For over 80 years, Hollywood has had a delicious and decadent fascination with movie mobsters. With the release of Michael Mann latest high octane gangster film, “Public Enemies,” we thought we would spotlight our 13 Favorite Gangster Movies!
While the earliest mob star was none other than Lon Chaney during the silent era, while the 1930s’s defined the genre, one of the earliest films of the note was the 1927 silent film, “Underworld.” Spanning almost every ethnicity and culture, America has proven that they can’t get enough of these bad guys and our favorite mob movies of all-time, we just can’t get enough!
City of God (2002)
This Brazilian epic spanning three decades of gang violence in the “City of God” tells the story of the rise of a young gangster named Lil’ Ze. After idolizing the City of God’s first crew of gangsters, The Tender Trio, Ze takes the game to frighteningly effect levels when he becomes the Don. Meanwhile, a childhood friend who managed to escape the game is the soul and conscience of like in the hood. Based on a true story, this little indie that could was every bit as effective as its American counterparts. An absolutely brilliant film!
Public Enemy (1931)
Cagney may have not invented the movie gangster but no early actor personified one more than him. In this film as well as “White Heat,” Cagney is mean, vicious and menacing all at once. From smashing a grapefruit in the face of a dame that talked too much to killing a close associate who crossed him, Tom Powers (Cagney) was tsunami of terror that would explode on any or everyone who crossed his path. While contemporaries such as Paul Muni may have been just as menacing, Cagney and his film eclipsed all others from that period.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
When one man tries to keep the peace between two warring gangs, he finds himself smack in the middle in this battle of 1930s Irish gangsters. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Regan is an advisor to Leo (Albert Finney), a crime boss. Soon, Regan finds himself caught in the middle of a war of ambushes and shifting allegiances where nothing is ever quite what it seems. Our favorite scene is Leo smoking two assassins by leaping from the roof of his house and surprising the mobsters – all while listening to “Danny Boy.” Great scene, great movie!
American Gangster (2007)
New York mobster, Frank Lucas’ life received the big screen treatment in Tony Scott’s hard-hitting drama, “American Gangster.” Portrayed by Denzel Washington, Lucas learns from legendary Harlem mobster, Bumpy Johnson and turns that tutelage into a multi-million dollar business. Discovering that much of the product on the street was so diluted, Lucas cultivated a relationship with the source and his ingenuity earned him millions and the scorn of the Feds who later brought him down and turned him into a witness for the state. Today Lucas rails against the evils of his once glamorous lifestyle but in his heyday there were not many who made it happen like this “American Gangster!”
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Al Pacino gives a heart-breaking performance as a small-time hood whose young protege turns out to be non other than FBI agent Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) who infiltrates the mafia of New York. Befriending Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), Pistone (under the name Donnie Brasco) is able to embed himself in a mafia faction lead by Sonny Black. Ruggiero and Pistone become tight as the group goes about collecting money for ‘the bosses’. The real dilemma is afforded to Pistone, who knows if he walks away from the mafia, Ruggiero will be the one punished. Pacino and Depp sparkle in this underappreciated mob classic.
New Jack City (1991)
In a year when Black directors stormed Tinseltown in record numbers, it was Mario Van Peebles’ portrayal of the rise of crack cocaine under the guise of hardened gangster, Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) in the memorable “New Jack City.” Mixing in elements of the late Oakland drug kingpin, Felix Mitchell along with notorious New York mobster, Nicky Barnes, Van Peebles’ film was urgent, relevant and influential spawning a host of copycat stories. “You got to rob to get rich in the Reagan Era,” spouts the visionary drug-dealing Brown. Featuring solid performances from Ice-T, Vanessa Williams and Allen Payne, it is Snipes who dominates the film in one of his best dramatic roles.
American Me (1992)
Edward James Olmos received death threats for his portrayal of Mexican-American kingpin, Santana, leader of the Mexican Mafia in the explosive story, “American Me.” With a mantra of kill or be killed, Santana and his crew rule first the streets and later carve out much respect behind the walls of prison. But when he begins to develop a conscience, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that he would fall . . . very hard in one of the most violent death scenes in an American film. In addition to his strong performance, Olmos also directed this story that resulted in three of the film’s consultants being murdered for a rape scene that deeply offended the Mexican machismo. “American Me” was as violent off-screen as it was on!
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director Quentin Tarantino’s clever tale of a band of seedy L.A. mobsters shot him to super-stardom and revived the sagging career of John Travolta. From its riveting and pulsating soundtrack to its controversial for his over-usage of the “N word,” Tarantino nevertheless created a rich mosaic of memorable characters and situations and bolstered by a solid cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman and Ving Rhames, “Pulp Fiction” was a powerful adrenaline shot to the heart of a stale industry and introduced Tarantino as a bold cinematic voice.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Director Sergio Leone’s epic, episodic, tale of the lives of a small group of New York City Jewish gangsters spanning over 40 years. Told mostly in flashbacks and flash-forwards, the movie centers on small-time hood David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his lifelong partners in crime; Max, Cockeye and Patsy and their friends from growing up in the rough Jewish neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, to the last years of Prohibition in the early 1930s, and then to the late 1960s where an elderly Noodles returns to New York after many years in hiding to look into the past. Leone’s last film and he didn’t disappoint.
Laurence Fishburne and director Bill Duke teamed up to tell the story of colorful Harlem gangster, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson in “Hoodlum. The story focuses on the war of two gangs in 1930s Harlem for the control of illegal gaming – one headed by black strategic godfather Johnson and another by white ruthless hothead Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth). Negotiations proposed by white syndicate boss Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia) never get under way, blood flows and Johnson gets jailed. When Johnson is paroled, he gets the work of enforcer for mighty Stephanie “The Queen” St. Clair (Cicely Tyson). If Fishburne seemed comfortable in the role maybe it’s because he had practice. He portrayed Johnson a decade earlier in “Cotton Club.”
A decade after Al Pacino created a masterwork of subtlety in the landmark mob tale, “The Godfather,” he let loose with epic vengeance in the 1980s version of the American Dream, “Scarface.” Tony Montana (Pacino) escapes from Cuba and slowly rises to one of the country’s largest kingpins, slaying any and everyone that gets in his way. The film influenced a generation of rappers who try to incorporate his violent themes into their music. Who can forget the coke-up kingpin with guns blazing in both hands shouting, “say hello to my little friend!” I know I can’t!
Little Caesar (1931)
Rated as the ninth greatest gangster film of all-time, along with “Public Enemy, “Little Caesar” is considered the granddaddy of the gangster film genre. Loosely based on the rise of Chicago mobster, Al Capone, the story centers around small-time crook Caesar Enrico Bandello (aka “Rico”) played by Edward G. Robinson who rises through the ranks to become crime boss in Chicago. Coming three years after mob classic, “Underworld,” “Little Caesar” was one of the films that served as the foundation for the Hollywood gangster genre. Most mob films looked like this until . . .
The Godfather Trilogy (1972, 74, 91)
One of my favorite films of all-time, it was the subject of a piece I wrote for the 75th Anniversary of the Academy Award as it was voted the Best Picture” winner in the history of the Oscars. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic story of the several generations of the Corleone family spans the early part of the 20th century as they rule with their special code of honor, loyalty and above else family. The movie that forever changed the mob genre, creating a line of BG (before “The Godfather”) and AG. Every story from “Goodfellas” to “The Sopranos” bears the stamp of Coppola’s work of art. “The Godfather” revived the sagging career of iconic actor Marlon Brando and introduced the world to a cadre of young stars who would also have iconic careers in Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton.
Which film is your favorite mob movie and why?