By John H. Foote
Let me be clear, I am writing about gangster pictures, films that go inside the world of the mob, NOT cops and robbers or crime movies. Organized crime is the order of the day with what I am exploring with this article, big and small.
Warner Brothers built their studio on gangster films, romanticizing life in the mob to make it exciting, even glamorous in the thirties and forties. Yet there was always the end when the criminals died or went to prison, they always got what they deserved. The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar (1931) were the best of the early gangster films, and there were many through the decade and beyond. Never though was there an intimate, inside look at how the mafia or organized crime worked, and just how it impacted the men who were operating it, and their families surrounding them.
So really the gangster film, if there is a true gangster film at least for this generation, began with The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent look at the mob, a perverse study of the American Dream turned upside down and the story of a father and his three sons. Coppola drew on his own heritage as an Italian American and brought to the film an intimacy that might not have otherwise been there in the hands of another director. Of course he brought a great deal more to the mix as well, casting (refusing to buckle), an epic sweep yet intimate feel to the film, and we seemed to be on the inside of the dimly lit rooms where murder was discussed like going for groceries. The film allowed Marlon Brando to create one of the most iconic characters ever put on film, and win a second Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as a second coming of method acting and actors, with Al Pacino emerging as one of the important actors of the seventies.
The sequel, made just two years later, would surpass the first in every way, no mean feat, yet Coppola and writer Mario Puzo made it deeper, more complex, darker and near visionary. With a broken narrative the film told the story of young Vito (Robert De Niro) rising to power in the early part of the 20th century, borne out of necessity, while we watch his Michael (Pacino) consolidate his extraordinary power in the fifties, overseeing an operation bigger than US Steel. Yet in Michaels world there is treachery from a place he least expects it, and it will tear apart the strong family his father sought to build. More than anything the picture explores how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Both films won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Coppola twice won DGA Awards for his work, and their box office take was incredible.
What the two films made clear, was the crime was just a business, no different to the men operating it than running a massive company, the difference being killing was art of the everyday routine and was never taken personally. The best of the gang films followed suit, exploring how the business operated, and the police trying in one way or another to infiltrate the mob.
The door was opened for further studies of the mob and filmmakers too advantage of it, Martin Scorsese making no less than four films dealing with organized crime, the best of them Goodfellas (1990), not far behind The Departed (2006) and the underappreciated Casino (1995). Years later Scorsese bookended those two films with The Irishman (2019) a magnificent finale to his gangster stories. Sergio Leone gave us the massive, haunting Jewish gang epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), initially butchered by the studio, the long version surviving and being the only one to see. Oscar winner Barry Levinson made the biographical Bugsy (1991) with Warren Beatty giving the performance of his life as the dangerous but visionary Bugsy Siegel. The black mob came to the screen in the superb American Gangster (2007) with Denzel Washington going toe to toe with Russell Crowe, and another Oscar winner Sam Mendes gave us the fine thriller Road to Perdition (2002), an excellent father-son story set against the background of the Depression and the heyday of Capone. And of course there were many more. Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), each in their own way a superb addition to the genre; Mean Streets (1973) an early Scorsese film; The General (1998), John Boorman’s study of Martin Cahill an Irish mobster they could never convict, and many, many more. Here are the best of the genre.
1. THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
You all know where I stand on this one, the best gangster film ever made, the best American film ever made, the greatest film ever made. Stunning performances from Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg and John Cazale dominate this remarkable film that explores the depth and reach of the Mafia as well as the immigrant experience. There are few more moving sequences than the boat sliding past the Statue of Liberty, hope and awe etched on the faces of the new Americans. Pacino was never better, his dark intensity dominating the film, radiating danger as he never has before or since. Surrounded by great performances from John Cazale as the doomed Fredo, Robert Duvall as the ever loyal Tom Hagen, Talia Shire as the needy sister Connie, Michael V. Gazzo as Frankie, an old friend from Brooklyn, and acting guru Lee Strasberg as Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, based on Meyer Lansky are all superb, creating one of the greatest acting ensembles ever put on screen. In every way this film is a masterpiece, from the acting, direction and writing, through the cinematography, score, art direction and editing, it is flawless. Watching De Niro become the character we know will be portrayed by Brando in the first film is startling, it is such an achievement of performance, while Pacino as Michael, grasps the power and cannot shake it. The flashback scenes to Vito, portrayed by De Niro almost glow from within as though memory were bursting forth with intimate recollections of the past. An astounding, brilliant work of art, that has the sweep of a grand epic, and yet the intimacy of a love story. Genius.
