Top 10 Greatest Gangster Films of All Time!

To celebrate the release of the ridiculously awesome looking Scarface on Blu-ray, here is a countdown of the Top 10 Gangster Films to ever hit the big screen and if you don’t like my list don’t put a horses head in my bed… Capiche?

top10gang If you were to peruse any greatest films of all time list chances are you would find a €˜gangster€™ film pretty high up there, battling it out with the Jedis, Sharks and Tim Robbins. But who exactly would come out on top if the wise-guys squared off against each other? Who€™d end up sleeping with the fishes and who would reign supreme as the big screen don? (I€™m done with the clichés now€) So to celebrate the release of the ridiculously awesome looking Scarface on Blu-ray I thought I would compile said list, so here is a countdown of the Top 10 Gangster Films to ever hit the big screen and if you don€™t like my list don€™t put a horses head in my bed€ Capiche?

(Okay, now I€™m done€)

#10

The Untouchables

(1987)

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Based on some of the most infamous figures in organized crime history, directed, and written, by two of cinema€™s finest and starring some of the decade€™s most bankable stars The Untouchables was always going to be a success, but Brian De Palma€™s classic account of the battle between the legendary Al Capone and the relentless Eliot Ness still surpasses expectations. From the pen of David Mamet, The Untouchables tracks Ness€™ struggle to bring down Capone during the Prohibition era. Kevin Costner gives one of his greatest performances to date as Ness and Sean Connery won a Supporting Actor OSCAR for his role as Malone. Robert De Niro may be on auto-pilot as Capone for a lot of the film, but he€™s still Robert De Niro and is thoroughly convincing as the infamous crime boss. In spite of the glittering array of stars on display, Prohibition Chicago almost manages to steal the show, I say almost because this is De Palma€™s show, and the genre veteran realises his vision beautifully. The Untouchables features some wonderful scenes €“ The Union Station shootout being the most memorable. With a rumoured prequel on the distant horizon, seemingly stuck in development hell at present, De Palma will have to go a long way to do justice to his original masterpiece, which still stands up today, twenty two years on, as thrilling and atmospheric as ever.

#9

Donnie Brasco

(1997)

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Mike Newell€™s enthralling 1997 entry into the gangster genre was based on the New York Times best-selling book by Joseph D. Pistone €“ the real life €˜Donnie Brasco€™. Donnie Brasco stars genre stalwart Al Pacino and Johnny Depp as the titular character, marking his first soirée into the genre he will soon be returning to. Paul Attanasio€™s screenplay was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award but lost out to the equally sublime adaptation L.A. Confidential. Donnie Brasco might not be as iconic as some of the other entries on this list but it is a slow burn that draws you in and stays with you long after the credits role. Depp gives a stunning performance as the undercover FBI agent slowly losing a grip on who he is, sure it€™s been done before, but seldom as well as this and Pacino proves that he doesn€™t have to be chewing the scenery to leave a lasting impression on you, in fact his portrayal of the aging, disillusioned Lefty Ruggiero is up there with his best.

People love to tell you to read the book rather than watch the film but if you were to listen to them with Donnie Brasco, you€™d be missing out on one of the best crime films of the modern era.

#8

White Heat

(1949)

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Before Brando, before De Niro and before Pacino, there was Cagney. James Cagney was the original big screen gangster - his breakthrough performance in 1931€™s The Public Enemy redefined the way Hollywood presented its leading men and its heroes. At the time the scene where he smashes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke€™s face was a shocking wall to break down €“ presenting the sort of misogynistic violence that is commonplace in today€™s movies for the first time on the silver screen. In spite of The Public Enemy€™s cinematic significance it is Cagney€™s performance in White Heat as the psychotic, Oedipal Cody Jarrett that has remained perhaps his most iconic performance. White Heat has oft been imitated but never bettered and has inspired countless films over the years. It is testament to the film€™s impact that it is so regularly referenced in popular culture, even today €“ mainly the infamous final scene with Jarrett atop a gas storage tank which engulfs him in flames as he utters the immortal line €œMade it, Ma! Top of the World!€ Much like the climactic explosion, Cagney engulfs the screen throughout the film and his intense portrayal of Jarrett cannot be underestimated in White Heat€™s critical and commercial success.

#7

The Departed

(2006)

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People like to scoff at The Departed for being a remake of Infernal Affairs or for being the film that finally won Martin Scorcese his Best Director gold statue when he had been criminally overlooked in the past for his more iconic works, but politics and sympathy vote conspiracy theories aside €“ The Departed is still one hell of a movie. Remaking films from the Eastern hemisphere is a thankless task for a Western director, I€™m sure I don€™t need to name and shame some of the worst sinners for this, but with The Departed, Scorcese achieved the impossible and actually made a US remake that can stand as a peer to the Hong Kong original. With such heavy focus on Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon€™s leads the supporting cast is often overlooked €“ Mark Wahlberg, who I would love to have seen win an OSCAR for his brilliantly sweary performance as Dignam is arguably at his best here, and of course Jack Nicholson gives his best performance in years as mob boss Frank Costello. Much like the Chicago skyline almost deserves a star billing in The Untouchables, Boston is just as deserving for its contribution to The Departed. Screenwriter William Monahan is Massachusetts born and raised and his love for his home is clearly visible throughout €“ captured gorgeously by Scorcese. Whether The Departed will become as iconic as some of Scorcese€™s other work in the genre remains to be seen but for me this is some of his best work and thoroughly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as a couple of films that we will get to later€

