30. Infernal Affairs (2002)
So good, Scorsese remade it without bettering it. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s two-mole thriller inspired The Departed, but Tony Leung and Andy Lau’s cop-crook tango throws deeper, darker, deadlier shapes than Damon and DiCaprio’s double act.
Lau/Mak’s inspiration was Face/Off, but they ditch those Woo-vian bullet ballets for the psychological subterfuge of a stylish urban-existential thriller.
“There’s no redemption of any kind,” Scorsese reckoned, tapping the tragic tenor of this gripping psychodrama of duplicity.
Killer Scene: Time stands still for the rooftop face-off.
29. King Of New York (1990)
Dark and nihilistic, King Of New York sears into the memory. Walken’s Frank White is paper rich but spiritually bankrupt, a mob boss back from the Sing Sing grave to rebuild his drugs empire.
Roaming the streets of the Bronx in his stretch-limo hearse, White is New York’s Nosferatu, sucking the life from the city’s veins.
“To this day,” says Walken, “when I go to an airport, all the cops, that’s the movie they know.”
Killer Scene: Hiring subway muggers: “Come by the Plaza Hotel, I got work for you.”
28. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Pacino ditched the Don to be a goombah, his aging mafioso Lefty Ruggiero too blind to realise the guy he’s tutoring (Johnny Depp) is actually an undercover Fed.
Originally slated for Pacino and Tom Cruise, then shelved when GoodFellas went into production, Donnie Brasco was resurrected by an Englishman, Mike Newell.
The foreign ear explains the loving attention to detail as mafia lingo is deconstructed and a beautiful friendship turns out to be a fugazi.
Killer Scene: Lefty teaching Donnie how to dress, walk and talk like a wiseguy.
Next: The Killing, Tokyo Drifter, The Big Heat...[page-break]
27. The Killing (1956)
Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime: Kubrick’s racetrack stick-up unfolds in flashbacks, storytelling fractured to nail the fatalistic theme.
“A crime film,” said the director, “is almost like a bullfight; it has a ritual and a pattern, which lays down that the criminal isn’t going to make it.”
Kubrick’s OCD-editing flits from Sterling Hayden’s perfectly planned heist to the aftermath as his cool professionalism’s undone by the gang of squealers and bunglers he’s working with.
Tarantino nicked ideas for Reservoir Dogs, boasting, “This movie is my The Killing.”
Killer Scene: Elisha Cook’s turned worm: “The jerk’s right here.”
26. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
“Inspired lunacy,” reckoned Time Out. They were right on both counts. Seijun Suzuki’s yakuza run-around is your average gang-warfare flickplot-wise, locked’n’loaded by a crime boss’ struggles to “go straight”.
Twists, though, include a fractured structure, freaky effects, impromptu songs, near-slapstick gags, Pop Art colour coding (our hero is frequently coordinated to correlate with the wallpaper) and a villain who pretty much always arrives on screen sunglasses first.
With logic sidelined, are we talking style over content? Not quite: Suzuki extravagantly, exuberantly amplifies style to crack open and unpick conventional crime-flick content.
Killer Scene: A burly brawl in the “Saloon Western”. Insolent, pointless, well cheeky.
25. The Big Heat (1953)
Predating Dirty Harry and Popeye Doyle by two decades, Glenn Ford is the tough cop hunting the ruthless mobster who blew up his wife in Fritz Lang’s brutal thriller.
Shockingly violent for its day, this hard-boiled noir paints a bleak universe steeped in the kind of endemic corruption that was being uncovered at the time by the Kefauver Committee.
What unsettles, though, is the way women – beaten, burned, scalded and tortured – become the story’s collateral damage: sacrificial lambs caught in the cross-fire of a vicious new order.
Killer Scene: Lee Marvin’s psychotic gangster Vince Stone throwing hot coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face.
Next: Carlito's Way, Casque D'or, Get Carter...[page-break]
24. Carlito's Way (1993)
“What might have been if Carlito’s Way had forged new ground and not gone down smokin’ in the shadow of Scarface?” wondered Rolling Stone magazine about Brian De Palma’s mesmeric gangster flick.
