Become A Gangster Movies Expert In Ten Easy Steps

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From the Tommy guns and spats of the ‘20s and ‘30s to the hoppers and re-ups of Noughties crims, gangster movies have had a big screen evolution that’d make Luca Brasi’s eyes water. The genre’s DNA can be found as far back as the Great War era of silent cinema, D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) sparking it to life in a flurry of genteel boaters, smoky nightclubs and blood-stained back alleys. The mantle then passed to filmmakers like Fritz Lang, Edwin S. Porter, Raoul Walsh and Josef von Sternberg, and each left their stamp on it with tales of violent heists, bustling speakeasies and 40 winks in underwater environments rich in piscine life. We’ve all seen classics like The Godfather, Godfellas, Once Upon A Time In America and Al Pacino’s coke-hovering Scarface, but which other movies should you track down to master the genre? Here’s our ten gangster movies to watch. Fehgedaboudit.

Director: Josef von Sternberg

The David “The Wire” Simon of his day, screenwriting legend Ben Hecht cut his teeth as a crime reporter working the mean streets of Capone’s Chicago. His experiences fed into Josef von Sternberg’s elegant, influential effort, a film that represents a high-water mark in the silent era. The story Hecht penned – of a bruising crime lord (George Bancroft) who plays kindly uncle to his whip-smart but drunken lawyer – would win him an Oscar. It also established the gangsters’ paradise (or “devil’s carnival” as Hecht and co-storyteller Howard Hawks dub it) we’d revisit time and again in the company of filmmakers from Curtiz to Coppola. The Austrian émigré brought this urban kingdom to life, swinging nightclubs, bustling speakeasies, helpfully secluded alleys and all. He also threw in an ageless flapper-clad moll in Evelyn Brent’s ‘Feathers’ McCoy. Even without the benefit of sound, Sternberg’s elegant understatement and well-rounded characters compares more than favourably with the ‘hubba-hubba’ camera candy of his Marlene Dietrich collaborations. A favourite of Luis Buñuel, Underworld has aged as richly as vintage bourbon.

Iconic moment: With his jailer distracted by their nail-biting game of chequers, the incarcerated Bull takes the opportunity to strangle him brutally to death and go on the lam. We think he may have been losing that one.

What to quote: “There was something I had to find out - and that hour was worth more to me than my whole life.”

  • Bull discovers that his lady has being seeing rather more of his new pal than he’d like.

Pub trivia: Bancroft’s gangster is based on “Terrible” Tommy O'Connor, a ‘20s hoodlum who was sentenced to hang for gunning down a police chief. Like Bull Weed, O’Connor overpowered his guard and escaped; unlike him, he was never seen again.

Further reading**The Regeneration (1915), The Ace Of Hearts (1921), Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), The Racket (1928), Alibi (1929), City Streets (1931), Miller’s Crossing (1990),

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

One part of Warner’s double-whammy of seminal early ‘30s gangster movies, Little Caesar sees Clyde from the Anthill Mob Edward G. Robinson making his breakthrough as upstart hood Caesar ‘Rico’ Bandello, who takes violent control of the Chicago underworld. Unlike the other Warners classic, The Public Enemy, and its bright-light lusting bootlegger (James Cagney), Robinson’s gangster craves only power. His blood-stained journey from worker ant to apex predator leaves a trail of spent cartridges, corpses and double-crosses. He’s a character faithfully translated from the pages of High Sierra writer W.R. Burnett’s novel, right down to his fixation with Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s character, wannabe ballroom dancer Joe Massara (yes, that’s ‘ballroom dancer’ and ‘Douglas Fairbanks’ in the same sentence). With the Hayes Code soon to be put the kibosh on this kind of thing, Robinson make, ahem, hay in the meantime as a complicated man without much interest in mercy or morality. As producer Darryl F. Zanuck commented wryly, “Every other underworld picture has had a thug with a little bit of good in him.” Not this one, he didn’t need to add.

Iconic moment: “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Bandello learns that sometimes being a crime lord can be moider.

What to quote: “You want me, you're going to have to come and get me!”

Pub trivia: Rico was based not on Al Capone, as commonly thought, but Salvatore ‘Sam’ Cardinella, the capo dei capi of early Prohibition Chicago.

Further reading** The Public Enemy (1931), M (1931), Scarface, The Shame Of A Nation (1932), The Petrified Forest (1936), Black Caesar (1973), Scarface (1983), King Of New York (1990)

Director: Raoul Walsh

Tagline: “Searing the screen like the death-blast of a sub-machine gun!”

