The truth is grislier than fiction in these silver screen adaptations of true crime books.
Each film in this list is based on real people, real events, and real murders first captured on the page. From the classic 1962 version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to the memoir that inspired Scorsese’s wiseguy epic, Goodfellas, they all translated extremely well to the screen.
This film HAS to be at the top of anyone’s list.
First and foremost, the director Richard Books was also an acclaimed novelist. So he took Truman Capote’s seminal true crime book, and using a novelist’s flair coupled with his director’s chops, turned it into a compelling, frightening film, that expands on the book and its themes.
This may be the only time in screen history that , played a murderer on screen. His performance as killer Perry Smith is even more chilling when you look at what he was later accused of doing: shooting his wife in the head. Smith was executed; Blake was acquitted.
As for the second killer, the slick Dick Hickok, . Scott Wilson who you know as “Hershel,” played the part.
Peter Maas was as good a writer as you can get. And director Sidney Lumet’s film about the legendary New York City undercover cop Frank Serpico based on Maas’s book, made Al Pacino into the cop of the ’70s, with his brilliant portrayal of the troubled policeman.
In real life, Serpico was an undercover cop in the boroughs of New York City during the 1960s. He liked to disguise himself as everything from an Orthodox Jew to an Hispanic drug dealer. Where the movie expands on the book is visually showing what happens when Serpico repeatedly refuses to go on the “pad,” to take a bribe like most of the other cops. Pacino’s face and posture says it all.
Lumet makes you feel Serpico’s claustrophobia, as the metaphorical walls of his life close in on him.
A writer can’t ask for anything better than adapting his own book to the big screen, which Nicholas Pileggi did in Goodfellas.
To make it even better, imagine getting Martin Scorcese to direct your knowing slice of Mafia life and crime. Pileggi’s screenplay, combined with Scorcese’s direction, created an absolute classic.
This is really the story of low level Mob hood Henry Hill. In his breakout performance as Hill, Ray Liotta’s narrative voice is priceless. He becomes an associate of gangster Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro), who masterminded the unsolved Lufthansa Heist at New York City’s Kennedy Airport. The loot was never recovered. Joe Pesci, as Conway’s good right hand, is funny and frightening.
Scorcese shows us what everyday life is like for these mobsters. The climactic scene, where Liotta is in his car being tracked from the air, while he tells us what is going through his head, is a classic within a classic.
There was no bigger true crime author in the ’80s than Joe McGinniss. His controversial book about Green Beret Doctor Jeffrey McDonald, convicted of killing his wife and two children, has been notably refuted since by many sources, including journalist Janet Malcolm.
That doesn’t make the movie any less compelling.
It remains a seminal true crime, made-for-TV movie that gets a lot of things straight. That’s because of the director, David Greene, casting a young, Chicago stage-trained actor named Gary Cole. By playing McDonald as a real guy and not some psychopathic idiot, Cole makes him into a sympathetic character.
McDonald is still serving life for those murders. In order to be paroled, he would have to admit he dunnit. He won’t, because he didn’t. Only an innocent man would do that.
Directed by John Frankenheimer [ed], this is first film I know of based on a true crime book by Thomas Gaddis. It starred the most courageous actor of his era, Burt Lancaster.
Most of the film takes place within the confines of Robert Shroud’s jail cell in Alcatraz. A known murderer, Shroud becomes a famed ornithologist while living life behind bars. Lancaster makes us feel for this man, who has found redemption with birds. Eventually, Gaddis learns of his case and lobbies for his parole.
I once interviewed director Frankenheimer. He told me that when you have great people working for you, you let ’em do their job. “Fred, you can always impose yourself as a director. The key is not doing that unless you have to.”
That’s why this is such a terrific film: He let everyone do their job, especially Lancaster.
Martin Scorcese turned to true crime again, this time of another sort. Working with Leonardo DiCaprio, his frequent on screen collaborator, Scorcese tells the story of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio).
Based on his memoir, Belfort is a hustler from the Bronx, who comes to Manhattan and forms Stratton Oakmont, a Wall Street brokerage with a deliberately lofty sounding name. Actually, what it is is an elaborate pump and dump scam, where Belfort recruits others to throw caution and conscience to the wind and join him in thievery and debauchery.
What’s great about the film is Scorcese’s artistry with the camera. And Leo isn’t bad either.
Like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer was a novelist. And like Capote, he turned to narrative non-fiction when his career was on a downturn. The resulting book looked at the psychopathology of Gary Gilmore, a Utah murderer who requested his own execution in front of a firing squad.
, Gilmore sold his life rights to a producer. Not only is that scene in the book and this made-for-TV movie, that producer is actually the director too. And Mailer wrote the screenplay.
The film stars Tommy Lee Jones when he was young, and his face didn’t yet have that lined, Mount Rushmore look. Instead, he was a handsome leading man.
Peter Maas makes the list again.
This film is based on his biography of Joseph “Joe” Valachi. A long-time soldier in the Genovese Family, Valachi was the first big Mob informant to confirm the existence of La Cosa Nostra and the Five Families, in sworn testimony on national television. Terence Young was a strange choice to direct the film.
Best known as the director of James Bond films Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball, the Oxford graduate previously had done films that plumbed the hero’s psychological depths – which explains his casting decision for the lead role.
Charles Bronson played the anguished Valachi. Best known for his action turns in The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Dirty Dozen, Bronson does a magnificent job showing Valachi’s inner life. His low, hissing voice just adds to his menace.
Recent prison escapee Richard Matt should have taken a page out of John Resko’s book.
Matt and his friend David Sweat broke out of Dannemora Prison in upstate New York this past June. Matt was killed; Sweat, captured. Resko? He painted his way out of Dannemora.
At 19 years old in 1930, Resko had a pregnant wife and a child. The Great Depression loomed; he was desperate for money. Recruited by an acquaintance, he attempted to rob a small grocery store … but the store owner fought back. Given a gun for the robbery, Resko fired, killing the man.
Resko and his buddy were caught, tried, convicted together, and sentenced to die in Sing Sing. With 20 minutes to go before he walked the last mile, Resko was saved at the last second by a reprieve issued by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
For the next 20 years, Resko developed and refined his talent as a painter behind bars, determined to get parole and be with his daughter. When that finally happened in 1950, he wrote the book , his memoir.
Novelist and screenwriter Willard Kaufman read it, and decided to not only write the screenplay, but to direct a film for the first and only time in his life.
Ben Gazzara was a Broadway stage actor Hollywood never knew what to do with. But here, with a terrific script and director, his sincerity and intensity pops right off the screen. The film even has Sammy Davis, Jr. in the supporting cast.
Richard Larsen was a political writer for the Seattle Times, who took a leave of absence from his regular job in 1980 to write The Deliberate Stranger, the story of Ted Bundy and his serial killings.
TV director Marvin Chomsky cast a then-young-stud actor Mark Harmon as Bundy. Harmon had done mostly lightweight fare, depending on his natural charm. But with the role of Bundy, Chomsky forced him to plum untold depths of his psyche. Using his intelligence and amazing resemblance to Bundy, Harmon made viewers really believe he was this monster.
The result is the most chilling and riveting account of Bundy ever seen on screen.
Still from "In Cold Blood" via Columbia Pictures; Still from "Goodfellas" via Warner Bros.; Still from "The Wolf of Wall Street" via Paramount Pictures; Still from "The Valachi Papers" via Euro-France Films; Still from "The Deliberate Stranger" via NBC