Entertainment Weekly

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

EW's guide to cinematic gangsters

EW’s guide to cinematic gangsters — We look at the 60 year history of mobster movies, a grade films like ”Little Ceasar,” ”Scarface,” and ”The Untouchables”

Posted on

One day in 1890, the Mafia rubbed out the pesky police chief of New Orleans, who had annoyed them. A mob of several thousand otherwise law-abiding citizens stormed the jail house and, in the biggest lynching in our nation’s history, bumped off 11 of the 14 accused hit men. Newspaper accounts proclaimed the ”DESTRUCTION OF THE MAFIA!”

In 1990, it’s clear that the headline was premature. Not only are Godfathers freely walking our streets, they’ve seized our movie screens — and not for the first time. Ever since 1930’s Little Caesar gave Al Capone a 21- gun salute (and then some), the mobster has been a frequently recurring film character.

Still, the Mafia isn’t a perpetual presence in American movies; like the Cosa Nostra itself, it periodically lies low until the heat dies down. There hasn’t been a major outbreak of gang violence on-screen for years. But now gangster pictures are back in numbers not seen since the 1930s. Leading the pack of movies already released is Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, one of the few Mafia movies firmly based on the memoirs of an actual Mafioso. There’s also Michael Cimino’s remake of 1955’s The Desperate Hours, with Mickey Rourke filling Bogart’s shoes; Joel and Ethan Coen’s wicked Miller’s Crossing; 28- year-old Phil Joanou’s State of Grace; and Abel Ferrara’s stylish King of New York, featuring Christopher Walken as a capo with a social conscience. And more gory mob lore is coming up: The Krays, a fascinating study of the malevolent identical twins who introduced Mafia techniques to England in the 1960s; Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III, slated to open around Christmastime; and next year an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s superb Billy Bathgate (perhaps the best gang novel ever written), starring Dustin Hoffman; Warren Beatty’s planned Bugsy, about mobster Bugsy Siegel, to be directed by Barry Levinson.

Why this sudden profusion of tommy gun-toting gorillas in pinstripes? ”The gangster movie can always be seen as a perverse mirror-image of capitalism,” says Richard Pena, program director of the New York Film Festival. Like folks in the ’30s, we live in the aftermath of a ruthless economic boom that enriched a few but left many feeling stunned and fiscally pinched. Some feel there’s something crooked about the easy money made by the big shots and a sort of rough justice in sly underdogs slicing off a bit for themselves. While films featuring good guys collaring crooks are perennial, the true gangster movie — one that takes the gangster’s point of view — tends to proliferate in times of economic stagnation and popular resentment.

But the appeal of gangster movies goes beyond their social relevance. The topic is inherently, timelessly dramatic. Crime movies offer life stripped down to its raw essentials: the Mr. Big types at the top; the crazed killers who do their bidding with a grin; the double-crossers; the family ties that bind; the low-down dames; and the eventual, ineluctable comeuppance proving that Crime Does Not Pay. Deep down, the gangster knows he can’t make a killing Forever — but he senses, too, that a perfect exit line can make him immortal. No massacre can wipe out his very American dream: as Capone himself incontrovertibly put it, ”You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” Here’s a guide to the best of the mobster movies, and the qualities that make them endure.

Mob Bosses
Rising from immigrant poverty to the apex of wealth, the CEOs of movie gangland are dark perversions of a Horatio Alger story: We thrill to the mob boss’ display of absolute power, but we’re repelled by the absolute corruption that goes along with it. And when the boss inevitably takes the fall, we’re both relieved and saddened.

