Page last updated at 09:11 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 10:11 UK

Film still on the crest of a crimewave

By Chris Summers
BBC News

This week a series of crime films are being shown at a festival at the British Film Institute. So why are crime movies so popular with movie fans?

The Lavender Hill Mob being filmed at Ealing Studios
Prison - The Birdman of Alcatraz, Scum, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile
Heist - The Italian Job, Topkapi, Dog Day Afternoon, Heat, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, Ocean's 11
British - Brighton Rock, The Long Good Friday, Sexy Beast, Layer Cake
True crime - 10 Rillington Place, Bonnie and Clyde, Buster, The Krays, Zodiac
Cops - Dirty Harry, Shaft, Serpico, LA Confidential
Detective - The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Long Goodbye, Devil in a Blue Dress, Klute, Chinatown
Comedy - Lavender Hill Mob, The Pink Panther, Stir Crazy, Pulp Fiction

It must be hard for the director of a crime film to break new territory.

If you are making a mafia movie, how do you better The Godfather trilogy? If you are directing a thriller, how can you improve on Hitchcock? If you are making an action romp, how do you improve on the car chases that have gone before?

Of course some directors don't bother, they just rehash the same formula. Guy Ritchie, anyone?

But every few years someone comes along and reinvents the genre.

In the late 1960s, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry spawned a series of gritty "rogue cop" movies.

A decade later it was Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy which turned directors onto opportunities within the mafia sub-genre.

In the 1990s, it was Quentin Tarantino, with his wicked dialogue and black humour - and, more recently, foreign films such as City of God from Brazil and Memories Of Murder from South Korea have broken new ground.

I am always amazed at how flexible crime movies are, and how the genre is able to constantly reinvent itself
Adrian Wootton

Adrian Wootton, co-director of this week's TCM Crimescene Festival at the BFI in London, said: "I am always amazed at how flexible crime movies are, and how the genre is able to constantly reinvent itself."

The crime film genre is almost as old as the movie industry itself.

Thrillers were popular back in the silent movie era, with films like Suspense (1913), with melodramatic music helping raise the tension.

When the "talkies" came along it was boom time for the genre, with Jimmy Cagney, Edward G Robinson and George Raft becoming huge stars in the 1930s.

After the war Alfred Hitchcock came into his own, with classic movies like Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho shifting big money at the box office.

Films like Brighton Rock, and later Get Carter, showed we could make great crime films as well as, or better than, the Americans.

Liam Neeson in Taken
In new film Taken, Neeson hunts down his daughter's kidnappers
The festival began on Wednesday with the premiere of Liam Neeson's new film, Taken, a high octane thriller set in Paris.

Afterwards, at a Q&A session, Neeson said he enjoyed making the film although it was hard work as, despite being 56, he insisted on doing all the fights himself.

Asked what his favourite crime film was, Neeson said: "I can't think of one offhand, but I loved all those Cagney films. They were always terrific. Cagney was sublime, he was always real and truthful."

Other films being shown in the festival include Lakeview Terrace, starring Samuel L Jackson, and Gomorrah, which is based on Roberto Saviano's fantastic book about the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra.

The classic movie channel TCM has sponsored this week's festival, and next week it will be airing a series of crime classics, including Public Enemy, Get Carter and Serpico.

Channel manager, Alan Musa, said: "A lot of young people are discovering genres which have been around for years, like crime films, which really resonate. Every few years someone comes up with a new take on it but it's still a format which people really expect and enjoy."

Hollywood has often feasted on true crime stories.

In 2006 Justin Timberlake starred in the film Alpha Dog, based on the real life murder of teenager Nick Markowitz.

Some movies...present a sort of cautionary tale to society in an effort to help them learn from mistakes made by others
Michael Mehas

Several men have already been convicted for the murder but one man, Jesse James Hollywood, who fled to Brazil, is due to go on trial in February.

Michael Mehas, a Californian lawyer whose book, Stolen Boy, provided the basis of film, said many brutal crime movies "fed on negativity" and were largely "exploitative".

But he added: "Movies and books like Alpha Dog and Stolen Boy aren't written so much with the intent to exploit societal pains, but to present a sort of cautionary tale to society - in an effort to help them learn from mistakes made by others.

"We evolve when we learn from our mistakes."

Audiences can expect plenty more crime films in the future.

Just a couple of gems to look forward to are Public Enemies, set in the 1920s and starring Johnny Depp as America's favourite bank robber and gangster John Dillinger, and a remake of the Bad Lieutenant, with Nicolas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role.

A scene from the film Gomorrah
Gomorrah, set among the Naples mafia, is one of the festival's highlights
Further down the line, filming is under way on a script based on the life of Britain's "most dangerous prisoner" Charles Bronson, and DNA Films is finalising the script for a remake of The Sweeney, but there is no word yet of who will get the John Thaw role.

Talking of books, the people who brought you Mills & Boon romances, have turned their attention to crime, with a series of Black Star Crime paperback novels due out this month.

Thankfully, theses serviceable crime romps appear devoid of dark and devilishly handsome men or swooning ladies.

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