In the movies, henchmen climb to the top of the crime heap by using bombs, bullets and intimidation. Of course, being a terrifying son of a bitch isn’t just a job security tactic – any mobster who’s not feared will often end up as landfill.
The range of badass criminal types runs the gamut:
There are those who are so twisted, rotten and vicious that they make other tough guys lose control of their bodily functions.
And there are those who at first glance seem like fairly normal human beings. But when someone crosses them it brings out their inner hatchet murderer. Tempers flare, hateful words are exchanged and pretty soon the badass is up to his ankles in someone else’s blood.
Then, there are the ones who get tagged as vicious criminals and are feared by the police and other criminals, too, but they’re not as bad as their reputations would have you believe – or so they claim.
With that in mind, here are some gangsters, thugs and killers who can rightly claim the “badass” moniker:
1. Roy “Mad Dog” Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in “High Sierra”
You might admire or fear any gangster who earns the title “Mad Dog.” As a rule, cops and criminals alike approach “Mad Dogs” with great caution, and that’s probably a good idea.
Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, the Indiana bang robber, is released from prison. And after years spent behind bars he wants to get outdoors, out of the darkness and into the sunlight. He even adopts a stray dog, and treats the pooch with kindness.
But Roy is not planning to abandon his life of crime. “High Sierra” is a heist picture, and like any good gangster film, it gives us some insight into the protagonist’s character.
Roy is recruited to take part in a jewel robbery, and while on his way to join the others in the gang, he meets Velma (Joan Leslie), a young woman hobbled with a clubfoot. Roy is smitten with her and pays for her corrective surgery, but she’s got a fiancé and Roy’s hopes of marrying her are dashed. Instead, he takes up with Marie (Ida Lupino).
Roy and the gang rob a swanky Palm Springs resort, but the robbery goes disastrously wrong. Roy escapes, but one of the gang is captured and sings to the police. Roy runs for the mountains with Marie, but they soon split up so she can make a getaway.
An all-points bulletin is posted, calling Roy “Mad Dog Earle.” It’s the news media that hangs that tag on him. Roy is cornered and a standoff with the law ensues. A media circus forms around the mountainous site where he’s is hiding out.
Roy has finally made it to the great outdoors, just as he’d dreamed, but the alpine setting holds him prisoner just as surely as the bars and concrete of the penitentiary once did. For Roy, there is no freedom.
2. Tom Powers (James Cagney) in “The Public Enemy”
In “The Public Enemy,” young Tom Powers and his pal Matt Doyle commit petty thefts and sell the stuff they steal to adult gangster Putty Nose. In later years, Putty Nose gets them to help burglarize a fur store. Tom and Matt gun down a police officer who is chasing them as they attempt to make a getaway. They go to Putty Nose for help but he leaves them in the lurch.
Years later, they accidentally run across their former Fagin-like mentor. Putty Nose pleads for his life and plays an old favorite tune on the piano to try to get the boys to let him off the hook for old time’s sake. But Tom is not in a forgiving mood, and he shoots Putty Nose in the back.
Like many movie gangsters, Tom starts out with high ambitions. But he finds that his success in the bootlegging business means leading an increasingly violent life. His trigger-happy ways rise to an absurd level when his buddy, Samuel “Nails” Nathan, is killed in a horseback riding accident. Tom hunts down the horse and shoots it.
When his war hero brother Mike (Donald Cook) bitterly criticizes the violent life he leads, Tom sets the record straight. “Your hands ain’t so clean,” he says. “You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”
In another famous scene, Tom cements his bad boy image when he grinds a grapefruit half into his complaining girlfriend’s kisser.
When Tom’s bootlegging operation begins to fall apart, rivals see their opportunity to take over, and a gang war begins. This pre-code drama sticks with the standard message of that era’s gangster films: In the end, the bad guy pays for his crimes.
3. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in “Scarface”
In “Scarface,” Tony Montana starts out as a feisty upstart bent on success and turns into a hardened criminal, his face buried in a pile of cocaine. But consider the company he keeps, including one desperado who gives super-close haircuts with a chain saw. In his first meeting with a Columbian drug cartel leader, Tony narrowly escapes death, but his associate, all-around bad guy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), is not so lucky – he’s forced to do some skydiving out of a helicopter without a parachute.
Like the drug trade people he’s chosen to deal with, Tony transforms into a cold-blooded killer. But he’s not without his redeeming qualities. Ordered to kill a journalist who is bringing heat down on a drug lord’s cartel, Tony agrees to the assignment to appease the cocaine supplier. But he finds that it won’t be the clean hit he was expecting – innocent people will also be killed. He abandons the plan even though it means facing difficult and dangerous consequences.
Tony’s situation goes from bad to worse, until his private lair is under siege from troops of invaders dispatched by the drug lord he has angered.
When the final showdown between he and his cocaine supplier’s army goes down, Tony is armed with a grenade-launcher-equipped M-16. Predictably, the resulting carnage and destruction marks the end of the Tony Montana drug empire.
4. Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) in “Little Caesar”
In the opening scene of “Little Caesar,” Rico Bandello sticks up a gas station and murders the attendant in cold blood – shocking in 1931, especially when it’s done by the leading man of a Hollywood feature film.
Rico joins forces with gangster Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and proceeds to intimidate Vettori and his band of feckless hoodlums. When Rico bullies his longtime pal and reluctant cohort Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to rob the nightclub where Massara works, he gives in, but the heist goes wrong. Rico guns down crime commissioner Alvin McClure, an anti-mob crusader, who happens to be at the scene.
Crime boss Vettori is beside himself when he learns that Rico violated his no-bloodshed rule. Rico tells Sam he’s gotten soft, and he proceeds to take control of Sam’s gang.
Rival gang leader “Little Arnie” Lorch (Maurice Black) aims to get rid of Rico. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Lorch’s men spray the sidewalk with machine gun bullets that only graze Rico and smash crockery in a storefront window. Rico, being the crazed killer that he is, is undaunted by the attack and vows to go after his assailants. Lorch makes a getaway, but Rico eventually must answer for the crimes he has committed.
5. Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in “White Heat”
Cody Jarrett may be everyone’s favorite deranged killer. In “White Heat,” he commits acts of murder and mayhem, and meets a spectacular end.
Jarrett, a career criminal whose only true confidante is his mother, “Ma” Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), suffers from debilitating headaches. Ma comforts him during his attacks. She gives him a shot of booze and a toast. “Top of the world,” she says. That’s a phrase they both repeat more than once in the course of the film, and it has an ironic ring as the picture concludes.
Eventually, Cody is sent to jail for a one to three stretch, and while he’s away a member of his gang, “Big Ed” Somers (Steve Cochran), orders Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle), who is in prison with Cody, to kill him, but the plot fails.
Ma visits Cody in jail and tells him she’s going to go after Big Ed, and Cody frantically tries to talk her out of it. Later, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, Cody learns that his mother is dead. He’s in a packed prison mess hall and he goes berserk.
He breaks out of prison and drags his would-be killer Parker with him. Once in the outside world, he puts Parker in the trunk of a car. Parker tells him it’s hard to breathe in here. Nonchalantly gnawing on a chick leg, Cody shoots “air holes” into the trunk hood, killing Parker.
Later he guns down Big Ed for the death of Ma Jarrett, but Cody’s wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), actually pulled the trigger on Cody’s beloved mom.
Cody regroups and engineers an armored car robbery, which goes awry. Cody makes his getaway but is cornered atop a large gas storage tank. In a berserk fury he shouts “Top of the world, Ma,” as the police open fire on him. The tank explodes and consumes Cody in a gigantic ball of flames.
6. Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) in “The Big Heat”
Homicide detective Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of a fellow police officer, and that begins his unrelenting probe into the cozy relationship between organized crime and higher ups in the department. A barrage of threats, assaults and murders ensue as Bannion digs into the sleazy operations of mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby).
Lagana’s number two man, the brutal Vince Stone, is the one who brings menace to the screen. Lee Marvin turns in a first-class performance of the sadistic lackey who has a penchant for brutalizing women.
The suicide victim’s mistress offers Bannion some inside information about the case, and she turns up dead, tortured with cigarette burns all over. In another scene, Stone punishes a woman by burning her hand with a cigar butt – the connection between the two incidents is unavoidable.
But the most savage scene in the film involves Stone punishing his girlfriend for being too mouthy by throwing a pot of boiling coffee in her face. The police commissioner, who happens to be one of Stones poker buddies, is on hand to drive the scalded girl to the hospital. Badly disfigured, she gives Bannion more information that will help bring the mobsters to justice, but in doing so she seals her own fate.
7. Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) in “The Long Goodbye”
This Raymond Chandler story adapted to the screen 20 years after his 1953 novel was published brings private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) into a world that’s alien to him. It’s the 1970s and Marlowe’s crime beat, Los Angeles, is no longer the place it once was. Protest marches, hippies and head shops have found their way into the gritty mean streets that are more familiar to the detective.
Even the criminals are different. At first, mobster Marty Augustine does not come across like the roughnecks in Chandler’s novels. When Marlowe first meets him, the detective takes the criminal kingpin even less seriously than he does the L.A. cops who pop in occasionally rattle his cage.
Augustine travels with a gaggle of inept henchmen and as leader of the pack he’s witty and charismatic. He rambles on about managing his financial responsibilities, paying for his mansions, supporting his family … and his mistress. He could be just another harried fat-cat Hollywood producer.
But then the gloves come off. The mob leader uses a glass Coke bottle and his own girlfriend’s face to demonstrate to Marlowe what will happen if the detective doesn’t fall into line. “This is what I do to someone I love,” Augustine tells Marlowe, “And I don’t even like you, cheapie.”