Top 10 great gangster films by Ian Johnston

TEN GREAT GANGSTER FILMS by IAN JOHNSTON

 

Focusing upon movies about organized crime, as opposed to heist pictures (Jules Dassin’s Rififi/Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge), outlaw bank robber bio-pictures (Mesrine/ Dillinger) or neo-noir criminal/revenge narratives (John Boorman’s Point Blank/ Mike Hodges’ Get Carter), here are ten personal favourites from the gangster film genre; all available in the UK on DVD.  There are many, many more”¦.

1. SCARFACE  (Brian De Palma 1983)
The critics upon its release reviled it, but De Palma’s riotous, ultra-violent remake/remodel of Howard Hawks’ outstanding 1932 saga charting the rise and fall of an Al Capone-style gangster remains a landmark film of the American 20th Century.  Smeared n blood, membrane and seminal fluid, De Palma’s excessive, operatic movie ”“ featuring a wonderfully profane and self-reflexive script by Oliver Stone ”“ stares into the core of America’s conspicuous-consumption society and finds only madness, self-destruction, moral bankruptcy and murder.

Dedicated to Ben Hecht, scriptwriter of the original Scarface, De Palma and Stone’s narrative remains close to his premise, but the immigrant characters are now Cuban instead of Italian, and the illegal commodity is cocaine, not liquor.

Al Pacino gives a career defining performance as Tony Montana, one of the thousands of criminals Castro deported from Cuba, who arrives in Miami during 1980.  Tony wants “the world and everything in it” and he quickly sets out to take it.  With his best friend Manny Ray (Steve Bauer), Tony emerges from an abortive chainsaw massacre drug deal with both cocaine and cash.

Local crime boss Frank Lopez (the brilliant Robert Loggia) is impressed, and the ruthless Montana ”˜works’ his way up through the organisation, making a connection with Bolivian drug baron Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar).  Having long lusted after his boss’s cocaine-addicted WASP mistress Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer at her sultry best), Tony kills Frank when he tries to cross him, taking over the operation.  Tony now has the American Dream ”“ “First you get the money, then you get the power.  When you get the power, then you get the woman.  That’s why you’ve go to make your own moves” ”“ and the only way is down.  Ignoring Lopez’s golden rule (“Don’t get high on your own supply”), he shoots Manny for sleeping with his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), for whom he harbours dark, incestuous desires. Yet the real reason Tony Montana will fall in a hail of gunfire in his own mansion, his face buried in a mountain of cocaine, is that even he is not ruthless enough to hold on to his power in this ”˜land of opportunity’.

Montana enters the USA railing against the communist regime in Cuba (“People tellin’ you how to think, how to feel”) but grows to hate the American Way too.  “Do you know what capitalism ees?” he yells. “Get focked!”  And at the height of his power, Tony curses the shocked diners in a swanky Miami restaurant.  “You need people like me so you can point your fockin’ fingers and say, ”˜There’s the bad guy,’” he tells them. “You think you’re good?  You not good. You just know how to hide and how to lie.  Me, I always tell the truth, even when I lie.”

Nobody could ever call De Palma’s Scarface an understated film but its overblown, melodramatic tone is perfect for depicting a vicious milieu where money and drugs are all-important and good taste, ethics and compassion are nowhere to be found.  Pacino’s humorous, non-naturalistic portrait of the ambitious but weak Montana brings the Roaring ”˜20s gangster up to date with a bang, fully supported by a terrific cast ”“ especially Harris Yulin as the bent cop Bernstein, the film’s sole representative of ”˜law and order’.

De Palma’s devastating sequences of violence and carnage nearly resulted in the picture being awarded a commercially damning x-certificate by the US censors.  Perhaps they couldn’t face such a brutally honest vision of all-American anarchy.

 

2. THE PUBLIC ENEMY (William Wellman, 1931)
It wasn’t the first gangster movie of the sound era ”“ Edward G. Robinson’s wonderful Little Caesar had preceded it in 1930 ”“ but Wellman’s film defined the new genre.  With fast dialogue and action, Public Enemy features a powerhouse performance by James Cagney as tough Irish-American mobster Tom Powers.  A by-product of the Depression era’s harsh economics, the brutal Powers (based on real-life gangster Hymie Weiss) blasts his way to the top as a big-time bootlegger.  Powers remains a charismatic figure to the end- even the famously misogynistic scene when he rams a grapefruit into the face of whining moll Mae Clarke can not dim the sadness of his death scene on his mother’s doorstep.

