mike Hodges, the film stars Michael Caine as Jack Carter, a London mobster who returns to his hometown of Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother, Frank. When he uncovers evidence that Frank may have been murdered, Carter embarks on a savage mission to exact revenge, ultimately hunting down the people responsible one by one. Get Carter was criticized upon its release for its brutal violence and vicious characters, but it has since gained a cult following for its quotable dialogue, realist style, and a great performance from Michael Caine. The magazine Total Film once even listed it as the best British film ever made. It’s truly a classic of the crime genre, and unlike some movies from its era, Get Carter is just as hard-hitting and original today as it was in 1971.