Almost since the birth of talkies, there has been no short supply of gangster/organized crime films and with this weekend’s release of Black Mass, that trend doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. As with any prolific genre or the subgenre, there are always more bad or unmemorable films to fill up that library, and a handful or so of ones that could be considered truly great. The bad ones aren’t worth remembering, and the great ones have been revisited time and time again. But there are some films that simply slip through the cracks, underseen and underrated, not quite great but certainly worth your time. The following gangster movies may not be able to stand alongside The Godfather Part I and Part II, Scarface, Goodfellas, or The Departed, but each offer something in their own way that make them worth including in the discussion of those aforementioned films:
8. The Iceman
Ariel Vromen’s 2012 film starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, and an almost unrecognizable Chris Evans is based on the true story of mob hitman, Richard Kuklinski. The Iceman breaks away from the sprawling crime epics we typically associate with the genre and instead focuses on the outliers of organized crime, the people hired to do the dirty work but who were never considered made-men. Shannon’s performance as Kuklinski is comprised of the same quiet-intensity and explosive outbursts of violence that made him a breakout supporting actor on Boardwalk Empire. Kuklinski, who murdered up to 250 people between 1948 and his arrest in 1986, is depicted as a deeply committed family man, a hard-working husband and a proud father. The film doesn’t attempt to reconcile these sides of Kuklinski, creating a horror movie like element to the film. It’s difficult to doubt that Kuklinski would have likely been a serial killer if the mafia hadn’t provided him a title and a paycheck. While the 105 minute film doesn’t delve deep enough, The Iceman offers a well-acted look at the disorganized side of organized crime.
Barry Levinson’s 1991, 10-time Academy nominated crime film often slips under the radar when it comes to gangster films, perhaps because it sticks too closely to bio-pic tropes. However, Warren Beatty delivers one of his best performances as the famous obsessive-compulsive, Jewish-American mobster, Bugsy Siegel. Featuring a supporting cast of Annette Benning, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, and Elliot Gould, Bugsy may feature the most impressive collection of talent this side of a Scorsese crime film. The lavish production, which centers primarily on Siegel’s efforts to turn Las Vegas into the gambling center of America feels somewhat overly familiar as a result of the crime films that preceded it and used elements of Siegel’s story. While the film doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the traditional rise and fall narrative, Siegel’s insecurity and effort to distinguish himself amongst his Italian-born peers create an interesting look at the social hierarchy of organized crime.
6. Public Enemies
We’re big lovers of Michael Mann here at AE, and while his 2009 Dillinger biopic may be widely seen, it’s an undervalued gem in Mann’s oeuvre. Johnny Depp delivers what would remain his best performance until, well, probably this weekend’s release of Black Mass. He’s charming and magnetic, and fills out the classic gangster role well. There’s a calculated calmness to Depp’s portrayal, a reminder of why the actor was once considered the coolest guy in any room. Christian Bale has the less flashy role as F.B.I. agent Melvin Purvis, but he provides a strong foil to Depp’s Dillinger. But the true star of the film is Michael Mann, who delivers shot after shot of wonderfully composed brilliance. While pacing lags in spots, an admittedly standard fault of Mann’s, Public Enemies remains an attention-grabbing exploration into the roles people create for themselves and how media attention places those roles up on pedestals.
John Hillcoat’s 2012 Virginia-set bootlegging drama is decidedly small-scale compared to the other films on the list, and the argument could even be made that it’s not a gangster movie at all. This is part of what makes the film so refreshing, it gets back to the familial roots of organized crime in the early 20th century. The Bondurant brothers aren’t tough talking, Tommy gun waving suits, but backcountry brothers who found their own way to survive during the Depression, one that threatened the mafia’s setup in Chicago. With engaging and understated performances by Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pearce, Lawless paints a broader picture of the period where gangsters ruled America, and the poor man’s desire to carve out a piece of that for themselves. Lawless may be comparatively quiet, but it speaks volumes about America.
4. King of New York
Who doesn’t love a good scenery-chewing performance from Christopher Walken? Abel Ferrara’s 1990 film was originally panned upon release, though modern reassessment has found the film to be a stylish, ultraviolent take on the modern gangster. The film follows recently released drug lord, Frank White as he attempts to wrestle control of his drug empire from the crime bosses who took it over in his absence. All of this sounds like pretty standard gangster-fare, but King of New York is filled with eccentricities and odd moments of dark humor that make it feel distinct from its counterparts. Walken’s Frank White, and his almost entirely black gang, are decidedly more rambunctious and coke-fueled than their Mafia and Triad counterparts, which creates a certain unpredictability to the film, and a subtext on the changing face of organized crime in America. The X-rated film is unquestionably weird at times and gives Scarface a run for its money in terms of its over-the-top violence, but it’s so idiosyncratic within the genre, that it can’t help but be appreciated for its own artfulness.
3. Road to Perdition
Sam Mendes’ 2002 film, based off the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, tells the story of a mob hitman and his son as they hunt down the mobster who murdered their family. There’s a beautiful simplicity to the film, one that’s furthered by the lack of dialogue and atmospheric cinematography that centers on the quiet emotional moments. In one of his few immoral roles, Tom Hanks walks the grey line as Michael Sullivan, caught between being his son’s hero and nightmare. Through the watchful eyes of Sullivan’s son, Road to Perdition plays with the meaning of innocence, whether violence can in fact completely extinguish it. Mendes’ film could have told the story in almost a genre-western, samurai, or vigilante-justice piece, but the use of the gangster archetype allows the film to break down the violent macho male archetype that may be the most enduring and static 21st century figure that still has its roots in the 20th century.
2. Carlito’s Way
Overshadowed by Scarface, and mostly forgotten when Goodfellas hit a couple years later, Carlito’s Way goes largely unmentioned by enthusiasts of the genre. Brian DePalma’s 1992 film focusing on Hispanic criminal Carlito Brigante is a victim of the same whitewashing issues that mar the more popular Scarface, and Pacino once again shrugs off the subtly that defined his earlier career, but it also offers the best modern narrative of a gangster’s attempt to go straight. While The Godfather Part III attempted the same thing a couple years before, Carlito’s Way is more focused in this exploration. What Carlito’s Way offers that most other gangster films glaze offer is the criminal’s relationship with his lawyer. Pacino is good, but Sean Penn’s turn as lawyer David Kleinfield is magnificent. Penn and Pacino’s ability to play off each other and their characters’ attempts to outsmart overzealous law officials make the film worth revisiting and DePalma’s style lends itself the 70s set narrative. The film is no masterpiece, but it’s an entertaining cult classic that stands up amongst its peers.
The 2008 Neapolitan-language film directed by Matteo Garrone may take a little longer to appreciate as it’s not as traditionally entertaining as the other films on the list. The film intertwines five stories set in Southern Italy, each exploring the effect of the real-life Casalesi clan in the area. Featuring the stories of a middleman, a young initiate, a waste management worker, a tailor, and two young wannabe gangsters, shows the ugly side of organized crime-ugly in a way that reaches beyond bullets and drugs. At times, Matteo’s film is uncompromisingly bleak in its efforts to shatter the fantasy of organized crime built up in American movies. The documentary aesthetic and naturalistic acting show an entirely different side of Italy. While we’re used to tragedy being a key element in crime films, Gomorrah shows there’s nothing glorious or legendary about it. The film’s final scene, which shows dead bodies being carried away in a bulldozer, is a haunting image that deflates talk of family, legacy, and wealth. It’s pure ugliness.