Most of us Christmas-celebraters, we got movies and TV shows we like to watch every year when the season comes around, for nostalgic purposes, or for comfort, joy, etc. People love their It’s A Wonderful Life, their Charlie Brown Christmas, and mostly obviously Die Hard and the Shane Black triptych of Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And of course there are plenty of great Christmas themed horror movies offering a wide variety of killer Santas to choose from as well as a genuine slasher classic in Black Christmas. But I’ve noticed that there’s a less commonly acknowledged subgenre of Christmas crime movies, and here I would like to present you with ten examples.
This is a 20 minute short from the creators of Badazz Mofo Magazine. It stars original Dawn of the Dead‘s Ken Foree as a community center volunteer who goes vigilante when all the toy donations are stolen. There are a lot of details that don’t make any sense (what kind of money could there be in re-selling cheap teddy bears?) but I appreciate that the tone is serious and that Foree is allowed a rare leading role. With a little more experience under their belts it would be interesting to see these guys make a feature version.
John Cusack plays a Kansas mob lawyer, Billy Bob Thornton (On Deadly Ground) is a pornographer who is his partner in crime. It’s Christmas Eve and they’ve just stolen $2 million from their boss but can’t leave town because of frozen rain and icy roads. They’ve just got to hang out and kill a few hours but they keep seeing an enforcer (Mike Starr, On Deadly Ground) who might be looking for them. Directed by Harold Ramis, it’s somewhat of a black comedy, but the parts about people wanting to shoot each other aren’t as dark as the parts about the Cusack character’s miserable family life. He buys his daughter’s presents at a convenience store, and promises to see her on Christmas even though he doesn’t mean it. On the other hand he does get into the spirit of the season when he tells dancers at a strip club he seems to run that they don’t have to pay their usual stage rental fees.
Maybe the most forgotten title on this list, Christmas Holiday is a 1944 film noir directed by Robert Siodmak (The Killers), written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane) and based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Lieutenant Charles Mason (Dean Harens) is on the worst Christmas leave of his life: he thought he was gonna get married until he got a letter from his lady apologizing for marrying some other dude. He tries to fly home to San Francisco anyway, but gets grounded in New Orleans. He ends up involved with Abigail, a troubled torch singer played by Deanna Durbin in a brilliant performance where she seems stiff and lifeless until we see her in flashbacks about the tragic events that made her that way.
Music features heavily into the movie, and in one scene Mason starts to dance with Abigail, but then stops and says he’s not good at it. This is a good in-joke because it will turn out that his competition for her affections is a pretty good dancer, Gene Kelly. But Mason should worry about more than a dance-off since this guy’s Abigail’s husband and since he’s just escaped from Angola.
It’s a really good movie, the only reason I’m ranking it low is that the “holiday” in the title is used in the sense of a vacation, not a holy day. It only matters that the Lieutenant has some time off, so Christmas music and imagery doesn’t really show up much in the movie.
7. ‘R XMAS
This gritty Abel Ferrara crime drama is puzzling from the awkward title (it took me a while to figure out that it means “Rx” as in prescription, because it’s about drug dealers) to the abrupt “to be continued” ending, but it’s still unique and well put together. Lillo Brancato and Drea de Matteo (both of The Sopranos) play an unnamed husband and wife. They’re dealing with regular Christmas stuff like trying to get a hold of a hard-to-find doll that their daughter wants, but also with trying to run their drug business. Of course it’s the holidays so there’s got to be a major family crisis: husband gets kidnapped by Ice-T, so wife has to run the business and try to get together the ransom money even though most of the organization is on holiday in Puerto Rico.
I don’t think Ferrara was serious about continuing the story, but if he was it would be difficult now since Brancato is serving a 10 year sentence for a burglary that resulted in the death of an off-duty police officer. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2014.
6. DEAD BANG
Don Johnson tried to spring off of Miami Vice into feature films with this pretty good John Frankenheimer cop movie from 1989. Johnson plays a washed up, broke, divorced California homicide detective whose ex-wife has a restraining order against him and pretends the kids are asleep when he tries to call them on Christmas. Because his life is so crappy he throws himself into his job, which during this particular holiday involves chasing a group of white supremacists on a crime spree/road trip even though nobody in his department will back him up and the FBI and racist local law enforcement keep interfering. He kind of uses the holiday as a weapon: when a suspect’s parole officer (Bob Balaban) refuses to meet with him because it’s Christmas Eve he punishes him by finding him on Christmas day and forcing him to come along to raid a biker house.
