The Real Bonnie & Clyde
Hollywood has a long history of fascination with crime and the bad guys. The trend in modern cinema is to make felony criminals look cool, almost noble in some instances, as they perpetrate clever crimes under the leadership of masterminds who live by an honorable moral code. Is this close to the truth? Horse apples! I do not believe it for one second. On the other hand, some of the movies based on true crime stories do not wander off into cloud cuckoo land, stick to believable storylines and situations, and are very entertaining. Based on my limited research, the characters and events in the following thirteen (13) movies based on true crimes have been faithfully recreated with an acceptable degree of artistic tailoring for the box office. Keep in mind these are not documentaries with all the facts nailed down. In some case, the real names and places have been disguised for obvious reasons. Movies are in order by their theatrical release date.
1. Bonnie & Clyde 1967
In the annals of American criminal history, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were largely forgotten until in 1967, over three decades after their deaths, the duo received the full Hollywood treatment, and were portrayed by two matinee idols in a big-budget silver screen blockbuster. The controversial motion picture is known for an all-star cast, shocking violence, and presenting a historically accurate recreation of the 1930’s Depression era. Great care was taken in the details; especially the cars, clothes and weapons. On the negative side, the film glorifies two hard-core felons into legendary folk heroes. Clyde was a deadly killer, and while Bonnie was never proven to be a murderess, she was a willing accomplice to over 100 felony crimes during a two-year crime spree. The best review of the film with regard to accuracy was the November 1968 Playboy interview of W.D. Jones, one of two surviving members of the core gang. Jones recalled the chaotic car chases that the movie captured so vividly; Clyde (Warren Beatty) driving like a maniac, Buck (Gene Hackman) blazing a pistol out the car window, Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) coolly reloading, and Blanche (Estelle Parsons) screaming her head off. Oddly, the film stumbles factually in the bedroom. According to Jones, Clyde and Bonnie really loved each other, and all the lover’s tension and platonic romance was nonsense invented by the filmmakers.
2. Day of the Jackal 1973
Assassinating the leader of an important nation is tricky business, especially if that leader has already had to dodge a few pot shots, and hired extra bodyguards. In that case, you need the Jackal to handle the dirty work. This is a tension filled film that switches POV between a profession assassin and the lawmen trying to stop him. No fancy FX – instead we get first-rate acting and an interesting, fast-moving story based on a book by F. Forsyth that dramatizes the true story of an attempted military coup against Charles de Gaulle, president of France. In 1962 de Gaulle granted independence to Algeria – ending the eight-year Algerian War. It was a controversial decision that incurred the wrath of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS). The OAS was a secretive imperialistic group which then vowed to assassinate de Gaulle. In August 1962 de Gaulle and his wife narrowly escaped death in a fusillade of gunfire in a roadside ambush, the most serious of six attempts the OAS would make in real life. The Jackal is pure fiction, but the OAS was quite real and dangerous.
3. Odessa File 1974
This is a cool thriller from the 70's, and a trip back to the good old days when fugitive Nazi war criminals were one of Hollywood's favorite themes. The film delivers in the suspense department; setting up a truly paranoid atmosphere, with the Nazi threat always present in 1963 Germany. The movie is based on well documented research. In real life, Odessa was an organization of former SS officers, and The Butcher of Riga, Eduard Roschmann, was a fugitive Nazi criminal. Most of the rest of the story was invented. This is Jon Voight's career best performance, and the supporting cast is effective, especially Maximillian Schell at his cigarette waving, evil villain, dramatic best. Also see talented beauty Mary Tamm, as Voight's girlfriend, Sigi, in her excellent motion picture debut. A superb scene, about midway into the film, is worth the price of admission: A Reunion Party of the Waffen SS Siegfried Division in a Hamburg beer hall. Still reveling in nostalgia for the Nazi glory days, their old leader gives the boys a rousing speech that Hitler would have approved. And get ready for a cool surprise ending. Watch out for spoilers.
