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Crime Pays: The Best OG Crime Movies Uncovered

By Kevin Nelson · June 29, 2022

Crime Pays: The Original Gangsters

Our obsession with crime movies is nothing new.

Sensational tales of people pushed to extremes by desperation, greed, and self-preservation have always drawn in massive audiences. 

Psychologists believe people are drawn to crime dramas because of the shock value presented by the event itself, and the mystery that unfolds as the investigation closes in on the answers. There are a number of revelations, twists and turns, and secrets hidden from the general public. We want all of the juicy details.

The most recent wave of popular true crime stories has been made popular by podcasts and has led to a number of successful adaptations for the screen such as The DropoutDr. DeathThe Thing About Pam, and Under the Banner of Heaven

Audiences have always had a deep fascination with stories about people who go to extremes to get what they desire and their karmic downfall, so let’s take a look at some of the greatest criminals to ever grace our screens.

Scripts from this Article

The Godfather (1972)

A true classic of epic proportions, The Godfather is based on Mario Puzo’s bestselling book. Paramount Pictures optioned the book from Puzo at a low price because Puzo was in dire financial straits. When producer Al Ruddy came on board, Francis Ford Coppola was hired to add authenticity to the gangster flick.

The movie is about way more than crime. It’s a story about an immigrant family that’s willing to do anything in order to uphold their sense of honor in the name of the American dream. The gold is in the details, and every moment of The Godfather is a masterclass in storytelling. 

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The Godfather Part II (1974)

Against all odds, The Godfather proved to be a massive hit and made everyone involved household names. It’d be hard to follow that up, but The Godfather Part II is one of the few sequels that are on par with their originals. 

The Godfather Part II’s magic is found in Vito Corleone’s backstory. The tale of his immigration to America and how he became the Don. It humanizes the gangster even more — showing that anyone in the same circumstances might make the same choices.

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The Wire (2002 – 2008)

One of the greatest shows of all time, this crime drama was created by David Simon, a former police reporter in Baltimore. The show was inspired by the experiences of his writing partner Ed Burns, a former homicide detective. Simon wrote for The Baltimore Sun while Burns served in the police department for 20 years.

Many of the storylines in the show were based on real-life counterparts. The late and great Michael Kenneth Williams’ portrayal of Omar Little was based on armed robber Donnie Andrews. Each season focuses on the different levels that the drug trade infiltrates the city, from the low-run street hustlers to the corrupt politicians pulling the strings. 

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Menace II Society (1993)

Tyger Williams was 24 years old when Menace II Society debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993. Williams was introduced to Allen and Albert Hughes by his brother while he was in college and they were still in high school. Being that they were so young, Williams wouldn’t return their phone calls until they had some success directing music videos for KRS-One and Too Short. They read one of his scripts and approached him with their idea. 

They wanted a tragedy set in Los Angeles with a heavy voice-over element. So, Williams watched movies of the same genre that featured those elements like Taxi DriverGoodfellasPlatoon, and Scarface. He collaborated with the brothers on the story and received sole credit for this stone-cold classic.

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Mindhunter (2017 – )

We all hope that Mindhunter comes back for a third season because there is so much more ground to cover with search teams. The series follows the true exploits and founding of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, a research division created to learn from and profile serial killers. 

It’s a true-crime detective mystery that goes beyond the headlines by telling the stories of the survivors of these killers’ victims — family, friends, and even the detectives themselves. There’s always drama when everyone involved is under intense pressure. Until a serial killer is caught, that pressure and tension only increase into panic and fear — showing how easily all the drama can become a nightmarish horror show.  

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Goodfellas (1990)

Written by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas is one of those rights of passage films that every human being should see at some point in their life. It’s based on Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, about the life of Mafia informant Henry Hill who always wanted to be a gangster.

Martin Scorsese wasn’t interested in making another gangster flick but was drawn to how honest Pileggi’s portrayal of the gangster was. He recognized these men from his childhood. 

Scorsese reportedly cold-called Pileggi saying“I’ve been waiting for this book my entire life.”

Pileggi responded, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.”

Pileggi’s book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas was adapted by Scorsese into another of his crime classics in 1995 with Casino

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Training Day (2001)

Written by David Ayer, Training Day is a taut crime thriller that ramps up the tension until an explosive climax. Ayer had a tough upbringing and dropped out of high school. It wasn’t until he enlisted in the United States Navy aboard a submarine. Much of Ayer’s work comes from his real-life experiences. His first produced feature screenplay was U-571.

