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Martin Scorsese’s 15 favourite classic gangster films

Few directors are synonymous with one specific genre as Martin Scorsese is with gangster films. Considering the director has also produced countless other movies, music documentaries being a particularly fruitful niche, the GoodfellasCasino and The Irishman director will always be attached to the Mob and those around it. But what began Scorsese’s fascination with the genre, and what inspired him to create his own unique style within it? We think we may have found the answer, well, 15 of them.

During a conversation with Daily Beast back in 2010, Scorsese looked back at his career and took note of the vital films in the genre of gangster flicks that he had overseen. It’s a pretty impressive list, too, encapsulating not only the style, violence and brutality of his subjects but also portraying his characters with the humanity they deserve. He was inspired to do following his love of these classic films.

“Here are 15 gangster pictures that had a profound effect on me,” begins Scorsese in his open letter to the publication, “And the way I thought about crime and how to portray it on film. They excited me, provoked me, and in one way or another, they had the ring of truth.” If you’re worried that there is no mention of your favourite modern gangster film, then you needn’t worry, Scorsese is still a fan of those, but these are the films that really hit home and inspired his own style.

“I stopped before the ’70s,” he continues, “Because we’re talking about influence here, and I was looking at movies in a different way after I started making my own pictures. There are many gangster films I’ve admired in the last 40 years— Performance, the Godfather saga, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in AmericaThe Long Good FridaySexy Beast, John Woo’s Hong Kong films. The films below I saw when I was young, open, impressionable.”

It’s a positively pulsating list not only filled with incredible pieces of cinema but also vital pieces of iconographic moments in film’s history. The earliest film on the list, The Public Enemy, elicits a specific response from Scorsese — a nod of recognition. “The shocking, blunt brutality; the energy of Cagney in his first starring role; the striking use of popular music (the song ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’)—this picture led the way for all of us.”

The admiration continues for the films that came before him. Scorsese’s pictures always stood out because they credited the criminals at hand with a hefty dose of intelligence, which had sometimes been sorely lacking. Not so for the 1933 film Blood Money: “Rowland Brown, a largely forgotten figure, made three tough, sardonic movies in the early ’30s, each one very knowledgeable about city politics, corruption, the cosiness between cops and criminals. This is my favourite. The ending is unforgettable.”

Scorsese also notes the particular power of 1939 effort The Roaring Twenties, noting: “In 1939, Raoul Walsh and Mark Hellinger’s classic was seen as a sendoff to the gangster genre, which seemed to have run its course. But it’s more than that. Much more.” For Scorsese, the film helped lay the blueprint for some of his own most significant cinema achievements.

“It plays like a journal of the life of a typical gangster of the period, and it covers so much ground, from the battlefields of France to the beer halls to the nightclubs, the boats that brought in the liquor, the aftermath of Prohibition, the whole rise and fall of ’20s gangsterdom, that it achieves a very special epic scale—really, it was the template for Goodfellas and Casino. It also has one of the great movie endings.”

The final film on his list, Point Blank from 1967, also helped to shape the films of the future, as Scorsese suggests: “This was one of the first movies that really took the storytelling innovations of the French New Wave—the shock cuts, the flash-forwards, the abstraction—and applied them to the crime genre. Lee Marvin is Walker, the man who may or may not be dreaming, but who is looking for vengeance on his old partner and his former wife. Like Burt Lancaster in the 1948 I Walk Alone, another favourite, he can’t get his money when he comes out of jail and enters a brave new corporate world. John Boorman’s picture re-set the gangster picture on a then-modern wavelength. It gave us a sense of how the genre could pulse with the energy of a new era.”

There you have it, 15 films that inspired Martin Scorsese to become the most prominent director in the history of gangster films. While it’s joyful to see the myriad of ways in which these films inspired Scorsese, it’s more fun actually to watch them. And, after all, they did come with a pretty hefty recommendation.

Martin Scorsese favourite gangster films:

  • The Public Enemy (1931)
  • Scarface (1932)
  • Blood Money (1933)
  • The Roaring Twenties (1939)
  • Force of Evil (1948)
  • White Heat (1949)
  • Night and the City (1950)
  • Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954)
  • The Phenix City Story (1955)
  • Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)
  • Murder by Contract (1958)
  • Al Capone (1959)
  • Le Doulos (1962)
  • Mafioso (1962)
  • Point Blank (1967)
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