From Scorsese to Tarantino: The top 10 gangster films of all time
“Keep your friends close but your enemies closer”—The Godfather.
The gangster film, an uncompromising sub-genre of crime cinema, has its roots firmly planted in 1930s Hollywood and has grown to be one of the beacons of modern film.
Having transition throughout early Hollywood and into eras of New Hollywood, gangster films have seen the major international success of directors such as Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and more.
With huge budgets and major Hollywood names being linked to some of the greatest cinematic moments in history, we’re exploring what is considered to be the top 10 gangster films of all time by the prestigious and highly-respected American Film Institute. Described as “America’s promise to preserve the heritage of the motion picture,” the AFI has been acting as a nonprofit educational arts organisation since it was founded back in 1965.
Given the research conducted and the opinion of AFI board members, we’re exploring the top 10 gangster films of all time:
10 – Scarface – Brian De Palma, 1983
Kicking this off we have a remake… and a brilliant one at that.
Director Brian De Palma teamed up with screenwriter Oliver Stone and producer Martin Bregman to remake the original 1932 Scarface film and did so with an all-star cast. The lead actor, a certain Al Pacino, was the brains behind the idea of a reboot when he watched the original at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles and reached out to Bregman with the idea.
With the addition of the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and F. Murray Abraham, a 1980s Miami drug lord was born.
Official Film Synopsis: “After getting a green card in exchange for assassinating a Cuban government official, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) stakes a claim on the drug trade in Miami. Viciously murdering anyone who stands in his way, Tony eventually becomes the biggest drug lord in the state, controlling nearly all the cocaine that comes through Miami. But increased pressure from the police, wars with Colombian drug cartels and his own drug-fueled paranoia serve to fuel the flames of his eventual downfall.”
Formally declared a ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’ film, which means Little Caesar was born in a very short period in which cinema was between the adoption of sound in pictures and Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines, it propelled the gangster sub-genre of film with emphatic effect.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Edward G. Robinson, Glenda Farrell, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and more, Little Caesar was adapted from the novel of the same name by William R. Burnett and proved to be a pivotal moment in cinematic history.
Official Film Synopsis: “An aspiring small-town criminal, Caesar ‘Rico’ Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) relocates to Chicago to hit the big time, accompanied by his buddy, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).
“While Rico makes a name for himself in the underworld, Joe decides to leave the life of crime and ventures into show business, where he meets the lovely dancer Olga (Glenda Farrell). Though Rico and Joe try to honor their friendship, eventually their choices take them down dramatically different paths.”
8. The Public Enemy – William A. Wellman, 1931
Staying in 1931 with the core foundations of gangster cinema, William A. Wellman’s effort The Public Enemy has more than stood the test of time.
The film, which has since been declared “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in terms of its lasting legacy, stars the likes of James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook, and Joan Blondell and telling the tale of one main’s rise through the criminal underworld.
Official Film Synopsis: “Two young Chicago hoodlums, Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Eddie Woods), rise up from their poverty-stricken slum life to become petty thieves, bootleggers and cold-blooded killers. But with street notoriety and newfound wealth, the duo feels the heat from the cops and rival gangsters both.
“Despite his ruthless criminal reputation, Tom tries to remain connected to his family, however, gang warfare and the need for revenge eventually pull him away.”
7. Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino, 1994
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction propelled the filmmaker to international critical acclaimed which further built on his reputation following the release of Reservoir Dogs two years prior.
In now typical Tarantino fashion, the film boasts a quite ludicrously talented cast with the likes of John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames and more playing their part in what is regarded by many as a cinematic masterpiece.
Official Film Synopsis: “Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are hitmen with a penchant for philosophical discussions. In this ultra-hip, multi-strand crime movie, their storyline is interwoven with those of their boss, gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames); his actress wife, Mia (Uma Thurman); struggling boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis); master fixer Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) and a nervous pair of armed robbers, ‘Pumpkin’ (Tim Roth) and ‘Honey Bunny’ (Amanda Plummer).”
Returning to the era of pre-code Hollywood, Howard Hawks managed to build on the success of the gangster crime films that were released 12 months prior and delivered a masterpiece on Scarface.
Produced by Hawks and Howard Hughes, the director teamed up with screenwriter Ben Hecht in a bid to translate aspects of Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name which, in turn, was inspired by infamous American gangster Al Capone.
