At any given Halloween party, you’re sure to spot a Riddler, a Joker or a Green Goblin; the fanciful evil villains capture the universal imagination, and we emulate them with fondness in a literal case of life imitating art. But what about when art imitates life? When the evil villain is no longer a camp, colourful caricature of Bad but instead, someone who could be the person behind you in the check-out line or your own next door neighbour? When Hollywood translates a real-life crime to screen, the world watches – intrigued at the idea that the horrors, scandals and absurdities are more than mere creation, shocked at the stories that truly are stranger than fiction. As is the nature of Hollywood, the protagonist’s of an true crime film are humanised, the audience encouraged to empathise and even admire the villain in question. True crime films have been known to blur the line between moral and immoral, right and wrong – sometimes we forget that there were real victims involved in these crimes. But sometimes, shining this Hollywood light on criminals, though, can be therapeutic or even cathartic – especially when we see justice done. Some of the crimes depicted in the biggest true-crime movies of all time have played a crucial role in shaping society and influencing legislation, and when they got the Hollywood treatment these criminals earned moviemakers enormous money. So which real-life crimes were so scandalous they exploded the box office? Read on to find out (if you don’t mind spoilers)…
10. Mississippi Burning – $34,603,943
Director Alan Parker was behind this thriller released in 1988. The plot is a loose adaptation of the FBI’s investigation into the real-life murders of three civil rights workers – namely Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Earl Chaney. The murders took place in Mississippi in 1964 while the three were fighting for the black population’s right to vote. The trio was shot at close range by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Clan, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office. The murders led to a national outrage that pressured the FBI into launching a large-scale investigation. Even though 18 people were initially charged guilty, only seven were finally convicted with relatively minor sentences. However, the incident eventually led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). In the film, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe play the characters of FBI agents Joseph Sullivan and John Proctor respectively.
9. Changeling – $35,739,802
Clint Eastwood directed this 2008 drama. The movie is based on the harrowing Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, when several young boys were abducted and murdered in Los Angeles and Riverside County in 1928. After hearing about the incident, writer J Michael Straczynski spent almost a year researching all historical records and eventually said that 95 percent of the plot was drawn from 6000 pages of documentation. The film stars Angelina Jolie as a mother who is reunited with her missing son, to eventually find out that he is an imposter. After she confronts the city authorities, they brand her delusional and malign her as an unfit mother. While adapting this true-to-life story, the movie explores themes of political corruption, female disempowerment, child endangerment and the consequences of violence.
8. Donnie Brasco – $41,909,762
Directed by Mike Newell in 1997, this crime drama depicts the true story of an FBI undercover agent – Joseph D Pistone – who infiltrated the Bonanno Crime Family in New York City. Under the alias Donnie Brasco, he maintained the illusion over a period of six years in the 1970s. In the film, after Brasco wins the confidence of veteran hit man Lefty Ruggiero, he becomes more and and more involved with the mafia. In the process, the lines between criminal and federal agent are blurred leading Lefty to almost certain death. The film stars Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in the lead roles.
7. Gangster Squad -$46,000,903
This action crime film was directed by Ruben Fleischer in 2013. It’s based – loosely – on the story of a group of detectives and officers from Los Angeles Police Department who formed the ‘Gangster Squad’ to protect the city from gangster Mickey Cohen during the 1940s. Cohen and his gang were part of the Jewish Mafia whose range extended throughout the United States, working with the American Mafia from the 1930s to the 1960s. Though the movie has some references to the real-life unit Gangster Squad, much of its plot and characters are fictionalized.
6. Goodfellas – $46,836,214
Martin Scorsese directed this crime film in 1990, based on the 1986 non-fiction book titled Wiseguy, written by Nicolas Peleggi. The film tracks the rise and fall of mobster Henry Hill, who was an associate of the Lucchese Crime Family from 1955 to 1980. This family was one of five families that dominated organized crime activities in New York City. However, the film does not cover the later life of Hill after he turned into an FBI informant and helped to have at least fifty mobsters convicted. The film stars Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci in the lead roles.
5. Pain and Gain – $49,875,291
A controversial genre choice, Michael Bay directed this dark comedy in 2013. The movie is an adaptation of a story published in Miami New Times in 1999. It details kidnapping, torture, extortion and murder of a number of victims by an organized group of criminals, some of whom were bodybuilders associated with Sun Gym. Pain and Gain was a box office hit but it was criticised for portraying the criminals in a sympathetic light. The film stars Dwayne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie in lead roles.
4. Blow – $52,990,775
Ted Demme directed this biopic on George Jung – the infamous American cocaine smuggler – and his associates Carlos Lehder Rivas and Pablo Escobar, in 2001. Jung was a crucial member of the Medellin Cartel, an organized network of drug suppliers responsible for almost 90 percent of the cocaine that was smuggled into the United States from Columbia during the 1970s and 80s. The film stars Johnny Depp in the leading role of George Jung.
3. Public Enemies – $97,104,620
Another entry starring the bankable Johnny Depp, director Michael Mann‘s 2009 biopic is based on a non-fiction book of the same name. Set during America’s Great Depression, it chronicles the life of John Dillinger – a notorious bank robber who was pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Dillinger and his gang robbed two dozen banks and four police stations, and Dillinger was famed for escaping from prison twice. ‘Public Enemies’ explores Dillinger’s six-month relationship with waitress and singer Billie Frechette, and his association with fellow criminals Homer Van Meter and Baby Face Nelson. Depp plays Dillinger while Christian Bale acts as Purvis and the lovely Marion Cotillard stars as Frechette.
2. American Gangster – $130,164,645
Ridley Scott directed this biographical crime film in 2007. American Gangster is based on the criminal career of Frank Lucas, known for cutting out intermediaries in the drug trade. Lucas directly smuggled heroin into the U.S. from his source in the Golden Triangle, onboard American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. He operated during the 1960s and 70s, in Harlem, before Detective Richie Roberts’ task force eventually succeeded in detaining him. This box office hit film stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in the lead roles.
1. Catch Me If You Can – $164,615,351
Directed by Steven Spielberg in 2002, this film focuses on the extraordinary life of an impostor, confidence trickster, escape artist and cheque forger Frank Abagnale. The success of the number one movie on our list may be down to the likeability of its star as a colourful real-life character, despite his corrupt wheelings and dealings. Abagnale’s cons are believed to have made him a multimillionaire by the time he was only 19 years old. As part of his act, he posed as a Georgia doctor, a Pan American World Airways pilot and a Louisiana parish prosecutor. In real-life, Abagnale is believed to have had eight different identities and escaped from police custody twice. He was so skilled in cheque fraud that, after his time in prison, the FBI employed him to help catch other cheque forgers. Catch Me If You Can stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks in the lead roles.
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