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The Top 10 Criminals/Detectives Who Hunt Them Films

By Joseph Sullivan · January 10, 2015

In movies, for a long time there was a basic dichotomy—bad guys commit crimes, good guys stop or avenge them. Detectives always got their man, and criminals could only be the protagonist if they turned from a life of crime, or were eventually brought down. But the good guy/bad guy narrative lacked a certain amount of depth and tension if that was all there was. The world is rarely black and white. A movie like The Godfather can focus on a criminal family while actually being about morality and family and loyalty—it’s never really about crime. Criminals aren’t necessarily villains—and villains aren’t always criminals. This enables us to use the criminal/detective paradigm to explore ideas—mainly, that what matters isn’t always about who wins (or whodunit)—it’s about what and why they’re fighting. The focus no longer has to be the resolution—getting your man or your comeuppance. The focus can now be placed on the conflict—an unstoppable force meets an immovable object—and what it might mean to the story and theme when a writer chooses to have one come out on top. Here are ten movies that use the criminal/detective dichotomy very well.


10. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Frank Abagnale, Jr. the handsome young con man who floats through life as a fake pilot, doctor and lawyer. Tom Hanks is Carl Hanratty, the grounded FBI agent who takes him down. Because this is a Spielberg flick, daddy issues abound, but Christopher Walken is great as Frank Sr., a failure who spurns on his son’s efforts to be the man he never was, even if it isn’t legal. In comparison to Spielberg’s other movies, in many ways the movie itself feels like a con—it’s so slick and sweet that when it’s over I barely even remember that it happened.


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7.  The Professional (1994)


Norman Stansfield, the corrupt DEA agent played so compellingly by Gary Oldman is calling for reinforcements while on the hunt for Leon, the hitman played by Jean Reno. Stansfield has murdered the family of young Mathilda (Natalie Portman), and while Mathilda wants to avenge their deaths, Leon wants nothing more than to protect his new little protégé. One of the perfect examples of a film where the criminal has a code and is therefore a good man while the cop has no boundaries and is therefore marked for death.


6.  Fargo (1996)

The Coen Brothers rarely make humorless films, but the first twenty minutes of Fargo are as dark as many movies come. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), desperate for money, has hired two-bit criminals Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife so he can extort his father in law for the ransom money.  Enter Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), who cuts through the dark like a ray of sunshine in a cold Minnesota winter. She provides humor and common sense to a story that could be taking itself too seriously. Marge, seven months pregnant as she chases down Lundegaard, is a reminder that there is still a basic sense of morality in a world where everyone else is looking out for #1.


5.  Unforgiven (1992)

Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) and Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) are two old gun slinging bandits recruited to avenge the senseless attack on a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Gene Hackman as the Sherriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill Daggett, hunts them in another Oscar-winning performance. Unforgiven poses some interesting questions—namely, what is the ultimate cost of violence? Is the violence done unto the prostitute worth the lives of the men who did it?  Is the violence Daggett does to English Bob (Richard Harris) worth the safety of Big Whiskey? In Unforgiven, there is no good and no bad—there is only violence.


4.  Chinatown (1974)

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is drawn into a mystery involving the LADWP. Much like my DWP bill, it ends up being a travesty. This movie is on the list because it marks a transition from noir films of the thirties in which everything was black and white (literally, HA!) to the films of the seventies which deliberately leave us with all this ambiguity.  Not only does Gittes realize his criminal, Noah Cross (John Huston), is a respected member of the community, but he’s the father of his femme fatale, and a fan of murder, rape and incest. Unlike most noir, this film leaves the detective left in the lurch, having to just shrug his shoulders and forget all the evil he’s uncovered—“It’s Chinatown.”


3.  No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Coen Brothers tell the story of Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to track down Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the man on Llewelyn’s trail, the ruthless hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). In many ways Bell and Chigurh are two sides of the same coin. It is Moss who has stolen the money—Bell tries to find him with compassion and care, and Chigurh tries to find him with ruthless efficiency. Bell sees a good man who made a bad choice. Chigurh doesn’t believe in those gray areas—it is only real world results that decide one’s fate, whether those are the results of decisions made or the result of a coin flip.


2.  Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) works with Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to try and capture the serial killer “Buffalo Bill.” Lecter, hyper-intelligent, debonair, charming, psychopathic cannibal serial killer is able to help Starling catch the killer—and Lecter is simultaneously able to exploit her weaknesses (as well as the weaknesses of those around him) to escape.


1. Heat (1995)

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a highly professional career criminal who is being tracked down by Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), lieutenant in the LAPD. They are the same man in every conceivable measure. Their personal lives are both a wreck. They both only have a singular focus on the job. They both only want to do what they excel at—stealing or catching crooks. In another life, they could have been friends, but here they find themselves on opposite sides. There is no good and bad here—only two very capable men who happen to be on opposite sides of the law.