In 1934, the Motion Picture Association of America began implementing the Movie Picture Production Code. Commonly known as the Production Code or the Hays Code, it laid down the law about what would and wouldn’t fly in movies. Introduced in response to outcry over edgy material in what’s now known as pre-Code Hollywood — and to create a standard that would avoid movies being censored on a state-by-state basis — its guiding principles included the edict that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” In movies at least, crime couldn’t pay.
For all the loosening up of those restrictions, that’s still remained more or less the norm. Or, at the very least, films in which criminals don’t get away with it — or don’t manage to escape some kind of misery — far outnumber those in which they do. For every Danny Ocean and his crew, there are more characters like Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, the protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, men and women who fall into (or rush into) a life of crime — a kind of middle manager occasionally willing to shed blood — only to find it costs them their soul. It’s part of a Scorsese tradition of crime movies in which the costs far outweigh the rewards: For as fun as Goodfellas’ Copacabana scene makes it look to be a gangster, who would actually want to be Henry Hill?
Some movies go even further, making criminal life look like misery from sunup to sundown. Below are 11 that present some of the many ways breaking the law can ruin the lives of movie characters (and probably some real lives as well).
Say you’re Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a sports handicapper who’s great with numbers, never raises much of a fuss, and is morally flexible enough to help out the mob from time to time. (Or maybe more than from time to time, if you’re being honest with yourself.) What could be better than getting the chance to run your own Las Vegas casino? You keep the money coming in (skimming off the appropriate amount for your bosses back home), pay off the right people, then wake up and do it all over again the next day. Pretty simple, right? Except it’s never that simple. Beyond unhinged mob enforcers and addictive wives with sleazy ex-boyfriends who won’t go away, running a casino is a nightmare for any detail-oriented professional. All that money, all those guests, all those employees trying to take advantage of their situation. And, on top of everything else, the kitchen can’t make muffins with an equal amount of blueberries. A guy could go crazy, if he doesn’t get blown up first.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
At least Ace lives closer to the top of the criminal food chain than the bottom. For the workaday thieves of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, there’s no such thing as an easy score. Tarantino refrained from showing most of the violent diamond heist that drives the events of the film — not only did that save the first-time filmmaker some money, it put the emphasis on the characters performing the heist by opening up more time to show them before it goes wrong and after. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) spends most of the film slowly bleeding to death from a bullet wound to the belly and being comforted by Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), who brings real concern and affection to the task. The only problem: In White’s line of work, there’s really no advantage to bonding with a coworker (especially one who turns out to be an undercover cop). White’s refusal to believe Orange has betrayed them does him in, but isn’t death better than a world in which connecting with another person is impossible?
The Killing (1956)
One of Tarantino’s chief inspirations for Reservoir Dogs, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing paints a similarly bleak picture of what awaits criminals, even those with plans to get out. Sterling Hayden, an actor whose weary face suggests he’s seen too much no matter what type of character he’s playing, stars as Johnny Clay, who sees a big racetrack score as the last theft he’ll need to commit before he can retire to easy street. All he needs is a skilled team and a carefully executed plan. The only problem: one thing goes wrong after another, and as his chance for getting away with it narrows, Johnny’s woes take on an almost existential weight up to an unforgettable final shot. Because in the end, none of us get away clean.
Little Caesar (1931)
This short, brutal Mervyn LeRoy-directed film helped kick off a gangster movie craze in the early 1930s. It also helped make a star of Edward G. Robinson, who plays “Rico” Bandello, a thug intent to climb to the top of Chicago’s underworld and to become a “somebody” in the “big town doing things in a big way.” His plan: Kill everyone who stands in his way. He’s good at it, too, but he looks miserable every step of the way. Robinson plays him as single-minded sadist who’s miserable whether hanging out at a grungy gas station, living in luxury or fighting for his life on the streets. Who wants to be a somebody at that price?
