My Life Of Crime

I once nicked a computer from work.

It had been lying around unused in the district office for ages so I thought no one would notice.

And for a couple of months they didn’t.

Then someone wanted it, it wasn’t there, and the none-too-pleased boss told me to file a report with the cops, most probably so the company could make an insurance claim.

So I went to the cop shop and coolly gave details about this missing laptop that was sitting on my desk at home. Suffice to say, I didn’t hear anything about the matter ever again.

Eat your heart out, Keyser Soze.

Mind you, I also know what it’s like to be on the end of the cold, selfish actions of criminal scumbags. Just last year I had a shoe stolen. I’m not joking. For years I’d always left my footwear on the porch. Then one day I opened the front door to find only one. I couldn’t believe it. Who would pilfer from an upstanding, law-abiding citizen like me?

I felt violated, unsafe in my own home, and seriously considered getting my hands on a high-powered weapon to pursue bloody vengeance. Instead I kept my cool and launched an arduous investigation, a hunt for answers not too dissimilar to George C. Scott’s heartbreaking search for his wayward daughter in the porno underworld of Hardcore.

After a week or so of snooping, I discovered the theft was down to a mangy yard dog two doors away. I already knew a family of creeps lived there because they were not only renters but happy to chuck all kinds of inappropriate stuff in the recycling bin. Can’t say I was surprised they also harbored a surreptitiously trained canine thief.

But what to do?

Well, if a lifetime of watching movies has taught me anything, it’s that a man must live by a code. This is mine: Crime is a disease (unless committed by me) and I’m the cure. Suffice to say, a few poisoned bait balls thrown over the fence took care of that particular lawbreaking enterprise. My shoes have remained resolutely unmolested since.

So I think we can all agree about my streets smarts and in-depth knowledge of major felonies. And when it comes to movies, I like to see this thorny, hard-won familiarity reflected on screen. Woe betide any director who gets the skuzzy details of criminal life wrong coz I’ll know.

Now perhaps one day Scorcese or Tarantino will finally grow a pair and record my rollercoaster relationship with the dark side, but until that star-studded epic hits theaters I suggest you make do with this grimy handful of 70s flicks instead.

Across 110th Street (1972)

Few movies play up the race angle like this bleak, gritty gem. It positively simmers with racial tension, no doubt reflecting a very turbulent period in America’s history that included riots, assassinations, police brutality and black power.

Three working class blacks decide to rip off the mob in Harlem, but the $300,000 raid goes horribly wrong and results in a bloodbath that spills out onto the streets. Four whites and three blacks are killed, including two cops.

And, of course, a racially mixed team is appointed to investigate. Captain Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) is an aging old-school cop in a pork pie hat while Lieutenant Pope (Yaphet Kotto) is the educated, smartly dressed straight arrow. During the interrogation of a suspect, Mattelli is quick to use his fists.

“This kind of thing went out with Prohibition,” Pope objects. “You can’t go round belting people.”

But Mattelli won’t back down. “I’m sick and tired of your liberal bullshit! You’d better make up your mind: Are you a cop or one of those social workers? The way I work gets results.”

Mattelli’s like a mix of Harry Callaghan, Popeye Doyle and Jack Regan, but lacks their confidence. Indeed, there’s a sense of fear gnawing away at him. Deep down he knows he’s a dinosaur about to be shown the door. All he’s really got is a violence-tinged bravado. When he offers his colleague a drink, Pope replies: “I don’t drink.”

Mattelli, thirty-three years into the job, merely smiles. “You will, Pope, you will.”

This is a movie that feels authentic from its opening shots. It boasts lively direction, a terrific score, and a supporting cast filled with memorable faces. The three crims who kick the whole shitstorm off are smoothly sketched. We have a pre-Starsky and Hutch Antonio Fargas as a none-too-talented getaway driver and partying fuckwit, an epileptic, machine gun-toting badass who loves his girl, and a stoic, panicky guy who works in a laundry. All three inhabit a world of poverty, dead-end jobs and very limited choices. Hot on their heels are a sadistic, Italian-American capo and a sage, gravelly-voiced crime boss, who probably gets the best line when he shouts at Mattelli: “You watch your motherfucking mouth, white boy!”

Harlem itself is vividly brought to life through compelling location work. And yes, 110th Street may very much be a product of its time with its very funny fashions and near-constant talk of brothers, dagos, dumb broads, cats and honky pigs, but it remains an uncompromising watch. Its quiet scenes excel, meshing very well with a surprisingly nasty edge and a high body count.

The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974)

It’s hard to think of another thriller that has its cake and eats it as well as this stone cold classic. It maintains a remarkable tension all the way, yet also boasts a consistently sly humor. Somehow the abundance of funny one-liners never undermines its pressure cooker premise. It’s one hell of a trick, managing to keep it up right through to the perfect ending.

Four men take eighteen passengers on a subway train hostage, a plan so barmy and unprecedented that the authorities have little idea how to respond. Codenamed after colors, the hijackers include the disgruntled ex-railroad employee Mr Green, the calm and collected leader Mr Blue, and the possibly psychotic Mr Grey, who constantly chafes at being part of a ‘girl scout chicken shit outfit’.

