Mob Scene: The Top 10 Gangster Movies
What are the best gangster movies of all time?
I’ve made my “Top Ten” list.
By definition, gangster movies refer to films about organized crime, the mob, the Mafia, and other elements of the criminal underworld. Note that in order to be listed in my “Top Ten,” the film must focus on some element of organized crime.
Now, let the countdown begin!
Key Largo (1948) — Ranking older films poses a challenge. Classic films are weighed down by outdated production values, by today’s standards. Hence, we’ll focus instead on the storyline and performances. Now, 70 years after it was first released, Key Largo stands the test of time. This post-war classic casts five outstanding actors in their primes — including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor (who won an Oscar for her performance). The great John Huston directed and also co-wrote the screenplay. But what really stands out in Key Largo is the look and the mood of the film. Key Largo is often cited as the epitome of what became known as film noir, conveying a menacing sense of danger and mounting suspense in black and white. We’re drawn to the fates of Bogart and Bacall, trapped inside a suffocating oceanside Florida luxury hotel and where they’re kept as hostages by a gang of hoodlums. As always, Edward G. Robinson delivers perfectly as the villain. Making the situation even direr, a hurricane is approaching. In Key Largo, Bogart plays a far more vulnerable character than we’re used to seeing until he finally rises to the challenge in a crowd-pleasing, climactic finale.
Donnie Brasco (1997) — Most movies about organized crime, whether intended or not, glorify mobsters and celebrate their misdeeds. Donnie Brasco doesn’t do that. Based is on the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone (BTW, the book is terrific), Donnie Brasco shows day-to-day mob life as it really is — dull, depressing, dangerous, and surrounded by people who are dumb. Rank and file mobsters are broke much of the time — “fighting over the same nickel.” Johnny Depp, in one of his best performances, infiltrates the New York mob where he befriends a low-level wiseguy played by Al Pacino. For Pacino, this role is quite the polar opposite of Michale Corleone. He’s weak and afraid. He’s a loser, and he knows it. However, after spending months together and accumulating mountains of incriminating evidence as an undercover agent, Depp begins to develop sympathy for his partner in crime which raises moral and ethical questions. Depp becomes so immersed in the undercover assignment, he abandons the needs of his real family. Just as intriguing, the film reveals the often aimless and empty rewards of working in law enforcement. This is one of the most realistic movies ever made about organized crime. Like many great movies, it gets better with each viewing.
On the Waterfront (1954) — It’s hard to appreciate how groundbreaking this film was when released in the early 1950s, during the height of the Mafia’s control of American labor unions. Previous films about organized crime were very careful not to go too far and malign specific trades or ethnic groups. Criminals were portrayed as caricatures. Despite the obvious connections of Italian-Americans to organized crime, they weren’t portrayed as underworld figures until The Godfather. Two decades before taking on that Oscar-winning role, Marlon Brando won his first Academy Award playing the good guy and unlikely hero, a former small-time boxer who somehow musters up enough courage to stand up to the mob and challenge their grip on New York City’s corrupt loading docks. We all know Brando will pay a price for his act of selfless heroism. The excellent supporting cast includes Lee J. Cobb, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger. Directed by the great Elia Kazan. A classic.
Sexy Beast (2000) — This is one of the most entertaining and cleverly done movies I’ve seen in the last 20 years. Tongue in cheek farce of a dark comedy about an ex-British mobster, played by the always-marvelous Ray Winstone, desperately trying to leave his criminal past behind and move on with his life along with his wife at a posh retirement villa in Spain. However, two of his former mobster mates, both psychopathic killers played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane, have one last job for Winstone — which is robbing a vault in London. This vastly underrated film covers lots of emotional real estate — it’s funny, suspenseful, violent, poetic, frightening, and deeply moving in parts. Several previous films have been made about London’s criminal underworld. I think this ranks as the very best. Kingsley chews and spits out every scene he’s in. But also watch for Winstone and McShane, which is equally worth the time and price of admission. Interesting Tidbit: Ian McShane, who plays crime boss “Teddy” never blinks once in any of his scenes, including several close-ups.
