An offer you can't refuse
Genres come and go, but gangster movies never go away. From the black and white era to the 3D, these morally bankrupt murderous mobsters with their own codes of honour have held a fascination for audiences. The guns, the suits, the power struggles, the bonds, the betrayals and, most of all, the unfettered violence have made gangsters and the cinema perfect partners in crime.
Class directors like Howard Hawks, Francis Ford Coppola and Scorsese have elevated the genre way above its exploitative roots, and here are some of the greatest gangster flicks to seek out.
30. Infernal Affairs (2002)
This Hong Kong classic is so good, Scorsese remade it without bettering it. Andrew Lau and Alan Maks' original two-mole thriller inspired The Departed, but Tony Leung and Andy Lau's cop-crook tango throws deeper, darker, deadlier shapes than Damon and DiCaprio's double act.
Originally, the movie was heavily inspired by Face/Off, but those Woo-vian bullet ballets were ditched for the psychological stylings of a straight-up urban thriller. Quite a good job, really. There's no other movie quite like it. I mean, come on, that rooftop face-off? Okay, so there's still a bit of Woo's influence.
29. King Of New York (1990)
Dark and nihilistic, King Of New York sears into the memory. That's mainly down to Christopher Walken's turn as Frank White, a paper rich but spiritually bankrupt mob boss back from the Sing Sing grave to rebuild his drugs empire. It's the weird and eccentric schtick that Walken brings to this thuggish kingpin that makes the movie still have such an impact today.
Roaming the streets of the Bronx in his stretch-limo hearse, White is New York City's Nosferatu, sucking the life from the city's veins. It's one of his most underseen performances - and one of his best. As Walken says himself, "when I go to an airport, all the cops, that's the movie they know."
28. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Al Pacino switched out The Godfather's tyrannical Don for his aging mafioso Lefty Ruggiero, an old geezer too blind to realise the guy he's tutoring (Johnny Depp) is actually an undercover Fed. It's not gonna end well, is it? That doesn't mean it's not riveting to see how Lefty's house of cards comes tumbling down.
Originally slated for Pacino and Tom Cruise, then shelved when Goodfellas went into production, Donnie Brasco was resurrected by English director Mike Newell. It's perhaps his foreign ear that explains the loving attention to particular details, especially the way mafia lifestyle is brilliantly deconstructed - Lefty teaches Donnie how to dress, walk and talk like a wiseguy.
27. The Killing (1956)
Can't do the time, don't do the crime. Kubrick's racetrack stick-up unfolds in flashbacks, its storytelling splintered into pieces that really helps to nail the fatalistic theme. The movie revolves around a motley crew of crooks who team up for One Last Job. We all know how that typically goes.
A crime film, said the director, is almost like a bullfight; it has a ritual and a pattern, which pretty much guarantees that the criminal isn't going to make it.
As the movie jumps from Sterling Hayden's perfectly planned heist to the aftermath, his cool professionalism comes undone by the gang of squealers and bunglers he's working with. Sound familiar? Tarantino nicked ideas from the movie for Reservoir Dogs, boasting, this movie is my The Killing.
26. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Seijun Suzuki's yakuza run-around is your average gang-warfare flick plot-wise, locked n' loaded by a crime boss who struggles to go clean.
That's not to say it's played completely straight. There's twists galore, from its all-over-the-place structure, freaky effects, impromptu songs, near-slapstick gags, Pop Art colour coding (our hero is frequently coordinated to correlate with the wallpaper) and a villain who pretty much always arrives on screen sunglasses first.
Sounds like a lot of style and not much content. That's not the case, however, as Suzuki uses his exuberant style choices to crack open and unpick the conventions of crime cinema. Pretty groovy, eh?
25. The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang's brutal thriller predates Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle by two decades. Glenn Ford stars as the tough cop hunting the ruthless mobster who blew up his wife. Shockingly violent for its day, this hard-boiled noir paints a bleak universe steeped in the kind of endemic corruption that was being uncovered at the time by the Kefauver Committee.
