Season’s Beatings: Felonious Festive Films

Ben Affleck as Rudy the red-fingered ex-con in John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games (2000).
Ben Affleck as Rudy the red-fingered ex-con in John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games (2000).

Justin LaLiberty scopes out the season’s big screen greetings (and beatings) for those looking for some aggression with their eggnog.

Amidst all of the internet discourse arguing for (or against) the merits of Die Hard being considered Christmas movie canon, it was seemingly forgotten—or, at the very least, ignored—that the holidays have a storied place in genre cinema.

Horror tends to get more mileage out of its relationship with the jolliest of holidays, which is easy to understand when you look at the slate of iconic films—Black Christmas, Christmas Evil, Silent Night, Deadly Night —but criminals, alongside their law-enforcement counterparts, have been as integral a part of the season’s greetings (and beatings) since at least the 1920s.

It’s time for those dozens of gangster-ridden, noir-flavored stories of seasonal suspense to be a part of the same conversation Die Hard has been for years now. And, yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

The Unholy Three (1925).
The Unholy Three (1925).

The most obvious place to begin in tracing back the most populist examples of Christmas and crime commingling is Tod Browning’s 1925 silent heist film The Unholy Three (remade in 1930), starring Lon Chaney as a ventriloquist con artist who plans to steal a ruby necklace on Christmas Eve. But it is arguably the 1940s where filmmakers discovered how universal (and appealing) setting their crime films during the holiday season was, with a heavy dose of noir and gangster films capitalizing on the decorations, carols and motifs of the season.

Notably, Larceny Inc., Lady on a Train, Lady in the Lake, I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes and Cover Up all hit theater screens in the same decade. Outside of Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake, which features ‘Jingle Bells’ over its opening credits alongside a noted “first-person” POV gimmick, most of these titles are genre deep-cuts, yet they offer plenty of rewards to those looking for some aggression with their eggnog.

Larceny, Inc. (1942).
Larceny, Inc. (1942).

Larceny Inc. is an Edward G. Robinson gangster movie that features a heist climax set on Christmas Eve. A comedy crossover, at one point Robinson (as suave ex-convict J. Chalmers “Pressure” Maxwell) shows up dressed as a cigar-chomping Father Christmas, the first of many crooked Santas we’ll meet in this story.

Lady on a Train features Deanna Durbin en route to New York City at Christmastime when she witnesses a murder while looking out the window (a plot device that would be recycled decades later in The Girl on the Train); I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes is a Christmas whodunit based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich; and Cover Up, perhaps the most Christmas-filled of the bunch, sets its mystery in a small midwestern town, where a suicide might be anything but!

I, the Jury (1953).
I, the Jury (1953).

Christmas noir didn’t end with the 1940s; in 1953, noted genre scribe Harry Essex brought Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, with its Christmas in New York setting, to the big screen in 3D. At the end of the decade, in 1959, noted French crime auteur Jean-Pierre Melville took on the Big Apple at Christmas as well with Two Men in Manhattan, swapping the usually cheery reds and greens of the festive season for monochrome.

But the true star—and arguably the final nail in the coffin—for this era of noir cinema is Allen Baron’s 1961 gutter noir Blast of Silence. Yet another black-and-white crime film set in New York City during the Christmas season, the tough-as-nails chronicle of a hitman on a job during the holidays isn’t just one of the great Christmas crime films, but one of the great American crime films, full stop.

A New York Christmas street scene from Blast of Silence (1961).
A New York Christmas street scene from Blast of Silence (1961).

It's no accident that New York City is home to some of the most revered Christmas films of all time (Miracle on 34th Street, Elf), and also some of the more under-the-radar Christmas crime films. As magical as the city can be on the surface—baubles aplenty, Salvation Army bell-ringers, famed Rockefeller Center tree, the sickly sweet waft of gingerbread lattes—there has long been the tradition, especially in cinema, of something more sinister existing beneath that sparkly exterior. And what better to contrast the most violent aspects of the city than the jolliest of all holidays.