Casino (1995) — Director Martin Scorsese is in familiar territory here with his usual ensemble cast of badasses — including Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as the stars. Sharon Stone also delivers arguably her best film performance. Based on the true story of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and the Argent Corporation scandal which engulfed the now-demolished Stardust Casino in the late 1970s, the plot essentially depicts the decline of organized crime in Las Vegas (and the subsequent rise of something even worse — big corporations). Typical of many Scorcese films, the story is told with character narration and in a long series of flashbacks. Some insist this repetitive style has become overused. I think it works perfectly in Casino, which is stacked with multiple stories and plotlines. Casino isn’t just a movie. It’s an opera about the old Las Vegas criminal underworld.
State of Grace (1990) — The Irish Mafia doesn’t get nearly as much attention but has been a force dating back to the mid-1800s, especially in New York and Boston. Irish mobsters are just as tough as any Sicilian. That bravado is characterized in Gary Oldman’s stunning portrayal of a streetwise hoodlum in State of Grace, which should have won an Oscar. Nearly 30 years before he played Winston Churchill and took home a long-deserved Academy Award (last year), Oldman’s standout performance stole this movie as the fearless alcoholic Westies foot soldier. Ed Harris plays the Irish don. Sean Penn is an undercover cop who infiltrates Hell’s Kitchen. Similar to Donnie Brasco in the sense life in organized crime isn’t sentimentalized, State of Grace stands as a realistic portrayal of the underworld as a predatory grind where loyalties are continuously tested and every day is filled with danger.
Miller’s Crossing (1990) — Some films rise to the level of an art form. Miller’s Crossing is the ideal example. Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, this film stars Gabriel Byrne, along with Maria Gay Harden, John Turturro, and Albert Finney. Set during the Prohibition era, hardened Irish mobsters are engaged in a deadly fight for control over illegal bootlegging — with Byrne caught in the middle. The plot takes many turns and twists, but what’s portrayed perfectly throughout Miller’s Crossing is the inherent sense of suspicion and paranoia among those who chose to commit crimes for a living. Beautifully filmed, wickedly humorous, and enhanced by a brilliant musical score, the Coen Brothers deliver one of their very best films. Oddly enough, the movie flopped at the box office when it was first released. Since then, however, Miller’s Crossing has been elevated by critics and latecomers who have slowly come to appreciate one of the best films ever made on the gangster genre.
Goodfellas (1990) — This film is frequently cited as the most-deserving “Best Picture” that didn’t actually win the Oscar (Dances With Wolves inexplicably won the Academy Award that year). Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece about real-life events that happened in Queens and Brooklyn during the mid-1970s is an almost perfect movie. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, it’s stocked with thoroughly believable performances, a suspenseful story, scenes that are marvelously shot, and includes a memorable rock-based soundtrack which all combines for not just a masterful tale, but a truly cinematic experience. We’re totally immersed into the criminal underworld and witnesses to a secret society that despite its ceaseless violence also contains expected codes of conduct. Everything in this film works — including Joe Pesci in the explosive role that will likely define his career, then-unknown Ray Liotta as the lead character, and Robert De Niro as his mentor and crime partner. Lorraine Bracco is perfectly cast as Liotta’s naive wife who gradually succumbs to the ways of crime. Goodfellas used lots of improvisation and ad-libbing which came out of early rehearsals. “Scorsese let the actors do whatever they wanted. He made transcripts of these sessions, took the lines the actors came up with that he liked best, and put them into a revised script that the cast worked from during principal photography,” according to Pesci. The famous scene of Pesci admonishing Liotta in the restaurant, yelling menacingly — “Funny how? Like a clown? Do I amuse you?” — was reportedly a real mob conflict Pesci witnessed firsthand. This overt sense of realism is what defines Goodfellas.
The Godfather (1972) — “Epic” may be overused but it certainly applies to The Godfather, which is often ranked as one of the greatest movies ever made. Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel was brought to the screen by Francis Ford Coppola, then directing only his second film (Coppola had previously won the Oscar for writing the screenplay for Patton). It’s not so much a tale about organized crime as a story of the bonds and chains of blood and family. The Godfather had almost everything going against it when it was filmed. Previous movies about organized crime had been unsuccessful. More than a decade removed since his last hit movie, Marlon Brando was widely considered toxic at the box office. Mostly unknown actors, including several first-timers, were cast in key roles. There was little to suggest The Godfather would ever succeed as a movie, let alone over time even come to redefine the image of the Mafia. While the movie is certainly an overtly romanticized portrayal of the criminal underworld, Brando reportedly accepted the title role because he thought the story to be a mirror image of corporate capitalism. Like all great movies, much is left to the viewer’s interpretation. It should also be noted that Nino Rota’s score stands as perhaps the greatest movie music ever composed.
