Gangsters and mobsters are great at a lot of things. Using machine guns, sporting fashionable scars, threatening the opposition, drug smuggling and gun sales, turning government officials crooked — let’s face it, they’re a talented bunch. They are also the subject of a long list of great films, having gained a stylized vintage cool as time goes on and we forget past proverbial “whackings.” Let’s take a look at some of the best fedora-donning films that have hit theaters over the years.
1. The Godfather
Why not start out with a classic? Starring Marlon Brando as the patriarchal Don Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, his son and eventual replacement, The Godfather tells the story of the real life mobster Vito Corleone in the 1920s. It’s a classic for a reason. The acting is superb, Al Pacino smoothly drifts away from his resistant and straight-laced son, attending his sister’s wedding at the start of the film, before becoming the man who fills his father’s violent and cold-hearted shoes later.
Diane Keaton’s portrayal of Kay Adams Corleone, Michael’s wife, is equally impressive, and follows along the same vein that most characters in the film do — from innocence, or at least a degree of innocence, to corruption. The soundtrack is also highly worthy of comment, winning the Golden Globe for Best Original Score and a Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV Special back in 1973.
2. The Godfather II and III
The continuation of Michael Corleone’s story and takeover of the family business is interrupted with intermittent flashbacks to his father’s childhood in Sicily, a nice touch for a generational trilogy such as The Godfather, which spans such an extended time period.
The third Godfather obviously belongs on this list as well. Some, including myself, might argue that it didn’t quite measure up to previous films, but it certainly concluded the storyline with an appropriately violent and dark punctuation — first with the death of Mary, then winding up with the simple but haunting death of Michael as an old man, collapsing alone in a garden with only a dog to witness his passing.
A slightly more recent gangster movie, Goodfellas (1990), takes us from Henry Hill’s criminally active youth to his eventual entrenchment in a New York gang, and later, his downfall. Henry — played by Ray Liotta — makes his career with his pals Jimmy and Tommy, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, respectively, two familiar names in the gangster movie genre. You grow fond of their crooked friendship, but it has a predictably messy end.
The movie was based off of Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book written about Henry Hill life, entitled Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, and it was directed by Martin Scorsese, whose career has produced a slew of gangster films, including The Departed and Casino.
4. American Gangster
Many gangster and mob films focus on foreign organized crime, as with the Italian mob featured in The Godfather, or the Cuban drug cartel in Scarface. American Gangster, as the name suggests, tells the tale of homegrown drug lord Frank Lucas — played by Denzel Washington — in the 1970s, and his rise in the criminal world of New York via the heroin trade.
Russel Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective on his tail, and Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise) directed, leading to his nomination at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Director. Denzel Washington was, in turn, nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama at the Golden Globes.
5. Donnie Brasco
Al Pacino takes on his old mobster role in Donnie Brasco as New York mobster and mentor Benjamin “Lefty.” He’s joined by Johnny Depp who plays the lead role of undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone, known by the mob as Donnie Brasco. The movie was based on real-life-agent Joseph Pistone’s book and career in taking down mafia groups.
You find yourself sympathizing with the fatherly “Lefty,” even as Pistone struggles to deal with the need to betray him for the sake of law and order. Michael Madsen nabbed rolls in both Donnie Brasco and Tarantino’s very similar film about a cop infiltrating the mob and growing close to an eventually betrayed mentor, Reservoir Dogs, playing a similar supporting roll.
6. Public Enemy — Old and New
The Public Enemy is a 1931 black and white classic, weaving a violent tale of two friends, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle — played by James Cagney and Edward Woods — as they work bootlegging during prohibition, making their way in the mob despite the disapproval of their more upright siblings. Cue mob war and murder.
Public Enemies, made in 2009, stars Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum, and Stephen Graham, taking viewer back to the 1930s to witness the careers of three major gang-bangers, John Dillinger (Depp), Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum), and Baby Faced Nelson (Graham). Bale plays the FBI agent sent to track them down. The film isn’t 100 percent true to real life events, but it’s an enjoyable cinematic creation none-the-less.
Heading over to Harlem, Hoodlum is a film about gang warfare through and through, pitting Bumpy Johnson — played by Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) — against the famous New York prohibition mobster Dutch Schultz, played by Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs).
Godfather star Andy Garcia also makes an appearance as Lucky Luciano, once again proving that mob cinematography is fond of a familiar face. The cast was strong, however, the film itself got mixed reviews, with a 68 percent audience approval on Rotten Tomatoes.
8. Carlito’s Way
Al Pacino stars once more in Carlito’s Way, released just three years after the final Godfather film came out. Pacino portrays a Puerto Rican gangster seeking to reform after his release from prison. He is inevitably pulled back into the criminal life by old employers and his good friend and lawyer David Kleinfeld.
Kleinfeld ultimately tugs Carlito back to his old ways when he tries his hand at the mob business and gets in over his head, forced to beg for aid. Their friendship is both endearing and ultimately costly, and Al Pacino once again has the audience rooting for a violent criminal — though it helps that he’s looking to retire.
9. The Crew
Ever wonder what happens when mobsters retired? The Crew takes a unique and humorous look at crime past its prime. Four elderly ex-gangsters retire down in Florida, staying at a hotel in Miami. When their living situations begin to take a turn for the worse, with upped rent and an increasingly youthful population moving in on their space, the four concoct a plan involving a faked murder and threats. Unfortunately for them, it spirals out of control and they are unintentionally forced into a mob war with a local King Pin.
“Miami Beach. Used to be the average age around here was like 82. And then that broad Madonna decides that this is the place to be, and the next thing you know, everywhere you turn, it’s women with big breasts, men with big breasts. Breasts are very big here.” says Bobby Bertellemeo, played by Richard Dreyfuss. The entire cast is gold, and Dreyfuss is joined by Burt Reynolds, Dan Hedaya, and Seymour Cassel, together striking just the right crotchety tune.
Al Pacino made gangster movie history with these six words: “Say hello to my little friend,” back in 1983, or perhaps it was Oliver Stone that did so when he wrote the screenplay. Either way, Scarface has an esteemed place in the genre and has matched or even surpassed the fame of the original movie it was based on, a 1932 gangster film of the same name.
Tony Mantana, a Cuban born gangster who made his career in the drug trade stateside, may not have as many hours of film in which to be fleshed out as did Michael Corleone in The Godfather, but Pacino did the role justice.
“There’s something fablelike about Tony Montana. He’s like Icarus flying close to the sun, just going a little closer and closer, knowing as soon as he gets close enough those wings are going to get burned — he’s gonna soar right down. That’s what attracted me to that character. When were people ever not fascinated by the gangster world, that underworld, that world that’s illicit?” Pacino said of his work in Scarface in an interview with Interview Magazine.
Ultimately, this list could continue for quite some time; Casino, White Heat, Bugsy, The Long Good Friday, Gotti, all deserve a spot. Happy watching!