The 10 Best American Gangster Movies

By
Share:

While we were off eating and drinking and making movie merry at SXSW last week, we missed an important anniversary: March 15th marked 40 years since The Godfather’s theatrical opening. Since it is basically your film editor’s favorite movie ever, you can surely understand my inclination to make this oversight right — and we couldn’t think of a better way to do it than to look at the picture’s peers among the great canon on American gangster films. (We kept it domestic for the sole purpose of keeping the list to a manageable length; for the same reason, we’ve tried to focus on films that are primarily gangster films, as opposed to movies like Reservoir Dogs that are heist movies or other genres with organized crime in the background.) After the jump, we’ll take a look at The Godfather within that canon: the film itself, the films that inspired it, and the films it inspired. To be fair, we’re doing it chronologically — and it’s all opinion, of course, so let us know what was unfairly skipped in the comments.

The Public Enemy

It’s tough to pick a favorite among the many great pre-Code Warner Brothers gangster movies, which featured definitive crime picture figures like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart. But we’re gonna go with William A. Wellman’s 1931 classic, with stars Cagney and Edward Woods as childhood buddies who became Prohibition-era underworld figures. The direction is stylish, the stars are spot-on, and the supporting cast (Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, grapefruit recipient Mae Clark) is aces; no less a gangster movie authority than Martin Scorsese says this is one of this favorite films of all time.

SEE ALSO: Angels with Dirty Faces, Lady Killer, White Heat, The Roaring Twenties

Scarface (1932)

The gangster film has always tiptoed a fine line between glamorizing and condemning a life of crime, and that line was never more carefully navigated than during the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, which specified that any on-screen criminal action must be punished, and that criminals could not elicit sympathy from an audience. Scarface producer Howard Hughes and directors Howard Hawks and Richard Rosson went to the mat with censors over their 1932 film Scarface, loosely based on the rise of Al Capone; though it ended with Capone avatar Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) being punished with a hail of police bullets, that conclusion followed 90 minutes of wickedly enjoyable bad behavior. Hughes shot a more explicitly punishing conclusion, but the film still caused trouble; he ended up going around the censors and releasing, in its original form, what became one of the most iconic gangster pictures ever made.

SEE ALSO: Little Caesar

Point Blank

By the late 1960s, the American gangster movie had gone the way of the dinosaur, repurposed into caper pictures (like The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle) and redefined by overseas filmmakers (particularly the gangster-loving gents of the French New Wave). John Boorman’s riveting 1967 Lee Marvin vehicle was one of the seminal “existential” gangster films, reflecting its standard genre story into the fun house mirrors of contemporary experimental filmmaking techniques and circular storytelling.

SEE ALSO: Blast of Silence, The Hit, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Godfather (Parts I & II)

Gangster films had been box office losers for years when Paramount bought the rights to Mario Puzo’s bestseller (the studio itself had lost a bundle a few years earlier on The Brotherhood). Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece changed that for good; it was not only a rare instance of an honest-to-God work of art becoming a certified box office smash, it was a bellwether film (like The Birth of A Nation or Citizen Kane) that functioned not just as a narrative, but as a culmination of what cinema was at that moment — where it had come from, and what it could be. Like the other great films of the “New Hollywood,” it took the new freedoms and complexities allowed by the crumbling of the Motion Picture Code and put them to work in a classic American story, one that was set in our past but spoke to our present, and our future.

When Coppola returned to the Corleone family two years later, he seemed to set himself up for a spectacular fall; how could he possibly replicate his masterful original? Yet he matched it (some argue he topped it). Coppola didn’t merely replicate the formula of the original film and give audiences more of the same; he crafted a complex combination of prequel and sequel, jamming its three-and-one-half hours with a dizzying complicated plot and a character arc that pushed its protagonist from the criminal mastermind of the first film to a soulless monster. It was a brave, bold act of anti-commercial filmmaking, eschewing the clean, classical narrative of the first film for a potentially alienating experimental story structure and daring us to root for a main character stripped of his every last redeeming quality.

SEE ALSO: The Godfather Part III, The Cotton Club, The Freshman

The Outfit

The year after The Godfather, co-star Robert Duvall fronted this slightly obscure but thoroughly entertaining thriller, based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake (who also provided the source material for Point Blank). Duvall and Joe Don “Mitchell” Baker play thieves taking on “the outfit,” Chicago’s organized crime syndicate, for taking out Duvall’s brother. Like Point Blank, it sounds like a typical revenge thriller, but director John Flynn executes the story with high style and a snub-nosed toughness.

