Crime or gangster is easily my favorite genre in movies. I will attempt to list my favorite crime films of the last 40 years via a top 10.
10. Millers Crossing
Miller’s Crossing is arguably the best film the Coen brothers have ever made. Set in the prohibition era this is a tale of deception of the highest order. Albert Finney plays Leo a political boss and gangster who runs the town aided by his trusted aide Tom Reagan played by the excellent Gabriel Byrne. Tom is engaged in a stormy romance with femme fatale Verna who is played in a career highlight performance by Marcia Gay Harden. The only problem is Verna is also the current squeeze of Tom’s boss Leo. If that wasn’t murky enough Verna is the sister of Bernie Birnbaum a dodgy bookmaker whose unscrupulous behaviour with Johnny Casper an italian underboss will send all concerned to their doom.
The story goes that the Coen’s had originally planned for Gabriel Byrne’s character was to be a jewish gangster but Byrne convinced them to make him an Irish gangster instead which lead to one of the greatest opening lines in cinema history “Where’s my hat?”
9. Pulp Fiction
After making his debut with the excellent Reservoir Dogs much was expected of Quentin Tarantino on his next film. The former video store clerk served up the scintillating Pulp Fiction, a tale of a web of events that all seem separate but play a part in a bigger story. There are so many memorable scenes from Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer holding up a restaurant to the renaissance of John Travolta as a super cool gangster with his bible quoting equally cool Samuel L Jackson (who knows the lines to Ezekiel 25:17?) and Bruce Willis as a beat up boxer making plans to turn the tide his way.The cast are fantastic delivering the witty dialogue and the soundtrack and cinematography is as you would now expect with a Tarantino flick
8. The Long Good Friday
The Long Good Friday is a UK gangster film that captures a time and place perfectly. It is set in London at the end of the 1970’s with Bob Hoskins playing the part of the kingpin gangster (Harold Shand) in the London underworld. He rules with an iron fist but has maintained peace and business is good. So much so that Harold is making plans to make his operation international by aligning himself with the US mafia.
But his plans unravel as his enterprises are attacked by an unknown foe. Much of the film is taken up with Harold uncovering the truth of why now he has suddenly being attacked. When the truth is discovered that his closest aid had bungled a deal that included the IRA who are now targeting him. This is an organisation that are have polar opposite views to Harold and his failure to appreciate that their ideals differ from his primarily capitalist notion leads to his downfall.
At the end of the film Harold gets into the back seat of his car only to realise it has been taken over by the IRA and he has a gun pointed at him by a young Pearce Brosnan. Nothing is said as the car drives off through London traffic and the camera focuses on Harold’s face which first shows surprise then anger and finally an acceptance of his imminent doom
7. True Romance
Often overlooked True Romance in my opinion more than deserves to be on the list. Written by Quentin Tarantino (What can I say the guy’s a genius) and directed by the late great Tony Scott. Clarence (Christian Slater) is a downtown downbeat guy spending his days working at a comic book store and his nights watching classic Kung Fu movies. Then on his birthday he goes to the cinema on his own to watch a Sonny Cheba triple bill and he hooks up with Alabama and spends the night with her. Turns out Alabama is a hooker who his boss has set him up with for his birthday. Instantly they fall in love and decide to get married.
Clarence being a decent husband doesn’t want his wife working as a hooker anymore so he goes to see her pimp Drexel who is none too pleased, they become embroiled in a confrontation which leads to the death of Drexel and his aide and in the confusion Clarence picks up a suitcase he assumes is fill of Alabama’s clothes only to discover later it is cocaine Drexel was holding for the mafia.
Clarence sees this as a life changing piece of luck, so he and Alabama head west to LA to sell the cocaine to the jet set Hollywood type.
Unfortunately the Mafia have discovered Clarence’s identity and they head off in hot pursuit.
The pace of this film is breakneck and the dialogue is sharp and witty (what we now expect from Tarantino) and the central characters played by Christian Slater,Patricia Arquette as the two star crossed lovers with Clarence’s buddy Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport) an aspiring actor who puts Clarence in touch with Elliot (Bronson Pinchot) and film producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) who can handle a Dr. Zhivago scale of cocaine.
What makes this film so special though is the supporting cast which is made up of cameos of great actors like Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore as cops who hit on a career case but special mention must go to Gary Oldman who is almost unrecognisable as the pimp Drexel (it ain’t white boy day is it?).If you are still not convinced I will leave you with this scene featuring Christopher Walken ( as a Mafia enforcer on the hunt for Clarence) and Dennis Hopper (Clarence’s estranged Father)-worth seeing the film for this scene alone
Looking back over the last 40 years of the best of crime/gangster genre two actors are going to appear on almost any list that could be compiled. They are of course Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It has always been rumoured that they are fierce rivals and had only appeared in the Godfather part 2 but did not share any screen time prior to Michael Mann bringing them together for the riveting Heat.
De Niro is Neil Macauley a career criminal with a minute attention to detail and lives by a strict code (“Never have anything in your life that you can’t walk out on if you feel the heat around the corner”). Pacino is Lt. Vincent Hanna an equally obsessed cop on the trail Macauley and his crew after a heist goes wrong.
Although both men are on the opposite ends with their career choices it is their dedication to their tasks that have caused there failure to form solid relationships. The film is set up for a cat/mouse fight but the twist is that sometimes it is Hanna as the cat but then Macauley turns the table and then he is the cat and Hanna is the mouse. For example in the now infamous coffee scene where Hanna invites Macauley for coffee the two men have a frank exchange, they leave the coffee shop with Macauley being monitored from air and car. He enters a tunnel and despite heavy surveillance he loses them!
