Since the beginning of the Great Depression and the rise of organized crime, gangsters have fascinated people around the world. Gangster films often portray a human side of the character, almost making them look like both an antihero and a Robin Hood. Considerably categorized as film noir in earlier days, gangster movies dealt with the mafia and tried to show the ongoing fight between “G-Men” and the mob.
Early gangster films boosted the careers of actors such as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, among others. These 25 gangster films will take us on a tour of the rise and falls of empires, and we will analyze the dark psychology of these icons, as well as the truth behind the myth.
1. Miller’s Crossing (1990) Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Two rival gangs play a crucial game to control the city. Racketeering, murder and deception are the basic rules of the day, and we will find Tom Regan caught in the middle in the search for peace. However, things are never what they appear to be.
The Coen brothers deliver a film filled with black humor and gritty violence. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novels “The Glass Key” and “The Red Harvest”, the story represents and ultimately shows the consequences of loyalty. Its shadow aesthetic feels somehow like film noir brilliantly reinterpreted by the Coen brothers.
2. King of New York (1990) Dir. Abel Ferrara
After being released from Sing-Sing prison, drug lord Frank White is reunited with his former gang now led by the psychopath Jimmy Jump. After Frank sees how his old neighborhood has decayed, he decides to do some good in return by eliminating his competition, who took control after his incarceration and led the neighborhood die. He robs his competitors and distributes the profits to the city’s poor in this balls-to-the-wall re-imagining of the Robin Hood tale.
Abel Ferrara might be one of the most underrated filmmakers in the United States. This is one of Ferrara’s most carefully constructed films, with complicated character development and meticulously composed scenes. Christopher Walken also gives one of the best performances of his career.
3. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) Dir. D.W. Griffith
The plot of this film centers on a poor married couple living in New York. Walter Miller plays the husband who’s an aspiring musician and is often on the road. During one of his travels, the husband is robbed by one of the musketeers known as The Snapper Kid.
Later on, the musician gets caught in a shootout, and he recognizes one of the shooters and gangsters as the one who mugged him. Now the musician is on the loose to get his money back, and this will begin a series of events that the viewer will never expect.
Director D.W. Griffith’s 16-minute silent film may be the first gangster film in history. It is loosely inspired by the nationwide attention paid by the press in the murder of gambler Herman Rosenthal; Griffith was intrigued enough by the case that he got his own camera and decided to make his own film. This is the first time the Lower East Side of Manhattan was featured in film, and Griffith actually used local and street hoods and gangsters from the neighborhood as extras to authenticate the film.
4. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) Dir. Charles Crichton
Holland (Alec Guinness) is a faithful banker who has dedicated 20 years of his life to his job, overseeing the shipment of gold bullions. One day he meets and befriends Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) who convinces him to steal the gold bars, melt them and make them pass for harmless toy Eiffel towers and smuggle them from England to France. The two men hire the services of professional criminals Lackery and Shorty. Together the four will lead the crime of a century, leading to unexpected twists and turns.
This film, which won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, is great for its genre. It is very rare to mix a comedy with a gangster film, and the movie delivers in many ways, with great lines and jokes, and one of Audrey Hepburn’s earlier career roles.
5. Get Carter (1971) Dir. Mike Hodges
Michael Caine plays Jack Carter, a vicious and sadistic gangster, back in Newcastle from his criminal life in London. Carter attends the funeral of his brother, who died of a mysterious accident. He starts to investigate his brother’s death after suspecting it was no accident, and this will lead him into Newcastle’s criminal underworld on a trail of violence, murder, lies and cover-ups.
This film is a game changer for Caine, who plays a vicious yet likable gangster loose on a trail of vengeance. He is a revelation as an assassin who will not stop until he puts a bullet into the body of his brother’s killer. This movie made Carter an iconic character and it has a great cult following; unlike its American counterpart (released in 2000 starring Sylvester Stallone), it is considered a great masterpiece.
6. Thieves Like Us (1974) Dir. Robert Altman
Set in Mississippi in the 1930s, this film follows Bowie (Keith Carradine), a charming young criminal, and bank robber partners T-Dub (Bert Remsen) and Chicamaw (John Shuck), who escape from a chain gang. Now on the loose, they will follow their old steps and resume their criminal activities, wrecking havoc in their heists and their path. In one of their heists, Bowie meets Keechie and falls in love with her. Now with a Texas Ranger retracing their every step, Bowie will put everything on the line.
The film is great because it deals with ironic romanticism, making a social and political commentary, and making “heroes” out of the bandits by indicating that the gangsters are only doing what those in private enterprises accomplished legally. Departing from a conventional music score, the film uses radio shows and news items of the day to contrast with the successful heists, and ironically contradict their interpersonal relationships.
7. Regeneration (1915) Dir. Raoul Walsh
The story follows the life of Owen, brilliantly played by Rockliffe Fellowes, a young Irish-American boy. Owen is adopted by a couple after his mother dies, and the couple puts him to work and mistreats him. After having enough from his adoptive parents, he escapes and becomes a “child of the slums”. In the slum he learns to do whatever it takes to survive and this turns him into a gang leader. Everything changes when he meets Marie Deering, played Anna Nilson, who will help him redeem himself and reform to a better life. Owen has the potential to be reformed by love, but will he be able to resist the temptations of his former life?
This is the first future-length gangster film made by the director. Filmed on location in New York´s Bowery district, this social document is a masterpiece, full of realistic performances and impressive camera angles, most notably the shot of a man falling from a 4th-story window. The film is adapted from the autobiography of Owen Frawley Kildare, a turn-of-the-century gangster.
8. A Better Tomorrow (1986) Dir. John Woo
“A Better Tomorrow” tells the story of two brothers torn between their radical lives. One is a reforming criminal who still has close ties to his criminal past, and the other is a rookie police officer. Trying to reconcile, both brothers will put everything on the line to survive this bullet fest film.
John Woo brilliantly directs this great film, with greatly choreographed fights and shootouts. This film gives a new cool look to gangster movies, giving a new visualized kind of violence characterized by balletic slow-motion carnage, using gunplay almost in a kung fu style. The film was responsible for the birth of a genre and the genesis of many Hollywood action films that followed.