Underrated Brooklyn Crime Movies

By Bill Boyle

Anthony’s Laws of Gravity review last week got me thinking about other underrated Brooklyn crime movies. Being from Brooklyn, I have an especially low tolerance for bad shit set there. Brooklyn Rules made me puke. Brooklyn’s Finest was a joke. There are great movies that don’t qualify for this list—Dog Day Afternoon, Goodfellas, The French Connection—because they're so revered and widely acknowledged as masterpieces, but four others came to mind as quiet classics.   

Clockers (dir.Spike Lee, 1995)
Spike Lee’s take on Richard Price’s great novel seems all but forgotten, but it’s easily Lee’s second best film (after Do the Right Thing) and the best of three Price adaptations. Starring Delroy Lindo, Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, and Mekhi Phifer (in his first film), Clockers was produced by Martin Scorsese. No one writes New York like Price, and no one sees New York like Lee and Scorsese.  

Little Odessa (dir. James Gray, 1994)
I was excited when I saw Wallace Stroby include James Gray’s first film on his list of neglected crime movies over at Pulp Curry earlier this year. It’s a film that looms large in my memory. I saw it in high school and it felt like the first small movie I'd seen that got Brooklyn right. Tim Roth, Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Furlong, and Maximilian Schell are excellent in this grim Russian mob tale set in Brighton Beach. Gray's We Own the Night is also worth checking out. 

The Hot Rock (dir. Peter Yates, 1972)
Starring Robert Redford and George Segal, Peter Yates’s The Hot Rock is based on Donald E. Westlake’s first Dortmunder novel. It’s not hard-boiled in the vein of Westlake’s Parker novels written as Richard Stark—in fact, it’s a comic caper—but it’s a crime film nonetheless, and, like Price, Westlake knows New York City. 

Once Upon a Time in America (dir. Sergio Leone, 1984)
Okay, I'm stretching it. I’m not sure this qualifies as truly underrated, but I think it does. (Others will probably argue that it’s overrated.) 90 minutes were hacked from the film for its U.S. release in 1984 and it wasn’t well-received here. Leone’s cut for European cinemas was 229 minutes and his original cut (recently billed as the “restored version”) was 269 minutes. The 229 minute version is the one to see, the one that Leone came to regard as the true version of the film. And it’s perfect. The Pogues used to watch it in a loop on their tour bus, and “Fairytale of New York” was influenced by Ennio Morricone’s score—What else do you need to know? Get a few beers in me and I’ll tell you how and why it’s better than The Godfather.      

Bill Boyle is from Brooklyn, NY and lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, Salon, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Out of the Gutter, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, and other magazines and journals. He writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.