Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.
The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.
The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.
Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.
In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.
This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”
Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.
Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.
Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.
Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.
As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.
Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.
But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.
Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.
There are so many ways to look at crime in films, from the perspectives of the victims, of the law enforcement officials, to that of the criminals themselves. Early films tended to concentrate on the perspective of the crime-fighters, saving the stories of the criminals for short, factual documentaries. With one of the most famous crime films ever, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, based on the novel by Mario Puzo, that focus changed, virtually creating a genre where criminals and those who were involved with evil doings, either voluntarily or against their will, were presented in a more empathetic and sympathetic light. In any event, whether you feel any emotional connection with the criminals in this genre of crime film, it’s created some of the most interesting and complex characters, played by some of the greatest actors in their best roles, and made some ground-breaking films.
The Godfather Part One
Virtually ignored by Hollywood during production, The Godfather was one of the earliest films that examined crime entirely from the perspective of the criminals. Based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo — and the Oscar-winning screenplay by Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — the story centers on a fictional New York Mafia family, the Corleones, led by its patriarch Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando, in an Oscar-winning role), who’s attempting to groom his eldest son, Santino [Sonny] (James Caan) to take over the “family business,” while providing for his weaker middle son, Fredo (John Cazale), and his adopted son, Tom (Robert Duvall), and trying to keep his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino) who’s graduated from college and served his country during the War, out of the “family business” altogether.
As you can imagine, that’s a formula for disaster when everyone in the family and everyone with whom it does business is a criminal — and violent ones, at that. Filled with big name stars, peppered with memorable lines (“Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”), awarded with Oscars and multiple nominations, The Godfather set the standard for crime films from the criminals’ perspective.
The Godfather Part Two
One of the first sequels that was actually as good as, if not better than, the original film, Part Two of The Godfather Trilogy — also written by Mario Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola — reunited most of the characters from the first film while interweaving their continuing story with the “flashback” story of Don Vito Corelone, this time played by Robert DeNiro (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor), who had the monumental task of imitating the magnificently original, complex, and tortured criminal played by Marlon Brando — only at a younger age. Showing the development of both Vito’s and Michael’s forays into the criminal world, both men are as sympathetic as they are vicious, as family-oriented as they are ruthless, as interesting as they are complex.
Many viewers who’ve seen all three of The Godfather films can’t decide if they like Part One or Part Two better, and it was a toss-up for me which is best since they’re so different yet both so excellent. The Godfather, Part Two couldn’t exist without Part One, but they’re equally good. Sometimes, channels show The Godfather Trilogy in “chronological” order according to the storyline within the movies, so excerpts of Part Two are shown before Part One, but I don’t recommend watching the films like that, as you lose all the nuances of Part Two, including those in the storyline, the irony, and the actors’ performances.
King of New York
Directed by Abel Ferrara, whose work often explores the human side of criminals and organized crime, King of New York stars Ferrara’s “perfect gangster actor” Christopher Walken as Frank White. Coming out of prison after seven years, White is trying to get back in the game, and it involves drugs. Aided by loyal underlings like Jimmy Jump (Laurence Fishburne), Test Tube (Steve Buscemi), and Lance (Giancarlo Esposito), Frank White delves into the drug scene as it’s developed while he was “paying for his crimes,” and tries to do something good that he’ll be remembered for. Most specifically, he wants to fund a hospital for the poorer section of New York where he operates. The fact that he’s out of jail, still alive and operating, galls the New York detectives who hound him: Bishop (Victor Argo), Dennis (David Caruso), and Flanigan (Wesley Snipes), trying desperately to either indict or kill White.
At the premiere, some viewers — including director Ferrara’s wife — were outraged at the multi-layered, sympathetic portrayal of the criminals, especially that of Frank White (Walken), who tells the lead detective Bishop, “I’m not your problem: I’m just a businessman.” With most viewers, King of New York has become a cult classic and is consistently highly praised critically.
Also directed by Abel Ferrara and starring many of his favorite actors, this film, set in New York in 1939, concentrates on one family, but a small one, consisting of three brothers and their wives (or fianceés), as well as their co-horts and colleagues. Led by the eldest brother Raimundo [Ray] Tempio (Christopher Walken), who’s aided mostly by his brother Cesarino [Chez] (Chris Penn, Best Supporting Actor, Venice Film Festival), the story begins with the death of their youngest brother Giovanni [Johnny] (Vincent Gallo) and their attempts to find his killer.
The eldest brothers’ wives, played by Annabella Sciorra and Isabella Rossellini, respectively, serve as the moral counterweights to these men, and attempt to be guiding lights to the the youngest brother’s grieving fianceé (Gretchen Mol). While Ray (Walken) says things like, “If I do something wrong, it’s ’cause God didn’t give me the grace to do what’s right,” his wife (Sciorra) tells the murdered brother’s fianceé, “They’re criminals: there’s nothing romantic about it.” It may not be “romantic,” but it’s intense and fierce, and has memorable performances by everyone involved, including the one by rival gangster Gaspare Spoglia (Benicio Del Toro) as one of the “suspects” in the brother’s death. With its disturbingly unexpected ending, The Funeral is one of the classics in this genre.