4. The First Great Train Robbery 1979
This is a clever heist flick based on the true story of an infamous crime, circa 1855, in which a gang of thieves stole the payroll of the entire British Army during the Crimean War. The cash shipment of £12,000 (equivalent to $1.5 million UDS today) in gold coins and ingots was the crime of the century. The film has a simple, no-nonsense plot line, solid acting, and wonderfully detailed Victorian setting of London and Merry Old England. The amazing scene with Sean Connery crossing the roofs of a speeding train is worth the price of admission. It is Sean; not a stunt man. Connery was told that the coal fired, antique train would travel at only 20 miles per hour during the stunt. That was the plan; however, the rookie crew lost control, and the runaway train hits speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Connery slipped and nearly fell off the speeding train during a jump between two carriages while engulfed in smoke and cinders from the locomotive stack. This is one thrilling scene to watch, and all the better for its reality.
5. Star80 1983
This film is a well-made, well-acted, but disturbing true story about the too-short life and brutal murder of a Playboy centerfold, Dorothy Stratten. This dark film is known for the powerful performance by Eric Roberts as Dorothy’s boyfriend/manger, Paul. He casts a spell on Dorothy, and the viewer, as he struts into the Playboy mansion for an intoxicating taste of fame and fortune. We get a peek behind the glitzy curtains of the Playboy Empire, and observe Ringmaster Hugh Hefner working the levers of power in his silk pajamas. Hefner likes Dorothy a lot, but is not so keen on her baggage. The story is a tragedy which asks the question: what is the real price of fame? A movie that is not enjoyed as it is admired for the craftsmanship and acting talent. Recommended for only the bravest of movie fans.
6. Untouchables 1987
This movie is a continuation of the erroneous yet harmless American myth of crime fighting hero, Eliot Ness. It is filled with a curious blend of fact and fiction. Fact: In 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment ushered in the era of Prohibition in America. Fact: People still wanted a drink, so the flood gates were open for a billion-dollar bootlegging industry. Fact: In Chicago, Illinois by the late 1920’s a ruthless thug named Al Capone had a monopoly on the bootlegging business. The rest of the movie is a Hollywood invention. In real life Eliot Ness and his team were no more than a nuisance to Capone's operations. And Ness had almost nothing to do with the IRS prosecuting Capone for income tax evasion, which led to the gangster's imprisonment in 1932. So why do we remember Ness today and not the agents who nailed Capone? Quick answer – Ness was a good PR man. He enjoyed publicity, managed to get his photo in newspapers, and often indulged journalists with interviews. The key interview for Ness was the one he gave to writer Oscar Fraley, who wildly exaggerated Ness’s prohibition crime busting exploits in his book titled, “The Untouchables". The book spawned a 60s TV series starring Robert Stack. The show was very popular, and thus began the heroic image of Ness. While the film is rather poor history, it is still very entertaining with excellent production values and some inspired acting. Bobby De Niro, playing Al Capone, proves once again that there's nothing more watchable than a big ham actor having the time of his life in a villainous role. He grabs center stage and hogs the best lines, booming them out with grandiose style. I've never seen him overact so badly! The other performances are tame, almost sleepy, by comparison.
7. To Die For 1995
Nicole Kidman is stunning in a tight mini dress and stiletto heels as she launches her campaign to conquer the American TV industry, with a detour into murder and sex scandal. This good movie is not without a few flaws. It is presented in flashback mode so we know the ending before the end; consequently, the movie has zero tension or suspense. The details of the sordid plot are not worth going on about, but this is worth a rent to see terrific acting by Kidman, in her career best role. She brilliantly plays a woman with burning ambition, and a shocking knack for self-destruction. The story is loosely based on a true crime story, of the Pamela Smart case, circa 1990.
