Gangster, crime and mob movies are just about money, drugs and violence, right? Wrong! While it can’t be denied these areas certainly come with the territory, gangster and mob films are so much more. The genre is loaded with fantastic narratives of the fictional and factual, exploring large subjects like political corruption, the flaws of the judicial system, and class and racial inequality, whilst also touching on acutely personal themes of love, regret, hubris, trust and ambition. They cross cultural and international boundaries, and explore and test theories of cinema, playing with the audience’s preconceived notions of narrative and perspective.
On top of all this serious stuff, a great gangster flick is also endlessly enjoyable and quotable. If you’re looking for a crash course in one of the most important cinematic genres, here are 23 essential starting points.
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Essential Gangster Films
_"Shoot first and argue afterwards. You know, this game ain't for guys that're soft."_This title hit cinema screens in 1931 and was inspired by the life of Al Capone. Little Caesar follows the rise and fall of Caesar Enrico "Rico" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) in a tale that came to mould the future of gangster and mob cinema. 79 mins.Amazon.co.uk
Angels With Dirty Faces
_"What earthly good is it for me to teach that honesty is the best policy, when all around they see that dishonesty is a better policy?"_Childhood friends Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) find their lives taking very different paths, with the latter becoming a priest and the former a criminal. This 1938 emotional tale takes a harsh and questioning look at the glamour of crime and the imperfect nature of the criminal justice system. 97 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"Be good... And don't trust boys."_When ruthless gangster Jack Carter's (Michael Caine) brother dies, he heads north from London to Newcastle for the funeral. Carter suspects his brother's death was not an accident and decides to hunt for the truth, following a trail into the local criminal underworld. This is a grey, grimy and thoroughly British gangster flick. 112 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli."_The Godfather tells the tale of how the aging Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the patriarch of a crime family, attempts to pass his power down to his son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). This 1972 masterpiece is the Don of both gangster genre and cinema, and dramatically renders the clash of the old ways with the new. 175 mins.Amazon.co.uk
The Godfather: Part II
_"If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone."_In the 1920s, a young Sicilian named Vito Corleone (Robert de Niro) embarks on his criminal career in New York City. In the 1950s, Michael Corleone works to consolidate his newly inherited position as Don of the Corleone crime syndicate. The Godfather Part II is a triumph of cinematic storytelling and an equal to the masterful original. 202 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"I always tell the truth. Even when I lie."_The explosive Tony Montana (Al Pacino) found his route to the American Dream on the streets of Miami, but his path to riches and renown was paved with violence, greed and more than a few kilograms of cocaine. This 1983 reworking of the 1932 classic explores material ambition as an excessive, corrupting, and malicious force. 170 mins.Amazon.co.uk
Once Upon A Time In America
_"You see, Mr Secretary... I have a story also, a little simpler than yours."_In the 1930s, David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) was a gangster in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Thirty years later, Noodles returns to his old stomping ground and is confronted by the shadows of his past. This, the last movie to be directed Sergio Leone before his death, is an epic exploration of regret, love and loss. 229 mins.Stream now on Amazon Prime. Not a member? Sign up here.
_"Word is they're going to repeal Prohibition. What'll you do then?"_Chicago is ruled by Al Capone (Robert De Niro) who, thanks to rampant police corruption, has managed to build himself a bootlegging criminal empire. Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is fixated on bringing order to the streets of Chicago and Capone to justice, so hires himself an incorruptible team of lawmen. 119 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster."_Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) idolises the mob lifestyle he sees growing up in Brooklyn. Over the years, he and his associates James Conway (Robert Di Niro) and Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) climb the ranks of the mafia, but slowly Henry comes to doubt his way of life and the trust he can hold in those who are supposed to be closest to him. A darkly humorous tale of violence and ambition. 146 mins.Amazon.co.uk
Boyz N The Hood
_"Who dis? What kind of way is that to answer the phone?"_In Los Angeles' Crenshaw ghetto, Tre Styles (Cube Gooding Jr.), Ricky Baker (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) find themselves surrounded by the pressures and dangers of hood life, with each reacting to their environment in distinct ways. John Singleton's award-winning debut film explores the African-American experience of masculinity, race, and politics.112 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"You kids shouldn't play so rough. Somebody's gonna start cryin'."_Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) arrives at the hideout with a severely injured Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) following a failed jewellery heist. As their fellow conspirators slowly arrive, doubt and suspicion begins to spread as they fear a police informant is amongst them. 99 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"That's thirty minutes away. I'll be there in ten."