These days you have to wonder what the Stone guys were smoking not to see the neo-noir clout in the tale of mobster Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) and his struggle to carve out a law-abiding life for himself.
Even without Sean Penn’s turn as a coke-hoovering shyster, this is scintillating stuff, from its dying man’s voiceover to its bone-cracking violence.
Killer Scene: Carlito uses a pool trick to escape a trap.
23. Casque D'or (1953)
François Truffaut eulogised the “tenderness and violence” in Jacques Becker’s fable of fleeting love doomed by the mob. Manda’s (Serge Reggiani) an ex-con going straight, Marie (Simone Signoret) is a mobster’s moll.
Bad news for him when he claps eyes on her… The action oscillates between verdant riverside scenes viewed through love’s eyes and claustrophobic backstreets where death lurks.
Both feel lived-in, Becker substituting pastiche for the higher goal that captured Truffaut’s heart: truth.
Killer Scene: Manda and Marie wake from a night of love.
22. Get Carter (1971)
It’s grim up north. It’s even grimmer when East End gangster Jack Carter (Michael Caine) arrives in Newcastle looking for the bloke who killed his brother.
Get Carter injects the Brit-flick gangster movie with knuckle-scraping brutality. Caine loved the realism: “The idea was to show that in real life, each punch grinds some teeth in, and just one thrust of the knife can open someone’s heart.”
Killer Scene: Giving a tubby Tynesider a beating: “You’re a big man, but you’re outta shape.”
Next: White Heat, The Killer, Sonatine...[page-break]
21. White Heat (1949)
The inspiration for this gangster epic’s blisteringly mad and bad lead character Cody Jarret was simple, says writer Ben Roberts: “We synthesised Ma Barker down to having one son instead of four and we put the evil of all four into one man.”
The genius move though was squeezing that malevolence into the pint-sized Jimmy Cagney, here making his first gangster flick since 1939’s
The Roaring Twenties.
As the mom-obsessed psycho bouncing between homicidal wit and shuddering rage, he’s still one of cinema’s most chilling nutjobs.
Killer Scene: Hearing that his mum’s dead, Jarret goes berserk in a prison canteen.
20. The Killer (1989)
Chow Yun-Fat seeks a bloody redemption in John Woo’s seminal actioner, his Hong Kong hitman showing a twisted nobility as he takes on one last job to prevent the girl he injured from losing her sight.
“The killer wants to be good,” the director revealed. “He’s fed up with killing and he’s trying to stop. The problem is, once you pick up a gun it’s hard to put down...”
Slammed at home for glamourising the Triads, The Killer had a better reception abroad, launching the international careers of both star and director.
Killer Scene: The Virgin Mary eating lead in the climactic church shoot-out.
19. Sonatine (1993)
Takeshi Kitano’s minimalist hitmanin-hiding movie is a bravely formalist and philosophical break-out from the gang, played for understated but
“With Kitano,” wrote US critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “narrative and plot become wholly secondary to the emotions, moods, and associations his images conjure.”
And what images, foremost among them being Kitano’s stony, deadpan fizzog as Murakawa, a pro-killer dispatched to a job that turns out
to be an ambush.
Killer Scene: Power of the unseen: a climactic shoot-out shot from outside, shown only as a light show.
Next: Casino, City Of God, Bonnie & Clyde...[page-break]
18. Casino (1995)
Even bigger and bolder than GoodFellas, Casino might be a bit long, but it has more swearing and a better tailor.
It’s the Shakespearean mirror-image to Scorsese’s mob masterwork, telling the giddy rise-and-fall tale of ultra-smooth mafia apparatchik Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro), parachuted in as the new boss of Vegas’ Tangiers casino only to be undone by psycho mates (Joe Pesci, inevitably) and slutty wife (Sharon Stone).
“We wanted to show the end of the old way,” mused Marty. A chilling portrait of how gangsterism and business are one and the same in Sin City.
Killer Scene: Pesci’s pen-stabbing lesson to “some motherfucker” who disrespects Ace.
17. City Of God (2002)
Ferociously kinetic, Fernando Meirelles and co-director Kátia Lund’s adap of Paolo Lins’ non-fiction epic is also propelled by a righteous social agenda.
