The gangster genre is one of Hollywood’s most successful concept. The 1990’s saw a torrential influx of quality cinema infused with great entertainment value for the audience. Visionary auteurs like Martin Scorsese encumbered themselves of bringing avant garde narratives and fame for the genre. It fundamentally deals with organized crime and delves into the lives of gangsters. One of the most memorable and distinct films that is cherished and cited even today, is Francis Ford Coppola‘s ‘The Godfather‘. The genre is also responsible for stardom of great thespians like Al Pacino, Wesley Snipes and Joe Pesci. There is just something irresistible about these movies that draws audiences in flocks to the theaters like light draws moths. The relativity to the character and their impressive attempts at escapades bring a tangible experience to the audiences like few other genres can.
The newfound success of the concept attracted a lot of virtuoso film-makers to it. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Mike Newell and Ridley Scott to name a few. The films have always seen a galaxy of stars as the cast. The ensemble has seen some of the most talented thespians of the arts collaborate to make something beautiful. The following list tries to paint a dainty picture for the ones to whom the genre is obscure, and arouses a nostalgic feeling in the ones who have been a part of them. Have fun reminiscing! Here is the list of top actors who played gangsters the best.
Honorable Mentions: James Gandolfini (‘The Sopranos, a TV series), George Raft (‘Some Like It Hot’), Michael Madson (‘Reservoir Dogs‘), Rick Cordiero (‘The Flying Man’), Wesley Snipes )’New Jack City’).
10. Jack Nicholson (‘The Departed’)
Unprompted anger and going bat-shit crazy are two things which are found intrinsically in this man. These two admirable qualities were channeled with perfection by Martin Scorsese in his 2006 award-winning film ‘The Departed‘. Even though featuring in a supporting role of the bad-ass Frank Costello, Nicholson outshone the cast with effortless charm. Playing the hard to catch fugitive, who eventually turns out to be a snitch for the FBI, Nicholson’s improvised tirades brought out one of the most memorable scenes in the film. The one in particular when he meets DiCaprio‘s character in his restaurant and frisks him, and then produces a real gun and improvises profanities and dialogue, wooed the audiences and solidified his performance as one of the best gangster portrayals ever.
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9. Harvey Keitel (‘Bugsy’)
The biographical feature tells the story of real-life gangster Bugsy Siegel and his relationship with Virginia Hill. All the actors assumed roles of real people, most of them real gangsters. The film is today remembered as one of the best crime-dramas of all time. The film received overwhelming critical acclaim, recording ten Academy nominations, going on to win only two. Warren Beatty (Oscar ’17 debacle), Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley all received a nomination. But it was Ketiel’s portrayal of Micky Cohen which is one of the most iconic characters on-screen of all time. His obscene and sudden harangues prompted some of the most iconic and horrifying responses from the crew and the audiences. One worth the time!
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8. Joe Pesci (‘Goodfellas)
I am featuring Pesci’s performance as Tommy DeVito in ‘Goodfellas‘, for which he won the Academy Award, but his performance in ‘Casino’ is also worth mentioning. ‘Goodfellas’ was a ground breaking film, not only for the gangster genre, but in the industry as well. Having the typical Scorsese elements such as quick cuts and long freezing scenes, the film is perhaps the greatest mobster film ever made. Almost all the actors in the film, like Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Servino and Lorraine Bracco deserve a mention. But it was Pesci’s performance which stood out the most. Especially the Restaurant scene, in the picture above is one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history. His improvised line of fanatical inquiries and his bludgeoning laughter lit up the screen and mediated the underlying tenet of the film. Kudos to Liotta to handling it like a boss as well!
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7. Denzel Washington (‘American Gangster’)
Washington is one of the greatest actors of our industry. His ability to do keep the audiences engaged with his lung-bursting monologues in long scenes is second to none. He changed colors and donned the cloak of real-life gangster Frank Lucas Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’. The film was critically acclaimed, and much praise was directed towards Denzel’s performance. The film squarely rested on his shoulders and he didn’t disappoint. His vulnerability on-screen and the venture into different shades of human behaviors lend a distinct and priceless value to the film. Even though he failed to conjure up an Academy nomination, he truly won our hearts!