From the swing and sass of The Roaring Twenties to White Heat and the despair of the post-Depression era, Jimmy Cagney’s career spanned two distinct eras of gangster flicks. Inbetween he hadn’t so much as glanced at a crime script for over a decade, fearing typecasting, but he wisely decided to dust off the trilby and shotgun for this Raoul Walsh crime masterpiece. Cagney gives us an iconic gangster, Cody Jarrett, with a hair-trigger temper and “a fierce psychopathic devotion” for his mother, while English stage actress Margaret Wycherly offers a mum, ‘Ma’ Jarrett, you wouldn’t take anyone home to meet. Even Goodfella’s Tommy DeVito would take the long route round this pair. They’re loosely inspired by ‘30s hoodlums Arthur and Ma Barker, while Cagney’s crim owes something to Francis ‘Two-Gun’ Crowley’s savage 1931 killing spree too. Crime didn’t pay for that trio, and with that indelible climax in mind, it’s no spoiler to say that it doesn’t work out brilliantly for the Jarrett gang either. With none-more-quotable gangster patter (“I’d look good in a mink coat, honey”; “You’d look good in a shower curtain”), Edmond O’Brien’s nervy Donnie Brasco figure, and Walsh’s noir lighting, it’s a gangster classic with ice-cold blood running through its veins.

Iconic moment: Cody’s ascent to the top of the chemical plant he’s just knocked off. He goads the T-Men every step of the way, even as the world goes all Michael Bay around him.

What to quote: “Made it Ma! Top of the world!”

Pub trivia: Cagney improvised his character’s gut-wrenching reaction during the famous ‘Chinese whispers’ scene in Joliet prison. He didn’t even tell his director what he had planned when word is passed of Ma Jarrett’s death.

Further reading… The Roaring Twenties (1939), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), This Gun For Hire (1942), I Walk Alone (1948)

Director: Jules Dassin

Tagline: “Rififi means trouble!”

We can thank rogue Republican Joseph McCarthy for this influential Gallic gangster flick – a nice change, you’ll agree – because it was the Wisconsin senator and his witch-hunting goons who drove Jules Dassin out of Hollywood and over to France. When he got there he did what anyone of his talent would have done, and made an underground classic with a pivotal heist scene that inspires filmmakers to this day. Dassin’s crims, from Jean Servais’ ex-con Tony le Stéphanois to vulpine safe cracker César (the director himself, appearing under the pseudonym ‘Perlo Vita’), are a richly drawn bunch with just the kind of fatalistic, jaded attitudes to earn them all free passes to the noir pantheon. They’ve got dollar signs in their eyes too. Their target? A safe at the Paris salon of Mappin & Webb. The paydirt soon turns ugly, however, when one of the crew gives some of the loot to his girlfriend. The gang turns violently in on itself, leading to a tragic final scene that lingers long in the mind. Guess we owe McCarthyism a big “merci”.

Iconic moment: That spellbinding half-hour heist on the Rue de Rivoli is a big Gallic shrug to Neil McCauley’s 30 second rule. Even with les gendarmes just around the corner, the meticulous crew work with calm assurance – and not a word of dialogue. It’s almost like the talkies never happened.

What to quote: “I liked you, Macaroni. But you know the rules." Tony ruefully dispatches the man who’s ratted on his crew. Whatever happened to having a nice chat with HR?

Pub trivia: “Rififi” is a Parisian slang term that roughly translates as “rough and tumble”. So the tagline lied to us.

Further reading** Casque d’Or (1952), Bob Le Flambeur (1956), Big Deal On Madonna Street (1958), Le Samourai (1967), Point Blank (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), The Usual Suspects (1995)

Director: Sergio Leone

Tagline*: “As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did.”

While arguments raged on over which Mob movie is the greatest – The Godfather? The Godfather: Part II? Goodfellas? Analyze That? – the genre rolled up its mattress and headed to TV. The Sopranos and Boardwork Empire have filled the gap for fans of perfectly-cooked meatballs and razor sharp suits, but the last decent Mob thriller to hit the big screen was arguably Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco a full 15 years ago. Still, sandwiched between the genre’s ‘70s renaissance and an early ’90s purple patch that saw Coppola, Scorsese and the Coen brothers each turn out gangland classics in the space of 12 months, came Sergio Leone’s grand crime opera. Okay, technically the Mafia are peripheral to the story, but the film’s themes and scope make it a Mob movie in everything but name. In fact, Once Upon A Time In America isn’t so much a movie as a glorious history lesson that spans half of the 20th century, as switchblade-wielding Jewish gangster Noodles (Robert De Niro) and his crew slice their wedge of the American pie. Leone’s opus was supposed to have come in at a relatively brisk 165 minutes. It didn’t, and the subsequent editing room butchery would have impressed even Noodles himself. “I hope they burn the fucking negative,” raged James Woods at the version that was eventually released. Catch the restored version to absorb its full majesty, but, you know, schedule in some loo breaks. Capeesh?