 

3. THE GODFATHER PART II (FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, 1974)
 

Undoubtedly the greatest sequel of all time ”“ The Godfather Part II is a picture that eclipses its predecessor and stands as Coppola’s masterwork.  Benefiting from a $15.5 million budget ”“ three times that of the original – sharper photography, superior period décor and the absence of Brando’s mannered turn, this magisterial epic charts Michael Corleone’s (Pacino) rise in the Mafia Don.  Intercut with how his father (Robert De Niro) became a Mafia gangster, it draws parallels between Mob business and the corruption of the American Dream.  Part II breaks down Coppola’s romanticised image of the Mafia by depicting Michael’s moral collapse ”“ he gains the world but loses his soul, killing his brother for the sake of the family.

 

4. GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
 

Scorsese’s Casino (1995) could have easily been chosen but I opted for this technically dazzling tour de force true story of 30 years in the life of minor mobster Henry hill is an exhilarating social study, close in spirit to documentary movies.  Driven at breakneck speed by a montage of rock and pop music, freeze-frame, tracking shots and voiceover used to reflect the gangster lifestyle, Scorsese shows the glamorous veneer of organised crime and its bleak consequences.  Liotta is perfect as half-Irish outsider Hill and Joe Pesci is unforgettable as Tommy De Vito, whose psychopathic tendencies threaten the running of the ”˜business’.  But it’s Robert De Niro’s cool portrayal of merciless hood Jimmy Conway that anchors the film ”“ a brutal modern parable that gains from repeated viewings. The special edition DVD/Blue-ray disc features the unbeatable commentary from the real Henry Hill and former FBI Agent Edward McDonald, who brought Hill into the Witness Protection Program and who also appears as himself in the movie.

 

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Sergio Leone, 1984)

 

Loosely based on criminal Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, Leone’s last movie comes close to the scope of Coppola’s The Godfather Part II.  Tracing five decades in the lives of four Jewish New York gangsters, led by the unhinged Max (James Woods) and Noodles (Robert De Niro), this is a haunting tale of male bonding and bitter betrayal, with the passing of time almost becoming a character in its own right.  Switching back and forth from the jazz-age’20s to the swinging ”˜60’s, Leone’s film transposes his Western vision to the 20th century, capturing a decadent, violent mood.  With its real reverence for the gangster genre, coupled with a highly emotional Morricone score, this is could well be Leone’s masterpiece. The excellent current Boardwalk Empire HBO television show drew much inspiration from this enduring picture.

 

6. KING OF NEW YORK (Abel Ferrara, 1990)
 

Sporting a bizarre blow-dry haircut, Christopher Walken is at his most alien and remote (and that is obviously saying something) as the very unlikely hero/villain, drug kingpin Frank White.  Just out of prison White has his implausibly mixed-race black clad gang ”“headed by crazed, two-gun-toting Jimmy Jump (Larry Fishburne) ”“ rebuild his empire by wiping out the Colombian, Italian and Chinese competition.  Like the real-life mobster John Gotti, White becomes a media star, aspiring to use his dead rival’s drug millions in a doomed attempt to rebuild a community hospital in Harlem.  Ironically, in a film filled with spectacular gunfights, White goes out quietly ”“slumped in the back of a New York cab in heavy traffic, with a single bullet wound in his gut.

A classic of low budget intemperance, profanity and violence, brilliantly written by Ferrara’s long time collaborator Nicholas St John, with a great ensemble cast, the special edition King of New York DVD features a spirited commentary by the renegade director Ferrara and extensive documentaries.

7. SONATINE ”“ (”˜Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, 1993)

”˜Beat’ Takeshi, Japan’s highly original renaissance man ”“ actor, director, comic, writer, author, television presenter, painter ”“ takes the conventional yakuza gangster picture, turns it upside down and makes it his own. A group of Tokyo yakuza, lead by the detached but tough Murakama (Takeshi) are dispatched by their boss to intervene in a violent mob gang war on the tropical island of Okinawa. Matters soon take a turn for the worse with a bombing and restaurant shoot out and Murakama and the remnants of his yakuza force take sanctuary at a remote coastal hideaway.  Takeshi, almost abandoning the picture’s narrative drive after an hour’s screen time, then presents his vision of what bored yakuza do at the beach on their day off ”“ shooting cans off each others heads, attempting sumo wresting, playing war games with roman candles ”“ before their enemies inevitably arrive. Murakama is obviously tired of the yakuza life, but it is a testament to Takeshi’s consummate skill as a filmmaker and an actor that the audience has does not realise the depths of his dissatisfaction until the end of the picture.