Little Caesar (1930)
The breakthrough gangster movie that brought the mobsters of Prohibition headlines to snarling life. Capone and company were already image-conscious: Legend has it that gangland spies infiltrated the ranks of the film’s extras. As punk kingpin Enrico Bandello, fish-faced Edward G. Robinson looked the part and was typecast for life, but in truth the actor was so scared of guns they had to tape his eyes open to keep him from flinching when he fired. A

Al Capone (1959)
This version of the gangster’s life is a harsh, rise-and- fall saga with Rod Steiger chewing on the part like a pit-bull Brando. He’s great, and the movie sticks closer to the facts than The Untouchables (there’s no Elliot Ness, fitting since by Ness’ admission the two only met when Capone was on his way to prison). B

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Another case of Brits taking American pop stereotypes and making them seem new. Bob Hoskins struts to perfection with his bulldog body and cockney growl in this swift thriller about a London mobster struggling to legitimize his ”corporation” before it falls victim to the violence on which it was founded. A

The Untouchables (1987)
Departing from the messy realism of many recent gang movies, Brian De Palma’s sleek shoot-’em-up offers an homage to the mythic gangland of old Hollywood. Sean Connery won an Oscar and Kevin Costner won hearts, but it’s Robert De Niro’s brief turn as Al Capone that makes the movie deeper than nostalgia. Despite his protestations that he’s just “a businessman,” De Niro chillingly shows the mob’s tolerance for violence — and, when he takes a baseball bat to an underling’s head (one of the few incidents in the film that really happened), a willingness to apply it with his own hands. A-

Dirty Rats
If the big boss is the gangster film’s dark nexus of evil, and the G-man its bland white knight, then the squealer is the one with whom we as viewers probably identify most. Torn between loyalty, justice, and knuckle-gnawing fear, these turncoats to the mob make the juiciest characters.

Marked Woman (1937)
When New York D.A. Thomas Dewey busted ”Lucky” Luciano with testimony from the kingpin’s own call girls, Hollywood responded with a fictionalized version that’s startlingly no-nonsense: The script calls them ”hostesses,” but Bette Davis and friends are clearly prostitutes. It’s one of the few gangster films told from a woman’s point of view, a tale of flinty good-time girls banding together against their dapper, soulless employer. Davis plays a hooker as regally as she played Queen Elizabeth. A

Dead End (1937)
This study of New York’s lummy East Side introduced the Dead End Kids, and the slimiest of the bunch is rat fink Leo Gorcey. Sporting a Jughead cap and a weasel’s leer, he fights dirty, talks tough (”I’ll marblize ya, ya goon!”), and wears self-interest like a badge. Fingered by the cops, he instantly betrays a fellow gang member. The price for such cowardice is disfigurement with a knife; the awestruck delinquents call it ”da mark of da squealer.” A-

The Enforcer (1951)
Humphrey Bogart gets top billing as the D.A. who breaks a ring of killers in this fictionalized exposé of Meyer Lansky’s notorious Murder, Inc. But the real stars of the terse, documentary-style film are the informants Bogart leans on while piecing together his case. Zero Mostel sweats and fusses memorably as a neighborhood schnook, and Ted de Corsia, as the ring’s chief assassin, conveys sheer panic when he’s brought in to testify against his former boss. He’s so scared he’ll be slain, he dies trying to escape. Bogie eulogizes: ”We could protect him against everything but himself.” B+

Family Ties Since the late ’60s, gangster films have focused as much on the Byzantine melodrama of blood bonds as on the workaday business of bloodletting. A cynic might say the reason we respond so strongly to these movies is that we see our own family squabbles acted out-with live ammunition.

The Brotherhood (1968)
Four years before the huge success of The Godfather, Kirk Douglas produced and starred in this remarkably similar film that bombed at the box office. The same elements are here: a college-educated youngest son joins the family business; a brotherly falling-out ends in fratricide; there’s even a big wedding. The film boasts none of the ethnic, family-album details that made The Godfather so rich, but the story is gripping, and Kirk gives Brando a run for his money as a capo struggling to cope with changing times. B

