By John H. Foote

It should come, really, as no surprise that the great Martin Scorsese has five of the fifteen films on this list, while Francis Ford Coppola has two within the top three. Each man revolutionized the gangster genre with their films through the last near 50 years. While Quentin Tarantino arrogantly declared directing to be a young man’s job, Scorsese responds with another masterpiece, The Irishman (2019), before he turned 80.

Take that Tarantino.

The gangster film became popular in the thirties when Warner Brothers began making them in many cases romanticizing the genre, but sometimes, as with Little Caesar (1931) they were honest, portraying the mob as the dangerous organization it is. Edward G. Robinson portrayed Rico as the monster many mobsters truly are. Within the genre Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Robinson and a very few others built the foundation of their careers.

In the seventies Coppola redefined the entire genre with his adaptation of “The Godfather”, a decent novel that he turned into a staggering film masterpiece about the corruption and perversity of the American Dream. The sequel was even a better film, exploring the mafia with global reach at the cost of one’s moral soul. The mob films to follow became grittier, much more realistic, with flawed, sometimes even likeable characters.

Following are the fifteen greatest though I am sad to say, time, a films’ greatest enemy has eroded those classics from the thirties. They simply no longer hold up. The Godfather (1972) altered the face, the narrative, the intimacy and the scope of the gangster film, galvanizing audiences and critics with its blazing realism. It was as though a brand-new genre was being created….


Based on the television series that ran in the sixties, this exciting, beautifully mounted film deals with Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) and his dogged, unorthodox pursuit of Chicago mob kingpin Al Capone, played with fury and menace by Robert De Niro. Superbly directed by Brian de Palma, the film is thrilling from beginning to end, acted with great power by the cast, best of all Sean Connery as the all-knowing beat cop disgusted by corruption of any kind, but especially, police corruption. Ness, new to the job, puts together a crack team to bring Capone down, including raiding the police academy to hire the best shot in the school. But when Capone always seems to be one step ahead, and then slaughters one of Ness’ men, he goes street, turning it over to Jimmy (Connery)to run. For a time they do well, but Capone gives the order to slaughter Malone, and slaughter him they do, riddling his body with bullets, leaving him to die in the arms of his friend. Realizing finally, Ness knows to get Capone he must break the rules, so he does, using any means necessary to bring him down. The fury unleashed by Capone when he realizes he is going to jail is like that of an angry bull, several men hold him back as Ness smiles smugly in his face. The Untouchables was a big hit with audiences and critics, earning Sean Connery his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Connery really dominates the film and his death scene is among the great film deaths. Kevin Costner is the do-right agent tapped with stopping the arrogant, corrupt Capone. Robert de Niro is superb as Capone, flaunting the fact the agents cannot nail him as bodies pile up. De Palma shoots several magnificent set pieces including a western like sequence across the border into Canada, an enraged Malone getting the men to talk with some theatrics, Capone dispensing justice with a baseball bat and Malone’s massacred body still giving instructions to Ness as life spills out of his body. Brilliant entertainment.

14. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)

Despite the lukewarm reception from critics, some hailing it a masterpiece, some not, and the less than impressive box office there was a great deal to admire about Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s long-awaited exploration of the warring gangs of 19th century New York City. Daniel Day-Lewis is ferocity incarnate as William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher, a volatile murderer who runs the gang in charge. He kills Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the only man he ever respected, and 15 years later Vallon’s son Amsterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio) returns, seeking revenge. Bill takes him in like the son he never had until he discovers who he is and that he wants Bill dead. The inevitable war ensues, and the bodies are piled high. Day-Lewis is astonishing as the butcher, a grand showman lethal with knives, bullying and intimidating anyone who dares to challenge him. Di Caprio is very good, but simply not able to withstand the force of nature that is Day-Lewis. The less said about Cameron Diaz the better, but there is fine supporting work from John C. Reilly, and Henry Thomas. The recreation of Five Points of New York is quite breathtaking, and despite the flaws within the film, greatness can be seen, sadly not enough.