“I don’t believe in conventional actors,” Lund argued. “I wanted to give the same sensation as the first time I went into a favela. That all of this is going on and no one is doing anything about it.”
City rips through three decades of urban deterioration and criminal expansion in the Rio favelas: starting with a blackly comic catch-that-chicken scene, flipping to the ’60s and then forward to the ’80s via turf wars and the drug-terror territorialism of one mean cat, L’il Ze.
Meirelles and Lund spin mood on a dime, orchestrating the action around a moral void. God, you suspect, is dead.
Killer Scene: “A little bit frightening”: a disco showdown set sans irony to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’.
16. Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
“They’re young. They’re in love. And they kill people!” So proclaimed the tagline to Arthur Penn’s blistering lovers-on-the-lam epic, a sexy, red-blooded riposte to the languid, supercool tales of guns and girls making new waves from across the pond.
Watching the film feels like bearing witness to the bitter demise of ’60s idealism, grafted onto the story of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s eponymous natural born killers cheerily pillaging their way across sun-dappled, Depression-era America.
A unique fuck-you to the film establishment of the time – with very cool hats.
Killer Scene: The bullet-riddled finale – for all its cinematic excess, it’s desperately tragic.
Total Film Issue 157 On Sale Now!
Like this feature? Read the extended version in the latest issue of Total Film Magazine (157), which also includes an exclusive Johnny Depp interview on Public Enemies.
Next: Breathless, Le Samourai, Salvatore Giuliano...[page-break]
15. Breathless (1960)
Jean-Luc Godard’s crime classic is the quintessential movie of the French New Wave.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, a whole new style of movie star with his boxer’s nose and thick lips, is Michel, a petty thief who kills a cop down south and heads for Paris to look up Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student less naïve than she looks.
Michel’s US-gangster pose is lifted straight from Jean-Pierre Melville (who takes a cameo role) but the jump-cuts, hand-held camera, improv jazz score and quirky shifts of pace and mood are all Godard.
“Modern movies begin here,” said Roger Ebert.
Killer Scene: The long, unbroken tracking shot that follows Belmondo’s stricken Michel down a Parisian cobbled street.
14. Le Samourai (1961)
Melville’s gangsters stalk the Parisian backstreets in trenchcoats and trilbies, shoulders weighted with existential angst.
They’re chic though: even on the run, Alain Delon’s hitman looks like he’s just stepped out of a Paris Match photoshoot.
Terser than the director’s earlier hoodlum flicks, it regards criminal activity – like Delon stealing a Citroën in the virtuoso opening – with an obsessive eye for detail.
Tarantino’s a fan: “Melville’s movies were basically the Warner Brothers Bogart-Cagney films set to this French-Parisian rhythm.”
Killer Scene: Eluding gendarmes in a dash through the Paris Metro.
13. Salvatore Giuliano (1962)
French critic Michel Ciment reckoned this documentary-tinged portrait of the Sicilian bandit-cum-political terrorist established Francesco Rosi as “the greatest political filmmaker of his time”.
Dead as the film opens, his subject rarely even appears in the ensuing flashbacks. Rosi scrupulously assembles facts and reports pertaining to Giuliano’s death, but suggests the cover-up renders the truth unknowable.
Society, the Mafia and politicos share culpability in Rosi’s crime film-as-political exposé.
Killer Scene: An assiduous beginning: Giuliano’s corpse is described in an official report that reveals diddly-squat.
Next: Mean Streets, Point Blank, Pulp Fiction...[page-break]
12. Mean Streets (1973)
Scorsese’s paean to the Little Italy of his youth (“I knew all those guys and many of them are still very close friends”) lacks the polish of his later works but makes up for it with a raw passion and energy embodied in Robert De Niro’s reckless Johnny Boy.
The director’s alter ego, though, is Harvey Keitel’s Charlie, the tortured Catholic torn between spirituality and crime. “I saw myself in Harvey,”
reveals This Is England helmer and Scorsese fan Shane Meadows.
“He was part of a circle, but you could see he was looking for a way out.”