The Godfather (1972) The Godfather Part II (1974)
Can you lose your family while trying to preserve it? The question will forever haunt Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and draw audiences back to these films. Having already put the finger on his brother-in-law at the end of the first movie, Michael wraps up ”all family business” at the close of Part II when he condemns his dimwitted big brother Fredo to sleep with the fishes. The heartbreaking scene in which Michael doles out his judgment crystallizes his all consuming allegiance to power: Fredo (John Cazale), after pouring out his rage at being passed over for Donhood, collapses in despair as Michael quietly negates his very existence. ”You’re nothing to me now,” Michael says. ”You’re not a brother, you’re not a friend. I don’t want to know you or what you do.” A+

Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
Hit couple Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner are a match made in mob heaven. The slyest film John Huston ever made sends up The Godfather‘s kitchen-table histrionics while showing what happens when you bring the wrong girl home to meet the Family. Nicholson’s love-struck Charley Partanna reaches back all the way to the hired goons of classic ’30s gangster films for its comic effect, while Turner is as stunningly modern as a killer Cosmo girl. A-

Spike of Bensonhurst (1988)
Paul Morrissey’s black farce is like one of John Gotti’s home movies made into a sitcom: As outrageous as it gets, it’s still the only pre-GoodFellas Mafia flick to expose the ordinariness of real mob life. The plot’s a piece of fluff — cocky would-be hood Sasha Mitchell runs afoul of Ernest Borgnine when he knocks up the mobster’s daughter — but the film gets the ticky-tacky details of outer Brooklyn life just right. B

Mad Dogs
What’s a gangster movie without some jagged, vengeful violence to remind us of the stakes? Mad-dog killers, too psychotic to run a crime ring themselves, serve instead as lethal messengers for the honchos. Carrying sadistic grins and an arsenal of weapons, they’re the hair trigger on which the thrill of the genre hangs.

Kiss of Death (1947)
It’s easy to see why Richard Widmark became an overnight star as Tommy Udo, the sicko hit man who sends the hero’s wheelchair-bound mother rolling down a flight of stairs. Whiny, giggling, his sallow flesh tight on his skull, Udo is a nightmare vision turned real: the hired gunman as a deadly child. It may have shocked even Widmark, who never did anything half as fearsome afterwards. B+

White Heat (1949)
With his portrait of homicidal, mother-fixated Cody Jarrett (modeled after one of Ma Barker’s sons), James Cagney shook off nine years of good-guy roles and the genre got a needed jolt of psychological realism. Ironically, Cagney called the film ”just another cheapjack job,” and figured the only way to make Jarrett interesting was to turn him into a nut case. Having Cody climb into Ma Jarrett’s lap — a touch that barely made it past censors — was Cagney’s inspiration. A

The Desperate Hours (1955)
Don’t let the Mickey Rourke remake keep you from catching the original. In his next-to-last film, Humphrey Bogart plays Glenn Griffin, one of three escaped convicts holding a suburban family hostage. It’s a role remarkably similar to Duke Mantee in 1936’s The Petrified Forest, the part that made Bogie a star. Exploiting his own wiped-out appearance (his health was clearly failing) to create a riveting portrait of menace, Bogart makes Griffin a deeply resonant reprise of all the criminals he had ever played. A-

Fingers (1978)
In James Toback’s sweaty, low-budget epic, Harvey Keitel is a mad dog for the Age of Scorsese: noble in intent, helplessly neurotic in action. His mother is a concert pianist, his dad is a retired gangster, and each wants him to follow in his or her own footsteps. The result: A gentle, cultured loan collector teetering on the razor’s edge of irrational violence, most terrifyingly displayed in a botched stairwell hit. A-

Molls
She can be his bejeweled link to culture, a hard-boiled reminder of his past, or simply the forbidden fruit that brings him crashing down, but the gangster’s girl is usually his conscience — and he never wants to hear it. Women’s roles are secondary in this male-dominated genre, but that hasn’t stopped a few great actresses from cutting loose.