The Coen brothers directed and wrote this outstanding film set during the Prohibition years exploring the treachery within the mob, the adage “no honour among thieves” springs to mind. Albert Finney commands the screen as Leo, the mob boss who controls the city but has a target on his back. When an attempt is made to kill him, he rises out of his bed armed with a tommy gun and wreaks havoc, just as he does with the rival gang that tries to kill him. His leading hit man, Tom, portrayed Gabriel Byrne finds himself playing both sides which Leo sees as a direct betrayal, though he is betraying Tom in a far worse manner. Sent to kill the sleazy Bernie (John Turturro), Tom is fast talked out of it by Bernie’s begging and pleading, though the second time they encounter one another in the woods, he does not make that mistake again. The film is gorgeous to look at, incredible considering the low budget on which it was made. Finney gives a towering performance, among the best of his career, Byrne is terrific, Turturro pure sleazy evil, like a cockroach trying to stay alive, and Marcia Gay Harden is perfection as the deceitful moll. Despite the brilliance of the film, not a single Academy Award nomination.


A different kind of gangster film, adapted from a graphic novel which shows America’s rage in the 2000’s. When two deadly killers come into a small-town diner, they attempt to rape and kill those in the establishment, but Tom (Virgo Mortenson) acts swiftly and kills them both without hesitation. Wounded, he is taken to the hospital where his actions, saving his staff and patrons have made him a national news story. The next day his diner is overrun with anxious patrons, when two tough guys, one, his face horribly mangled, enter and call him “Joey”. Feigning surprise, Tom acts as though he does not know them, but they are not moving on. When they kidnap his son, arriving at his home to take a ride, he lashes out killing two of them, while the other dies at the hands of his son. Finally, before shooting Fogarty (Ed Harris) he whispers that he should have killed him back in Philadelphia. Tom, now outed, his wife horrified by what he is, and was, drives through the night to make amends with his mobster brother, who wants him dead. David Cronenberg directed the film, bringing both realism and enormous tension to the narrative. Mortenson, an exquisite, realistic actor is superb, leaving us guessing until the moment he makes clear he is indeed who the monsters claim he is. There is a folksy, Norman Rockwellian feel to he and his family, but a real danger to his presence. William Hurt is bizarrely deadly as his older gangster brother and earned an Oscar nomination.


Ridley Scott directed this splendid biography of Frank Lucas, who in the sixties and seventies held control of the drug trade in New York City. Taught by gangster Bumpy Johnson, Lucas realized to gain the monopoly over the Italian mob he needed to erase the middleman. Travelling to the Asian Golden Triangle he found a way to ship the drugs back to the United States under the pallets holding the coffins of dead Americans killed in Vietnam. His power grew quickly, his fierce reputation within, but he was able to stay out of the limelight for many years until the law closed in. A ruthless man, executioner and drug lord, Lucas took care of his immediate family, hiring them all, paying them well to keep his drugs on the street and moving. For years Lucas became wealthy selling his drugs, keeping a low profile to stay out of the public eye and under the police radar, but once they locked into him, the detectives were like heat seeking missiles closing in on him. He was busted and sentenced to seventy years but because he acted as a police informant, he did just five years. As portrayed quite brilliantly by Denzel Washington, Lucas is a very intelligent man who understands committing murder will be necessary to get to the top of the drug world, so when necessary, he does just that. Russell Crowe is equally fine as the dogged detective locked in step with Lucas, set to bring him down. Despite rave reviews, the film did just middling box office and received a single nod for Best Supporting Actress.

10. SCARFACE (1983)

Brian De Palma’s critically reviled film opened in late 1983 to savage reviews, but through the years became a cult favourite on home video. A decade later it was deemed a classic, with Universities offering film courses and appreciation studies of the film. Sort of a remake yet feels original thanks to the sometimes bombastic screenplay by Oliver Stone, who had won an Oscar for writing Midnight Express (1978). Al Pacino is Tony Montana, a cocky, smart ass Cuban refugee who comes to Florida seeking a better life. Very quickly, through criminal activity he is flirting with the top position involving the intake and distribution of cocaine. Often very violent, the film ran afoul of the censors over a chainsaw scene which was trimmed, and the barrage of foul language. Pacino is truly brilliant as Tony, seething with ambition and hate for anyone who dares oppose him. Wretched excess is the theme of the film, and Montana gets high on his own supply, bringing about his doom. The synthesizer score feels like a pulse, and Pacino is the beating heart of this powerful, if over the top film. In hindsight, it has been declared a masterpiece.


