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December 27, 2022

Must Watch Criminal Justice Movies

detective in fedora stands on red lit street with steam

Criminal justice has always played a starring role in Hollywood movies—and foreign films too.

There are portrayals of criminals, good cops, bad cops, private detectives, psychopaths and legal professionals in some of our favorite screen classics. From the early days when talkies were just coming into fashion, to modern-day CGI that dazzles with effects (like making Robert DeNiro 50 years younger and with blue eyes in The Irishman), here are 22 great movies that deal with indelible legal and criminal justice characters.

We know there are hundreds more out there, and while you don’t need to have a criminal justice degree to enjoy these films, a bowl of popcorn just might round out your viewing pleasure.

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In this article

Cops, feds and private eyes

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

With Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, private eye. One of the best interpretations of Dashiell Hammett’s noir novel, featuring Mary Astor as the femme fatale who gives the term its meaning. A film noir classic.

Where to watch it: TCM, Amazon Prime, AppleTV

Chinatown (1974)

Robert Towne’s script about an ethical private investigator hired by a widow to uncover who killed her Los Angeles Water Commissioner husband during a long drought season is multi-layered and textured, and completely unexpected. Beautifully atmospheric, moody, witty, literate and full of surprises, the film stars a subdued Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston as her father, a powerful man so amoral even his daughter is fair game.

Where to watch it: HBO Max, TCM

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The story of a psychopath named Buffalo Bill and the female cop who pursues him. She calls on another psychopath, Hannibal Lector, to help her solve the case. The incarceration scenes are chilling but the chemistry between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins is palpable. Foster and Hopkins both took home Oscars at the 1992 awards. It was the first time a wrongly-called “horror film” had ever won the prize for Best Picture.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime, Showtime, Roku TV, Paramount+, Philo, Vudu, AppleTV

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Director Curtis Hanson gambled on the then-new wellspring of Australian talent and starred Russell Crowe (OK, born in New Zealand) and Guy Pearce as two LAPD cops with very different sets of ethics and some vengeful backstory in this dark film noir about police corruption and Hollywood celebrity set in 1953. Co-star Kim Basinger won an Oscar for her role and James Ellroy wrote the novel the script is based on.

Where to watch it: Disney+

American Hustle (2013)

The manic mind of David O. Russell directed this frenetic black comedy about mismatched, loose-cannon husband and wife con artists—played by Russell regulars Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence—who are forced by an FBI agent, played by Bradley Cooper, to set up a sting operation on corrupt Camden, New Jersey politicians. Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams starred with them, and the film earned 10 Oscar nominations at the 86th Academy Awards.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime or Starz 

The Verdict (1982)

Sidney Lumet’s redemptive courtroom drama about a medical malpractice case is a star vehicle for Paul Newman, who plays a washed-up alcoholic Boston-based lawyer who gets a last chance to do it right. Newman was Oscar-nominated and the supporting cast, including Charlotte Rampling and Jack Warden are great. Oh, and David Mamet wrote the screenplay.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, TCM

A Few Good Men (1991)

Rob Reiner’s military-based courtroom drama features a shrill Tom Cruise as JAG Corp Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who is assigned to defend some Marines accused of murder. The drama also stars a somber Demi Moore and of course, Jack Nicholson as the Colonel who challenges Cruise and utters the much repeated, “You can’t handle the truth,” in indomitable Nicholson fashion.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV

Legally Blonde (2001)

Reese Witherspoon is impossible to keep down as law school student Elle Woods, and between her chihuahua, her wardrobe and her irrepressible self-confidence, she makes a surprisingly potent statement on the power of women in a male-dominated law school.

Where to watch it: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu

Thugs and drugs

The Public Enemy (1931)

Jimmy Cagney plays a young hood who rises up in the ranks of the Chicago underworld. His portrayal is sexually magnetic, cocky—and completely amoral.

Where to watch it: TCM, Amazon Prime

Scarface (1932 and 1983)

An ambitious and insanely violent gangster, played by Paul Muni, climbs the ladder of success in the mob, but his weaknesses prove to be his downfall. Remade with Al Pacino in 1983 with at least 10 times more violence and an unbelievable mountain of cocaine.