Ayer worked various assignment jobs, including working on The Fast and the Furious. It was while researching for the crime drama Dark Blue that Ayer became interested in telling a story about the corruption within the Los Angeles Police Department. He kept the story grounded, with the main location being a moving car. 

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The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)

David Chase has a long storied career by the time his ultimate masterpiece graced screens and helped revolutionize the hour-long drama. His first idea was about a mobster in therapy. 

He told Salon:

“I want to tell a story about this particular man. I want to tell the story about the reality of being a mobster—or what I perceive to be the reality of life in organized crime. They aren’t shooting each other every day. They sit around eating baked ziti and betting and figuring out who owes who money. Occasionally, violence breaks out—more often than it does in the banking world, perhaps.”

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Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013)

Created by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is often mentioned alongside The Wire and The Sopranos as the greatest crime series. Gilligan wanted to create a series where the protagonist becomes the antagonist. The title itself is a nod to Walter White’s transformation from weak chemistry teacher to bonafide drug kingpin. 

The show saw a decline in viewership and AMC pushed Sony Pictures Television and Vince Gilligan to wrap things up in the third season. Netflix acquired the rights for streaming distribution and the show was introduced to a much larger audience. 

The show also spawned a sequel El Camino, which chronicled Jesse Pinkman’s days after surviving the events of Breaking Bad, as well as the successful spinoff Better Call Saul.

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New Jack City (1991)

The original story and screenplay for New Jack City were written by Thomas Lee Wright. He originally wrote it to be a spec version of The Godfather: Part III. The script was co-written by Barry Michael Cooper who was a crime reporter for The Village Voice. He adapted the rewrites to reflect his article titled Kids Killing Kids: New Jack City Eats Its Young about the drug wars in Detroit. 

New Jack City depicted the organized crime of black kingpins during the crack epidemic.

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The Shield (2002-2008)

Created by Shawn Ryan, The Shield was one of the first television series to portray corrupt police officers. The pilot episode offers a heavy-handed twist at the end, leaving the reader and viewer with a moral dilemma. The protagonist they’ve come to trust commits a murder, killing one of his own officers. 

It was groundbreaking in its gritty realism and inability to shy away from the truth. The characters work within a morally gray area, forcing the viewer to choose a side. 

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Boardwalk Empire (2010 – 2014)

I’d be remiss to not include the show that featured so many real-life movers and shakers in the crime world. Created by Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire was based on Nelson Johnson’s non-fictional Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City

Although Enoch L. Johnson might not be a household name (even after the show), there is a cast of the underworld’s finest in their bootlegging heydays with the likes of Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Al Capone.

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Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Written and directed by the legendary John Singleton, this coming-of-age crime drama is based on people he knew in his neighborhood growing up. One of the essays for film school asked Singleton to write three movie ideas. His essay, Summer of 84, would become Boyz n the Hood.

He was protective of the script, not willing to let someone from Idaho direct it. Singleton approached actors he met while working as an intern on The Arsenio Hall Show and as a production assistant on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Singleton’s success with Boyz n the Hood kicked off a career on par with very few peers.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Just a friendly reminder that white-collar criminals should be held to the same accountability as those who turn to crime in order to survive. 

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True Detective (2014 – )

Created by Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective is an anthology crime series that centers on a different case with different characters each season. The first season featured tense interrogations, pressure to solve the cause, and deep character dives that set it apart from most detective shows. The raw realism earned it a spot on the top of the cash pile.

My personal favorite is the third season, which features an unreliable narrator whose memory is fading as he slips into dementia. How they blend the past and present is a really great approach for writers to consider. The fourth season is being produced by Barry Jenkins with Issa López writing and directing the series and Jodie Foster producing and starring.

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Taxi Driver (1976)

Written by Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver is an iconic look into the seedy underbelly of New York City in the 1970s. Schrader was introduced to Martin Scorsese by Brian De Palma and drew from national headlines and his own personal experience living through a rough time in the Big Apple. He was inspired by the diary of Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace in 1972, and Squeaky Fromme, who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. 

Schrader was going through a rough patch in the city and felt completely isolated while suffering from insomnia. After a stomach ulcer put him in the hospital, he wrote the script for Taxi Driver in an almost fever dream in less than a month. The first draft was 60 pages and two weeks later he had the second draft. The rest is cinematic history.

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Crime is something that’ll never go away. It surrounds us daily and we may never know about it. From petty larceny to grand theft, murder to racketeering — we are drawn to stories about characters who step over the line of the law and enter the point of no return. Maybe not because we’re morally upright citizens, but because of our own dark desires. 

Scripts from this Article