If Blast of Silence signaled the end of something in 1961, Cash on Demand signaled the start of something. A Hammer-produced riff on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, set inside a bank that is being robbed; a sparse chamber piece that features Peter Cushing as one of cinema’s best renditions of the Scrooge character.

Cash on Demand (1961).
Cash on Demand (1961).

At the opposite end of the respectability spectrum from Cushing, Hammer and Dickens lies Staten Island’s own exploitation luminary Andy Milligan, with a different type of histrionic showcase in his Christmas-set crime melodrama, Seeds, which has to be seen to be believed.

But the real crowd pleaser for Christmas genre cinema of the 1960s is an obvious one, 1969’s Bond outing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which released its snow-capped action extravaganza on American theater screens just days before Christmas, in addition to being set during the holidays.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972).
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972).

Entering the 1970s, it’s easy to shout out Wiliam Friedkin’s iconic true-life crime saga The French Connection for its opening sequence featuring Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle chasing a suspect while dressed as Santa, but that’s about all the Christmas flavor it has going for it. However, the oft-overlooked Curtis Harrington’s wild riff on the tale of Hansel and Gretel, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is very much a Christmas film; filled with carols, decorations and a whole lot of snow, it’s the holiday hagsploitation film of your dreams.

The ’70s also got a double-dose of Christmas espionage with John Voight starring in the Christmas- and Nazi-filled The Odessa File and, still one of the better films of its kind, Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, wherein Christmas decorations fight with Robert Redford for screentime. ’70s exploitation got in on the fun too with Aldo Lado’s notoriously sleazy Night Train Murders, set on Christmas Eve, and Joe Don Baker’s zany (and future MST3K staple) Mitchell, wherein renegade cop Joe Don chases criminals at—you guessed it—Christmastime.

The Silent Partner (1978).
The Silent Partner (1978).

And the cream of the crop: Daryl Duke’s Canuxploitation classic The Silent Partner featuring Christopher Plummer as a psychotic mall Santa hell-bent on destroying Elliot Gould’s life and severing heads with broken glass. Or, as Sydney writes, “a thriller about Christmas at the mall that’s 25 percent crime and 75 percent beautiful women throwing themselves at weird and possibly sociopathic super nerd Elliott Gould”. ’Tis the season!

It makes perfect sense that the decade would wrap up with the Chuck Norris actioner A Force of One, where even Norris’s karate studio is decked out in red tinsel. But even that is only a sign of the excess to come, when the crime films of the 1980s take on Christmas.

A Force of One (1979).
A Force of One (1979).

The ’80s contain arguably the two most well-known Christmas crime films made so far—Lethal Weapon and Die Hard—but there’s a lot more where those came from. The decade kicked off in 1980 with the Christmas-set serial killer thriller The First Deadly Sin, starring Frank Sinatra as a gruff NYPD detective trying to solve a series of murders by ice hammer.

With the ’80s being synonymous with testosterone, it’s easy to forget that First Blood is set at Christmas, as it mostly takes place in the woods, but Invasion U.S.A. and Cobra make great use of their holiday setting, laying waste to holiday decorations alongside impressive body counts.

Dead Bang (1989).
Dead Bang (1989).

The aforementioned Lethal Weapon and Die Hard aren’t the only cop narratives taking place at Christmas. Peter Hyams delivers another great holiday buddy movie with Running Scared, and we get Chow Yun-Fat as an undercover cop during a Christmas-Eve heist gone wrong in the Reservoir Dogs inspiration City on Fire.

Not sure what it is about Nazis and Christmas, but in the wake of The Odessa File they turn up again in John Frankenheimer’s absurdly underrated Dead Bang. It’s Don Johnson taking on skinheads during the holiday season, featuring more exploding and otherwise-destroyed Christmas decorations than possibly any other movie.

And don’t sleep on Larry Cohen’s troubled production, Deadly Illusion, a private-eye yarn set during Christmas where Billy Dee Williams plays a character named Hamberger, or Andrew Davis’s The Package, another holiday espionage film that takes pleasure in eviscerating seasonal decor.

Money Train (1995).
Money Train (1995).