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6. James Cagney (‘White Heat’)
‘White Heat’ is one of the most foremost gangster films in the industry. The earliest of the movies in the genre, it was widely lauded as the greatest crime film ever made. Thanks to the screenplay, which took a detour from Hollywood clichéd frippery, and the awe-inspiring performances elevated the film into a must-watch haven. Cody Jarrett can be considered Cagney’s most psychotic performance of his illustrious career. It was Cagney himself who had the idea of making Cody psychotic. Cagney attributed his performance to his father’s alcoholic rages, which he had witnessed as a child, as well as someone who he had seen on a visit to a mental hospital. His authentic and harrowing performance even today evokes the most horrifying emotions in the audiences.
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5. Johnny Depp (‘Black Mass’)
I was in a quandary as to feature which Johnny Depp performance. And an epiphanous scene from ‘Black Mass’ palliated the matter. The scene was Depp’s first meeting with her girlfriend’s son at the dinner table. He punched someone in the school and got reprimanded for it. To this Depp stares for a moment, and explains, “It is wrong because people saw you do it. Next time, do it alone. If no one saw it, it never happened.” He follows it with one of his typical diabolical and elaborate smiles, which just won me over. Portraying James Whitey Bulgar required Depp to go to painstaking efforts, with respect the accent and the make-up. And indubitably, it paid off. Depp’s performance in ‘Public Enemies’ was also very good, and is worth mentioning.
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4. Daniel Day Lewis (‘Gangs of New York’)
Daniel Day-Lewis is indubitably the greatest actor of our generation. Doing a film every five years, he solidified his status as a bludgeoning film star with his role as Billy “The Butcher” in another Scorsese film. He nearly died while shooting for the film from pneumonia, refusing to don furry coats and blankets to fight the bone-hardening winter. The reason for this was the unavailability of such protections in the time the film was set. Now that people, is simply crazy. He channeled this ruthless maniacal approach in his role as the leader of his county. The changing of the accent, the facial hair, the learning of slicing up meat like a butcher, Lewis left no stone unturned to convince he wasn’t Day Lewis at all. The greatest trick the devil pulled, was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Well, he pulled it off!
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3. Al Pacino (‘The Godfather II’)
Well, it is really unfair. Pacino shouldn’t even feature on the list. He talks like a gangster, looks like one, and surely can act like one! Of his vast array of portrayals like Donnie Brasco in the film of the same name, or in ‘Scarface‘, Michael Corleone stands out heads and shoulders above them all. Playing a supporting role in the first one, he assumed the title of Godfather in the second, and instantly won our hearts. Unfortunately, with luck being the only deterrent, and a pinch of absurdity and stupidity form the Academy, he missed out on an Academy Award for his portrayal. Despite that, it remains his best performance of all time and the most iconic in cinematic history.
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2. Robert De Niro (‘The Untouchables’)
Much like Pacino, De Niro also has this intrinsic quality of changing into a believable gangster effortlessly. Even though he had the lead role as Conway in ‘Goodfellas’, and it was by no means any lesser, his performance as Al Chapone in ‘The Untouchables’ that made us cringe with fear. Even though his screen time was substantially receded, his dialogues sparing and influence less, his performance became the highlight of the film. The authentic make-up and his grungy accent brought realism and credibility to one of history’s most feared con-mans.
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1. Marlon Brando (‘The Godfather’)
The greatest actor of all time. Marlon Brando. There have been few performances which come close to beating his rendition of Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola‘s ‘The Godfather‘. There have been no equals in any genres which have matched his cinematic genius and talent on-screen. Right from creating the ensemble, to improvising iconic scenes, Brando ruled as the godfather. His distinct act as a vulnerable family guy, rather than a ruthless maniacal mobster, attracted critical acclaim and inundated him with laurels. The opening scene, which is still remembered as the greatest of all time, was his brain-child and he didn’t disappoint!
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