Ten Surpassingly Good American Gangster Movies
You gotta love those bullet spewing folks!
Many people like tough guys – or women for that matter, and nobody seems tougher than gangsters, those lawless folk who play by their own rules, and if you get in their way, you’re liable to end up six feet under like Jimmy Hoffa. Nevertheless, they slash a romantic path, because many of us would like to be them – at least for a day or two, or in another life, so we can thumb our noses at authority and do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it, with plenty of dough in our pockets. Haven’t you always wanted to duel with the cops, spitting hot lead from the barrel of a Tommy gun, BAR or assault rifle?
Video games may provide an equivalent of some kind. Go for it!
This list includes only gangster movies, as opposed to crime stories or film noir. Just exactly where the line is drawn I’m not certain. But gangsters comprise a band of mugs and molls, who commit numerous crimes of one sort or another, with varying degrees of organization, ruthlessness and lethality, and these movies are about them.
10. Little Caesar may be the first great “talking” gangster movie. Starring Edward G. Robinson as “Rico,” Robinson portrays a second rate mug who, in what appears to be early 1930s Chicago, aspires to be the king of the underworld. Decidedly Al Capone-like in appearance, Rico claws and murders his way to the top, of course, and Robinson’s performance soars to an iconic one. Comedians still imitate Robinson’s mannerisms and speech used in this one: “I’m gonna get ya, see? Myyaa!” The film’s climax, when the cops finally catch up with Rico and strafe him with machine gun fire, is as memorable as that in any gangster flick. Dying, Rico asks, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” In the annals of celluloid, it certainly wasn’t!
9. Angels with Dirty Faces
This movie suggests that even a gangster can have a sense of social responsibility. Made in 1938, the film stars James Cagney as Rocky Sullivan, Humphrey Bogart and Pat O’Brien. O’Brien, a childhood pal of Rocky’s, plays a priest who’s trying to save the Dead End Kids from a life of crime. Both rival gangsters, Rocky snuffs Jim Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), because he’s planning to kill the priest for exposing corruption in the city. The authorities then sentence Rocky to die in the electric chair. The priest visits Rocky just before the execution and pleads with him to die like a coward, thereby destroying the Dead End Kids’ idolization of him. Shown only in shadow, Rocky goes to the hot seat like a sniveling yellowbelly.
Angels with Dirty Faces
8. Road to Perdition
This film is a somber, atmospheric tale of conflicted fathers and sons. Tom Hanks plays Michael O’Sullivan, a Depression-era mobster hit man who tries to keep his life of crime from his two young sons. O’Sullivan succeeds, until one night when Michael’s oldest son, Michael Jr. watches as his father shoots dead another man. Then Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig), the son of O’Sullivan’s boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), while sworn to secrecy for O’Sullivan’s “hit,” kills O’Sullivan’s wife and younger son. Now O’Sullivan and Michael Jr. embark on the road to revenge (or perdition). Hot on O’Sullivan’s heels is photographer/assassin Harlen Maguire (Jude Law), who obsesses over photographing gangsters as they die from his gunshot wounds.
Road to Perdition
7. The Untouchables
The Untouchables is this list’s film about Al Capone, perhaps the most murderous gangster of all time and certainly the most notorious. Produced in 1987, and based on the TV series of the 1950s, the movie stars Robert De Niro as Capone and Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness. One of the most memorable scenes is when Capone decides he must kill Ness. He rants, “I want him dead, dead, dead!” Sean Connery plays Irish cop Jim Malone, who tells Ness the only way to fight Capone is to be as ruthless as he is. Well, something as mousy as accounting takes down Capone, sending him to the Rock for income tax evasion. Too bad they didn’t show Ness and Capone blazing away with Tommy guns at the end!