The 1990s kick off with Die Hard 2, which finds John McClane again fighting terrorists during Christmas break, but there’s a slew of other films which don’t get nearly as much attention. Joseph Ruben’s attempt to rekindle the chemistry that Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson showcased in White Men Can’t Jump with Money Train may have backfired financially, but it’s another great time capsule of New York City during the holidays. It starts on Christmas Day, ends bang on the New Year’s Eve countdown, and comes complete with Jennifer Lopez as a badass decoy transit officer in a Christmas-red dress.

More successful was Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight , based on a script from Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black, and featuring star Geena Davis in a Santa hat on a parade float, along with plenty of other Christmas touches that have become hallmarks of Black’s films.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). 
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). 

This being the era of the direct-to-video genre movie, it’s no surprise that those filmmakers wanted a piece of the Christmas-crime trend. PM Entertainment’s Joseph Merhi got in on the fun with the absolutely ridiculous Riot (1996) featuring Gary Daniels and Sugar Ray Leonard in a warzone LA on Christmas Eve just kicking and punching everything in sight, and it even has a Christmas rap song!

Christmas Eve gets more shine in Turbulence, wherein Ray Liotta terrorizes a plane full of holiday travellers, as well as L.A. Confidential, arguably the most prestigious film in this canon, which features the “Bloody Christmas” newspaper headline after a bunch of cops can’t control their tempers on Christmas Eve.

L.A. Confidential (1997).
L.A. Confidential (1997).

The espionage genre rounds out the decade with John Frankenheimer’s globe-trotting holiday caper Ronin and Tony Scott’s season-set spy thriller Enemy of the State, both of which offer plenty of paranoia to accompany your Christmas cookies.

Entering the new millennium, it’s hard to think of anything more Christmassy than a bunch of dudes in Santa outfits robbing a casino, which is exactly what we get in John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games—guess Frankenheimer had an anti-Christmas thing, huh? Abel Ferrara takes his brand of no-prisoners crime cinema to the holidays with ‘R Xmas, featuring Ice-T as a character named The Kidnapper, who holds a drug dealer hostage at Christmas. And we enter Hong Kong on Christmas Eve again, following City on Fire, with the bloody Triad film One Night in Mongkok.

Reindeer Games (2000).
Reindeer Games (2000).

In the mid-to-late-2000s, crime comedies became all the rage and that spilled over into Christmas-themed films, with the Pierce Brosnan hitman crime-comedy The Matador, Shane Black taking on Christmas again with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Harold Ramis’s pitch-black Christmas Eve comedy The Ice Harvest.

The Christmas-hitman theme rears its head again in Martin McDonogh’s dark humor-fueled In Bruges, and again with Michael Keaton’s directorial debut The Merry Gentleman, which feels like It’s a Wonderful Life meets The Professional, wherein Keaton plays a suicidal hitman at Christmastime and forms a relationship with a young woman.

The Ice Harvest (2005).
The Ice Harvest (2005).

France delivered the true-life hijacker film The Assault in 2010, where a plane is hijacked on Christmas Eve. Joe Lynch sets his bloodbath Everly (2014) to Christmas carols, Paul Verhoeven inserts Christmas into the harrowing (and humorous) thriller Elle (2016) and Mel Gibson plays Santa in Fatman (2020), facing off against a—you guessed it—hitman played by Walton Goggins.

We can endlessly debate the merits of any of these films falling into the various paradigms of what we consider a Christmas movie, but what remains consistent is that the holiday has long been a setting and a theme for films operating in various reaches of crime cinema.

“Christmas is fun,” festive filmmaker supreme Shane Black told Den of Geek a few years back: “At Christmas, lonely people are lonelier, seeing friends and families go by. People take reckoning, they [take] stock of where their lives are at Christmas… I’ve always liked it, especially in thrillers, for some reason. It’s a touch of magic.”

Even if you don’t celebrate it personally, Christmas is a universal holiday, one where the decorations, songs and customs are easy to relate to. Makes perfect sense to make it the backdrop for narratives where people are relentlessly trying to kill each other.

Further Reading

Tags

Share This Article