I*conic moment*: Noodles’ discovery that his friends have been gunned down in an abortive heist and that he, unwittingly, caused it to happen.

What to quote: “I like the stink of the streets. It makes me feel good.”

Pub trivia: Robert De Niro’s typically meticulous research for the part of Noodles led him to request a meeting with mobster Meyer Lansky. He was refused.

Further reading… On the Waterfront (1954), Salvatore Giuliano (1962), The Godfather (1972), The Sting (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976), Bugsy Malone (1976), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Goodfellas (1990), Miller’s Crossing (1990), Casino (1995), Get Shorty (1995)

Director: John Mackenzie

Tagline: “Who lit the fuse that tore Harold's world apart?”

Forget the American Dream: here’s the English version – complete with a new kind of gangster for a new era. And you’ve got to hand it to wannabe entrepreneur Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), he may not win too many points for social conscience but he’s definitely got the gift of foresight. Long before Boris and co. popped up with their velodromes and their legacy projects, the cockney-boy-made-bad had a dream of transforming East London into a venue fit for the Olympics. The problem? The IRA has other ideas. A hit team is on the loose with an unspecified grudge, a ton of Semtex and minimal interest in three-day eventing. Like Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, John ‘Frenzy’ Mackenzie gets much mileage out of the incongruous clash of gangster cultures – the American Mafia’s visit to London gangland offers a beautifully edgy fish-out-of-water scenario – as Shand slowly learns what it feels like when the concrete shoe is on the other foot. Behind the glossy sheen of gangster living (hello, Helen Mirren’s fur-clad moll!) and the shocks of sudden violence, Barrie Keeffe's blackly funny script is double-barrelled with quotable dialogue (“A sleeping partner is one thing, but you’re in a fuckin’ coma!”) and a scathing indictment of Thatcherite Britain. Oh yes, and we almost forgot to mention it’s got a young Pierce Brosnan going all Taffin as an IRA gunman.

Iconic moment: Panicked by the spate of bombings that have shaken his business empire, Shand does the obvious thing and hangs a few of his sworn enemies from meat hooks.

What to quote: “The Mafia? I've shit ‘em.”

Pub trivia: Bob Hoskins successfully sued producers British Lion when they tried to have his voice dubbed over by a Midlands actor for American audiences.

Further reading… Brighton Rock (1947),The League Of Gentlemen (1960), Get Carter (1971), Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Sexy Beast (2000), Layer Cake (2004), Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Tagline: “His mob boss double-crossed him. Now it's payback time!”

Like Danny Boyle’s The Beach grown up and gone to seed, Takeshi Kitano’s yakuza classic ambles about in a remote seaside spot, kicking over sandcastles, staring at the sky and playing Russian roulette to pass the time. As you do. Unlike The Beach, of course, its characters can’t muster a grain of idealism or empathy between them. Takeshi Kitano gives us startlingly bleak insights into the fragile loyalty that bonds gangs together and a glimpse into the dead space gangsters have to fill between jobs. There are no tracking shots through glitzy restaurants, no kitten-heeled femme fatales and the closest the gang’s Okinawa hideout comes to a Vegas casino is the grim hotel in which they convene. Kitano’s Mr. Murakawa is sent to join them on the island by his kingpin boss. His mission is to mediate between two rival gangs, but he quickly discovers that he’s been sent on a deadly fool’s errand. Needless to say, the double-cross goes down like a plate of fly-blown fugu with the jaded yakuza, even if he doesn’t seem to care much either way.

Iconic moment: The bloodiest elevator scene this side of The Shining, Kitano’s demented lift shoot-out offers probably the highest corpse-to-square foot ratio in cinema history. It makes no sense whatsoever, but it’s fantastically gore-some nonetheless. Quick, somebody press the big red button!

What to quote: “When you're scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead.” The world-weary Murakawa needs a serious hug.

Pub trivia: Quentin Tarantino re-released Sonatine in the US under his Rolling Thunder Pictures marque.

Further reading… Tokyo Drifter (1966), Sympathy For The Underdog (1971), Battles Without Honor And Humanity (1973), The Yakuza (1974), The Killer (1989), Boiling Point (1990), Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)

Directors: Wai-Keung Lau, Alan Mak

Tagline: “Loyalty. Honor. Betrayal.”