Key Largo (1948)
Claire Trevor was cresting a career that had never quite made her a top star when John Huston cast her in this film about a thug (Edward G. Robinson) who terrorizes Bogie and Bacall. Robinson’s Rocco was based on ”Lucky” Luciano; Trevor modeled Rocco’s bitter better half on Luciano’s mistress, Gay Orlova. Tremulous, alcoholic, too fatigued to be tough, but snarling when she has to, Trevor’s is a smart, showy creation: a gun moll staring down middle age. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. B+

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Before scripting this musical bio about ’20s torch singer Ruth Etting, MGM got full permission to show her stormy relationship with Chicago racketeer Marty Snyder (both were still alive). The screenwriters came up with a mesmerizing dance of scorpions. Doris Day, in a surprising tough-gal turn, plays Etting as an icy opportunist who exploits Snyder’s show- biz connections while rejecting him sexually. As Snyder, James Cagney’s a gimpy, gun-toting stage mother so overbearing even Gypsy‘s Mama Rose would cringe. A-

The Big Heat (1953)
Gloria Grahame was one of the great screen hussies, always walking the line between cynicism and a pouty, slightly dazed sexiness. In Fritz Lang’s brutal crime thriller, she gets a pot of boiling coffee in the face from sadistic boyfriend Lee Marvin and turns to cop Glenn Ford for help. The turnaround is subtle and terrific: Grahame starts out as just another babe in the corner and ends up as the film’s moving, courageous center, a crippled, gauze-swathed avenging angel. A+

Lady in Red (1979)
A Roger Corman quickie written by John Sayles, Lady stars a pre-Dynasty Pamela Sue Martin as one of the most famous molls of all: the dame who led the feds to Dillinger. Forget about facts (Dillinger is played by Robert Conrad, for heaven’s sake), this is drive-in feminism at its best. B

The Big Comedown
We get vicarious thrills from a movie mobster’s rise, but watching him fall, seeing moral order restored, feeds a deeper, harsher approval. In fact, the wish to see excess punished (preferably via gruesome death), in a world where it too often isn’t, may be one of the reasons movies were invented in the first place.

The Public Enemy (1931)
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Nobody went out like Cagney. His exit in Public Enemy is one of the movies’ most visceral images. Dead and trussed-up, he topples headfirst into his mother’s parlor. (Cagney himself almost bought it in a hit- attempt scene when a machine-gun spray — they used real bullets for automatic weapons in those days-just missed his head.) As Angels‘ sneering hood Rocky Sullivan, Cagney ”turns yellow” on the way to the chair so the Dead End kids who idolize him won’t follow in his bad-boy footsteps. It’s all an act — until you suddenly realize Rocky may be freaking out for real. Public: B+ Angels: A

Scarface (1932)
The scalding original Scarface was directly inspired by Al Capone, who loved it (the gang leader even threw a party for director Howard Hawks). But censors declared the flick too flattering to gangsters. Out came most of Paul Muni’s defiant final speech, and in went a subtitle (”The Shame of the Nation”) and a flatfooted coda showing the protagonist not cut down by bullets, but sentenced to death by a pontificating judge and hanged. The videodisc version, which lets viewers compare both endings, proves that nihilism plays much better than moralism. A

The Roaring Twenties (1939)
The final great Warner Brothers gangster film has the most iconic death scene of all. Cagney based his character on the same mobster who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Having just killed Bogart (who dies a whining coward’s death which is pretty impressive itself), Cagney’s WWI-vet-turned-hood is mowed down on the snowy steps of a church. He tries to crawl to the top step but tumbles back to the bottom. In Russia, they retitled this The Fate of a Soldier In America. A-

Scarface (1983)
Updating the Hawks classic to Miami’s cocaine underworld, director Brian De Palma and Al Pacino go for overkill in every sense of the word. But the final scenes are spectacular: ecstatically paranoid, nose clotted with coke, Pacino’s Tony Montana rants through his darkened mansion and waits for the hit men to close in. C+

(Tim Appelo, Ty Burr, Ken Chanko, Steve Daly, Christopher Henrickson)