Tantalized By True Crime?
America loves crime almost as much as — if not maybe more — it loves justice. The true-crime drama puts normal people in the shoes of some of the most desperate of people, fantasizing about how far they would go while sitting on a comfortable couch far away from the reach of crime and punishment. The film that opened the initial floodgates of felonious fables was Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s classic 1990 film adaptation of former gangster Henry Hill’s biographical novel Wiseguy took America by storm and is largely considered the modern Godfather. And so our love began, and Hollywood went to work and kept feeding us as much as we could take. But it was Scorsese again who delivered another masterpiece to the genre with 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. A classic tale of excess, corruption and billions of dollars, audiences immediately fell in love with the unreliable narrator Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Since then the bar has been raised considerably, but now the stories have begun to move more into a cerebral venue. Netflix originals like of Narcos, Making a Murderer and Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist have audiences foaming at the mouth, waiting for the latest crime drama to sink into. Netflix supposedly has the answer. In anticipation of its upcoming premiere of Netflix’s latest true-crime series, The Staircase, on June 8, here are some lesser known true tales of crime to satisfy your never-ending appetite for crooks, cops and even some truth.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist
True crime stories are usually interesting for one of two reasons: the crimes were pulled off with such cunning that it boggles the mind (Jordan Belfort’s empire in Wolf of Wall Street) or they are blundered with such ignorance that we cannot look away (Making a Murderer). Evil Genius is most assuredly the latter. Some might recall the B-movie, 30 Minutes or Less starring Jesse Eisenberg and Danny McBride about a pizza delivery man who is forced to rob a bank by some D-criminals who strapped a bomb to his neck. Hilarity ensues and I couldn’t tell you how it ends. I’m sure Eisenberg gets the girl. However in Evil Genius, a true story of essentially the same events which Sony insists the filmmakers had no knowledge of, things don’t end quite so happily and the loveable pizza delivery man is blown up in front of live TV cameras. The ensuing investigation highlights not only the bumbling ignorance of this small town police force in Erie, Pennsylvania but more importantly takes viewers inside the mind of the titular evil genius, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong: a complicated woman with a string of dead boyfriends behind her and the cunning capability to get men to do anything she says. As the series progresses, viewers are left wondering whether Diehl-Armstrong is a Belfort or a Steven Avery.
HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
Director Andrew Jarecki just would not let go of the Robert Durst story, even after directing the true-crime drama All Good Things starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst, which was based on the same events. Years later Jarecki decides to go at the same story again but from the perspective of Durst — continuing Jarecki’s accusations of Durst’s involvement in three murders, but this time to his face. This HBO mini series takes viewers through the tumultuous turns of Durst’s life, his relationship with and the disappearance of his wife Kathie, the suspiciously timed death of his dear friend and writer Susan Berman, and the mutilation and disposal of Morris Black. However while Durst is selling us his excuses and explanations, filmmakers begin to unravel pieces of his poorly knitted blanket statements. Shortly after the end of The Jinx, Durst was arrested based on new evidence brought forth and is expected to stand trial on charges related to the murder of his friend Susan Berman.
Indictment: The McMartin Trial
From executive producer Oliver Stone, comes the HBO original movie based on the longest and most expensive trial in United States history. James Woods is the sly public defender with the answers to everything when a family-run daycare is shut down and the proprietors are arrested due to widespread accusations of child abuse. Whereas Making a Murderer shows the legal efforts going on outside prison, Indictment takes viewers inside the cells of the wrongfully accused. The central evidence to this case is the testimony of nearly hundreds of children, and when the therapist who “interrogated” these kids are called into question, the prosecution gets nervous. However even when the supposed mountain of evidence was falling apart like a Jenga stack, the state continued its prosecution because the media had the entire country convinced these people were monsters — plus the upcoming election for district attorney didn’t help.
Catch Me If You Can
“From 1964 to 1967 I successfully impersonated a pilot, was chief pediatrician at a Georgia hospital, and an assistant attorney general in Louisiana. I cashed almost $4 million in bad checks in 27 countries and all 50 states. And I did it all before my 19th birthday.” Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can follow the story of the world’s most successful and daring con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he is pursued by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). A noticeably more cheerful story of true-crime, Catch Me If You Can lacks the grit of many other films in the genre, but John Williams’ score creates the perfect amount of tension that keeps audiences wondering how far Abagnale’s charm and confidence can take him.
Dog Day Afternoon
Al Pacino and John Cazale (Fredo from The Godfather) are two big nervous wrecks in this 1975 drama based on a real New York bank robbery gone awry and the ensuing standoff that resulted in one death. On a hot day in the summer of 1972 in New York, Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and Salvatore “Sal” Naturale (Cazale) walked into First Brooklyn Savings Bank and attempted a daring closing-time robbery. However all the money was gone, but all the cops in New York were soon there, and Sonny and Sal find themselves in the middle of a standoff. Pacino acts through the roof the whole movie as a man with no plan and nothing to lose, his eyes wide with fear as the stand drags on and the tension builds up.
The inception of America’s fascination for true crime begins here in Al Capone’s Chicago during the Prohibition era. The film follows investigator Eliot Ness’ (Kevin Costner) efforts to take down Capone (Robert De Niro). After Ness’ first attempt at a liquor raid goes awry due to widespread corruption among the Chicago Police Department, he teams up with one of the few men he can trust, veteran officer Jim Malone (Sean Connery). The Untouchables is based on Ness’ own account of The Untouchables task force that eventually arrested and convicted Capone on charges stemming from tax evasion, an idea that almost got Ness laughed out of Chicago at first. Scarface director Brian De Palma crafts a multi-layered epic of the greatest account of cops and robbers in American criminal history. The Untouchables goes beyond the crime experience and takes viewers up and down Chicago, from Capone to cop. It shows the grit of crime without the alluring glamour. It is one of the few movies in which the cops are more badass than the criminals — “that’s the Chicago way,” as Malone says.
The Thin Blue Line
This 1988 documentary is a story of wrongful conviction — mind you, this is long before a well produced documentary could be your ticket out of prison. Through interviews, archival footage and reenactments, The Thin Blue Line tells the story of the murder of a Dallas police officer and the impending investigation that landed innocent Randall Dale Adams in jail. Adams’ tale of incorrect incarceration is a familiar one, as he was railroaded on the basis of a forced confession from a scared teenager. It takes an appeal all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States before somebody acknowledges that something is not right in Dallas. This aggravating true story is an important precursor that set many precedents for the modern true crime genre, but also displays how much better the criminal justice system has gotten for the wrongfully accused.