8. The Cat’s Meow 2001
Urban legends are a dime a dozen, but when it involves Old Hollywood moguls mixed up with murder, I am interested. In fact, I was hooked at the first scene with this intriguing voiceover: In November of 1924, during a weekend yacht party bound for San Diego, a mysterious death occurred within the Hollywood community. However, there was no coverage in the press, no police action, and of the fourteen passengers on board only one was ever questioned by authorities. History has been written in whispers. This is the whisper told most often. The yacht, you see, belonged to William Randolph Hearst. Complete with great performances all around this underrated movie is a glimpse inside the lives of the rich and famous in the American Roaring Twenties. Who knows what really happened aboard Hearst's yacht? Watch this film for a few clues and decide for yourself.
9. Catch Me If You Can 2002
A rather lighthearted crime film based on the true story of con man, Frank Abagnale. Leonardo DiCaprio brings the main character to life on the big screen, so that the audience can understand and even like a criminal felon. This is tricky work and not for amateur actors. Tom Hanks, not to be outdone, delivers one of his very best supporting roles playing a determined FBI agent on Frank’s twisty trail. Also Christopher Walken is at his best playing Frank’s idealistic father. This film keeps a brisk pace, and has a few good laughs. Often on TV, but get the DVD and watch without commercial interruption.
10. Lord of War 2005
This movie lays its cards on the table with a well-crafted title sequence that welcomes the viewer inside the murky world of military weapons trafficking. Nicholas Cage is at his finest as he plays Yuri Orlov, a shady businessman who becomes a successful international arms dealer. Yuri is sometimes humorous, always the greedy opportunist, often jaded and a very astute businessman. The story is loosely based on the exploits of Viktor Bout, a former Soviet officer- turned arms dealer, who was infamously known as the "Merchant of Death”. This an entertaining flick from start to finish, and is full of great quotes. ‘I never sold weapons to Osama Bin Laden," Yuri tells the audience. "Not on moral grounds, but because his checks were always bouncing back then." Very unheralded and underrated. Easily one of the best movies of 2005.
11. Breach 2007
The movie is based on the true story of FBI mole Bobby Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet Union for 22 years before he was caught in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. This is one of the more interesting true spy stories I have seen in a long time. For years the FBI suspected they had a traitor in their ranks, but why it took so long to find Hanssen makes a good story. He had access to plenty of hush-hush secrets and used them for his benefit. The U.S. Justice Department stated that the Hanssen case was the worst intelligence disaster for the USA during the Cold War.
12. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford 2007
For Jesse James and his brother, Frank, the American Civil War did not end with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. During the war, the James and Younger brothers formed a Confederate light cavalry unit, and harassed the Union army in the Missouri-Kansas territories waging a bitter, vicious guerrilla war. When the war ended, these guerrillas morphed into outlaws, and continued their bloody ways. The gang eventually got shot to pieces, and only Jesse and Frank survived – with huge rewards posted for their capture; dead or alive. This is the stage when this film begins – circa 1880. Jesse James is played by Brad Pitt, in perhaps his career best performance. He captures the essence of a charismatic person with a tendency towards anti-social violence. The film delves deep into his inner conflicts and emotions, without sentimentality or hero-worship. The artistic style of the film is evident in the first action scene: a nighttime train robbery. It was amazing to see the lighting, camera direction, and music blended perfectly to produce a strange beauty not expected in a western about an outlaw train robber. Excuse the long, clumsy title and long running time, and watch this movie.
13. Bank Job 2008
This is a crafty British heist flick based on an incredible true story. Statham is excellent as the leader of a bank robbing gang in a complex script with many intertwining stories and conspiracy theories revolving around UK Royals, political sex scandals, militant drug lords, MI5 agents, crooked cops, with double-crosses and cover-ups. It could've easily been a confusing mess, but providing the viewer has an adult attention span, the movie is pure entertainment. Bring on the popcorn. It is difficult to believe this yarn really did happen. Now that's a jolly good show.