Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Riveting Film Thrillers Based on Real-Life Crimes

The words "based on a true story" are so overused in movies that they usually don’t mean anything other than, "Something like this kind of happened, but this is the version we settled on." (Some movies present themselves as inspired by true accounts when they’re actually completely fictional.) But there are a few films that rise above the rest, notably in the true-crime genre, that take actual cases and shape them into arresting narratives to re-create the very real havoc that their characters wreaked. Mobsters, serial killers, and misguided thugs tend to make it to the big screen relatively intact because their stories are just that interesting. These movies aren’t the only ones that qualify, just the best.

  1. Bonnie and Clyde: Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic (part of a class of movies that caused a sea change in Hollywood) streamlines the tale of Depression-era bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow without losing any of their danger or charisma. The sex and violence were revolutionary and helped change the way movies were made and marketed, and it remains one of the most engaging crime stories ever told.
  2. In Cold Blood: Truman Capote’s legendary book about a murdered family in Kansas was a pioneering work of true-crime journalism, and the resulting film adaptation was just as powerful. Shot in stark black and white, this classic film from Richard Brooks re-creates the killings, the trial, and the execution of the murderers with fantastic devotion. Robert Blake’s performance as killer Perry Smith was rightly praised by critics.
  3. Dog Day Afternoon: In August 1972, John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile held up a Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn, took some hostages, and were eventually taken down by police. A Life article entitled "The Boys in the Bank" recounted their story and became the basis for 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. The film features flawless performances by Al Pacino and John Cazale as it marches toward a tense but inevitable conclusion.
  4. Goodfellas: Martin Scorsese’s mythic gangster film is easily one of the best ever to be based on real events. Drawn from crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, the film recounts the story of Henry Hill, a player in the New York mafia who gave evidence against his fellow gangsters and entered the Witness Protection Program. A major part of the plot revolves around the 1978 Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport, at the time the largest cash robbery in U.S. history.
  5. Donnie Brasco: FBI agent Joseph Pistone spent six years undercover infiltrating organized crime families in New York using the alias Donnie Brasco. He recounted his work in a book that became the basis for Mike Newell’s fantastic but often overlooked 1997 drama starring Johnny Depp as Pistone, Al Pacino as Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero, and Michael Madsen as Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano. An amazing look at what it takes to go undercover.
  6. Catch Me If You Can: Time for a mental health break: Steven Spielberg’s film is about a criminal, but it’s also far more light-hearted than the rest on this list, thanks to the nature of the crimes. Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) discovers a talent for forging checks and other IDs and hops from career to career, ripping off multiple companies and eluding FBI fraud agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). He’s just a kid, though, trying to pursue a fantasy life he could never have at home.
  7. Monster: Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute and serial killer who killed seven johns in Florida between 1989 and 1990, claiming they’d been attempted to rape her. She was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, dying by lethal injection in October 2002. The 2003 film Monster is a graphic and unflinching adaptation of her story, from her history of abuse to her relationship with another woman. A gripping film, and often hard to watch.
  8. Alpha Dog: Based on the life and times of Jesse James Hollywood (real name!), Alpha Dog follows a young drug dealer named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) who kidnaps the younger brother of a rival and eventually has the boy murdered. The film was first screened in 2006 and released in January 2007, before Jesse was captured and sentenced to life without parole.
  9. Zodiac: Another sadly overlooked film, David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac is a harrowing examination of the Zodiac serial killer and the way his mythos gripped the nation and sent investigators into often obsessive tailspins. Easily one of the most chilling thrillers of the past 25 years, and doubly so for being based on real events.
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  11. M: Fritz Lang’s first sound film, 1931’s M is considered one of the best films of the black-and-white era. It was also the first major starring role for Peter Lorre, who played Hans Beckert, a serial killer and pedophile. An eerie and unforgettable film, the story was largely inspired by the case of Peter Kurten, aka the "Vampire of Dusseldorf," who committed a number of child murders in 1929.