Meanwhile transit cop Zack Garber (Walther Matthau) is laconically showing around some ultra-polite Japanese observers, who’ve flown over to compare notes on New York’s great subway system with Tokyo’s. As news of the hijacking filters through, a flustered colleague barks at him: “What the hell are all these Chinamen doing here?”

The momentum expertly gains pace as the flu-stricken mayor worries about votes and whether to pay the ransom. “Shit! Piss! Fuck!” is his considered response at one point.

However, once the million dollars is nail-bitingly delivered, everyone then tries to work out how the ruthless, obviously smart hijackers plan to escape from a stationary underground train.

Garber can only speculate to the icy Mr Blue: “You’re gonna make every man, woman and child in New York City close his eyes and count to one hundred.”

Based on a great, politically incorrect novel and told in near real-time, this is a ten out of ten movie. It features a superb ensemble cast, taut plotting and wonderfully salty dialogue.

The Driver (1978)

There are four yardsticks by which to judge a Real Man.

Namely, how big his dong is, how many ladies he’s rooted, how good he is with his fists, and how well he drives.

So how do I shape up?

Well, let’s just say I’ve never lost a fight and I passed my driving test the first time. OK, so I’ve never actually had a fight and my dad’s best mate happened to be the driving examiner, but the facts remain the same.

Still, I might have to concede Ryan O’Neal is a better driver. This is a man who can throw off five cop cars on his tail. And for fuck’s sake, don’t ever play chicken with him. You will lose.

He’s the driver, an uncompromising pro dedicated to whisking armed creeps away from whatever place in LA they’ve just held up. This is a man so confident in his own abilities behind the wheel that he never once bothers with a seatbelt despite frequently zooming around like a goddamned maniac.

I dunno, maybe the guy has a death wish, but Jesus Christ, O’Neal is cool in this flick. Permanently sporting an open-necked shirt, he never laughs or even cracks a smile. He doesn’t say much and loves a terse exit. He can stare down the barrel of a gun without blinking, knowing exactly when to fight and when to walk away.

His only problem is he’s so good at his job that he’s come to the attention of Bruce Dern’s detective. Cast from a similar mould, Dern is determined to get his man, even if that means breaking the rules and making mad gambles. In short, they soon find themselves locked in an epic dick-swinging contest. Dern, with his frizzy hair and slightly tedious sporting analogies, is nowhere near as cool. However, he seems able to peer into the driver’s soul.

“You’ve got it down tight, so tight there’s no room for anything else,” he says. “That’s a real sad song. Only trouble is sad songs ain’t selling this year.”

Dern is bang on the money because O’Neal doesn’t appear to have any life whatsoever. He has no past and never talks of his dreams. He doesn’t travel, collect anything or party. He has contacts rather than friends. He stays in shitty, five-dollar-a-night hotels. There’s no clue to what he does with his illicitly obtained money. Love, romance and even sex are entirely absent. Even when the super sophisticated, dead sexy Isabelle Adjani wanders into view, he never bothers to flirt. Well, why would he? She’s not car-shaped.

This man is a blank, a genuine enigma. All he has is the next driving job, an aspect that gives Walter Hill’s terrific, tautly directed flick a vaguely existential feel.

Blue Collar (1978)

Depicting a world in which the working class man is perpetually on the verge of a meltdown, Paul Schrader’s directorial debut is brilliant at showing what a lack of money and control over your life can do.

Three buddies working at a Michigan car plant have all kinds of problems. Not only do they hate their deadening employment, which puts them at constant loggerheads with their useless union and corrupt management, but they also have to deal with loan sharks, second jobs and medical bills. To call their lives a slog is an understatement with pretty much every scene containing a palpable sense of struggle. Even the smallest of things like a malfunctioning vending machine or a broken locker threaten to send them over the edge.

“I’d be better off if I didn’t work at all,” Jerry (Harvey Keitel) tells his beer-drinking mates, Zeke (Richard Pryor) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto). “At least I could live on welfare.”

Zeke is even blunter. “I know the plant is just short for plantation,” he tells his needling foreman.

Even Smokey, who at least doesn’t have a family to support, is up to his eyes in debt while trying to live down the time he spent behind bars.

Still, at least they can hang out together after work and seek solace in their relentless bitching. Collar effortlessly portrays a camaraderie superficially connected to bowling, telling lewd stories and the odd sex party but actually built upon the trio having their backs against the wall. You just can’t imagine them being anything other than mates for life.

Then one day they reach breaking point and decide to knock over the union safe. Netting a paltry six-hundred bucks, it looks like a washout until Zeke comes to realize they’ve also got their hands on an incriminating ledger documenting all kinds of illegal loans. Do they abandon their semi-failed criminal venture or push things further?

The three leads are excellent here. Pryor, in his only straight role, is particularly good as the mouthy, flaky upstart who’s not above playing the race card or telling the IRS he’s got six kids rather than three.

Schrader directs well, capturing the understandable decision to take risks instead of meekly being fucked in the ass every day of your working life by The Man.

Dave Franklin also writes fucked-up crime novels like Riders on the Storm and Other Killer Songs.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of the post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of the 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.