2. THE GODFATHER (1972)
The one that revolutionized gang films and the film industry itself, a massive success, soaring past Gone with the Wind (1939) as the highest money maker of all time, and bringing to pop culture the mafia and Don Corleone. Francis Ford Coppola directed the film to perfection making both a film about the American Dream becoming perverse, turned upside down, and the story of a family whose business just happens to be crime. Presiding over the Corleone family is Don Vito (Marlon Brando), an aging man in his seventies, who after being shot will come to realize his son Michael took revenge on his behalf and is now working with him to be the chief of the family. They will take down the other families in New York to solidify their power. Brando might have won the Oscar for Best Actor, but Pacino dominates the film with an extraordinary performance. That said Brando did make a towering comeback and remind audiences and critics of his genius as an actor. Like the sequel, the picture is loaded with great performances, from the two leads through to Robert Duvall as the loyal adopted son, John Cazale as Fredo, James Caan as hot tempered Sonny, and Diane Keaton as Kay, the woman Michael will marry and betray. In addition to everything else it might be, The Godfather is also a superb film about family, of father and sons. Like the sequel, a remarkable film. One image I have never shaken, the cut from the horror of the horse head in the bed of film producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to an almost serene Don Corleone (Brando) sitting down with Hagen to discuss the visit to Hollywood. How could a man such as this, gentle, kindly, a man who so loved his children and wife, order such an act? The duality of what we all are.
3. GOODFELLAS (1990)
Director Martin Scorsese grew up watching wise guys in his New York world, the small-time mafia boys who ran the neighborhood. Based on the bestselling book about Henry Hill, the subject of the film, a real-life button man who betrayed his buddies and entered the Witness Protection Program, the film is a jaunty, almost bouncy journey through thirty years of life in the mafia. Hill saw it all and did it all, working close with some of the most prolific crime figures of the time, portrayed in the film by Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, and Joe Pesci, who is terrifying as an out of control killer. The picture beautifully captures the life of a mobster in their home, including interactions with the wives and children, and the hell they experience when their men go away. The movement of the camera creates an energy that is infectious as we watch all of this unfold, often with near jaunty humour, despite some of the most brutal killings put on the screen. One of the most remarkable American films ever made. Directed with sublime confidence by Scorsese and an absolute masterpiece.
4. THE IRISHMAN (2019)
Martin Scorsese lovingly bookends his gangster trilogy with this finale, exploring the life of hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro) who worked for mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film begins with a long tracking shot, echoing the one in Goodfellas (1990) inside the bowels of the Copacabana Night Club, only this time it is through the hushed hallways of an old age home, where the elderly are dying each day. There the camera sets upon an elderly Frank, who tells his story in flashback, the director utilizing software that permitted him to de-age his 70-year old actors to men in their forties. Though De Niro and Al Pacino deliver smashing performances, especially Pacino as a Hoffa, drunk with power, bombastic and untouchable in his mind, the film belongs to Joe Pesci as a soft spoken mafia chief with untold power, who does not need to flaunt it, he knows he has it and everyone close to him knows it too. Pesci gives the most elegant, and finest performance of his career here, in a film filled with brilliant performances. Filled with sadness, the sense of melancholy that grips the final third of the film is heartbreaking as Sheeran, his friend’s dead and gone, is alone and must atone for his life choices. Left alone by his family, the consequences of the life he led come crashing down on him in a way he never saw coming. Scorsese, brilliant as always made all the right choices with this film, and that after all this time the same magic they always had rose to the surface, is extraordinary. It might be the finest film of the decade let alone the year.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
A rich, haunting epic that spans forty years in the Jewish mob where we follow the rise and fall of Noodles (De Niro again) and Max (James Woods) two partners from boyhood who hook up and move quickly through the ranks to the very top of the organization. It’s bloody, no question and misogynistic in its treatment of women, but once it has its hooks in you, I defy anyone to let go. Long at four hours (see the original version as the director intended) it has a leisurely pace and some strange choices (an endlessly ringing telephone) but manages to come together in its telling of an unusual story about loyalty and betrayal. Like The Irishman the film explores choice, and the consequences of those terrible choices later in life. De Niro and Woods are terrific as is Tuesday Weld, but Elizabeth McGovern is woefully miscast. Breathtaking cinematography and a haunting score are highlights. One of De Niro’s best pieces of acting. See the director’s cut, over four hours, worth every second, not the butchered studio version.
