It’s just too easy. If someone asks you to name the best mob movies, the knee-jerk responses are almost always ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘The Godfather – Part II’ or ‘The Departed’ or ‘The Godfather – Part III’ … wait, no one ever says that one. But you get my point: you make an attempt at creating a balanced mobster movies list only to discover that films by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have encroached on your territory. Pretty soon, they own the whole thing.
So, no disrespect, but we’re putting Scorsese and Coppola in witness protection for the duration of this list and focusing on 10 of the best American gangster films not made by either of those legendary directors. Capisce?
‘The Untouchables’1987, Director: Brian De Palma
Talk about untouchable – how about the crew and cast for this movie? The film featured director De Palma working from a script by David Mamet, a writer with a knack for capturing Chicago speak. In front of the camera was the ultimate boy scout (Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness) with the coolest sidekick (Sean Connery, who overcame an awful Irish accent to win an Academy Award) taking on the most notorious gangster of all time (Robert De Niro’s baseball bat-wielding Al Capone). Shot at true-blue Chicago locations as gritty and stylish as De Palma’s visual style, ‘The Untouchables’ also includes that remarkable Union Station shootout that pays homage to ‘Battleship Potemkin’ in its bravura employment of breathless slow-motion.
‘Bugsy’1991, Director: Barry Levinson
The opulent drama brought some of the most famous real-life wiseguys, from Mickey Cohen to Lucky Luciano, to the silver screen. Directed by Levinson, the film uses the story of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) as the connective tissue between mob rule in New York, California and Las Vegas. Although the script plays fast and loose with the facts (Siegel wasn’t the man who built The Flamingo in Vegas; he got involved when it was nearly finished), the characters are as ruthless and charismatic as any great mob movie demands. Credit goes not just to screenwriter James Toback, but to a brilliant cadre of actors, including Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould and Joe Mantegna.
‘Miller’s Crossing’1990, Director: Joel Coen
Shot in dark, dank and dirty New Orleans and featuring a cast of scoundrels to match, the Coen Brothers’ third film is a squalid and twisted gangster gem. The plot concerns Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the man in the middle of a mob war between Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) and Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). John Turturro gives one of his best performances as the weaselly Bernie Bernbaum – instantly cementing his place as the Coens' best utility player this side of John Goodman. Plans are executed – as are former allies – and seemingly everyone turns on each other in the interest of power or self preservation. ‘Miller’s Crossing’ was a box office bomb when it was first released, but now holds the estimable position as one of the best works in the Coens canon.
‘Little Caesar’1931, Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Now let’s go way back to the film that launched one of the great tough guys in screen history, Edward G. Robinson. As Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, Robinson crafted what would become a screen archetype – the fast-talking, cigar-chomping “heavy” (only in terms of his presence, not his short stature). Thanks to his wild eyes, bullfrog face, roly-poly frame and voice like an over-cranked bandsaw, Robinson would become endlessly imitated and parodied by future cinematic gangsters. Because ‘Little Caesar’ was made in Hollywood’s pre-code days, the film was allowed to explore the most violent aspects of Robinson’s ruthless mobster. Detractors would later claim the movie glorified the criminal lifestyle, even if (spoiler alert) Rico gets his in the end – resulting in Robinson’s famous line, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”
‘Donnie Brasco’1997, Director: Mike Newell
In the late ’90s, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that the director behind ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ had an ace mob movie up his sleeve. But Mike Newell, with the help of a great story and a killer cast, made a film as complex, tense and tragic as the best gangster flicks. It helps that ‘Donnie Brasco’ was based on the unbelievable experience of Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent who went undercover to expose two of New York’s five families. Johnny Depp is Pistone and Al Pacino is “Lefty” Ruggiero, a low-level hit man who takes on Pistone (playing Brasco) as an associate. The movie toys with the idea of identity and also of the actual bond formed between a fake mobster and a real one. Depp and Pacino are reliably fantastic in their roles, and the empathy that Pacino creates for his character makes the end result of Depp’s undercover work that much more tragic.
‘Scarface’1983, Director: Brian De Palma
Since we’re on the subject of Pacino, we have to say hello to his electrifying performance as Tony Montana in the iconic ‘Scarface.’ Perhaps no mob movie, outside of ‘The Godfather,’ is as endlessly quoted and referenced as De Palma’s Miami-set epic, written by Oliver Stone. The movie follows a familiar pattern, the meteoric rise and earth-shattering fall of a criminal, but does it on such a super-sized scale that you can’t help but be caught up in its cocaine-fueled hysteria. Pacino’s manic Montana (the antithesis to the cool and calculating Michael Corleone) would not only become a memorable film character but a sort of anti-hero for hip-hop, in which ‘Scarface’ continues to loom large.
‘Get Shorty’1995, Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
We’ve spent enough time discussing the violent and tragic world of mob movies that it’s time to feature a film with a lighter touch. Based on the book by Elmore Leonard, ‘Get Shorty’ has fun with the idea that real-life mobsters love having their exploits recreated on film. That’s what happens to loan shark Chili Palmer (John Travolta), who travels to L.A. to collect some debts and ends up going Hollywood. Thanks to Leonard’s source material, a well-translated script and a mob of actors who can find funny in serious situations (Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, David Paymer and James Gandolfini), ‘Get Shorty’ manages to both stay true to the mob genre while mocking it – a compliment that cannot be paid to the ill-advised sequel, ‘Be Cool.’
‘Once Upon a Time in America’1984, Director: Sergio Leone
While working on ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ Italian director Sergio Leone expressed a desire to make another series of films about America, this time focusing on the mob. Working from the source material of ‘The Hoods,’ Leone began to craft this epic about Jewish mobsters coming to power in New York City. It would take more than 15 years for Leone’s vision to be realized – and even then, the director’s 269-minute version was edited (as far down as 139 minutes for the original U.S. release). This hauntingly beautiful crime story starring Robert De Niro and James Woods was told in multiple eras and was shot in multiple locations – including New York, Florida, Rome, Quebec, Paris and Venice. It’s fascinating that it took an Italian director shooting all around the world to make the definitive movie about the Prohibition era in the United States.
‘The Public Enemy’1931, Director: William Wellman
You can’t have a mob movies list without something starring James Cagney, who created as many memorable (and exuberant) film gangsters as De Niro and Pacino combined. More than a few of Cagney’s irascible turns could have made the list (from ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ to ‘White Heat’), but we return to the movie that made him a star: ‘The Public Enemy.’ It’s funny, in the course of the film, Cagney’s nasty bootlegger Tom Powers steals money and kills people, but his most infamous act of vengeance comes in the form of a grapefruit. Fed up with having to hear the complaints of his girl, Kitty (Mae Clarke), he shoves a hunk of citrus into her face. There’s an old story that Clarke’s ex-husband knew exactly when the scene took place in the movie and that he would buy a ticket just to see Cagney torture his former flame again and again.
‘A Bronx Tale’1993, Director: Robert De Niro
Given his repeated roles in mob movies, it’s not a shock that De Niro would choose to make his directorial debut within the genre. Written by actor Chazz Palminteri (adapted from his own one-man Broadway play), ‘A Bronx Tale’ features a boy coming of age in the 1960s and being torn between two father figures: his actual dad (played De Niro) and the leader of the local mob crew (played by Palminteri). Based on Chazz’s childhood, the movie tells the story of the turbulent coexistence of organized crime and regular people from the perspective of a boy caught in the middle. As such, it allows every character to have good moments and bad ones, avoiding the traditional stereotypes of lesser gangster films.