 

8. ELECTION VOLUME 1 (Johnnie To, 2006)

To’s gripping Hong Kong gangster epic delves into the very secret world and machinations of the oldest Triad in the region, The Wo Sing Society, to reveal the clash between the aspirations of the traditional ethics of brotherhood and the utter ruthlessness and all consuming greed of 21st Century criminals/capitalists. Every two years the Triad elects a chairman. Uncle Weng (Wong Tin-lam) favours the cool, calculating Lok (a marvellous performance by Simon Yam), but the impulsive and violent Big D (the fantastic Tony Leung) is convinced that it is his turn to lead. Lok wins the election but the Triad’s old symbol of leadership, the Dragon’s Head Baton, ”˜disappears’ and a savage conflict that looks set to tear the Society apart seems unavoidable.  To’s timeless theme that ”˜absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is successfully carried through into his equally assured Election Volume 2 (2007).

9. LUCKY LUCIANO (Francesco Rosi, 1973)

The great Gian Maria Volonte gives a suitably restrained and enigmatic performance as Lucky Luciano, who on September 11th, 1931, the ”˜Night of Sicilian Vespers’, shortly after the killing of the head don Joe Masseria, ordered the assassination of 40 other mob bosses across the States, in the process gaining control of the Mafia.  The focus of Italian Rosi and fellow scriptwriters Tonino Guerra and Lino Iannuzzi is refreshingly different from American filmmakers, as their vision is not primarily concerned with the psychology of their cold protagonist, but with the factual political, economic and the historical links between Italy and America and the incredible consequences of Luciano’s release from prison by the US government to help with the Allies invasion in Sicily during World War II.  Rosi’s film vividly illustrates that it was from post-war Sicily that the native Sicilian Luciano would devise his vast international drug trafficking empire, the biggest criminal conspiracy the world has ever seen. It is a shame that this enthralling film, which rivals Coppola’s The Godfather, is ill served with a bad print on DVD, which actually omits subtitles for some passages of Italian dialogue.

10. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (John Mackenzie, 1981)

Made for just £800,000 and propelled by atmospheric direction and Barry Keefe’s realistic dialogue, The Long Good Friday is intelligent, street-dirty and violent.  As Harold Shand, an East End crime boss desperate to go legit, Bob Hoskins delivers a blistering portrayal ”“ almost Cagneyesque in its dedication and aggression.  Shand’s crooked real-estate empire is under attack ”“but by whom?  He goes to every length to find out, hanging suspects upside-down from meat hooks: “I treated you lot well even when you were out of order, but now there’s been an eruption.”  When the enemy is unmasked ”“ a political twist that cements long Good Friday’s reputation as a key ”˜80s film ”“ Shand is out of his depth.

Copyright © Ian Johnston 2011

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7 comments on “Top 10 great gangster films by Ian Johnston”

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  1. My list would be ;

    01 – Godfather 2
    02 – Once Upon A Time In America
    03 – Goodfellas
    04 – Casino
    05 – Donnie Brasco
    06 – Miller’s Crossing
    07 – Godfather 1
    08 – Sexy Beast
    09 – The Rise Of The Foot Soldier
    10 – Godfather 3

    Pehaps many choices are predictable but those are the ones i liked most.

  2. I would include the original Scarface :)

  3. Pretty much the same movies i would of chosen

  4. I would also add Reservoir Dogs and A Better Tomorrow to this list.

  5. i think you all need to watch some films, you obviously don’t have any idea what a gangsta film is.
    where on this list is
    krays
    essex boys
    rise of the foot soldier
    american gangstar
    reservior dogs

  6. I am a huge mafia movie fan and I just saw a really great movie about John Gotti’s early years in the New York Mafia titled “At the Sinatra Club”. The film was written by legendary author Salvatore Polisi, who besides being the former right hand man of John Gotti, was also one of the first crime family members to defect from the Mafia and turn State’s evidence against John Gotti and the Mafia. I got the film at Redbox last night after my co-worker told me he really enjoyed watching it, and I have to say I would absolutely recommend it! If you want to see the trailer, here is the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OS0y7r6A-g

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