6. THE DEPARTED (2006)
A remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, director Martin Scorsese, transplanting the story to Boston, creates a crime epic spanning thirty years. Jack Nicholson, working with Scorsese for the first time is superb as an out of control gang leader running South Boston, with a mole in the police department, portrayed by Matt Damon, and without knowing one in his outfit, portrayed to perfection by a paranoid and terrified Leonardo Di Caprio. There are strong supporting performances from Martin Sheen as a decent, kind and fatherly police captain, Mark Walberg as a vulgar assistant to the Captain, and Alec Baldwin, but it is Nicholson who dominates the picture. The tension is kept at its tightest throughout as discovery for both young men means death (or worse). One can sense the growing paranoia impacting a terrified Di Caprio as he edges closer to nailing Nicholson, but also to being found out, which means certain death. Scorsese finally won his long overdue Oscar for this one, and many believe it is not among his best … rubbish. It is as good as he gets.
7. EASTERN PROMISES (2007)
This was a very different sort of gangster film, the vicious Russian mob being the world we enter. When a young girl dies after giving birth, a young mid-wife Anna (Naomi Watts) follows the girl’s diary to a Russian restaurant, a front for the mob. There she encounters the driver and bodyguard, (Viggo Mortensen) before she speaks with the mob chief, a kindly man, seemingly wanting to help the girl. He is in fact a monster who raped the girl and fathered her child, and he wants to get his hands on the child and kill it before DNA tests can be performed. Armin Mueller Stahl is chilling as this vile man, vicious beyond belief, dangerous in just his mere presence, and it does not take Anna long to figure that out. The driver, seemingly loyal to the mob is actually a great deal more and nothing is as it seems to Anna. He will help her both save the child and expose the monster for what he is, while infiltrating the dangerous, far reaching Russian mob as one of their own. Mortensen was nominated for Best Actor for his riveting performance in this David Cronenberg directed knockout.
8. CASINO (1995)
When first released there were obvious comparisons to Goodfellas (1990) from critics (including me) but now with some distance and time, the film stands well on its own and is a frank and extraordinary glimpse into the world of Vegas. De Niro is well cast as Ace Rothstein, a brilliant odds maker sent to Vegas by the mob to watch over their interests, but is hampered by the arrival of the vicious, murderous Nicky Santuoro (Joe Pesci) who turns Las Vegas into the wild west with himself as the biggest outlaw of them all. The woman between them is Ginger, portrayed superbly by Sharon Stone in the finest work of her career. It is a big sprawling film about how the mob becomes undone in Vegas, through Nicky’s actions and greed, often brutally violent, but a careening, bouncy film delving deep into the minds and world of the people who inhabit Vegas. Far better than it was ever given credit for being. De Niro is superb, Pesci brilliant and frightening, Stone a miracle and James Woods sleazy and perfect…just terrific. Very different from Goodfellas, just pay attention.
9. ROAD TO PERDITION (2002)
Fathers and sons again, but so uniquely different. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is the hitman, the muscle for gangster chief John Rooney (Paul Newman) but the envy of Rooney’s troubled and troubling son Connor. When Sullivan’s son witnesses a murder, Connor feels he cannot be trusted and murders both Sullivan’s wife and youngest boy, causing the lethal hitman to flee, taking his eldest son with him. Knowing Sullivan is going to come hunting for Connor, Rooney hides him, though he is conflicted because he has always considered Michael a son too. In the seconds before Michael guns down John Rooney in the street, the older man says to him in fondness, “I’m glad it’s you Mike” as the hitman opens fire on him. Mercilessly Sullivan works his way to Rooney, hellbent on revenge but also saving his surviving son, hoping to give him a life. Tom Hanks is superb as Sullivan, displaying dramatic range we all knew he had long before this. Paul Newman gave his last great screen performance as Rooney, Oscar nominated, and Daniel Craig is excellent as Connor. Beautifully designed and shot, superbly directed by Sam Mendes, I find it criminal this was ignored for Best Picture, Actor and Director nominations
10. BUGSY (1991)
Warren Beatty give the finest performance of his career as the psychotic Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, who in the late thirties and early forties came to Hollywood, fell in love with it and never left. In the middle of the desert in Nevada he had a vision of a gambling haven called Las Vegas and he built the Flamingo Casino which became the first major hotel in Vegas and gave birth to one of the world’s most extraordinary cities. In a few short years, the Flamingo was surrounded by an entire city and soon built into the gambling site of the world. Bugsy did that, yet never lived to see what his vision brought forth. A tough as nails and dangerous mobster, he was the muscle for Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), and Lucky Luciano and would be gunned down in his home by his own people. Beatty is ferociously good as Bugsy, charismatic, intense and explosive, Kingsley superb as Meyer Lansky and Annette Bening excellent as Virginia Hill, Bugsy’s other obsession. Nicely directed by Barry Levinson.
RUNNERS UP: EASTERN PROMISES (2007), SCARFACE (1983), AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2006), MILLERS CROSSING (1990), PRIZZI’S HONOR (1985), MARRIED TO THE MOB (1988)
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.