_This 1994 Tarantino classic sees mobsters Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) on a mission to return a stolen briefcase to their boss. As events unfold, this simple task finds itself entwined with the lives of a boxer (Bruce Willis) and mob wife Mia (Uma Thurman) in unexpected ways. Tarantino's take on the gangster genre is a deconstructed, nebulous, and essential watch. 154 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"When you love someone, you've gotta trust them."_Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is appointed by the Chicago crime syndicate to manage their Las Vegas casino, but soon finds that money and power can test even the strongest of friendships. Casino is a three-hour epic that sees Scorsese re-team with De Niro and Pesci post-Goodfellas, with a synapse-frazzling sense of visual razzle-dazzle that befits the flashing lights of sin city. 178 mins.Amazon.co.uk
Léon: The Professional
_"You know, I never saw someone with one eye open snore so much."_After the corrupt narcotics agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) murders her family, the young Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is taken on by the professional killer Léon (Jean Reno). In spite of their unusual dynamic, they grow close as the assassin begins to pass down the skills of the killing trade. 110 mins.Amazon.co.uk
The Usual Suspects
_"How do you shoot the devil in the back? What if you miss?"_The last remaining survivor (Kevin Spacey) recounts the events which lead to a violent shootout on a boat, in which 27 people died. The histories of a number of those involved appear to intersect at one point – they've all wronged the mysterious Keyser Söze. But who is this spectre named Söze? 106 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"If you're a rat, then I'm the biggest mutt in the history of the Mafia."_Joseph D. Pistone (Johnny Depp), alias Donnie Brasco, is an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the mob and finds himself attached to the veteran hitman mobster Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). The two men grow increasingly close, and Pistone begins to lose sight of who he really is.127 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"What thousands must die, so that Caesar may become the great."_In this masterpiece of undercover double-crossing storytelling, Chen Wing Yan (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) is an undercover police officer, tasked with working his way into a Hong Kong triad crime syndicate. In turn the organisation, headed by Hon Sam (Eric Tsang), has imbedded one of their own men into the very taskforce that is dedicated to closing them down. Martin Scorsese's 2006 American remake, The Departed, might have finally earned him a long-overdue Oscar, but the original version stands proudly on its own merit. 101 mins.Amazon.co.uk
City of God
_"Why return to the City of God, where God forgets about you?"_As slum gangs steal, shoot, and kill their way through the favelas above Rio de Janeiro, the lives of two boys diverge as one falls into a life of crime and the other, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), seeks a new way through his passion for photography. This must-see coming of age tale is included in Empire's top 100 films of the 21st Century. 130 mins.Amazon.co.uk
Kung Fu Hustle
_"What're you looking at? Never seen a free ice cream before?"_In the slums of Shanghai, China, young petty street criminal Sing (Stephen Chow) aspires to become a member of the Axe Gang. In his ambition, he inadvertently starts a turf war between the gang and the slumlords (who turn out to be martial arts masters). Kung Fu Hustle is a bonkers gangster romp, complete with more than a few Looney Tunes-style action sequences. 99 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room."_Harlem drug king Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) supplies the street's purest opioids and is tied to the New York Mafia. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a hard-working, honest cop who makes it his moral and professional aim to bring Lucas down. Ridley Scott's gangster epic is based on true events. 157 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"I can't become king if someone else already sits on the throne."_In London, a 14-year old Russian prostitute dies during labour leaving Russian-British midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) with her newborn child and diary, which discloses her tragic and disturbing history with the Russian mafia. Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), a driver and 'cleaner' for the mob, seeks the diary and control over the fate of the child. Eastern Promises is not for the faint of heart but has received praise for its accurate depiction of Russian mob culture. 100 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"A paranoid schizophrenic walks into a bar..."_Legend is a darkly comic drama portraying the rise of London's most notorious gangster twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy). While Reggie struggles to keep their business and reputation under control, the brutal and unpredictable Ronnie embarks on an increasingly violent crusade which threatens to bring the Kray empire to its knees.132 mins.Amazon.co.uk
_"I heard you paint houses."_The retired and aged Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (Robert Di Niro) looks back on his life as a soldier, union official, and mob hitman, and reflects on the mysterious disappearance of his life-long friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Scorsese's Oscar-tipped epic is, as Empire state, more than a gangster film, it's a "melancholy eulogy for growing old and losing your humanity", and one of the best films this century. 209 mins.Stream now on Netflix. Not a member? Sign up here.
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