J.J. Connolly's top five crime film adaptations
The author of the novel (and the screenplay) for Layer Cake picks his onscreen favourites
1. The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
Legend has it that Puzo wrote the original source material to pay off a gambling debt. Maybe he was threatened with a horse’s head in his satin sheets and coughed up quick. And apparently the studio, Paramount, didn’t want to cast either Al Pacino or Marlon Brando in their respective roles. It was stalemate till Francis Ford Coppola threatened to walk from the project. The studio relented and let Francis have his head.
The resulting movie is pitch prefect – a deceptively simple story and a lesson in economy. Nothing is surplus to requirements. Later, no doubt, a few executives claimed the credit when the movie went into orbit and a sequel was rushed into production.
Nito Rota’s score is beautifully unobtrusive but nails the mood – the same, now famous, melody carries both menace and dignity. So subtle you sometimes you hardly realise it’s there. A masterclass for filmmakers and up-and-coming crime lords alike.
2. Get Carter, based on Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis
If you’re prepared to go with the flow and don’t question why Michael Caine is traveling north up to bonny Newcastle to investigate his brother’s death with an accent that pure, cor, blimey, guv, apples-and-pears, Bermondsey, this is a great film.
Seedy but nice – full to bursting with nice touches. Michael Caine and Britt Ekland invent phone sex; a cameo from John Osbourne as the local crime boss drips with understated but psychotic threat; shotguns and matching brass bands; the landlord from Minder taking a header off the newly built multi-storey car park; the faceless assassin riding up to Newcastle in the same train carriage as Caine, while reading Farewell My Lovely. Beware the music score by Roy Budd. It will rattle round your head for weeks after.
3. Carlito’s Way – based on Carlito’s Way/After Hours by Judge Edwin Torres
This is unusual – two books condensed into one film, written by a circuit judge who obviously knew the terrain.
You have to feel a drop of pity for poor Carlito who’s just passing through NYC on his way down to a new life in the Dominican Republic after serving a couple of years of a lengthy sentence, but gets dragged back down via a set of extremely unfortunate circumstances.
Director Brian De Palma brilliantly realises Spanish Harlem, and Sean Penn is inspired as his coke-zapped lawyer who might not have his client’s best interests at heart. Clubbing Mafia chieftains to death in the East River and implicating Carlito is just not on. And just when you think Carlito might make it out and get loved-up in the Caribbean sun with his old flame, Benny Blanco from the Bronx reappears – just when you’d forgotten about him – and you know the rest… Maybe that’s where they pinched that ending for Layer Cake from...
4. Casino by Nicholas Pileggi
It’s a photo-finish between Pileggi’s masterpieces - Casino and its companion piece Wiseguy, aka Goodfellas. Realised by Scorsese, with the two leads taken by a combative Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci - it doesn’t get any better. Out of the two films I think Casino edges it. Ask me tomorrow and I’ll think Goodfellas is better.
Casino is a masterfully crafted tutorial about the working of Las Vegas and the declining power of The Mob. And a cautionary tale of how human nature, ego, and greed will destroy a very lucrative criminal enterprise if they’re allowed to. De Niro is meticulously restrained as Ace Rothstein while Pesci pulls out all the stops as Nicki Santoro, a thinly veiled portrayal of real life Chicago enforcer Anthony Spilotro. If there was any justice in this world Sharon Stone would have got the Oscar for her amazing portrayal of Ginger, the modern day courtesan. It went instead to Susan Sarandon for the worthy Dead Man Walking. Did I mention the soundtrack, put together by Robbie Robinson of The Band? Insanely good - from Bach to The Stones.
5. Donnie Brasco – based on Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia by Donnie Brasco and Richard Woodley
Totally underrated movie. The best film Johnny Depp will ever make even if he lives to be a hundred. Masterful plotting, brilliant characters and a true story that you couldn’t make up.
Depp’s character, the eponymous Donnie Brasco, is an long-term undercover FBI agent. He ends up conflicted and confused, and not a little sympathetic to the low-level, underachieving Mafioso he’s deceived into thinking that he, Donnie, is the son he’s always wanted. The finale is not just touching - it’s genuinely painful.
Al Pacino - being, as ever, effortless and generous – is called to a sit-down that he knows he’s not coming back from. He leaves his jewelry and his cash where he knows his devoted, and long-suffering, wife will find it – sheer pathos.
Viva La Madness by J.J.Connolly is published by Duckworth. Connolly will be taking part in this weekend's Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.