SEE ALSO: Charley Varrick, The Valachi Papers, Payback (1999)

Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone had longed to make a film adaptation of Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods since the 1960s, initially intending it to be his follow-up project to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which he intended to be his final Western. It wasn’t; he made Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck, You Sucker! in the interim (and also co-directed, without credit, two other Italian Westerns). By the time the Italian-American co-production was finally released in 1984, it had been over a decade since his last official directorial credit, and audiences were eager to see if Leone would redefine the gangster film the way he had the Western. What he came up with was a daunting epic, its original cut running four hours, cut by 40 minutes for its European release, but hacked down to a mere 139 minutes for its initial, reviled American screenings. Luckily, home video brought the European version back into play; seen now, in that form, Leone’s sprawling look at the lives, friendships, and betrayals of a Jewish gang is hard, smart, and unforgettable.

SEE ALSO: Prizzi’s Honor, Donnie Brasco

The Untouchables

His contemporaries Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are usually seen as the go-to guys for gangster tales among New Hollywood’s so-called “film brats,” but Brian DePalma has taken on the mob on several occasions. The most iconic is his 1983 remake of Hawks and Rosson’s Scarface, which has emblazoned T-shirts and hip-hop lyrics for decades. It’s an entertaining film, but one that’s occasionally crippled by its own excesses. His 1993 reteaming with Pacino and producer Martin Bregman, Carlito’s Way, is an enjoyable B-movie, slick and zippy, but his best gangster picture is probably his 1987 take on the classic television series The Untouchables. David Mamet’s screenplay is mostly concerned with Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his team of agents, but the occasional set pieces with the object of their pursuit, Al Capone (played to the hilt by Robert DeNiro), are chillingly effective.

SEE ALSO: Scarface (1983), Carlito’s Way, Wise Guys

GoodFellas

No American filmmaker is more readily identified with the gangster movie than Martin Scorsese, and for good reason; his breakthrough film Mean Streets concerned the working stiffs of organized crime, and he’s returned to mob stories throughout his career. The best of them, however, is GoodFellas, his 1990 film adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book. The film is remembered for its iconic set pieces — the tracking shot into the “Copa,” the “Sunday, May 11, 1980” sequence, the discoveries of the bodies after the Lufthansa heist. In those sections, and throughout the picture, Scorsese calls upon all of his considerable gifts as a technical filmmaker — zip pans, trick zooms, fast dolleys, unbroken takes, slow motion, fast cutting, inventive compositions, circular storytelling — to cast his spell. It pulses with atmosphere, from the non-stop music to the period décor to the culinary details. Before Goodfellas, Scorsese was certainly a well-respected and commercially viable filmmaker, but in retrospect, Goodfellas feels like the moment when Scorsese became a cinematic god — the guy that young filmmakers wanted to pattern themselves after. It wasn’t just that he spends the film having a great time playing with his camera (though he certainly does); it’s the supreme confidence and control on display. As the last decade of the 20th century began, Scorsese seemed to be bursting open the notions of what was possible in “mainstream” cinema, making up new rules seemingly as he went along; he pointed the way for a new era of bold, brash filmmaking. It remains an electrifying motion picture.

SEE ALSO: Mean Streets, Casino, The Departed

Miller’s Crossing

September 1990 was a rough month to put out your gangster movie. With Godfather III on the way in December, there was an absolute glut of crime pictures in the fall: GoodFellas, King of New York, State of Grace, and Miller’s Crossing all hit theaters within the same two week period. GoodFellas got most of the attention; the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing got the leftovers. (The other two films wouldn’t find their audiences until home video.) The style of the two films defied expectations; the younger Coens, whose first two films were notable for their whip-fast, hyper-stylized photography, went with a more classical, noir­-influenced touch, while the elder Scorsese used the kind of gimmicky camerawork and fast pace one might’ve expected from the Coens. However it happened, the swap worked; Miller’s Crossing remains one of their most memorable and mature pieces of work.

SEE ALSO: King of New York, State of Grace, Bugsy, A Bronx Tale

New Jack City

Filmmakers had tried, throughout the 1970s, to mate the gangster and “blaxpoitation” subgenres, with little success — though films like Black Caesar and Black Godfather are fun to watch, they’re not terribly good cinema. Mario van Peebles’ 1991 film New Jack City suffers from some of the same melodramatic tendencies (and giggle-worthy fashion callbacks), but it succeeds, and sticks in the memory, because of the remarkable lead performance of Wesley Snipes as unrepentant hustler Nino Brown. Sure, Snipes became a punch line in later years, but this is a fierce, gripping turn, intoxicating not only in his moments of evil, but in the vulnerability of his interactions with childhood friend and soured business partner Gee Money (Allen Payne) late in the picture.

SEE ALSO: Sugar Hill, A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover

Those are our picks — agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!