What's most unsettling is the way women become the story's collateral damage. Whether they're beaten, burned, or scalded, they're all treated like sacrificial lambs caught in the cross-fire of a vicious new order. See: Lee Marvin's psychotic gangster Vince Stone throwing hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face. Yeah, can't imagine this getting points with the MPAA today.
24. Carlito's Way (1993)
"What might have been if Carlito's Way had forged new ground and not gone down smokin' in the shadow of Scarface?" wondered Rolling Stone magazine about Brian De Palma's mesmeric gangster flick.
These days you have to wonder what the Stone guys were smoking not to see the neo-noir clout in the tale of mobster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) and his struggle to carve out a law-abiding life for himself. Even without Sean Penn's turn as a coke-hoovering shyster, this is scintillating stuff, from its dying man's voiceover to its bone-cracking violence.
23. A Prophet (2009)
A Prophet is an excellent two-fer. It's both a prison movie and solid piece of gangster grit, blends together aspects of both in the story of a low-level crook becomes part of a Corsican prison crew while serving time. Taken under the wing of mob boss Cesar Luciani, who spies an opportunity to exploit an untapped part of the prison, young Malik finds himself slowly rising through the ranks.
It's not like he's much of a choice - the entire movie chronicles Malik's journey as he opts for the lesser of two evils time and time again. It's kill or be killed, his intimidating and powerful mentor informs him. There's echoes of The Godfather to be found throughout the movie - in particular, parts that mirror Michael Corleone's story - but A Prophet stands on its own merits as a worthy entry in gangster cinema.
22. Get Carter (1971)
It's grim up north. It's even grimmer when East End gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine) arrives in Newcastle looking for the bloke who supposedly killed his brother. He meets with a local kingpin and starts leaving a trail of bodies behind him, as he desperately seeks justice.
Nice and fluffy Michael Caine, this ain't. Get Carter injects the Brit-flick gangster movie with knuckle-scraping brutality. It's a hard-boiled flick that attracted its star due to the realistic portrayal of violence: director Mike Hodges shows that in real life, each punch grinds some teeth in, and just one thrust of the knife can open someone's heart.
21. Gomorrah (2008)
Gomorra won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and was selected as Italy’s official entry into the 2009 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. It's not hard to see why this grungy gangster flick caused such waves at the time of release.
Set in the grubby Neapolitan underworld, it taps into the dangerous, violent world of the Camorra crime syndicate, who make a living moving cocaine. Shot in a lo-fi documentary style, director Matteo Garrone borrows a lot of style tips from the Italian neo-realists (c'mon, you've got to have seen The Bicycle Thief!) with naturalistic lighting, untrained actors and slow, real-time pacing. It makes you really feel like you're eavesdropping on a bunch of brutal thugs.
20. The Killer (1989)
Chow Yun-Fat seeks bloody redemption in John Woo's seminal actioner, his Hong Kong hitman showing a twisted nobility as he takes on one last job to prevent the girl he injured from losing her sight. And then he winds up blind-sided by his boss, who double crosses him at the last second.
"The killer wants to be good," the director reveals. "He's fed up with killing and he's trying to stop. The problem is, once you pick up a gun its hard to put down..."
The Killer was slammed at home for glamourising the Triads, but had a much better reception abroad, launching the international careers of both star and director.
19. Sonatine (1993)
Takeshi Kitano's minimalist hitman-in-hiding movie is a brave entry in the gangster canon. It leans on the philosophical side of the job, in an understated but poignant way. He stars in the movie as Murakawa, a Yakuza enforcer dispatched to investigate two sparring clans, only later realising it was an ambush.
As a director, Kitano takes quite a few risks with style. That climactic shoot-out filmed from outside, shown only as a light show? The work of pure genius. Having a bunch of thugs clown around on a beach? Sounds a bit Tarantino-esque. It's things like that which got Kitano and the movie noticed in the international film world, earning him legions of loyal fans.