Actually, Frankenheimer has two on this list. Ben Affleck (in one of his early, pre-directorial street cred tough guy roles) plays a convict who gets paroled and foolishly impersonates his dead cellmate in order to get with the guy’s penpal, ’cause she’s Charlize Theron. That works out the way he had hoped except in one respect: her brother Monster (Gary Sinise) and his henchmen (Danny Trejo, Donal Logue and Clarence Williams III) think he used to work at an Indian casino they want to rob on Christmas Eve (wearing Santa suits), and they make him help. The movie has a bad reputation and an unnecessary plot twist, but it’s a fun dumb criminals story somewhere between Red Rock West noir and Elmore Leonard. Look for the director’s cut. Frankenheimer was pressured to shorten the movie, even the sex scene with Theron(!), but later got them to release the superior longer cut.
Criterion did all us pulp fiction fans a favor when they dug up this obscure black and white indie crime movie from 1961. Writer/director/star Allen Baron plays a hitman from Cleveland coming to New York for an assignment. It’s Christmas Eve and he has some time to kill before he’ll have a person to kill, and he runs into some people that he knew from growing up in an orphanage. It turns out your social skills can be awkward when you have a lot of catching up to do and you’re in town for a murder.
The most unique part of the movie is the narration, scripted by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt. It’s in second person, so you are the hitman, you are the one who has sweaty palms, you (and this is the part I didn’t appreciate, Mr. Narrator) have racist feelings while walking through Harlem. It’s the movie that most feels like reading an old forgotten crime novel.
Elliott Gould plays a teller at a bank in a Toronto mall who figures out the mall’s Santa Claus (a terrifying Christopher Plummer) is planning to stick the place up. Instead of telling anyone he waits for the robbery to happen and keeps part of the money set aside to steal for himself. This leads to some great suspense as Santa comes after him and our amoral hero has to clever his way out of it. A young John Candy plays one of Gould’s co-workers. The script is by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile).
2. IN BRUGES
Two hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) have to stay in the Belgian tourist town of Bruges waiting for things to cool down after a disastrous job. I guess waiting around is a Christmas crime theme since it happens in The Ice Harvest, Blast of Silence and now this. The older of the two killers wants to take in the culture, the younger one pouts and complains like a sullen teenager embarrassed to be on vacation with mom and dad. The first movie from playwright Martin McDonagh, it spends most of its time on these two characters and their conversations, which are funny and carefully constructed to seem spontaneous even as they are carefully setting up little things that will come back later. There are themes of loyalty, codes of honor, but also it takes place at Christmas, a fitting time for Gleeson to try to get Farrell to care about cathedrals and holy relics.
1. BAD SANTA
Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox play a duo of thieves who take jobs as a department store Santa and elf in order to rob the place. They’ve had a long run going from town to town pulling this scam, but Thornton’s character Willy has become a pathetic drunk who constantly offends the store manager (John Ritter) and passes out or pisses himself while with the children. Then he meets a bizarre bullied kid (Brett Kelly) who lives alone with a dementia-addled grandma (Cloris Leachman) and seems to believe Willy is really Santa, so he moves in with him. Conceived by the Coen Brothers and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), this is a pitch-black comedy that’s too mean for some people who can’t laugh at the cruelty of a jerk protagonist, but I think it’s hilarious and have enjoyed watching it go from disreputable flop to beloved cult classic.
There have been three versions: the original theatrical cut, the “Badder Santa” video version that added in “unrated” material that Zwigoff had cut out, and Zwigoff’s director’s cut. The director’s cut is the shortest but also the best, with a more consistent tone and less lowbrow humor, but I always miss the ending joke from the previous versions involving the kid flipping off bullies while wearing a particular t-shirt.
Because Bad Santa’s emphasis is more on the comedy than the thievery I wasn’t sure if it belonged at the top of this list. But I decided it did because in this story of scumbags being mean to each other there is a tiny nugget of sweetness that genuinely moves me. After a whole movie of boozing and selfishness Willy makes one tiny gesture toward the kid, trying to deliver him a Christmas present before getting shot by police. If he had a miraculous Ebenezer Scrooge turnaround it would ring hollow, but since it’s only one pathetic attempt to be nice I completely buy it. This is not just a crime that takes place at Christmas, it is a movie with the Christmas spirit emanating from its coal-black heart. That’s why it’s #1.
Ah, hell. Why rank them at all? This is Christmas, and they’re all good, like children in thy tender care. Watch them in any order you want. Joy to the world.