Tri-hards rejoice, because no gangster collection is complete without a slice of blood-splashed Triad action. Equally, no genre guide can be without at least one outsider movie. Down the years it’s been the turn of shrinks (Analyze This), avenging ronins (Point Blank), hired guns (The Outside Man) and hazy kung-fu fans (True Romance) to get all mixed up in nasty gangster business, but the uncover agent is the most hardwired for dramatic tension. Will the mobsters discover the copper in their midst and feed him (or her) to the fishes? Who'll blink first? The fist-gnawing tension is amped up even more in Wai-Keung Lau’s thriller – and Martin Scorsese’s remake, The Departed – by the presence of a triad mole (Andy Lau) in the Hong Kong police who's threatening to unmask Tony Leung’s agent. It’s not so much cat-and-mouse as a couple of moles with side arms. It’s a spy thriller with gangster threads on. Neither man wants to continue risking life and limb(s) in the name of their increasingly manipulative overlords, but the alternative is a long spell at the bottom of the harbour. The result is a brilliantly plotted thriller that’s also a deeply philosophical examination of right and wrong, loyalty and honesty and all the ways they can get tangled up.

Iconic moment: Lau and Leung finally face-off in a nail-biting rooftop encounter. It’s made even more awesome by the presence of the great Christopher Doyle as ‘visual consultant’.

What to quote: “What thousands must die so that Caesar can become the great?”

Pub trivia: In the middle of The Departed’s Oscars night success, Infernal Affairs was mistakenly announced as “a Japanese film”. Whoops.

Further reading… The Big Heat (1953), The Untouchables (1987), New Jack City (1991), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Donnie Brasco (1997), The Departed (2006)

Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes

Tagline*: “This is the truth. This is what's real.”

Like Mobster movies, big city gangland tales have spun into seminal TV in recent years (The Wire, anyone?). But long before Stringer Bell started applying bell curves to his network of hoppers and Bunny Colvin creates his drug utopia Hamsterdam, the Hughes Brothers constructed a similarly lethal urban jungle. The themes – the relationship between depravation and crime – stretch far beyond the Watts of Menace II Society or the South Central of Boyz N The Hood. Visceral gang movies have since taken us into the tower blocks of Rio (City Of God), Johannesburg (Tsotsi) and even Elephant and Castle (Attack The Block), but the Brothers Hughes’ ghetto fairy tale kicked things off in a blaze of righteous anger and despair. Unlike John Singleton’s more acclaimed film, the co-directors let the plot – not the polemic – do the work. Can Caine (Tyrin Turner) break out of the cycle of violence and poverty or will he end up as a statistic? All bets are off from the moment his volatile friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) starts pulling the trigger. As Caine’s voiceover dolefully reminds us, these kids are “America’s nightmare: young, black and doesn’t give a fuck”.

Iconic moment: Caine watches on dumbstruck as O-Dog shoots a convenience store manager and his wife in cold blood and then takes the CCTV tape - not to hide the evidence but to show it off. All for six bucks.

What to quote: “My grandpa asked me one time if I care whether I live or die. Yeah I do. Now it's too late.”

Pub trivia: The Hughes Brothers are proud holders of the highest ‘fuck per minute’ ratio in cinema. The word is used a McNulty-and-Bunk-challenging 3.07 times per minute. Which would be three ‘fucks’ and a ‘fff…’

Further reading… The Wanderers (1979), Boyz N The Hood (1991), Juice (1992), City Of God (2002), Tsotsi (2005)

Director: David Michôd

Tagline: “A crime story”

Smurfs, eh? If you thought Gargamel was scary, with his black cat and his fruity eyebrows, cop a load of Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody. She’s the ice-blooded queen bee around whom a brood of handgun-happy bank robbers buzz in David Michôd’s astonishingly assured debut. It’s a Melbourne-set gangster flick that’s a worthy addition to any crime compendium. Jacqui Weaver hogged the limelight – and awards ceremonies – with her turn as a spiritual descendent of Ma Barker, but the criminally underrated Ben Mendelsohn splashes a schooner’s worth of menace over this Melbourne-set tale as ‘Pope’, her most volatile son. And when we say ‘volatile’, we mean ‘terrifying’. Caught in this world of bank jobs and bravado is the newly orphaned Joshua ‘J’ Cody, played with blank-faced grit by James Frecheville. Like White Heat, there are creepily Oedipal undertones to the mother-son relationships (the family’s surname is a nod to the Jimmy Cagney classic White Heat) and death is as frequent and sudden a visitor. South Yarra may be a world away from Long Beach, California, but some things never change.

Iconic moment: Paranoid to the point of delusion, Craig Cody tears his bush-land hideout apart looking for a police bugging device. He’s lost it, we think. Then the police turn up.

What to quote: “It’s a crazy fucking world.” Pope Cody says what everyone else has been thinking.

Pub trivia: Animal Kingdom is based loosely on Melbourne’s notorious Pettingill family, with Jacki Weaver’s ‘Smurf’ Cody a loose facsimile of matriarch Kath Pettingill. The film’s central murders are based on the Walsh Street shootings of 1988.

Further reading… Two Hands (1999), Dirty Deeds (2002), Macbeth (2006), Underbelly (TV, 2008)