Eight classic films from eight decades, all about gangsters, gunmen, and mobsters.
Our preview of Michael Mann’s upcoming Public Enemies, about the pursuit of notorious folk hero/bank robber John Dillinger, got us thinking about other gangster movies worth recommending to those unfamiliar with the genre. Since the crime movie has been a staple of American cinema since its advent almost eight decades ago, there’s actually a lot of films to suggest.
The gangster film has changed with the times, too, remaining vibrant by adapting to the public’s shifting perception of crime and criminals. Originally debuting in the hard times of the 1930s, the genre waned as prosperity grew after World War II, giving way to the murkier and more complicated story structures of film noir. Reaching something of a nadir in the law-and-order 1950s, the gangster film rebounded amid the social turbulence of the 60s thanks to films like Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank.
The trend of championing the gangster character, a kind of urban re-expression of the American outlaw figure – continued through the 70s and 80s. The 90s, the era of Taranantino, saw an explosion of new attempts to capture its spirit, but the genre has contracted in the current decade towards films of a more realistic tone and scope. The following eight works represent one gangster film from each decade, and each one is available on DVD. Trust us when we say there are plenty more.
The Public Enemy (1931): William A. Wellman’s steel-nerved tale of a bootlegger (James Cagney) on a ruthless ascent and eventual demise through the Prohibition-era underworld included several characters based on real-life organized crime figures. Cagney and co-star Jean Harlow shot to stardom after the film’s release, and its success helped cement Warner Brothers’ position as the studio that catered to working-class Americans.
The scene in which Cagney goes to exact bloody retribution on a rival gang, appearing at 1:08 in the clip below, has inspired legions of imitators and become synonymous with Hollywood’s Golden Age.
High Sierra (1941): Humphrey Bogart got the part of world-weary gangster “Mad Dog” Roy Earle after Paul Muni and George Raft, both bigger stars at the time, turned it down. Bogart’s friend John Huston wrote the script, and under the direction of gangster film auteur Raoul Walsh (White Heat, The Roaring Twenties) the cross-country adventure helped steer Bogart’s career towards the roles for which he’s now most famous.
The story, and Bogart’s portrayal of Earle, gave a melancholy spin to the typical gangster caper drama, including elements of doomed romance and encroaching fate while revealing the psychological scars of its characters. The action sequences were gripping and inventive as well, as this car chase sequence demonstrates:
On The Waterfront(1954): The gangster film shifted in the 1950s, as a prosperous country’s interests reversed towards championing cops over criminals and conformists over outlaws. Not explicitly a gangster picture, Elia Kazan’s based-on-actual-events depiction of life on a New Jersey dockyards portrayed organized criminals as ruthless destroyers of dreams, turning its sympathies instead to the ruined lives left in crime’s wake. And it starred Marlon Brando, the actor of his generation, as simpleminded ex-boxer turned dock worker Terry Malloy. In the clip below, Terry’s mobbed-up brother (Rod Steiger) offers him a plum job if he refuses to testify about mob influence on the dockyards. You’ve heard the famous quote, but here’s the entire scene:
Bonnie and Clyde (1967): The pendulum of public sympathy swung back again in the anti-establishment 1960s, with a new generation of filmmakers willfully pushing the envelopes of violence and sexuality as a response. Director Arthur Penn and several screenwriters, including Robert Towne (Chinatown), reached back to the gangster heydey of the 30s to revisit the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, two bank robbers in love with breaking the law as well as each other.
Stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, backed by supporting players including Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Gene Wilder, recreate the Great Depression era as an allegory for the restless modern day, complete with treacherous authority figures and crumbling social institutions. (Read our full review here.) The ending, scandalous upon the film’s release for its bloodshed and seeming cruelty, actually sums up the entire film in violent, unforgettable veracity.
Black Caesar (1973): Though 70s crime cinema is perhaps best known for Francis Ford Coppola’s first two Godfather epics as well as William Friedkin’s The French Connection and its derivatives, the urban-focused blaxploitation subgenre was meanwhile adapting many classic gangster tropes to fit the spirit of the era’s black culture. Black Caesar took the homage a step further, remaking the 1931 Edward G. Robinson-led Little Caesar as a ghetto tour de force, complete with soundtrack by James Brown.
For whatever moral ambivalence conventional American cinema possessed through the decade, the low-budget blaxploitation films took it a step further, and Black Caesar is no exception. Directed by horror maven Larry Cohen (Captivity), it’s a tawdry and bloodthirsty assault on the audience that only just redeems itself, as the early gangster films did, by its self-possessed swaggering cool. In the trailer below the gangsters have apparently even stolen Jim Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” riff.
Goodfellas (1990): Arriving at the close of the Reagan Era, Scorsese’s audacious mobland saga remains the director’s definitive masterpiece and a bona fide American classic. Depicting both the mob’s everything-up-for-grabs heydey in the 1950s and 60s but also its slow rot from within through the 70s, the film follows based-on-real-life mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta, never better) and his two robbery and hijacking confederates (Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci) through twenty-five years of heists, betrayals, and retribution.
Scorsese structured the film around movement, including a number of set pieces that dazzle in their bravado and montages that remain in the memory forever. In the scene below DeNiro’s paranoid gangster Jimmy Conway has decided to close ranks, elminiating the crew that helped him carry out the infamous 1978 robbery of Lufthansa Airlines.
Donnie Brasco (1997): Like Goodfellas, Mike Newell’s (Four Weddings And A Funeral) heavy drama is set in New York and depicts a true story about the mob in the 1970s. And that’s about where the similarities end. The titular character (Johnny Depp) is an undercover FBI agent cozying up to Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino, keeping a lid on the hooa-ah), a mid-level gangster with little to show for his lifetime of loyalty. The two work for Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano (Michael Madsen) a thug with the brutality of the classic gangster antihero but little of the ameliorating brains or ambition.
There’s no elegia for the mob lifestyle that was, no nostalgia about vanished eras. The gangsters are a backbiting and bullying wolf pack more than an organized outfit, driven at one point to ransacking parking meters for money to buy booze. The New York they inhabit, full of greasy cigarette smoke and ugly cars, is a shithole evocative of The French Connection rather than the grandeur of Scorsese’s romantic vision. If the film fails to arrive at any real point about the mob or its setting, it’s nonetheless eminently watchable for Pacino’s exquisite performance as a man who’s wasted his life and lives with the weight of that on a day to day basis.
Eastern Promises (2007): Romantic criminals were a tough sell in Post-9/11 America, and the majority of the current decade’s crime films have borrowed from Tarantino’s increasingly impressionistic rendering of criminal life or, like Donnie Brasco, centered on undercover operatives working to destroy the corrupt system from within. Among the best of these was 2007′s underrated Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg’s (Dead Ringers) gritty look into Russian mob operations in London. Viggo Mortensen (Appaloosa) plays the undercover cop, Naomi Watts (The International) is the doctor investigating the death of a Russian white slavery victim, and the great Armin Mueller-Stahl (Avalon) co-stars as the charming head of the local crime family.
Cronenberg’s reputation rests on his sizeable body of overtly weird films like Videodrome and eXistenZ, but a late-career turn into crime cinema begun with 2005′s A History of Violence (also with Mortensen) shows him eminently capable of working within gangster film structures. Eastern Promises is the kind of film where you grip your seat’s armrest for 100 minutes, horrified at what your eyes witness, but then recommend it to friends starting the minute you leave the theatre.