Based on a graphic novel, directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, this gorgeously shot gangster story is set during Prohibition, during the reign of Al Capone in Chicago. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is the enforcer hitman for Irish mobster John Rooney (Paul Newman) who thinks of Sullivan as a son. But when Rooney’s own son massacres Sullivan’s wife and son out of jealously, he creates a war that escalates quickly as Sullivan begins a reign of terror leading right back to the Rooney family. Michael knows he is going to have to kill John, because the older man will never give up his son or forgive Michael for killing him. With his older son with him they hit the road, conducting their war from the car and the road, aware they are being stalked by a madman portrayed by Jude Law. Hanks, cast against type is brilliant, tapping into his dark side as a cold blooded killer who loves his family. Paul Newman is equally fine as the ruthless John Rooney, who feels bound by blood to protect his son, despite knowing his boy was wrong, despite his love and loyalty for Michael. Newman received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but Hanks, the film, and Mendes were snubbed. For its glorious cinematography, the film won its single Oscar. Majestically darkly beautiful.


An electrifying study of the Vory V. Zakone, the Russian mafia, in this film transplanted to a London, England, hiding in plain sight in a Russian family restaurant. When a young girl dies in childbirth, her diary, in Russian is translated to Anna (Naomi Watts) a midwife who was with the teen when she passed. Her diary tells Anna she was taken from her home, forced into prostitution, addicted to heroin and raped by an older man, high up in the mob. As she digs deeper, she encounters Semyon (Arminian Mueller-Stahl) the very man who raped the girl and fathered the child. Learning of the diary and child, he wants the baby dead. Working for him as a driver and bodyguard is Yuri (Viggo Mortenson) who is promised swift ascension in the mob if he does the old man’s bidding. Yuri has become friends with Kirill (Seymour Cassel) the often out of control eldest son of the old man, who despite his criminal life has a streak of decency running through him that his father, the vile Semyon does not. Agreeing to help Anna and being so much more than he appears to be, Yuri places his own life in danger by aiding the girl. And of course, Semyon comes after them both, sending two men to ambush a naked Yuri in the baths, and asking his confused son Kirill to kidnap and kill the baby. Anna and Yuri save the child, and Semyon will be disgraced and die in prison. Brilliantly directed by the great David Cronenberg, this film is a tension filled roller coaster, which explores the cruelty of the Russian mob. One of the great twists is discovering Yuri is an agent deep undercover, and on the path to bringing Semyon down already when Anna enters the picture. Mueller-Stahl is all old world charm as Semyon, until the moment he is told the dead girl left both a child and diary. From that moment on his is an intimidating monster, frightening Anna every time she sees him. Watts, as always is very good as Anna and towering over them all is the great Viggo Mortenson as Yuri, a performance which earned the actor an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor. Sublime on every level.

7. CASINO (1995)

Based on a true story, Martin Scorsese’s deeply underrated film was unfairly compared to his masterful GoodFellas (1990), but in fact is very much its own film and a masterwork in it own right. Robert De Niro is Ace Rothstein, a Jewish numbers man with friends within the Mafia, who is hired to run the mob operated Tangier’s casino on the strip in Las Vegas. Ace misses nothing, flushing out the cheats who routinely rob the casino daily, making friends with wealthy gamblers and finding ways to keep them at the tables so the casino wins, by all accounts he is a huge success. That is until mobster Nicky Santora (Joe Pesci) moves to Vegas and begins building his own empire. Good friends with Ace, they enjoy one another’s company, but Ace knows being with Nick is dangerous. Things start to unravel as Ace thought they would and before long Nicki is out of control, the bodies are piling up and the Italians who hired Ace grow worried. Ace has enough problems with his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) a former showgirl turned hustler Ace falls for and marries, promising to take care of her the rest of her life. She brings Ace nothing but heartache, including still being in contact with her former pimp, the scumbag Lester (James Woods) and having an affair with Nicki. When it comes apart, every aspect comes crumbling down, and Nicki watches in horror as his brother is beaten with baseball bats and thrown in a shallow grave, knowing he is next, and death is moments away. De Niro is outstanding as Ace, but the film belongs to Pesci as the lethally deranged Nicki, and Sharon Stone’s grasping Ginger. Stone received the film’s only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress, but in hindsight, Casino was among the finest works of the year and subsequently the decade.