Official Film Synopsis: “Key lieutenant of South Side Chicago crime boss Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins), Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is an ambitious and reckless gangster who ignores warnings not to mess with Irish gangs on the North Side.
“When the North Side retaliates, Tony essentially massacres them, leaving him on top of the world. Worried about Tony’s overconfidence, however, Johnny orders him killed, but this also backfires, and Tony finds himself even closer to becoming king of the city.”
5. Bonnie and Clyde – Arthur Penn, 1967
Arthur Penn’s biographical crime film arrived as the second cinematic effort to try and tell the true story of criminal couple Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Champion Barrow who wreaked havoc during the ‘public enemy era’ between 1931 and 1934.
Widely considered as one of the very first films of the New Hollywood era, Bonnie and Clyde arrived as a landmark film amid the counterculture movement that broke out in the 1960s. Starring the likes of Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, the film emerged as a major critical and commercial success upon release.
Official Film Synopsis: “Bonnie Parker is bored with life and wants a change. She gets her chance when she meets a charming young drifter by the name of Clyde Barrow.
“Clyde has dreams of a life of crime that will free him from the hardships of the Depression. The two fall in love and begin a crime spree that extends from Oklahoma to Texas.”
4. White Heat – Raoul Walsh, 1949
Enter the world of film noir and Raoul Walsh’s iconic 1949 effort White Heat. Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, the film was adapted by screenwriters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts with brilliant results.
Official Film Synopsis: “Gang leader Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) lives for his mother, planning heists between horrible headaches. During a train robbery that goes wrong, Cody shoots an investigator. Realising Cody will never be stopped if he knows he’s being pursued, authorities plant undercover agent Hank (Edmond O’Brien) in Cody’s cell.
“When his mother dies, a distraught Cody breaks out of jail, bringing Hank along to join his gang. With Hank in communication with the police, Cody plans a payroll heist.”
3. The Godfather Part II – Francis Ford Coppola, 1974
They say never go back but Francis Ford Coppola didn’t listen… and thankfully so. The Godfather Part II, the superb follow up to the original, lived up to expectations and then some.
Directed by Coppola from the screenplay which was co-written with Mario Puzo, The Godfather Part II brings together the likes of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale and more with emphatic effect.
The film, regarded by many as one of the greatest films of all time, was nominated for eleven Academy Awards at the 47th Oscars and, impressively, became the first sequel ever to win the coveted Best Picture category.
Official Film Synopsis: “The compelling sequel to The Godfather, contrasting the life of Corleone father and son. Traces the problems of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in 1958 and that of a young immigrant Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in 1917’s Hell’s Kitchen. Michael survives many misfortunes and Vito is introduced to a life of crime.”
2. Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese, 1990
Enter Marty Scorsese and his 1990 epic Goodfellas.
The film, directed by Scorsese and produced by Irwin Winkler, arrived as an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1985 non-fiction book Wiseguy. Notably, Pileggi teamed up with Scorsese to co-write the screenplay.
In what is considered one of the greatest gangster films of all time—and undoubtedly a career high point for Scorsese—Goodfellas tells the story of the rise and fall of mob associate Henry Hill and his friends and family.
Starring the likes of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino and more, the film ended up being nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Official Film Synopsis: A young man grows up in the mob and works very hard to advance himself through the ranks. He enjoys his life of money and luxury, but is oblivious to the horror that he causes. A drug addiction and a few mistakes ultimately unravel his climb to the top. Based on the book ‘Wiseguy’ by Nicholas Pileggi.”
1. The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola, 1972
It should come as little surprise that Francis Ford Coppola tops this list with his 1972 masterpiece The Godfather.
Based on Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Godfather is the first instalment of one of the most important film trilogies in the history of cinema and stars the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Richard Conte, and more.
Chronicling the notorious Corleone crime family, which between 1945 and 1955, was fronted by Vito Corleone and explores the life of a mafia boss with uncompromising detail. At the 45th Academy Awards, the film won the Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Official Film Synopsis: “Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, this mob drama, based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, focuses on the powerful Italian-American crime family of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando).
“When the don’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), reluctantly joins the Mafia, he becomes involved in the inevitable cycle of violence and betrayal. Although Michael tries to maintain a normal relationship with his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), he is drawn deeper into the family business.”