Double Indemnity (1944)
On the other hand, sometimes the allure of the dark side proves too hard to resist. In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) seems to be doing fine as an insurance salesman, until a routine attempt to get a perfectly nice man to renew his car insurance leads to him plotting his murder with the man’s seductive wife Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck). Walter makes a choice he can’t undo, and it not only ruins his life, it fundamentally changes who he is. It’s a classic example of what’s sometimes called “the noir moment,” the point at which a character steps out of the light and discovers they can never return. The takeaway: Even those on the straight-and-narrow are just one bad choice from falling into a moral abyss. (On the other hand, Stanwyck makes her offer seem pretty hard to resist.)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), the brothers at the center of Sidney Lumet’s swan song Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, seem like they had their noir moment long before the film opens. Lumet then demonstrates that it’s always possible to sink further into darkness, thanks to Andy’s scheme to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store, then fence the goods so he can escape to Brazil to avoid arrest and his brother can get out of debt. What Andy doesn’t initially tell Hank: The jewelry store belongs to their parents. (“That’s what I said,” Andy replies when Hank finds out. “A mom-and-pop operation.”) The scheme spins out of control, secrets come to light, at one point Hank finds himself menaced by Michael Shannon. It’s a mess in which the brothers discover one mistake can’t undo another and misery can always be compounded, especially when crime becomes a family business.
When it’s not miserable, being a criminal can just be boring. Take Fargo’s Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), who spends his days driving up and down the highway with a guy named Gaear (Peter Stormare) who won’t talk to him or watching over a kidnapped housewife, and his nights bedding hookers who can barely hide their indifference. (“All right… C’mon.. I hear bells… all right…”) It looks so mundane and low-paying that it hardly seems preferable to a straight job. The woodchipper might have seemed like sweet release.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Carl ends up dead, but it didn’t have to end that way for him. For the Joker’s goons in The Dark Knight, death comes as part of the job description. In the Christopher Nolan film’s crackerjack bank heist opening, one robber after another falls prey to their coworkers in a scheme devised to thin the gang’s ranks while the crime is in process, leaving the Joker as the last clown standing. On-the-job conditions don’t improve after the heist ends, either: For the rest of the film, the Joker treats his henchmen as cannon fodder, looking after no one’s safety but his own. He’s not just a bad guy, he’s a horrible boss.
The Big House (1930)
And what awaits those who do manage to survive a life of crime? Often it’s prison, its own kind of misery. George Hill’s The Big House wasn’t the first prison film, but it’s the one that established most of the rules of the genre, following a drunk driver named Kent (Robert Montgomery) who quickly discovers he’s too soft for prison, with its overcrowded quarters, terrible food, indifferent guards, cruel solitary confinement and occasional riots. But The Big House also subverts expectations by writing off Kent as a low-life and focusing on some career criminals who actually have some kind of moral code. Even under impossible conditions, it’s best to remember you’re human.
Super Fly (1972)
For a while, Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation hit Super Fly seems to be telling two different stories at once. In one, the high-powered drug dealer Priest (Ron O’Neal) appears to be enjoying all the fruits of his trade, even as he makes plans to get out with one last score (a mistake the protagonists of downbeat crime movies make time and again). In the other, Curtis Mayfield songs like “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead” and the title track chronicle a community torn apart by drugs and neglect, a condition reflected by images of grimy early 1970s New York. By the film’s finale, however, the two stories have converged as Priest’s attempts to escape grow more dangerous.
Super Fly drew controversy for glamorizing drug dealing, but it’s at best ambiguous about the subject: Characters talk about how it’s the best option to move up in the world available to black people, while the movie shows how white hypocrisy keeps it afloat via an amazing montage sequence in which drugs spread to every corner of the city, the money of the privileged keeping it moving. The only sane response is to play the game as long as necessary to get out and not a moment longer, but Priest finds that’s harder than it sounds.
Point Blank (1967)
At once one of the stylish and saddest crime films ever made, Point Blank stars Lee Marvin as Walker, an unflappable tough guy seeking revenge, and payment, after he’s left for dead by his partner and wife. And maybe he is dead: Director John Boorman never dismissed theories that Marvin is playing a ghost the whole time. Boorman drew inspiration from the French New Wave and psychedelic art, giving the film a gripping, experimental edge but also make it feel a bit haunted. An adaptation of The Hunter — the first of Donald Westlake’s hardboiled Parker novels, which he wrote under the pen name Richard Stark — Point Blank uses Marvin to boil the movie tough guy down to its essence and mostly finds sadness. You can be the coolest, most intimidating bad guy in existence, but what does it matter if you have to hollow yourself out in the process? If any movie can glamorize crime while also sounding a warning against it, it’s this one.