Killer Scene: “I’m a mook? What’s a mook?”
11. Point Blank (1967)
There is no cash – that’s the secret of Point Blank. John Boorman’s stylish, stylized gangster thriller pits Lee Marvin’s ghost-like revenger
Walker against the shadowy “organisation” that left him for dead on Alcatraz.
He wants his $93,000, but in ultra-modern LA the Mob only deals in cheques or plastic.
Boorman exploited the “complete loss of nerve by the American studios” to wrestle total creative control for himself – the resulting movie is a bad trip, with déjà vu flashbacks and jump cuts channelling European style. The first acid-noir gangster flick.
Killer Scene: The trippy nightclub scene, with strobe lights punctuating Walker’s violence.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
“Gangster films are sort of parodies of the American Dream,” explains Quentin Tarantino. “They’re a skewed, bizarro world of getting rich in business in America.There always has to be some sort of satire on the American lifestyle.”
So is that why Jules and Vincent go about their business like ordinary schmoes, shooting the shit about burgers and foot massages on their
way to make a killing?
It’s the hitmen’s very ordinariness that makes them extraordinary though, in a sophomore effort that was both a polished crime anthology and an international phenomenon.
Killer Scene: “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger…”
Next: Scarface, Once Upon A Time In America, Miller's Crossing...[page-break]
9. Scarface (1983)
Scorsese and De Niro had long wanted to upgrade Howard Hawks’ 1932 crime classic Scarface. They just couldn’t figure out how. Turns out, you had to go all the way.
Oliver Stone hung out with gangsters to write the script. Brian De Palma dunked Miami Vice headfirst in blood, cocaine and style. Al Pacino became Michael Corleone’s monstrous id made flesh.
Following Cuban refugee Tony Montana’s (Pacino) roaring rise from dishwasher to druglord, Scarface is a terrifying black comedy of lust, wealth, power, destruction and – most of all – excess. Nothing exceeds like it.
De Palma’s first ever gangster film combines arty flourishes (watch the darkening colour of Montana’s suits trace the rot of his soul) and berserker violence (even if the motel chainsaw massacre is off screen) in a way even Marty wouldn’t have dared to.
Killer Scene: Coke, blood incestuous rage and our leetle friend... Finales don’t get better.
8. Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Sergio Leone turned down The Godfather to make this epic tale of a Jewish gangster (Robert De Niro) who journeys from ghetto to exile in Prohibition-era New York.
The resulting masterpiece, alas, was too much for Warner Bros, who criminally removed 90 minutes from his four-hour version. (“Such
a stupid move,” sighed co-star James Woods.)
Seek out the original, then, to appreciate this elaborate saga, even if it does feature two graphic rape scenes and a persistent opium den motif that convinced some the whole movie is one long, drug-induced hallucination.
Killer Scene: For sheer audacity, the opening scene with its endlessly ringing phone.
7. Miller's Crossing (1990)
Rapid-fire chit-chat and machine-gun violence pepper the Coens’ ’30s-set, Dashiell Hammett-inspired gangster flick, which its DoP Barry
Sonnenfeld described as “a handsome movie about men in hats” – no bad pitch for many well-upholstered crime movies.
The plot thickens fast, but suffice to say that Gabriel Byrne’s adviser to Albert Finney’s mob boss gets caught up in a lovers’ triangle and a two-way gang tangle over “friendship, character and ethics”.
The story is pastiche, perhaps, but the directors immaculately tailor the trappings of fast-talking fatalism and sharp-dressed doom.
Killer Scene: “Look into your heart!” John Turturro pleads for his life.
Next: Reservoir Dogs, Heat, The Godfather...[page-break]
6. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Seventeen years after it first rocked the US indie scene, Tarantino’s energetic, tightly-plotted debut still feels fresher than noughties nostalgia trips like Kill Bill and Death Proof.
QT never shows the botched diamond-store heist on which the film hinges – this is all about the fallout, as a gang of colourfully named crims try to root out the mole in their midst.
Confidently laying the Tarantino template, Dogs leaves an indelible impression. “For some people, the violence isn’t their cup of tea,” said the director. “That’s OK. I wanted it to be disturbing.”
