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The Ten Best Gangster Films Ever Made

Updated on September 3, 2020
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I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

Mafia Movies are a Classic Genre

The gangster genre of movies is almost as old as the movies themselves. It is quintessentially American. When creating a list of the top ten gangster films of all-time, there is much to choose from. Although there were many gangster films in the 1930's, I think it's taken for granted today that "The Godfather" set the modern standard for what a great gangster film can be. Still, I don't necessarily think that "The Godfather" is the best gangster film of all-time. However, I'd certainly understand if somebody wanted to disagree. Here are my selections for the top ten gangster films of all-time.

10. Once Upon a Time in America

Year of Release: 1984

Director: Sergio Leone

Great line:

Noodles: It's true I have killed people, Mr. Bailey. Sometimes to defend myself, sometimes for money. And many people used to come to us. Business partners, rivals, lovers. Some of the jobs we took, and some we didn't. Yours is one we would never touch, Mr Bailey.
Max: Is this your idea of revenge?
Noodles: No. It's just the way I see things.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: Undeniable in its epic grandeur, this is probably the film I recall the least well. And when the film came into the theaters, it was in shortened form, so until it came out in its original form on video, it wasn't generally recognized for its greatness.

9. Point Blank

Year of Release: 1967

Director: John Boorman

Great line:

Brewster: You're a very bad man, Walker, a very destructive man! Why do you run around doing things like this?
Walker: I want my money. I want my $93,000.
Brewster: $93,000? You threaten a financial structure like this for $93,000? No, Walker, I don't believe you. What do you really want?
Walker: I - I really want my money.
Brewster: Well, I'm not going to give you any money and nobody else is. Don't you understand that?
Walker: Who runs things?
Brewster: Carter and I run things. I run things.
Walker: What about Fairfax? Will he pay me?
Brewster: Fairfax is a man who signs checks.
Walker: No, cash.
Brewster: Fairfax isn't going to give you anything. He's finished. Fairfax is dead. He just doesn't know it yet.
Walker: Somebody's got to pay.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: I'm cheating here a bit, but I don't care. I don't think most people would think of this as a gangster film in the traditional sense. It's more of a crime film and even within the genre of crime film, it's a sub genre of revenge film really. Still, it does involve the underworld. Furthermore, the film is so far ahead of its time it's kind of stunning. Films like "Pulp Fiction" owe something to "Point Blank". One of my favorite films of all-time. On a little side note. I've interviewed John Boorman and the first thing I did when I met him was had him sign my "Point Blank" laserdisc. Truly a treasured possession.

8. The Killer

Year of Release: 1989

Director: John Woo

Great line:

Joe (Cantonese)/Jeffrey (English): I thought those I killed deserved to die. Now I believe everbody has the right to live.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: Another cheat, like the previous film. I'm not sure I would classify this as a gangster film really, but oh well. I'm a sucker for John Woo's great films and although I prefer "Hard-Boiled" this is also a great one. The ultra, stylized violence is operatic and beautiful. I think for most people who discovered John Woo back in the early 1990's, his films were mesmerizing and unbelievable. His style has certainly influenced many films since and his transition to making American films is certainly a testament to that. For my money though, you just can't beat his early movies.

7. White Heat

Year of Release: 1949

Director: Raoul Walsh

Great line:

Ma Jarrett: I told you, Cody hasn't been in California for months.
Phillip Evans: I suppose he shot me all the way from another state.
Ma Jarrett: What makes you think *he* shot you? Lots of people have guns.
Phillip Evans: I was as close to him as I am to you.
Ma Jarrett: Anybody else see him?
Phillip Evans: Just you. And his wife.
Ma Jarrett: Of course, being an old woman, I wouldn't know much about the law, but I hear you got to have *witnesses* to make anything stand up in court.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: I just love James Cagney and any list of great gangster films that doesn't have one of his films on it is missing something. While "The Godfather" really provides something of a template for how we measure great gangster films and epic films, Cagney provided the template for the gangster himself.

