Warner Brothers built their studio on gangster and crime films, romanticizing life in the mob to make it exciting, even glamorous in the thirties and forties. Yet there was always the end when the criminals died or went to prison, they always got what they deserved. The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar (1931) were the best of the early gangster films, and there were many through the decade and beyond. Never though was there an intimate, inside look at how the mafia or organized crime worked, and just how it impacted the men who were operating it, and their families surrounding them.
So really the gangster film, if there is a true gangster film, began with The Godfather (1972), Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent look at the mob, a perverse study of the American Dream turned upside down and the story of a father and his three sons. Coppola drew on his own heritage as an Italian American and brought to the film an intimacy that might not have otherwise been there in the hands of another director. Of course he brought a great deal more to the mix as well, casting (refusing to buckle), an epic seep yet intimate feel to the film, and we seemed to be on the inside of the dimly lit rooms where murder was discussed like going for groceries. The film allowed Marlon Brando to create one of the most iconic characters ever put on film, and win a second Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as a second coming of method acting and actors, with Al Pacino emerging as one of the important actors of the seventies.
The sequel, made just two years later, would surpass the first in every way, no mean feat, yet Coppola and writer Mario Puzo made it deeper, more complex, darker and near visionary. Both films won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Coppola twice won DGA Awards for his work, and their box office take was incredible. What the two films made clear, was the crime was just a business, no different to the men operating it than running as massive company, the difference being killing was art of the everyday routine, and was never taken personally. The best of the gang films followed suit, exploring how the business operated, and how the police were truing in one way or another to infiltrate the mob. Here is the list of top gangster, crime and mafia movies ever made. Good luck finding these best gangster movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
20. City of God (2002)
I saw ‘City of God’ for the first time only recently, and I found it to be an exceptionally gritty examination of the life of crime and deceit, which in turn makes me feel good, as I have a masterpiece such as this to start my list off with. Capturing rural life in Rio de Janeiro with a raw, unpolished style, the film tells a dark tale of the lives of two brothers, who separate and go in different directions career-wise, one of them becoming a drug-dealing gang-lord, while the other slowly steps into the art of photography. It’s interesting, the way this film uses tools like narration and editing to communicate the various stages in the growth of the brothers, how they drift apart, and what eventually takes place when they meet each other again. The majority of South American, particularly Brazilian films I’ve seen, I’ve enjoyed for their brash approach towards filmmaking. In that sense, ‘City of God’ takes a relatively more formal path, but the impact it has on the viewer is still striking, and well worthy of applause.
19. White Heat (1949)