18. John Wick (2014)
The movie that single-handedly relaunched Keanu Reeves' career, John Wick isn't just a gangster movie. It's loads of things. A blistering revenge tale, a tearjerker that tugs on the heart strings, and a bloody actioner. Best of all, it's free of clutter. There's no uneccessary subplots brought in to pad out the running time.
The plot moves along nicely, with action focused solely on Wick's mission to wipe out Reek. Sorry, the son of a Russian mob boss played by the guy who plays Reek. He just happens to take out a few of his wannabe-gangstah chums along the way.
Director Chad Stahelski proves his time spent on Hollywood sets as a stunt choreographer paid off - this is how you execute a perfect mix of thrills and action. The nightclub scene alone is pure cinematic gold.
17. City Of God (2002)
Ferociously kinetic, Fernando Meirelles and co-director Ktia Lund's adaptation of Paolo Lin's non-fiction epic is also propelled by a righteous social agenda.
The film rips through three decades of urban deterioration and criminal expansion in the Rio De Janeiro slums - the favelas. It starts with a blackly comic catch-that-chicken scene, flips to the 60s and then forwards to the 80s via turf wars and the drug-terror tactics of one mean cat, Lil Ze.
Meirelles and Lund spin mood on a dime, orchestrating the action around a total lack of morality. There's nothing and no-one in these sun-kissed backstreets that's immune to the horrors of this street-turf war. God, you suspect, is dead.
16. Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
They're young. They're in love. And they kill people! So proclaimed the tagline to Arthur Penn's blistering lovers-on-the-lam epic. This is about as sexy and red-blooded as murder gets. It's a supercool tale of romance, firearms, and how to floor it when you've got half the state on your tail.
Watching the film feels like bearing witness to the bitter demise of 60s idealism, grafted onto the story of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway's eponymous natural born killers cheerily pillaging their way across sun-dappled, Depression-era America. It's a unique fuck-you to the film establishment of the time - with very cool hats.
It's perhaps most fondly-remembered for that bullet-riddled finale; despite its cinematic excess, it's desperately tragic.
15. Breathless (1960)
Jean-Luc Godard's crime classic is the quintessential movie of the French New Wave.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, a whole new style of movie star with his boxers nose and thick lips, is Michel, a petty thief who kills a cop down south and heads for Paris to look up Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student.
Michel's US-gangster pose is lifted straight from Jean-Pierre Melville (who takes a cameo role) but the jump-cuts, hand-held camera, improvised jazz score and quirky shifts of pace and mood are all Godard. As Roger Ebert once said, modern movies begin here. You really won't see another gangster film like it.
14. Le Samourai (1961)
Jean-Pierre Melville's gangsters stalk the Parisian backstreets in trenchcoats and trilbies, shoulders weighted with existential angst. Sounds grim, doesn't it? It's not. These bad guys are chic. Even on the run, Alain Delon's hitman looks like he's just stepped out of a photoshoot.
It's more concise than the directors' earlier hoodlum flicks. There's no dilly-dallying, but there's still a lot of time spent on the details. Le Samourai regards criminal activity - like Delon stealing a Citron in the virtuoso opening - with an obsessive eye for detail.
Melville's movies were basically the Warner Brothers Bogart-Cagney films set to this French-Parisian rhythm.
13. Casino (1995)
Even bigger and bolder than Goodfellas, Casino might be a bit long, but it has more swearing and a better tailor. Plus, we get to see Joe Pesci's pen-stabbing lesson to some unlucky guy who disrespects Robert De Niro.
It's the Shakespearean mirror-image to Scorsese's mob masterwork, telling the giddy rise-and-fall tale of ultra-smooth mafia honcho Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro). He's parachuted in as the new boss of Vegas Tangiers casino, and lives the high-life for a while, until his efforts are thwarted by his psychotic pal (Joe Pesci, inevitably) and troubled wife (Sharon Stone).