Killer Scene: “All you can do is pray for a quick death...” Michael Madsen’s sadistic Mr Blonde goes to work to the sounds of Stealers Wheel.
5. Heat (1995)
Possibly the best cops’n’robbers movie ever made. That’s because in Mann’s world, cops and robbers battle like Gods.
The coffee-shop scene between screen deities De Niro and Pacino makes epic drama of tiny silences. Guns sound like thunder. LA becomes a doomy Valhalla.
Heat’s mirror-duel between De Niro’s master robber and Pacino’s brilliant detective holds tight to an emotional inner life as its obsessive anti-heroes lose grip on theirs. Slick and stunning.
Killer Scene: That final dying handshake between De Niro and Pacino.
4. The Godfather (1972)
“I felt that I should quit,” said Steven Spielberg of the first time he saw The Godfather. “That there was no reason to continue directing because
I would never reach that level of confidence.”
Even if you’ve never seen Francis Ford Coppola’s blistering gangster epic, forged in the white heat of Silver Age Hollywood, the saga of Don Vito Corleone’s youngest son Michael’s ascent from shiftless Ivy Leaguer to ruthless Capo di Capi is so seared into the public consciousness you’ll think you have.
Shot in burnished mahogany tones, it’s an elegant tale of the gentlemanly corruption of old segueing into an age of cruel efficiency.
Pick your own superlative: chances are it’ll be bang on.
Killer Scene: The ‘Baptism Massacre’, Michael becoming Godfather as the heads of the other families roll…
Next: Army In The Shadows, The Godfather, Part II, Goodfellas...[page-break]
3. Army In The Shadows (1969)
Between gangster films proper Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville tapped both his history with the Free French and a novel by Joseph Kessel for a subtextual gangster movie about the French Resistance.
Key themes are honour, betrayal and revenge. The bottom lines are sacrifice and loyalty, the former being the high price of the latter.
But as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers argues, “Melville refuses to truck with myths of heroism and glory,” instead directing the grandeur and fatalism of gangster convention to the urgent call of grim truth. Quite brilliant.
Killer Scene: Death by towel: silent, ruthless vengeance meted out to a snitch.
2. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
Murder, fratricide, damnation: it’s all just business in Francis Ford Coppola’s two-tone sequel.
In the past, Vito Corleone (De Niro) rises from anonymous immigrant to Robin Hood hoodlum, while in the present his son Michael (Pacino) broods in darkened backrooms, a troubled conscience the price he pays for the absolute power he possesses.
Coppola styles the dynasty’s damnation as epic, operatic tragedy – an Italian-American Dream turned sour.
“After winning all the battles and overcoming his enemies, I wanted Michael to be a broken man, a condemned man.”
Killer Scene: Michael’s kiss of death. “I knew it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
And Number One?...[page-break]
1. Goodfellas (1990)
Who better than Martin Scorsese, the man with beetling eyebrows, a lifelong New Yorker and a childhood dream to be a priest, to hear the sins of James 'Jimmy' Conway, Tommy Devito and Henry Hill?
The real story of Henry Hill was different, though. He was a real-life sinner and his crimes had cost him everything. Hijacking trucks and robbing airports brought wealth, yet Hill was just another goombah until his arrest on narcotics charges in 1980.
Convinced that he was due to be whacked by his former friends and unwilling to do a long stretch inside, Hill broke the omertà code and rolled over for the Feds.
Henry’s testimony sent a shockwave through the Mafia. He was immortalised in crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family – the most revealing look at the Cosa Nostra since Mario Puzo put pen to paper for The Godfather.
When Scorsese, who’d sworn never to do another mob movie, read it during filming on The Color Of Money, he rang the author immediately: “I’ve been looking for this book for years,” he explained.
The writer shot back: “I’ve been waiting for this phone call my entire life.” The deal was struck. Marty would become Hill’s confessor.
For an extended version of this feature, a huge retrospective on Goodfellas and a copy of Wiseguy (the book Goodfellas was based on), grab the latest issue of Total Film Magazine (157) on sale June 25.
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