10 Gangster Movies You Must See Before You Die

The cream of the crop of the crooks.

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Film Four

In Hollywood and beyond, gangster stories always sell. The rogues depicted in these tales may be among humanity’s worst, killers and thieves for whom human life comes cheap, but as long as they remain on our screens instead of our streets, we can’t take our eyes off them.

The gangster genre has a particularly grand role to play in American film, where some of the best mobster movies come from - indeed, many of the nation’s masterpieces feature gangsters, whose rise from nothing often reflects a twisted version of the American dream.

Other nations have similarly rich histories, though, from the gritty, unvarnished dramas that make up the British tradition to yakuzas in Japan and mobsters marauding the streets of Paris. The gangster story is universal - the criminality on show may be morally deplorable, but it’s undeniably fascinating. Some lesser tales can coast on the inherent intrigue of the mobster, but superior films find something deeper in the dark heart of our worst impulses.

At their best, gangster movies can transcend the blood and guts at their core to create tales of triumph and failure, passion and betrayal. These films are the dons of the genre.

10. Miller's Crossing

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20th Century Fox

The Coen brothers’ 1990 masterpiece ranks among their very best. A prohibition-set visual feast influenced by the noir writings of Dashiel Hammett, it stars Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, a mob advisor who becomes embroiled in, and eventually orchestrates, a turf war.

As is typical for the Coens and their noir leanings, the simple premise becomes ever more complex and grubbier as personal vendettas and double crossings work their way into the story. Albert Finney and Jon Polito are superb as the rival mob bosses, one an Irish fatherly figure, the other an explosive Italian schemer.

Marcia Gay Harden is terrific as Verna, a classic femme fatale, but best of all is Coens fave John Turturro as Verna’s brother Leo. Turturro’s performance is masterfully malleable, one moment a cocky schemer, the next a desperate, broken man pleading his way out of trouble.

Anchoring it all is Byrne in a stately, world weary role as the de facto hero, by virtue of being less explicitly villainous than anyone else. It’s patient, beautiful filmmaking, shot to perfection in autumnal New Orleans. It may well be their finest hour.

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Yorkshire-based writer of screenplays, essays, and fiction. Big fan of having a laugh. Read more of my stuff @ www.twotownsover.com (if you want!)