6. Pulp Fiction

Year of Release: 1994

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Great line:

Fabienne: Whose motorcycle is this?
Butch: It's a chopper, baby.
Fabienne: Whose chopper is this?
Butch: It's Zed's.
Fabienne: Who's Zed?
Butch: Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: It's hard to imagine a more influential film in the last twenty or so years than "Pulp Fiction". Not only did it influence future films, but television as well. Perhaps it's not quintessentially a gangster film like "The Godfather", but certainly it explores the underworld in a uniquely stylized way. The influence "Pulp Fiction" had was on the demand for great dialogue and great writing and style. From the opening, "Pulp Fiction" is a film where the viewer hangs on every word because every word is that interesting. The viewer is constantly asking "what is going to happen next" and "what is that character going to say next?"

5. The Godfather: Part II

Year of Release: 1974

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Great line:

Michael Corleone: I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: After "The Godfather", it was hard to imagine that Francis Ford Coppola could return and make a movie that was as good and possibly better than the original, but that's exactly what happened. This film has a more tragic feeling than the first film where we meet Michael Corleone and there's a hope to him, but in this film, he "descends" toward the inevitable - the role of Godfather as well as the coldness and cruelty that comes with it. Michael loses his soul in this film. We also get to see Robert De Niro as the young Don Vito Corleone, maybe the only actor who could bring the gravitas to that role necessary after Marlon Brando.

4. Scarface

Year of Release: 1983

Director: Brian De Palma

Great line:

Tony Montana: You wanna waste my time? Okay. I call my lawyer. He's the best lawyer in Miami. He's such a good lawyer, that by tomorrow morning, you gonna be working in Alaska. So dress warm.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: Call Al Pacino typecast as a gangster type, but he certainly does it well. Two iconic characters in two of the best gangster films of all-time. Although the significance of the violence and language of "Scarface" is taken for granted now, I remember how incredible it seemed back in the day. The f-word was more plentiful in "Scarface" than in any film I had ever seen. Then there was the violence, also overwhelming. However, if you were familiar with De Palma's work, you knew him to be a master of whatever style he decided to emulate. And in emulating (some criticize him for copying), he became a master. In fact, because "Scarface" is so violent (and perhaps ahead of its time?), it might actually be underrated. Not by me.

3. Goodfellas

Year of Release: 1990

Director: Martin Scorsese

Great line:

Henry Hill: All they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off. That's what it's all about. That's what the FBI can never understand - that what Paulie and the organization offer is protection for the kinds of guys who can't go to the cops. They're like the police department for wiseguys.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: I'll boldly declare 1990 as the best year ever for gangster films as "Goodfellas" was released along with my pick for the best gangster film of all-time. Martin Scorsese contributes this gem, which is based on a true story. It's really a film about the life. Who can forget the scene between Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. "Do you think I'm funny?" It's an incredible scene that says everything about Pesci's character. I also recall the incredible opening, a long tracking shot that sucks us into the world and the movie.

2. The Godfather

Year of Release: 1972

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Great line:

Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don't have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who's being naive, Kay?

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: Really, what is there to say about "The Godfather"? I'm sure that many people regard it as the greatest gangster film of all-time if not the best film of all-time. Marlon Brando's portrayal of Don Vito Corleone (at a time when Brando's career was considered sliding severely) is a marvel. I suppose the biggest question about this whole selection is where it is on my list - two, not one. I certainly wouldn't argue much with somebody who disagreed.

1. Miller's Crossing

Year of Release: 1990

Director: Joel Coen

Great line:

Johnny Caspar: It's gettin' so a businessman can't expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can't trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin' on chance - and then you're back with anarchy, right back in the jungle.

Why it's in the top 10 gangster films list: This is a personal pick, though "Miller's Crossing" is highly regarded. It's my favorite film of all-time. Keep in mind that this was only the third film the Coen brothers had made, following "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona". At the time, they were still considered too big for their britches and just a couple of guys making derivative films that went over the heads of their audience. "Miller's Crossing" takes place in no particular reality. It's not based on a true story. It's entirely made up by the Coen brothers. The movie is about loyalty and frankly, about a guy who's just smarter than everyone else (or perhaps just understands what's going on better than everyone else). Gabriel Byrne is fantastic as is John Turturro - actually all the performances as great. The dialogue, the style, the story - everything is perfect, if you ask me.

What movie is the best in the gangster genre?

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