Monday, March 17, 2008

Top Ten Must See Gangster Films

Well, it’s another year, and that means it’s time for the American Film Institute to release yet another best-of-American-film list. However, unlike in years past where the list was (with a couple of exceptions) a top 100 of this or that, this year the American Film Institute gives us ten different top 10 lists based on genre.

They will cover the broad (very broad at that) genres of Animation, Fantasy, Romantic Comedy, Western, Mystery, Courtroom Drama, Science Fiction, Sports, Epic Film (whatever that means), and Gangster pictures. Their lists do not come out until June, but it is safe to assume that they will get a fair number of these wrong, in no small part due to the genre crossing of most great films. Is The Godfather a Gangster movie or an Epic? The second Godfather is even more problematic: Gangster, Epic, Courtroom Drama? Who’s to say?

So, I’ve decided to help out and fix the mistakes they are sure to make in advance of their making them. Also, being the American Film Institute, they are prone to xenophobia. That will also be corrected, and so the best of world cinema will be included here, as well.

In tribute to the recent release of City of Men (Cidade dos Homens), the first set on the discussion block will be Gangster films. The following are what I would call the Top 10 Must See Gangster films, not necessarily the best, but there is a definite overlap. There is no order (except that they are alphabetical), as they all deserve to be seen far and wide.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bringing new wave style and attitude to two of America’s most beloved folk heroes and most reviled criminals, Bonnie and Clyde was a wake up call to American film. Violent, sexy, and utterly fashionable, this film, more than any of its time (save for perhaps The Graduate), gave Hollywood the necessary kick in the teeth and heralded the great auteur films of the 70s.

Breathless (À Bout de Souffle)

Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film focuses on the story of one low level gangster and his ill-fated romance with an American girl. The style of the film almost fully trumps the substance and, for once that is okay. It is by no means a weak plot (this, of course, being a relative distinction), but it is certainly a strong stylistic statement. Breathless may not have been the first, but it was certainly the torch bearer for the whole French New Wave movement.

Broadway Danny Rose

Because the world is not always dark and cloudy, sometimes a little comedy can go a long way, even in the gangster genre. Woody Allen’s story of a poorly chosen love affair is the perfect blend of slapstick and romanticism. Despite the danger being always very close, the film is unabashedly hilarious and is a perfect send up of, among other things, the organized crime world.

City of God (Cidade de Deus)

Precursor to the aforementioned City of Men, this is a harrowing, brutal, unrelentingly realistic look at life in the Brazilian slums. Director Fernando Meirelles takes the audience deep into the lives of the countless gangs and gang members that populate the city streets. At once breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly cynical, City of God is filmmaking at its finest.

The Godfather Part II

Yeah, the first Godfather is well worth watching. Is it better than its sequel? No. Why is this here and not in Epic films or Courtroom Dramas? It is strictly a judgment call. The film is memorable because its heroes are mobsters who exist within a family that cares and loves and dies for each other. It is epic, but that is peripheral. The characters, driven by the performances, are what keep alive the legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus.


With this film, Martin Scorsese ushered in the modern era of mob pictures. Where The Godfather was moody and even occasionally languid, Goodfellas is all kinetic energy. The breakneck pace only heightens the stress in an already tension filled story. Looking at three decades in the mafia in the time some people look at a short story, Scorsese somehow manages to convey every idea with staunch conviction and to infuse every detail with atmospheric precision.


A dark, brooding tale of the underworld and its inhabitants, Fritz Lang’s M is a study in atmosphere with the murderous main character held off screen for more than half of the film. The film truly centers on the lengths to which organized crime will go to stay organized and to monopolize the crime world. Peter Lorre’s performance is one of the best in film history, and he is certainly the most sympathetic murderer of all time.

The Public Enemy

The best of the 30s American gangster picks to come out of Warner Brothers, The Public Enemy is the great granddaddy of gangster movies. Anchored by James Cagney as one of cinema’s great bad guys, it is a historical landmark for drawing the audience out of passive viewing and for forcing them to make a decision: can we really sympathize, or even empathize, with this wholly unholy character?

Pulp Fiction

With all of the witty dialogue and novel cinematic technique, one tends to forget that Pulp Fiction is even about anything. This is a shame because what the film offers is a completely new look at gang life. There really are no big events, just the day to day happenings of the L.A. gangsters with a few coincidences thrown in for effect. It was a side of gang life (though perhaps an imagined one) that audiences were not used to because they had never seen anything like it before and of which they have only been given cheap imitations since.

Rififi (Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes)

A masterpiece of French cinema, Rififi may well be the best heist movie of all time. Jules Dassin (blacklisted in America as a communist at the time of filming) directs this stunning, understated, and far underappreciated masterpiece. At the center of the film is the beautifully haunting performance of Jean Servais as a lifelong criminal in search of that last big score. For evidence of the film’s lasting influence and staying power, one need only see that Al Pacino is rumored to be taking over the Servais role in a proposed American remake next year.

And, because I can, five others that you should check out if you get the chance:

Atlantic City; Don’t Touch the Loot (Touchez Pas au Grisbi); The King of New York; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels; Miller’s Crossing

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