6. BUGSY (1991)

Warren Beatty commissioned this screenplay from James Toback, waiting impatiently for the writer to finish. Once complete Betty, who produced and would star, hired Barry Levinson to direct and gathered a formidable cast including Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky and Annette Bening as Virginia. Bugsy Siegel was one of the most dangerous gangsters to ever live, with murderous tantrums, and a ruthlessness that’s was infamous. Call him Bugsy? You might die. When he came to Hollywood, he fell in love with Virginia (Bening) a second-rate actress who had been passed from man to man before him. On a trip into the desert he has a vision that was eventually built in the city of Las Vegas. At the time, there was one casino/ hotel, the Flamingo which Siegel built with mob money far exceeding the budget. Unknown to him, Virginia has been stealing from Lansky, and Siegel pays with his life. Beatty is terrifying as Siegel, his temper volcanic, his rage as hot as lava, murderous, horrific. It is a magnificent performance that in any other year might have won the legend an Oscar. Kingsley is quiet, calm fury as Lansky and Bening brilliant as Virginia who loves Siegel, but believes she needs to look out for herself. There is a lovely cameo from Elliott Gould as a man on the run who has betrayed Siegel’s friends and must die. Handsomely mounted the film won Oscars for Production Design and Costumes, two of the ten nominations it earned. The film belongs heart and soul to Beatty’s ferocious Siegel.


Such a beautiful, bold and daring film I could never understand why the studio edited down the four hour plus version to less than two hours, ruining the picture. Home video, critics and Blu Ray rescued this Sergio Leone film from obscurity, and it is now regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. Spanning decades, the film explores the relationship between Noodles (Robert de Niro) and Max (James Woods) and the building of their criminal empire. The Jewish gangsters are ruthless in the period of Prohibition before an act of treachery separates the group and forty years pass before the two men encounter one another again, their lives having taken very different routes. Leone gives the film an elegant grace punctuated with swift, startling acts of violence including the alarming death of a child. The haunting musical score is like the pulse of the film, bringing out a sadness and deep sense of regret. De Niro is superb, giving one of his finest performances, matched step for step by an explosive, dangerous James Woods doing some of the best work of his career. If there is a single misstep it is the woeful miscasting of Elizabeth McGovern as the love of De Niro’s life, and the very obvious misogyny. Tuesday Weld gives the film a ferocious boost of energy in a brief performance, really the only substantial female role in the film. See the longer version because it is a bonafide masterpiece.

4. THE DEPARTED (2006)

A remake of the Hong Kong thriller, Martin Scorsese finally won his Academy Award for Best Director for this film, often underrated for the masterwork it truly is. Working for the first time with Jack Nicholson, the film is dangerous game of cat and mouse and near discovery. Leonardo Di Caprio is the high testing young policeman selected by the Captain (Martin Sheen) to go deep under cover and infiltrate the crime world presided over by Frank Costello (Nicholson). Unknown to the cops, Costello has his own mole within the department, portrayed by Matt Damon as a smiling Judas. They slowly become aware the other exists, just as it dawns on them that Costello gets away with so much because he is an informant for the FBI. Di Caprio gives one of his finest performances, a young man living on the edge, fearing discovery because of what will take place. Damon is snide, even condescending as a sneak on Costello’s payroll who lies to the faces of the other cops he works with everyday. Martin Sheen is fatherly and a decent man believing in his work, while Mark Walberg is his foul mouthed, cocky assistant. Towering over them all is Nicholson, brilliantly unsettling as Costello, a truly demented, coked up, oversexed killer who like a vicious cat enjoys playing with his prey. Though the film won Scorsese a long overdue Oscar for Best Director as well Best Picture, Screenplay and Film Editing neither Di Caprio, Damon, Sheen or Nicholson were nominated for Oscars. Each deserved to be. A twisting, taut, violent masterwork.