Along with DeNiro and Pacino there is a great supporting cast including Val Kilmer and Jon Voight and director Michael Mann never lets the story sag and the various side stories with characters that interact with the two leads is given time to develop with sensitivity. It would have been easy to give the leads a comic book characterisation with one good, one bad but these are complicated men with complicated lives.
I couldn’t review Heat without mentioning some outstanding scenes such as the final shootout in downtown LA with the sound of bullets almost making you feel that you are in the scene. Of course the film is best remembered for the coffee shop scene between Pacino and DeNiro (” if you gotta move when I gotta move how do you expect to keep a wife”). Heat is a riveting story and is my No. 6
5. Mean Streets
Mean Streets was Martin Scorcese’s breakthrough film. Where the Godfather showed the lifestyle of successful powerful and politically connected gangsters,Mean streets showed gangsters lower down the food chain in the ferocious and gritty 1973 classic. Harvey Keitel is Scorcese’s alter-ego on screen as Charlie a young italian-american struggling with his conscience, catholic guilt and his morality as he is constantly questioned over his loyalty to his friends and his duty to his mob family. The film is also remembered fondly for the breakthrough performance of Robert DeNiro as ‘Johnny boy’ a small time gambler who owes money to loan sharks and whom Charlie tries to protect to the detriment of his aspirations to move up the ladder of the Mafia (“Honourable men go with honourable men”).
The film is shot in almost a documentary style and shows ‘Little Italy’ is indeed a network of ‘mean streets’, dark and gritty mostly and we only really see bright daylight when Charlie is bed with Theresa-the only innocent pure thing Charlie has. It also shows the period of time really well as Charlie is in love with Johnny Boy’s cousin Theresa but because she has epilepsy Charlie’s uncle disapproves (‘she is not right in the head’) a notion we would now consider outlandish but was a widely held belief in that time.
Finally I leave you with a question: What’s a mook?
4. The Usual Suspects
Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey are The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects follows the interrogation of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint who along with a severely burned hungarian criminal are the only 2 survivors of a massacre and fire on a ship docked in the port of LA. Kint, a small time crook tells an increasingly complicated tale of how he became entangled with a group of career criminals carrying out a high risk robbery on behalf of the mysterious Keyser Soze.
This film has some great acting from the like of Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Pete Postlewaite (RIP), Kevin Pollak, and Benicio Del Toro as the virtually incomprehensible Fenster. It is an unconventional whodunnit movie that saves the best twist to last.
3. Once Upon a time in America
Sergio Leone reached the pinnacle of film-making when he co-wrote and directed this movie chronicling the lives of jewish ghetto kids and their rise to prominence in the world of organised crime in New York city.The movie explores several themes including childhood friendships, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships, and the rise of mobsters in American society.
The movie is an epic tale in every respect covering their early youth in the 1900’s to the height of their success in the prohibition era to the early 1960’s as a now elderly ‘Noodles’ returns to New York after years of hiding to look into the past and attempt to fill in the missing pieces.It is also visually stunning and has a wonderful score by Ennio Morricone.
The film was originally 269 minutes long but distributors cut it to 139 minutes (against the director’s wishes) for US audiences. Finally a fully restored 269 minute version should be available soon.
This movie is truly a magnificent work of Art.
2. The Godfather 1 & 2
Spielberg famously said after watching Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather that he felt he should give up. Generally regarded as one of the all time greatest films in any genre. The Godfather written by Mario Puzo follows the lives of the Corleones, a powerful New York crime family and centrally on Michael, youngest son and reluctant to becoming involved to his transformation to become the Godfather himself. It also focuses on Vito Corleone as patriarch an dominant force in the family and in the second film his rise to prominence from peasant Sicily to early 1900’s hotbed of immigration New York to establishing the now powerful Corleone family, one of the 5 major crime families of New York.
The film uses infamous tales about the influence of the mob throughout the two films, for example the character Johnny Fontaine- a well known singer whose popularity is on the wane but could get back up on top if he could only get the lead role in an upcoming film but is disliked by the producer is widely regarded to be referencing Frank Sinatra’s woes in getting out of a contract when his career was taking off.
Hyman Roth who appears in the second movie is generally regarded as a reference to Meyer Lansky.
Like many I have seen these movies over and over and most likely will again.
Based on the best selling book Wiseguy by Nicolas Pilleggi, Goodfellas is a hard hitting true life account of the life and times of mobster and FBI informant Henry Hill. From an early age he is fascinated by the lifestyle of the mob. He begins to run errands and eventually quits school and slowly but surely he begins to become more integral in the everyday workings of his local mob eventually becoming a trusted lieutenant of mob boss Paulie Cicero with his psychotic partner Tommy (the excellent Joe Pesci) and his mentor Jimmy.
Henry’s greed becomes his downfall as he starts doing side deals without the knowledge of Paulie and starts to attract the attention of the feds and then when this threatens the security of the mob family he becomes a target.
Goodfellas is one of the most quotable films of any era (What am I, a Clown? I’m here to amuse you?) and there are so many memorable scenes and Scorcese uses the soundtrack to great effect in this film. Ray Liotta is excellent as the lead but is well supported by DeNiro and Pesci along with Lorraine Bracco (later she became Tony Soprano’s shrink) and Paul Sorvino (Paulie).
When I first saw this film I literally was amazed at how good it was and over the years I have watched it many times. It has to be my all time number 1 crime/gangster film