6. White Heat
White Heat is perhaps James Cagney’s greatest gangster movie. Made in 1949, after the genre’s heyday, the movie tells the story of psychopathic killer Cody Jarrett who, as shockingly terrible as he is, still loves his momma, who likes to sit him on her lap, while toasting whiskey and saying, “Top of the world.” Jarrett’s gang of robbers seemingly kills as much as they rob, which is a lot. One famous scene is when Jarrett breaks out of the joint, one of his hostages, crammed into the trunk of a car, complains, “It’s stuffy in here. I need some air.” Jarrett then empties his pistol into the trunk, giving him plenty of air. At the climax, surrounded by the cops at a chemical plant, Jarrett climbs atop a huge gas tank, shoots into it and shouts, “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” Then the tank explodes. No gangster has ever been tougher than Cagney is in this movie!
5. The Departed
The Departed, directed by cinema legend, Martin Scorsese, who’s won so many awards and honors that he’s now getting rather tired of the whole business, is the convoluted tale of two informants – one in the mob, the other in the police department. No, make that three, er, uh, four informants! Mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) tries to find the snitch in his “organization,” while Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) also tries to find the fink in his. Eventually mob rat Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) discovers that Frank Costello is an FBI mole – just before he shoots him dead during a police raid. Then it’s revealed that Costello had still another mole in the police department about the time Billy Costigan Jr. (Lenny DiCaprio), the police informant, gets whacked. Whew, what a ride! The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006.
4. Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction is a campy, glorified depiction of the 1990s crime world of L.A. – at least in the mind of writer-director, Quentin Tarantino, who presents a gore fest of gunplay, gangster parody, neo-noir, pop culture references and dark humor, told by three different but interrelated stories in nonchronological order. In perhaps the main one, John Travolta and Samuel Jackson play mobster hit men with philosophical leanings, something like “Caine in Kung Fu,” as they express it. In another, Bruce Willis plays a prizefighter who rips off the mob. Tarantino won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and thereafter everyone in Hollywood was looking for Pulp Fiction-like scripts, though none has measured up to Tarantino’s quirky masterpiece.
3. The Goodfellas
Another Martin Scorsese production, The Goodfellas is about the lives of three mobsters over the course of three decades. Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci star in this tale inspired by real gangsters, as written in Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book, Wiseguy. Played by Pesci, Tommy DeVito steals the show every time he loses his temper and shoots someone, one of whom the threesome has to bury in the country. (Pesci’s character spawns a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live.) Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill, the narrator of the film, who quickly learns that you “never rat on your friends,” and “always keep your mouth shut.” Unfortunately, Hill doesn’t follow his own lessons, as he, in order to escape serious drug trafficking charges, becomes a mole for the FBI and then joins the Witness Protection Program. Perhaps one of the best flicks ever made!
Scarface is about Cuban immigrant Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and his murderous ascent in Miami’s drug trafficking underworld. Based on the 1932 film of the same name and written by Oliver Stone, Tony Montana quickly shows everybody how bold and ruthless he can be to get to the top. At one point, though, when Montana refuses to murder a woman and her two children to protect his Bolivian connection, we discover that he ain’t such a bad dude after all. But this brings about his downfall. Then Montana violates one of his own rules by becoming addicted to his own product – cocaine. When he dips his face into the nose candy, he looks like a powered doughnut. At the denouement, Montana, charged with coke and his back to the wall in his mansion, goes down smoking with an assault rifle cum grenade launcher, uttering the immortal line, “Say hello to my little friend!”
1. The Godfather
The Godfather easily tops this list. Based on the best selling novel by Mario Puzo, audiences found the story spellbinding. The memorable scenes in this mobster classic are too numerous to list here (remember the bloody horse head in the bed?). Francis Ford Coppola’s direction is masterful, and the performances of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), his mouth seemingly full of marbles as he speaks and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), as his son who's supposed to stay out of the “business” but doesn’t, are first rate. The Corleone family is ruthless, naturally, but only to rivals who do the same, and they refuse to get involved with narcotics trafficking. Such nice fellows, actually! This fest of violence, foul language and explicit sex is also considered one of the finest movies ever made.
Well, they don’t make a lot of gangster movies these days, but as long as organized crime exists, they’ll be making plenty more. So keep your eyes peeled for these gritty tales of corruption, the lust for power, money and sex.
For this list, honorable mention could be given to The Public Enemy, Bonnie and Clyde, Reservoir Dogs, The Dark Knight, Colors and Mean Streets.
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