The gangster film genre has a lot of great classics, such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, that are filled not only with criminal actions but also human drama and surprisingly relatable characters. Though it’s a good formula, there are a lot of tales of gangsters working to maintain their rather wholesome family lives while also living as professional criminals. We love and respect these characters because, despite their evil deeds, they’re not that different from you and me. But what about gangster movies that don’t have that softer edge? What about gangster movies that show a character so wild and out of control that his fate is basically broadcasted from the very start of the film? That’s what Scarface set out to be. Directed by Brian de Palma (Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables) and starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Steven Bauer, this film shows a criminal so over-the-top and power-hungry that you can’t help but feel that he’s going down even as he rises to the top. This isn’t quite as brilliant as The Godfather or entertaining as Goodfellas, but that doesn’t stop this from being highly entertaining and having some extremely well-written and well-acted scenes. This was a gangster movie of a different breed, and that is a very good thing.
“It’s your job, right? The guy who kills me… I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.”
They say truth is stranger than fiction, but you honestly don’t see that a lot. Most of the time, when I hear someone say truth is stranger than fiction, I just assume they don’t read a lot. Dog Day Afternoon captures that notion brilliantly, though, by telling the real-life story of a bank robbery more absurd than any heist movie I’ve ever seen. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino and John Cazale, this film captures, almost in real time, a bank robbery as entertaining as they come. You’ll see a crime become a media circus. You’ll see a criminal become a folk hero. You’ll see what could be a very cliched and overdone plot made fresh—more so than most heist movies today—by a string of bizarre details about the culprits and situation. It’s smart, funny, and gripping, and it’s definitely the most entertaining heist movie I’ve ever seen.
“When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
New York City in the mid-19th century was a dark and dangerous place. You wouldn’t know that today from reading Transcendentalist essays, Little Women, or Edgar Allen Poe, all works of that time. We have these romanticized notions of what America was like for the waves of immigrants coming to the new world to seek fortune and a new life, but for most, it was a violent hell. No movie portrays this little corner of American history better than Gangs of New York. Directed by the extremely talented Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis, this is a portrait of the volatile culture, the primitive politics, and the shocking violence of this time and place. It’s bloody and raw and almost oppressive in its adversity—but it’s also enthralling and very entertaining.
“My father taught me many things here—he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
The Godfather was a cultural phenomenon when it came out in 1972 for many reasons. It was extremely well-written, and the cinematography and acting were great. Something that’s lost on modern viewers is how revolutionary the concept was. The Motion Picture Production Code, which was in effect until 1968, prevented things like violence and sex in movies, but it also forbid sympathetic portrayals of criminals. Some movies, like 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, were quick to make use of this newfound freedom and featured criminals as the protagonists; but none had gone into as much depth as The Godfather. Showing a crime family as a real family, with family dinners and drama, had never been done before.
Two years later, The Godfather: Part II came out and delivered more of the same: fascinating character study and the smallest details of what had become the greatest crime empire in America. Once again directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, and Robert Duvall, this is a sequel that’s every bit as good as its predecessor—some say even better. It’s almost required to draw comparisons between the two, so here’s my take: the story was tighter and the quotes more memorable in the original, but the sequel goes into greater depth with the characters and has more emotion. For what it’s worth, I actually preferred the sequel, although both are amazing movies.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Since The Godfather basically defined the crime genre in 1972, there have been a lot of imitators and followers, some good and some bad, but nothing ever came close to the original. It’s hard to compare, but I’d say that Goodfellas came pretty close in 1990. (Legendary critic Roger Ebert actually preferred Goodfellas to The Godfather.) Directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street) and starring Ray Liotta, Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Lorraine Bracco, this is a mobster story with as much depth and humanity as The Godfather, but it shows a different side of the story. The Godfather shows the view at the top—the big boss and his family calling all the shots. Goodfellas shows the working man’s view of organized crime—a kid trying to break into the business and make a name for himself. The film is actually based on real-life mobsters, one of whom consulted on much of the film, so there’s a real authenticity to the film that’s missing in most crime films. It’s a great entry in the crime genre that I believe deserves a place right next to some of the biggest names in the genre.
“This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.”
In the early days of cinema there were no real restrictions. Some filmmakers pushed the envelope of tastefulness a little too far, resulting in the Motion Picture Production Code, which dictated moral standards in film from 1930 to the late 60s. Ask someone today to describe an “old-fashioned” movie, and they’ll probably end up describing this code. By the late 60s, enforcing the code became too cumbersome, so the MPAA began working on rolling out movie ratings to replace it—granting filmmakers many new freedoms that had not been available for almost 40 years. Films quickly came out that exercised this new freedom; but the first film to really use that freedom artfully was Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Arthur Penn (Night Moves, Little Big Man) and starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, this movie shocked audiences with graphic violence and discussion of sexuality. It’s actually rather tame by today’s standards; but when it came out, there had never been another movie like it.
“Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger. Vincent, ever have a Big Kahuna Burger?”
Director Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs) has distinguished himself as a unique and innovative moviemaker. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that he’s important. I consider Pulp Fiction to be his finest film. Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Samuel L. Jackson, this is a wild, entertaining ride, brimming with wit and style as well as Tarantino’s signature grit and violence. You’ll probably feel a bit like a modern gangster while watching this. Tarantino takes the world of the modern professional criminal and brings it to life in a way that few other filmmakers do, showing what happens in-between crime hits as well as the hits themselves. It’s a unique view that’s highly stylized and extremely entertaining, and it earns its spot on this list of great movies.
“We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question.”
So Scorsese directed another gangster film. After Gangs of New York, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and more, you’d think this would be old hat. But this movie is brilliantly conceived, masterfully executed, and thoroughly enjoyable. Martin Scorsese takes the helm, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson deliver incredible performances. The art direction, from the cinematography to the soundtrack, are perfect for this movie. It’s not The Godfather (but, really, what is?); but I’ll admit, I had more fun watching The Departed than I’ve had watching any other gangster movie.
“The following is my explanation. Well, more of an account of what happened. I’d been on my own for a while and getting kind of lonely… and bored… nothing to do all day. And that’s when I started shadowing.”
It’s fun looking at an artist’s early work and seeing the ideas and themes that will play out the rest of their careers. Legendary writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) got his start with the low-budget indie film Following, and you can see in it the beginnings of ideas that would play out in Memento and even Inception. Though not quite as impressive as his later films, the plot and writing are still a head above most other movies and carry that trademark complexity that Nolan is famous for, and it’s amazing what Nolan was able to do on such a limited budget (estimated at $6,000, most of which was spent on film). In addition to being historically important, the film is also interesting to watch for its mystery and neo-noir elements.
“Don’t tell me you’re innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and makes me very angry.”
Truth be told, I’m a little nervous about reviewing The Godfather. What more can I say about one of the most famous movies of all time? Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, and, come on, he directed The Godfather) and starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, this is considered not only the best crime movie of all time, but it’s also in the top three picks for best movie of all time (along with Citizen Kane and Casablanca). It’s so iconic and classic that it’s been referenced and parodied countless times, and phrases like “sleeping with the fishes” are now part of the common lexicon. And I had never seen it until this week. Did it live up to the hype? Yes, absolutely.