3. THE IRISHMAN (2019)

Produced for Netflix, Scorsese again delves into the world of organized crime with this brilliant, unsettling adaptation of the life of the man who claims to be responsible for the murder of Teamster chief, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Robert de Niro is Frank Sheeran, who for two decades was Hoffa’s right-hand man, bodyguard and executioner until finally Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) calmly tells him Hoffa has to go. “We’ve done all we can” he quietly tells Frank as he gives the order, which within hours has been done. The three hour plus film moves breezily along, constantly in motion, the narrative thrusting forward completing Scorsese’s trilogy about the world of crime. As his friends die off Frank is left alone in a nursing home, his children estranged, all his closest friends long dead, naturally or otherwise leaving the old man with the ghosts of his past and his many regrets. A sublime, melancholy picture, very few films have the courage to so intimately explore the life of a killer. De Niro gives his finest performance in years, and Al Pacino is perfectly arrogant and bombastic as Hoffa, who deludes himself into believing he is untouchable. Watching him killed by his best friend, a man he trusts is truly heartbreaking, as he realizes at the last moments what is happening. Best of all, in a towering performance of elegant, subtle power is Pesci as Bufalino, who carries his power easily. No tantrums, no raging of psychotic rampages, Bufalino does not have to raise his voice because he holds absolute power. From the moment he comes on screen, surprised Sheeran does not recognize him, through to his last moments as a doddering, senile old man rotting away in prison, Pesci is astonishing offering his finest performance. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, The Irishman was a victim of a Netflix backlash, winning nothing despite several wins in the critical community. Rather shameful to treat our finest director so shabbily given he had created a masterful film for the ages which chronicles with heartbreaking honesty the consequences of a man’s actions. In the empty, lonely hallways of an old age home, where he awaits death, Frank remembers, the ghosts conjured from his memory, forever walking the haunted landscape of his mind.

2. GOODFELLAS (1990)

Martin Scorsese’s electrifying, violent study of the life of Henry Hill, a young man who from a very young age became part of the mob in New York. Scorsese hurtles the audience into this violent world from the opening frame, where Hill (Ray Liotta) charms us with the depth of love he had for his life in the mob. It was all he ever wanted to do, and he rose quickly becoming a loyal soldier to both Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro). Hill tells the story in flashback, lovingly relating to us his dark life that often took violent and tragic turns. Running with Conway, Hill teams up with the volatile Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) a ruthless killer who will eventually be killed by the mob because he would not follow the rules. They make a fortune stealing whatever they can lay their hands on, celebrating at night. Tommy proves to be too much to handle, killing a young waiter during a card game, and in one of the terrifying scenes in the film seems ready to kill Henry who told him he was funny. For several tension filled, unbearable minutes we fully expect Tommy to shoot Henry, but it is all a ruse. They have a great run through the years but slowly the cops close in on Henry, as his drug running has undone him. When caught, Paulie must turn his back, and Jimmy wants Henry and his wife Karen (Lorraine Branco) dead. With no where to turn, Henry tells the police everything they want, giving up his friends for the Witness Protection Program. You can feel the hatred for Henry pouring out of Paulie and Jimmy as they stare at him at their trial, he unable to look at them. Sadly, what he misses most is the life of being a gangster. The film moves with breathless speed, urgency as we hurtle through Henry’s life to its end, free but forever a prisoner to the memory of what had once been. Liotta, Branco, Sorvino and De Niro are perfect in their roles but Pesci, who won the Oscar gives the film a dark energy, a danger whenever he is onscreen, as though anything might happen. The LA, National Society and NY Film Critics awarded the film and Scorsese their major awards, and it was nominated for six Academy Awards, only Pesci winning. Scorsese’s greatest film, a true masterpiece.


