This is a very good week for lovers of the gangster genre. Not only is Black Mass getting its worldwide release on Friday, Francis Ford Coppola finally confirmed once and for all that he is indeed remaking The Godfather with Johnny Depp as Vito Corleone. Not just a place for filmmakers to get their violent ya-ya’s out, the genre can be just as artistically significant and poignant as any art house flick, many employing incredible filming techniques and remarkable performances. To celebrate this momentous time for crime movies (Tom Hardy's Legend is also on its way), I’ve compiled a list of my favorite gangster tales and crime flicks (at the moment, anyway), from the brutally violent to the surprisingly tender—and all of the Robert De Niro in between.
Photo Credit: Film4
If you haven’t seen Sexy Beast yet, do yourself a favor and get on it. Starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, the 2000 movie is about a man trying to give up his gangster past. Winstone’s uber tan Gal Dove is living the good life in Spain with his ex-porn star wife when Kingsley’s psychotic Don Logan shows up to get his help with a London bank heist, that is being set up by crime lord Reddy Bass (Ian McShane). Needless to say, it doesn’t go well when Gal tries to refuse. Kingsley has said that he took inspiration for the volatile role from his grandmother and he was apparently so scary during his scenes that the other actors occasionally forgot their lines when faced with him. If you need more convincing, check out the fantastic airplane scene when Don refuses to put his cigarette out.
The world may have been slow in recognizing the genius of Goodfellas, but now the movie frequently battles it out with The Godfather for the title of “Best Gangster Film.” Not only can it be enjoyed by the average viewer, but the flick is also pretty heavily studied since it has one of the most famous tracking shots in cinematic history. Called The Copa Shot, the difficult scene was blocked, lit and filmed in half a day, only taking around eight takes to get perfect. “We structured events within the shot that covered the limitations of not being able to cut in order to give it pace and timing,” Steadicam operator Larry McConkey explained to Filmmaker Magazine earlier this year before the 25th anniversary screening of Goodfellas closed the Tribeca Film Festival. “What I didn’t expect, and what I only figured out later, was that all those (interactions) ended up being the heart and soul of the shot. Because Ray incorporated his character into those moments, those moments actually became what the shot was about instead of being tricks or being artifices.”
As if that scene isn’t enough to worship the film over, Goodfellas also has one of the best (and perhaps longest) vertigo shots ever. Made famous in the $19k stairwell scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the tricky effect—which is also called the reverse tracking shot—is used brilliantly in the diner scene starring Liotta and Robert De Niro. It essentially disorients the viewer by moving the camera in one direction while at the same time, zooming in the opposite direction, which works to keep the frame’s subject one size while their surroundings shift.
Photo Credit: United Artists
This 1956 crime film from Stanley Kubrick uses the “one last heist” trope to stunning effect. The Killing stars Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray, telling the story of Johnny Clay as he puts together a team of guys to help him pull off a race-track theft so he can get out of the game and marry his lady. The non-linear, film noir was Kubrick’s third project (he was only 27) and is widely considered to be one of the filmmaker’s best, shot in only 24 days and featuring an incredibly memorable (and bloody) climax. The Killing doesn’t just display some amazing editing and writing work, it shows off Kubrick’s nihilistic streak long before he ever made Clockwork Orange or Dr. Strangelove.
Al Pacino may usually play the suave criminal, but in this one he plays the bumbling fool, aging mafia hit-man Lefty Ruggiero, to Johnny Depp’s Donnie Brasco. Based on a true story, undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone infiltrates the Mafia Bonanno family in the 1970s, helped by Lefty who unknowingly takes the agent under his wing—the real Pistone was undercover for six years and apparently went two years straight without seeing his real family. Known for being an incredibly realistic portrayal of how mobsters actually talk, the writer was able to work from Pistone’s actual wire taps when writing the dialogue.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
The Godfather I-III
A gangster list is nothing without Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, which were released in 1972, 1974 and 1990, and earned 29 Academy Awards nominations overall (winning nine). Coppola actually wasn’t Paramount’s first choice to direct the first film (Sergio Leone was) and there was a lot of friction between the studio and director as the project progressed. From production delays (Al Pacino got hurt on set) and expenses deemed unnecessary by Paramount to disapproval of the cast, the entire process seemed like a serious struggle for Coppola, who was apparently shadowed by a replacement director just in case Paramount decided to boot him. It seems like the studio hated every decision Coppola made, which now seems unbelievable considering the brilliant product. There’s a reason why Coppola can now do whatever he wants and this trilogy is it.
On the Waterfront
Everyone knows the line “I coulda been a contender” and On the Waterfront is where it comes from. Released in 1954, the film marks Marlon Brando’s first hugely iconic role playing Terry Mallor, an ex-prize fighting dockworker who stands up to his criminal brother and the mob boss who controls the union. Perfecting the tough guy façade with tenderness beneath, Brando’s Terry is one of the major reasons the movie is considered to be one of the best in American cinema history. It ended up getting 12 Academy Awards nominations and won eight of them, with Brando winning Best Actor—interestingly enough, when he first saw the film he was sure that he tanked it and was embarrassed for himself.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Martin Scorsese’s 1973 Mean Streets brings some Catholic guilt to the genre by offering an interesting look at the idea of sin and the possibility for redemption. With livewire Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and guilt-ridden Charlie (Harvey Keitel) at the core, Scorsese focuses on the streets he grew up on in New York City’s Little Italy to show the everyday life of bad guys. Mean Streets also marks the very first collaboration between Scorsese and De Niro, which makes his already awesome entrance in the film all the more epic.
Inspired heavily by The Killing, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is still my favorite of his lineup. With a stunning cast that includes Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keital, the fractured tale follows a group of criminals after their jewelry heist goes so wrong that they suspect one of them is an undercover cop. Known for his long dialogue scenes and character development, Tarantino expertly crafted a group of distinctly memorable criminals and gave tons of standout scenes—I’ve never been able to listen to Stuck in the Middle with You the same way again. It’s also unique in the sense that though it’s about a heist-gone-wrong, you don’t actually see the heist—the film begins with the dramatic getaway.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Once Upon a Time in America
Though he was apparently remorseful for turning The Godfather down, Sergio Leone definitely made it up to himself by making Once Upon a Time in America, which is the third in his “Once Upon a Time” trilogy. Starring Robert De Niro and James Woods, the flick is set in New York’s Lower East Side during the Depression and is a rags-to-riches story about Jewish ghetto youths who rise to the top of the city’s organized crime syndicate. Fans have a pretty great theory for this one: since it is book-ended with Noodles (De Niro) hiding in an opium den, many think the entire film is actually a drug-induced dream where the old gangster remembers his youth and fantasizes about his future.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
Honorable Mention: Black Mass
Black Mass is new to the scene and it isn’t perfect, but it does mark a return-to-form for actor Johnny Depp. Even though I love the guy, I freely admit that the last movie in which he truly blew me away was The Libertine and that was in 2004! (Though 2009’s Public Enemies wasn’t bad and I actually really loved his small role in Tusk.) Black Mass probably won’t end up on many best-of lists, but Depp’s performance is incredibly solid and pretty dang scary. Able to switch from jovial to menacing in a blink, his take on James “Whitey” Bulger is just as creepy as it is cool.