#6

Once Upon a Time in America

(1984)

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Once Upon a Time in America was Sergio Leone€™s final film and stands a fitting farewell to the legendary director. With its sprawling labyrinth narrative, the original cut of the film came in at well over three hours long. The film is suitably epic and stands as a worthy counterpart to Leone€™s earlier spaghetti westerns. Once again scored by frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone, Once Upon a Time in America stars Robert De Niro as lead character €˜Noodles€™ and follows his life involved with organized crime in New York across the 20th century.

The film also stars James Woods and marks the first De Niro-Joe Pesci team-up in this genre (the pair had previously co-starred in Raging Bull). Upon release in the States the film was almost unrecognisable from Leone€™s original vision €“ heavily edited and abandoning the flashback narrative structure the film flopped and was heavily criticised. In Europe though the unedited version that had premiered at that year€™s Cannes Film Festival allowed European cinemagoers to appreciate the sheer expansiveness of Leone€™s pet project.

I would say that in terms of epic nature, only The Godfather films rival Once Upon a Time in America and had Leone been allowed to make a trilogy as he had originally intended we could have had two great American gangster trilogies in cinema history rather than just one. Regardless of the story of how Leone€™s swansong came to be though, it is still a truly epic watch and is nothing less than captivating for every second of its immense running time.

#5

Scarface

(1983)

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I€™ve read debate online over whether or not hip-hop€™s favourite film Scarface actually qualifies as a €˜gangster€™ film but if its good enough for AFI it€™s good enough for me. Scarface is one of the most culturally significant films on this list and its influence on both cinema and all facets of popular culture shows no signs of slowing down even today, over twenty-five years on from when Tony Montana first introduced us all to €œhis little friend€. Directed by Brian De Palma and written by Oliver Stone, Scarface features Al Pacino at his manic best €“ playing Cuban immigrant turned Miami drug lord Tony Montana. Scarface depicts the rise and fall of Montana as he quickly snatches power in the drug trade and, to paraphrase: €œthe world becomes his€. Scarface is a tragedy though and Montana€™s life soon spirals out of control €“ mainly due to his healthy appetite for snorting copious amounts of coke at any given opportunity. Pacino is mesmerising as Montana and this will probably be his most iconic role €“ the cult appeal of Montana and Scarface is incredible but it€™s easy to see why. Almost sadistically violent and profane beyond belief Scarface was never going to be a critical darling and upon its release divided opinion in Hollywood, but as with most cult films appreciation for De Palma€™s film has only grown over time. Scarface is consistently referenced in rap culture with rap stars possibly drawing comparisons with Montana€™s rise to power with their own ascension from the streets to vast riches. The continued cultural relevance says a lot about just how great Scarface is but cultural significance a great film does not make €“ this is vivid, visceral storytelling with an electrifying performance from one of the all-time greats. Brian De Palma is sometimes unfairly overlooked when people talk about the greats of this genre but in my opinion he belongs right up there with the Scorceses and the Coppolas.

#4

Casino

(1995)

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Casino marks the third Pesci-De Niro collaboration in the gangster genre (discounting Pesci€™s brief appearance in A Bronx Tale) after Once Upon a Time in America and Goodfellas. Directed by Martin Scorcese, many consider the film as a companion piece to the aforementioned Goodfellas. Casino collected many accolades upon its release, perhaps most dubiously it was, at the time, the film that contained the most uses of the word €˜fuck€™ €“ it has subsequently been knocked down to third on said list. Scorcese picked up a best director nod at that year€™s Golden Globes and Sharon Stone proved, for at least a little while, that there is more to her than her camera-friendly vagina by winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress and securing an OSCAR nomination in the same category for her role as the scheming Ginger. De Niro is Sam €˜Ace€™ Rothstein a Jewish (he is frequently referred to as €œthe Jew€) gambling handicapper recruited by the mob to run the fictional Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. Trouble soon brews for Sam when the mob sends his old friend and mob enforcer Nicky (Pesci) to protect him. Pesci is brilliant as the psychotic Nicky and this role is all too often forgotten due to his blistering, iconic performance in Goodfellas. James Woods also reunites with De Niro playing Ginger€™s old, dirty pimp boyfriend Lester and then there€™s Stone as Ginger €“ she is suitably sly, manipulative and eventually skanky €“ it is without a doubt her best performance. Scorcese co-wrote Casino with Nicholas Pileggi €“ the writer who wrote the books on which this film and Goodfellas are based (he also co-wrote that movie with Scorcese). Much like some of the earlier entries on this list, the back drop in Casino also deserves star-billing. In this case the garish neon of seventies sin city serves as the perfect setting, much like the city itself if you scratch away at the seemingly glitzy surface you find a seedy underbelly €“ this is the essence of Sam€™s story. From the moment you see De Niro flying through the air having miraculously survived a car bomb in that unforgettable opening scene, Casino sucks you in and doesn€™t let go for three relentless hours of blood-soaked greatness.