The Godfather Part II (1974) — What makes the sequel to The Godfather better than the original? Isn’t that blasphemy? The reason Part II surpasses the original is that expectations were so exceedingly high it was virtually impossible for any follow-up movie to match the Shakespearean majesty of the groundbreaking first film. Yet somehow, just two years later, Francis Ford Coppola pulled off the impossible by opting to tell dual stories in the sequel — utilizing pre- and post-Godfather sagas alternating back and forth, with Robert De Niro as the highly-principled younger Vito Corleone, and his son Al Pacino as the heir apparent to the powerful throne who slowly succumbs the pressures of his immense responsibilities and ultimately loses his soul by getting revenge against all those who betrayed him. The early Godfather scenes take place during the early 1920s and are often lighthearted and even humorous, in juxtaposition to the sad bitterness of the same family being torn apart in later scenes which take place during the late 1950s. Some roles — including Talia Shire, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, John Calzone, and others are reprised. Yet to The Godfather Part II’s credit, scenes with legendary Actor’s Studio icon Lee Strasberg manage to upstage the original ensemble cast. The story of the Mafia’s role in leading to the Cuban revolution combined with true events from the Kefauver Senate Hearings remains a gripping history lesson. Every element succeeds in this film. Fittingly, it won Best Picture and earned Coppola a Best Director Oscar.
READ MY ARTICLE: Francis Ford Coppola’s Five Oscars
[Honorable Mention — Listed Chronologically]
Scarface (1982) — Director Brian De Palma’s flawed remake of a 1930’s original contains some wonderful scenes and outstanding performances. Al Pacino has cited this role like the one he’s most proud of. Scarface has since become more than just an entertaining movie. It’s a controversial statement of aspiration by the downtrodden where society’s rules are looked upon as laws to be broken in order to get ahead. Everyone at the top screws everyone else to crawl up the economic ladder. Drug dealers are no different. That’s the message of Scarface.
A Bronx Tale (1990) — I’m not a fan of this movie, but many people I respect rank it highly. I’ll leave it at that.
Carlito’s Way (1993) — Once again, Al Pacino gives a standout performance. But Sean Penn, playing a coked-up, big-mouthed mob lawyer, steals the movie. Some scenes are ridiculous, including the finale which takes place at Grand Central Station (the shooting goes on for ten minutes — where’s the police?). Really, really bad in parts, but also great in others. A guilty pleasure classic for those who like mobster movies.
Once Upon a Time in America (1992) — Some rank this as one of the greatest organized crime movies ever made. There are several versions out, including a “Director’s Cut” which allegedly fills in lots of plot gaps in the uneven cinematic release of the original. Everyone remembers director Sergio Leone from his classic spaghetti westerns. His cinematic fingerprints are all over every frame in this movie as well, starring James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Robert De Niro. This movie has some nice moments but drags for me way too much. Worthy of seeing, but too much of a mess to make the “Top Ten.”
The Departed (2009) — On Martin Scorsese’s film resume, this probably ranks somewhere around being his 12th-best film. It’s nowhere in the same league as Goodfella’s, Taxi Driver, Casino, Raging Bull, Hugo, or The Last Temptation of Christ. Nonetheless, Scorsese won his long-deserved Best Director Oscar for this uneven story of the Boston underworld. Jack Nicholson plays the bad guy in what was perhaps his last memorable film role.
Black Mass (2015) — Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, the real-life Boston Irish mobster who was a fugitive for many years before finally being caught. The supporting cast is outstanding. There’s little in this movie worthy of admiration, including corrupt cops and feds. But the film is allegedly an accurate portrayal of what really happened. I’ve seen this a few times and might rank it higher as it was better the second viewing (often the mark of a very good movie).
Addendum: After some follow-up comments, I’ll add these to the Honorable Mention category — Get Carter (1971); American Gangster (2007); and A Most Violent Year (2014)