12. Mean Streets (1973)
Scorsese's homage to the Little Italy of his youth ("I knew all those guys and many of them are still very close friends") lacks the polish of his later works but makes up for it with a raw passion and energy embodied in Robert De Niro's reckless Johnny Boy.
The director's alter-ego, though, is Harvey Keitel's Charlie, a tortured Catholic torn between spirituality and crime. It's his journey that drives the story. As he gets deeper into debt with a dangerous loan shark, he vows to do anything to get away from the low-life thug lifestyle. Scorsese made a lasting impression with this piece of gritty New York cinema.
11. Point Blank (1967)
There is no cash - that's the secret of Point Blank. John Boorman's stylish, stylized gangster thriller pits Lee Marvin's ghost-like revenger Walker against the shadowy organisation that left him for dead on Alcatraz.
He wants his $93,000, but in ultra-modern LA the Mob only deals in cheques or plastic. Typical. Boorman exploited the complete loss of nerve by the American studios in order to gain total creative control for himself. The resulting movie? It's no slice of regular Hollywood that's for sure. It's a bad trip, packed with deja-vu flashbacks and jump cuts that wouldn't be out of place in a European indie. The first genuine acid-noir gangster flick.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
"Gangster films are sort of parodies of the American Dream," explains Quentin Tarantino. "They're a skewed, bizarro world of getting rich in business in America. There always has to be some sort of satire on the American lifestyle."
So is that why Jules and Vincent go about their business like ordinary schmoes, shooting the shit about burgers and foot massages on their way to make a killing? It's their very ordinariness that makes them, in the world of gangster movies, extraordinary.
Tarantino winds their tale together with several different stories, all told out-of-order, and creates a modern masterpiece. A movie where it's perfectly acceptable for an entire act to be spent on two LA mobsters getting schooled in cleaning a brain-splattered car. Genius.
9. Scarface (1983)
Scorsese and De Niro had long wanted to upgrade Howard Hawks 1932 crime classic Scarface. They just couldn't figure out how. As it turns out, you had to go all the way to make it work. Oliver Stone hung out with gangsters to write the script. Brian De Palma dunked Miami Vice headfirst in blood, cocaine and style. Al Pacino became Michael Corleone's monstrous side made flesh.
Following Cuban refugee Tony Montana's (Pacino) roaring rise from dishwasher to druglord, Scarface is a terrifying black comedy of lust, wealth, power, destruction and - most of all - excess. Nothing exceeds like it. De Palma's first ever gangster film combines arty flourishes and berserker violence in a way even Scorsese wouldn't have dared to.
8. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Sergio Leone turned down The Godfather to make this epic tale of a Jewish gangster (Robert De Niro) who journeys from ghetto to exile in Prohibition-era New York. The resulting masterpiece, alas, was too much for Warner Bros, who criminally removed 90 minutes from his four-hour version.
To appreciate this elaborate saga, it's best to seek out the original. Even if it does feature two graphic rape scenes and a persistent opium den motif that convinced some the whole movie is one long, drug-induced hallucination. It's worth it to witness Leone's take on the gangster mythos, in all of its glory.
7. Miller's Crossing (1990)
The Coens 30s-set, Dashiell Hammett-inspired gangster flick is packed with rapid-fire chit-chat and machine-gun violence. It's a perfect medley, which its DoP Barry Sonnenfeld described as "a handsome movie about men in hats" - no bad pitch for many well-upholstered crime movies.
The plot thickens fast, as Gabriel Byrne's adviser to Albert Finney's mob boss gets caught up in a lover's triangle and a two-way gang tangle. Naturally, it's about the usual stuff; friendship, romance and ethics. But it's the way the Coens choose to retell this typical tale that makes it stand apart. It wears its inspiration on its sleeve, but the directors' stamp is all over this.
6. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Decades after it first rocked the US indie scene, Tarantino's energetic, tightly-plotted debut still feels fresher than noughties nostalgia trips like Kill Bill and Death Proof. Tarantino never shows the botched diamond-store heist on which the film hinges. This is all about the fallout, as a gang of colourfully-named crooks try to root out the mole in their midst.
Confidently laying down the Tarantino template that he's used again and again, Dogs still leaves an indelible impression. "For some people, the violence isn't their cup of tea," said the director, "Thats OK. I wanted it to be disturbing."
5. Heat (1995)
Possibly the best cops-n-robbers movie ever made. That's because in Michael Mann's world, cops and robbers battle like Gods. The coffee-shop scene between screen deities De Niro and Pacino makes epic drama of tiny silences. Guns sound like thunder. LA becomes a doomy Valhalla. It's slick, stunning and still rivals any other gangster flick to emerge in recent years.
Heat works so effectively, because of the dynamic between De Niro's master robber and Pacino's brilliant detective. Each holds tight to their private lives, never wanting to let their powerful facades fall. It's a densely-plotted thriller, an actioner, and a drama, all rolled into one.
4. The Godfather (1972)
"I felt that I should quit," said Steven Spielberg of the first time he saw The Godfather. "That there was no reason to continue directing because I would never reach that level of confidence." That's quite a write-up.
Even if you've never seen Francis Ford Coppola's blistering gangster epic, the saga of Don Vito Corleone's youngest son Michael's ascent from shiftless Ivy Leaguer to ruthless Capo di Capi is so seared into the public consciousness - you'll think you have.
Shot in dark, mahogany tones, it's an elegant tale of gentlemanly corruption and honor among crooks, charting the Corleone family's shifting hierarchy. There's so many moments that have gone on to become truly iconic emblems for the wiseguy lifestyle, but it's probably the horse head in the bed you'll remember above all.
3. Army In The Shadows (1969)
Between gangster films proper Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville tapped both his history with the Free French and a novel by Joseph Kessel for a subtextual gangster movie about the French Resistance. It dabbles with honour, betrayal and revenge, but the bottom line for any mobster here is sacrifice and loyalty.
One of the biggest changes to the genre that Melville sticks to, is his refusal to make the criminal lifestyle glamourous. He rewrites the typical angle that movies usually take with gangsters. Heroism and glory are no longer the supposedly 'cool' part of the gig, instead they're presented as a grim, bleak truth. Hey, trend-setting had to start somewhere!
2. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Murder, fratricide, damnation: it's all just business in Francis Ford Coppola's sequel.
In the past, Vito Corleone (De Niro) rises from anonymous immigrant to Robin Hood hoodlum, while in the present his son Michael (Pacino) broods in darkened backrooms, a troubled conscience the price he pays for the absolute power he possesses.
Coppola styles the dynasty's damnation as a massive tragedy - it's an Italian-American Dream turned sour. The moment that becomes a reality for Michael, is when he delivers the kiss of death to his brother. "I knew it was you, Fredo" he tells him. "You broke my heart." It doesn't get much better than that legendary scene.
1. Goodfellas (1990)
Who better than Martin Scorsese, a lifelong New Yorker with a childhood dream to be a priest, to hear the sins of James "Jimmy" Conway, Tommy Devito and Henry Hill?
The real story of Henry Hill was different, though. He was a real-life sinner and his crimes had cost him everything. While he hijacked trucks and robbed airports, gaining considerable wealth, Hill was just another wiseguy until his arrest on narcotics charges in 1980.
He was immortalised in crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family, and it's that tome which inspires Scorsese's mobster masterpiece. The tale of a young New Yorker who runs errands for the local mafiosos picks up speed as that little kid turns into Ray Liotta - giving a lifetime best performance.
From the rest of the cast's killer turns, to Hill's eventual comeuppance, there's so much to savor about this classic piece of cinema. My favorite part? That lengthy, uninterrupted steadicam shot, following Henry and Karen Hill through the restaurant. Beautiful.