#3

Goodfellas

(1990)

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A film so iconic they named a range of pizzas after it. As good as The Departed and Casino are, Goodfellas is undoubtedly Martin Scorcese€™s finest hour in the gangster genre. Again teaming with Nicholas Pileggi, Scorcese€™s Goodfellas tells the story of real-life mobster turned informant Henry Hill, played by a career best Ray Liotta. It is also the umpteenth collaboration between Robert De Niro and Scorcese and features an iconic performance from Joe Pesci that sees him teaming with De Niro yet again. Goodfellas features strong performances all round, including the supporting players, Paul Sorvino gives a larger than life performance as mob boss Paul Cicero and Lorraine Braco is on fine form as Henry€™s tough-talking wife Karen. Liotta is great as Hill, especially towards the end as his world starts to unravel and his involvement with drugs makes him increasingly twitchy and paranoid. The performance everyone remembers from Goodfellas though, and rightly so, is Pesci. I praised his performance in Casino and lamented the fact that it is often overlooked but to be fair Tommy DeVito casts a pretty gargantuan shadow. As the aggressive and temperamental Tommy, Pesci is a force of nature, his diminutive stature not holding him back from completely taking over the screen and owning every scene he€™s in €“ from the infamous €œyou think I€™m funny?€ scene to the awful realisation that creeps across his face in his final scene of the movie when he realises he€™s about to be €˜whacked€™. Pesci thoroughly deserved his OSCAR win for the role and Tommy is probably the defining moment of his career. Scorcese may not have won the OSCAR for Goodfellas but it probably comforts him that everyone thinks he was robbed and if we€™re honest, he was. The film hasn€™t really aged in nearly twenty years and remains one of Scorcese€™s crowning achievements, a modern classic from one of the greatest directors of all time.

#2

The Godfather Part II

(1974)

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This is a top ten movies list, not a trilogies list - ergo The Godfather movies are being classed as separate entities here, plenty of other lists treat the trilogy as a single movie which is just cheating. The Godfather Part II is considered by most to be the greatest sequel ever made, which when you consider the standard dogshit rehash of the original that we normally get presented with as a €˜sequel€™ in the film industry, is actually a pretty hollow accolade. Some people though would go as far as to say that The Godfather Part II is actually better than the original and even one of the best films of all time. The Godfather Part II marked the first cinematic collaboration between messrs Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, only they don€™t actually share the screen at any point €“ maybe if they€™d done that with Righteous Kill that movie may not have stunk like a tramp smeared in cow shit, or not€ Carrying on the story from the first film of Michael Corleone€™s life as the now head of the family, The Godfather Part II also presents a parallel story of how Vito Corleone (played by De Niro) first rose to power. It helps, a lot, if you€™ve seen the first to appreciate the true brilliance of Part II, and come on who€™s going to watch II without having watched the original? Everyone knows that the only way to watch them is back to back€ but this film is simply breathtaking as part of the trilogy and as a stand alone piece of film work. Pacino is again brilliant in a genre he excels in; The Godfather Part II should have seen him take home his first OSCAR but he was amazingly overlooked. Robert De Niro received no such snub though and took home the Supporting Actor statue for his role as the young Vito €“ the film itself also scooped Best Picture. As engrossing and beautifully made as the original, Francis Ford Coppola has the enviable legacy of not just one but two gangster masterpieces€ Which leads us nicely on to€

#1

The Godfather

(1972)

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What else? The Godfather is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, and while that may not necessarily be everyone€™s opinion, few could argue that it is the greatest gangster film of all time. Coppola€™s tale of the Corleone crime family is based on the novel of the same name written by Mario Puzo (Puzo also wrote the screenplay). Starring Marlon Brando in one of his most memorable roles as Don Vito Corleone €“ Brando won the Best Actor statue at that year€™s Academy Awards but became only the second actor to refuse his award, instead sending an American Indian rights activist in his place. The legendary actor is larger than life (literally) as the head of the Corleone family and you cannot take your eyes off him. Al Pacino is also brilliant as Michael, although not quite on a level with his performance in Part II and James Caan as the ill-fated Sonny, Michael€™s hot-headed brother, gives a quietly terrifying performance (a possible template for some future Pesci performances?) The film features iconic lines and images throughout and its enduring influence on many films, including most of the ones listed above, and other corners of popular culture remains significant today. The horse€™s head, €œI€™m gonna make him an offer he can€™t refuse€ and Sonny€™s murder are all well known even by non-film fans €“ the appeal of this film transcends time and The Godfather continues to find new fans even today. With Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola made the defining film in the war genre, a feat he repeated and then some in the gangster genre with The Godfather. Stylish, brutal and emotionally resonating this is film-making of the highest order, The Godfather is the original and the best and it is for this reason that it is number one (with a bullet) on the list of the Top Ten Gangster Films of all time. Scarface is available on Blu-ray from September 5th For your chance to win Casino, American Gangster & Carlito's Way on Blu-ray, click HERE.
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