Quentin Tarantino’s writing & directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs shows the tentative, sometimes humorous, “before” and the intense “after” of a diamond heist by a group of professional thieves who do not know each other, but suspect, during the crime itself, that one of them is a “snitch” since the police arrived during the commission of the crime. Assembled by Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), the criminals are given pseudonyms and firmly instructed not to share any personal details with each other, including any crimes previously committed or places of incarceration.
Quentin Tarantino has a cameo role as Mr. Brown, but the film pivots on Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi, who objects to his name in a hilarious scene), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). The nonlinear storyline, a hallmark of Tarantino’s films, puts the viewer in the same position as the other criminals: unaware if there even is a snitch, let alone who it might be. Brilliant performances by the top-billed actors, including one of the scariest “dance scenes” ever by Mr. Blonde (Madsen) just before “interrogating” a hostage policeman, Reservoir Dogs was an instant critical success and has attained cult status.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead
The title of this neo-noir crime film alone gets most people’s attention. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead actually came from a song by Warren Zevon, and he allowed the filmmakers to use it on the condition that his original song be played during the end-credits. In the film, the protagonist, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to go straight. Unfortunately, his non-criminal life doesn’t pay as well, and his former boss, The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), has paid off his debts and now wants Jimmy, along with any crew he wishes to hire, to do “an action” not a “piece of work,” the latter of which apparently includes murder.
Gathering a rag-tag group of criminal associates — Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), Franchise (William Forsythe), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), and Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance) — Jimmy is supposed to scare away a boyfriend of the ex-girlfriend of The Man with the Plan’s pedophile son Bernard (Michael Nicolosi): The Man with the Plan blames Bernard’s attempt to kidnap a 7-year-old girl from a playground in broad daylight on his despair over losing the former girlfriend.
Because Walken’s character, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” — wherein the new boyfriend is to be scared away so the girlfriend will ostensibly come back to Bernard — and not a “piece of work — where the new boyfriend would be killed — the viewer knows that something is bound to go very wrong. This film achieves much of its power from its creative vocabulary: the criminals are to do “an action,” not a “piece of work.” They all long to retire to a life of “boat-drinks,” but are threatened with “Buckwheats” instead. Even their nicknames — Pieces and Critical Bill, for example — come from their characters or former behavior. Rounded out by Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar) as Jimmy’s love interest, Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) as the prostitute he tries to protect and reform, Joe the Diner-Narrator (Jack Warden) attempting to pass on the story of Jimmy the Saint’s “rep” to the next generation, and the involvement of the outside hitman Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), this neo-noir classic has been called, by one critic, a “clone” of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. That critic needs to watch the film again, and much more attentively, because Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is unique and far too powerful to be any other film’s clone.
The Usual Suspects
After all its Oscar nominations and wins — for Christopher McQuarrie’s original screenplay and for Kevin Spacey’s role as Verbal Kint — it’s difficult to believe that, initially, no major studios wanted to finance The Usual Suspects. Executives believed it was too complex for audiences (always an insult to sophisticated audiences), had too much dialogue, and too many characters. Boy, were they ever wrong. This neo-noir crime film begins with “five known felons” in a line-up after a truck of guns goes missing. While in lock-up, McManus (Stephen Baldwin, in the best, and perhaps only dramatic, role of his mostly stoner-comedy career) and his partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) tell the others — Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and “the gimp” Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) — about another high-scoring job. Keaton agrees to “one job,” though he has ostensibly “gone straight.”
Complications arise, however, and things spiral out of control for these career criminals, especially when the mysterious “Keyser Söze” becomes involved, represented by his lawyer, Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). The interrogation scenes between Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Verbal (Spacey) make up some of the best scenes, with the greatest dialogue ever. Brilliant, intense, humorous, violent, sophisticated, and with one of the most “definitive and popular plot twists” in the history of the genre, The Usual Suspects is worth watching dozens of times. Just to see all the clues you missed the first time.
Author. Prizes and awards include New York Times Book Review "Notable Book" & Top 100 Books of the Year, University of Rochester's Kafka Award for The Kommandant's Mistress. University of Cincinnati Elliston Poetry Prize for excerpts from Love in the Time of Dinosaurs and from Where Lightning Strikes: Poems on The Holocaust. UKA Press Grand Prize for short story collection Naked, with Glasses. Santa Fe Writer's Project Literary Awards finalist for true crime memoir M is for Munchers: The Serial Killers Next Door. Other prizes included Centennial Review Poetry Prize, Writer's Digest Non-Rhyming Poetry Honorable Mention. Sex Abuse and CSA survivor. Writer @ The Mighty and @ Migraine Mantras.
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