It is an impossibility to separate the two films because the first is so beautifully bookended by the second. The third in my universe simply does not exist and I refuse to acknowledge it was even created. The Godfather was released in 1972 to universal rave reviews, many critics declaring the film, the finest in American cinema. In its study of the corruption and perversity of the American Dream, the film explores the Corleone family, one of the most powerful mafia families in America. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the Don of the family, which he rules with an iron fist, compassion, yet ruthlessness when needed. We know this of Don Vito, he loves his family, he loves America and he is fair to everyone, until they betray or cross him. His sons, Sonny (James Caan) and Fredo (John Canaletto) work for their father as part of the crime organization, but Michael (Al Pacino) a war hero, does not. In the days after World War II there are sweeping changes in America which will impact the family. When Vito refuses a business proposition, he is gunned down in the streets, nearly killed, but he survives. Knowing his would be assassins will try again, Michael proposes he take a meeting and at that meeting he will execute his father’s enemies. With this action, Michael becomes a part of the crime family, his father’s son. He proves to be even more cunning and dangerous than his father. With Sonny slaughtered the family needs strong leadership, and Michael proves to be just that. With his father and adopted brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) counselling him, Michael plans to lash out at his enemies before the Corleone family moves to Las Vegas. But the old Don dies of a heart attack while sitting in his garden playing with his grandson, leaving Michael vulnerable. But in a stunning montage we watch the enemies of the family slaughtered, one by one, leaving Michael the most powerful crime chieftain in America. Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor and made a stunning comeback with this superb performance. Just 45 playing a man 30 years his senior, he was brilliant in the film, but the Oscar might have belonged to Al Pacino who has a striking arc to play and emerges dangerous by the end. Speaking softly, but his words dripping with venom, he suggests menace with a look and his mere presence.

A sequel followed just two years later, after Paramount gave Coppola complete artistic control to make the film has he envisioned. Told in a broken narrative, moving easily back and forth in time, the picture perfectly bookends the first. We begin in the past, learning how Vito came to be in America, escaping murder at the hands of a local Don responsible for the killings of Vito’s father, mother and brother. Smuggled out of Italy, he stares in fascination at the Statue of Liberty as his ship docks at Ellis Island. There he is quarantined for a few months before setting out on his own in Little Italy. Portrayed by Robert De Niro, Vito speaks little but listens, hearing all. He realizes to make a living he must kill the local Don because the pompous man cannot be bargained with. During a parade and celebration, Vito kills the man, establishing himself as the new Don, building his criminal empire from the humblest of beginnings. He returns to Italy to launch his Olive Oil business, a perfect front for his dubious other operations and while there, murders the man who killed his family twenty years earlier. Moving to and from in time, we encounter Michael (Pacino) in Vegas now the unquestioned head of the family and enormously powerful mafia chieftain. When an attempt is made on his life, Michael departs for Cuba to figure out who tried to have him killed, though he already suspects an aging Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). What he does not expect is that his older brother Fredo was used as a dupe in the assassination attempt which breaks Michael’s heart and he banishes Fredo from his presence. He weeds out those disloyal to him, including his long-suffering wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and kills all but her. Not even his brother escapes his wrath, killed while fishing on  Lake Tahoe. All powerful but utterly alone, he sits outside as the autumn leaves blow by.

Each film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and The Godfather Part II is the single greatest American film ever made. The central theme is that absolute power corrupts absolutely and we watch as Michael loses his morality, becoming more corrupt with each action. Al Pacino gives the single greatest performance of his career in Part II, and is surrounded by superb work from Duvall, Keaton, John Cazale, Strasberg, and everyone in the film. As young Vito in the flashbacks, Robert De Niro is astonishing, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, richly deserved. Francis Ford Coppola gave each film a darkness that was portrayed brilliantly by his cast in both films, each having an epic sweep yet remaining intimate character studies. The two films are without question the finest films ever made about organized crime, breathtaking to behold.

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