Today, New York’s Film Forum kicks off a four-week, 50-film “True Crime” festival, spotlighting some of the most iconic dramas, mysteries, and thrillers based on real events. It’s one of our most durable genres — the festival spans something like eight decades — and for good reason: the best true crime movies are often tense, gripping, and suspenseful (even when we already know the outcome). Here are a few of our all-time favorites.
10. Heavenly Creatures
Peter Jackson navigated his way from the cult fringe to the mainstream with this haunting 1994 dramatization of a New Zealand woman’s 1954 murder at the hands of her daughter (Melanie Lynskey) and her daughter’s friend (Kate Winslet). What could have been a sensationalistic exploitation movie or a dull procedural is elevated into a dreamlike tone poem by Jackson and collaborator/partner Fran Walsh’s decision to focus on the girls’ friendship. Their conscious decision to tell the story in human terms not only spotlights the talents of their (then unknown) leading ladies, but it makes their grisly crime all the more shocking and brutal.
9. The Thin Blue Line
There have been enough great true crime documentaries to make up their own festival, but I’ll limit myself to the best of the bunch: Errol Morris’s riveting, influential 1988 investigation into the murder of a Dallas police officer, and how an innocent man nearly went to the electric chair for it. “Documentary” was such a dirty word in the late ‘80s that Miramax insisted on marketing The Thin Blue Line as a “nonfiction thriller,” but whatever you call it, it’s a fascinating probe into the criminal mind (listen very carefully to that confession tape), a gripping documentary, and an unapologetically stylish slice of neo-noir.
8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Henry isn’t a documentary, but director John McNaughton used its low budget and his cast of unfamiliar face to create an unnervingly naturalistic crime picture that plays, in its most disturbing moments, like a psychopath’s home movies. Based on the controversial confessions of Henry Lee Lucas (brought to unshakable life by the great Michael Rooker), McNaughton’s cause célèbre played like a response to the jokey slasher movies of the era, and remains a singularly unsettling cinematic experience.
7. The Wrong Man
Alfred Hitchcock told the story of the innocent man wrongly accused frequently, in such films as North by Northwest, The Lodger, The 39 Steps, and Young and Innocent. He returns to the theme in this underrated 1956 effort, but with a twist: this time he tells a true story, of Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (well played by Henry Fonda), a New York musician falsely accused of murder. Jettisoning his customary studio comforts for location shooting in New York, and dumping color for documentary-style black-and-white photography, Hitchcock made one of his most atypical thrillers, setting the style not only for the true crime pictures of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but for Law & Order and their procedural ilk.
Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut feature is loosely based on the 1958 crime spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, though the names and specifics are changed in Malick’s screenplay. And, as with Heavenly Creatures, those specifics aren’t Malick’s area of interest anyway; this isn’t a lovers-on-the-run movie as much as an evocative, impressionistic portrait of small-town life, Midwestern plains, a simple girl, and an honest-to-God psychopath.
The subject of David Fincher’s brilliant 2007 film is the Zodiac Killer’s reign of terror, sure — but it’s just as much about the notion of the procedural itself, about how the obsessiveness and drive of protagonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal, perfect) comes to mirror that of the serial killer he desperately wants to unmask. And thus, the detours and details that might sidetrack a lesser filmmaker become the real focus here, not only solving the narrative problem of an unsolved crime (though the film floats a convincing theory), but reminding us that, by the end of Graysmith’s journey, that identity has almost become incidental.
4. Dog Day Afternoon
In his wonderful book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet recalls making the decision to have his actors, in bringing to life the true story of a 1972 bank robbery, “portray the characters they played as close to themselves as possible, to take as little as possible from the outside, to spare nothing of themselves from the inside.” He had them wear their own clothes, rewrite their dialogue, and, in general, act as though they were “just temporarily borrowing the names of the people in the script.” It worked; under Lumet’s guidance, Al Pacino, John Cazale, Charles Durning, and a four-star ensemble cast found the documentary truth inside this sensationalistic story, and came up with one of the definitive films of the 1970s.
3. In Cold Blood
Truman Capote’s brilliant and influential “non-fiction novel” inspired two great true crime movies: the 2005 beyond-the-page Oscar winner Capote, and this 1967 adaptation from writer/producer/director Richard Brooks. Again, documentary realism was the aim, with Brooks shooting in many of the original locations (including the scene of the crimes). But he also used stylized editing and Conrad Hall’s breathtaking noir-infused cinematography to give the picture both a chilling immediacy and the texture of pages ripped from an aged, lurid tabloid.
2. Bonnie and Clyde
In her career-changing review of Bonnie and Clyde, Pauline Kael noted that screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton “were able to use the knowledge that, like many of our other famous outlaws and gangsters, the real Bonnie and Clyde seemed to others to be acting out forbidden roles and to relish their roles… the known outlaws capture the public imagination, because they take chances, and because, often, they enjoy dramatizing their lives.” Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking 1967 film gains much of its power from that duality, from the acknowledgment and blurring of those frames — of iconography and self-awareness, of fantasy and reality, of the cinematic present (its hyper-realistic violence had the immediacy of Vietnam newsreels) and the rose-colored past.
Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece — long presumed to have been inspired by German serial killer Peter Kurten, though Lang insisted he based his character on several serial killers — isn’t just some airless “classic,” a museum piece vaunted for its considerable influence (particularly on the film noir movement of the following decade). It still manages, after decades of imitation, to rattle and disturb, the sheer visceral force of Lang’s visual scheme, sound design, and storytelling combining and conspiring to burrow into your psyche and haunt your nightmares.