Where to watch it: 1932–Amazon Prime, TCM, Vudu, AppleTV; 1983–Peacock TV, Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Hedonistic, sadistic sociopath Alex is jailed for murder and is reformed using a new controversial technique. Or is he? Malcolm MacDowell’s portrayal of Alex propelled him to stardom and the film is as disturbing today as it was upon release (it originally earned the dreaded X-rating but was trimmed by 30 seconds to earn an R).

Where to watch it: Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Matt Dillon plays a young junkie who goes around breaking into pharmacies and stealing prescription drugs in Gus Van Sant’s gritty crime drama. His luck eventually runs out and his lifestyle catches up with him and he is forced to make a decision to change his life. Kelly Lynch is great as his drugged-out wife.

Where to watch it: Roku TV, Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV, Tubi

Don’t mess with the mob

The Godfather, Parts I & II (1972 and 1974)

Arguably the greatest mafia-based movie trilogy ever made, Francis Ford Coppola’s staggering epic about the Corleone family and their rise to eminence on the streets of New York (and Italy) gets more marks for a sequel that equals or surpasses, its predecessor.

Where to watch it: Part I–Paramount+, Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV; Part II–Paramount+, Amazon Prime, AppleTV

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Sergio Leone’s intense story of four friends who become entrenched in the underground crime world in New York suffered from a butchering in the editing room when distributors decided it was too long for audiences. The four-and-a-half-hour version, which you can find, fills in the missing gaps and is far more powerful, so if you want to commit to watching it, watch the version that Leone intended. You won’t be sorry. With Robert DeNiro, Elizabeth McGovern and James Woods and a beautiful score by Ennio Morricone.

Where to watch it: Extended cut–Roku, Amazon Prime, Hulu

Goodfellas (1990)

You can’t have a list of “best” crime movies without Goodfellas. From the long tracking shot of real-life mobster Henry Hill walking through a restaurant, to the unpredictable volatility of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito, Goodfellas is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece—an utterly absorbing, violent, funny story of one man’s advancement through the ranks of the mob. The late Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco are terrific as Henry Hill and his wife, Karen.

Where to watch it: HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Mobsters, hitmen and a briefcase are critical to the film’s three intersecting story lines. Plus, catch the famous dance scene between Uma Thurman and John Travolta. With Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Tim Roth. Quentin Tarantino at his arguable best.

Where to watch it: TNT, Showtime, HBO Max

The Departed (2006)

More Martin Scorsese and Boston, which seems to be a magical combination. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson, it’s classic mob and cops’ story (based on a true case) of betrayal, infiltration and spying, and the suspense comes from wondering who will be ratted out first and what will happen to them after that. The Departed won Best Picture at the 79th Academy Awards and Scorsese took home the Best Director prize too.

Where to watch it: HBO Max, TNT, Amazon Prime, AppleTV

The Irishman (2019)

More Scorsese and DeNiro, plus long-time Scorsese collaborators Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, in a “based on a true story” saga about a truck driver named Frank Sheehan, who becomes involved with a Pennsylvania crime family in the 1950s and looks back on his life and the weight of his actions. DeNiro plays Sheeran, who climbs the ranks to become a top hit man and later teams with the Teamster boss himself, Jimmy Hoffa. Rife with ‘50s and ‘60s atmosphere and nostalgia.

Where to watch it: Netflix

Doing time

Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Two imprisoned men bond in jail, finding redemption through acts of common decency. One of the best prison escape capers you’ll ever see. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins are affecting as the two convicts who bond.

Where to watch it: HBO Max

The Green Mile (1999)

A dramatic fantasy story about the daily lives of death row guards leading up to the execution of a black man falsely accused of murder, and who has a mystical power to heal. Tom Hanks and the late Michael Clark Duncan added humanity to a script based on a story by Stephen King.

Where to watch it: HBO Max. Amazon Prime, Vudu, AppleTV