You won’t find Goodfellas on this list, but you will find two other Martin Scorsese classics. Francis Ford Coppola also has two films in the Top 13. Not surprisingly, Robert De Niro — who won an Oscar as the embodiment of the young Don Corleone in The Godfather Part II — is the king of gangster movie thespians, with four appearances in the top 13.
What may be surprising to the younger generation is that James Cagney is tied with De Niro, racking up four of his own appearances in the top Gangster Movies, and always as a headliner. De Niro’s turn in Godfather II was a supporting role. Runner-up Al Pacino has three headlining turns, but the Scarface you’ll find in our top 13 was played by Mr. Pal Muni.
Here is the list of the Greatest American Gangster Movies Ever Made (in alphabetical order):
1.) Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) James Cagney won his first Academy Award nomination with his creation of Rocky Sullivan, one of the most memorable gangsters to grace the silver screen. Rocky’s final moments in the jail with his friend/father confessor Pat O’Brien and his “final walk” to the Big Chair is one of the finest climaxes in motion picture history. Was Rocky’s act of contrition sincere? You’ll be wondering about if for years, so powerful is Cagney’s masterful performance.
2.) Casino (1995) Martin Scorsese’s unheralded classic is head-and-shoulders above his Best Picture Oscar-winning potboiler The Departed. Casino is a mature film featuring a tragic love story played out on screen by Robert De Niro in his last great screen performance and Sharon Stone, who has never been better. Joe Pesci recycles his Oscar-winning performance from Goodfellas, but Pesci has never been scary than in the scene in which he threatens De Niro’s casino boss in his own home after threatening violence on a banker. This is Scorsese’s The Seachers , in that it is a great film ignored by contemporary critics that will be hailed as a masterpiece and a key part of a great director’s canon in the future.
3.) Force of Evil (1948) Anyone who wants to understand The Blacklist must see director-writer Abraham Polonsky ‘s film noir masterpiece Force of Evil, as sharp an indictment of the American Dream as ever put on film. Unrepentant about being a Commnist Party member until his death in 1989 just six weeks shy of his 89th birthday, Polonsky was blacklisted in the late 1940s and didn’t direct another film until 1969. Incredibly, this was his directing debut: What great films were lost!
John Garfield, himself a victim of the post-WWII Red Scare, stars in Force of Evil as a mob lawyer who tries to set up brother, small-time numbers-runner Leo, as the straw boss of a consolidated numbers operation. Things go wrong, dooming Leo, who is superbly played by character actor Thomas Gomez. Organized crime is a metaphor for American capitalism and the ruthlessness of American free enterprise, which is made explicit in an exchange Leo has with his wife about the all-pervasive corruption of American society.
4.) The Godfather (1972) A contender along with Citizen Kane and Casablanca as the greatest American film of all time. If these films weren’t alphabetized, The Godfather and its first sequel would rank as #1 and #2 on the list. Both Godfathers transcend their genre and are great films in, their own rights, as dramas elucidating the human condition, family relations, and American politics.
5.) The Godfather: Part II (1974) Director Francis Ford Coppola essentially elevated himself to the filmmaking pantheon in the 1970s with his two Godfathers and Apocalypse Now. His other 1970s movie, The Conversation, is also a first-rate piece of cinema, copping a 1874 Best Picture nomination, a category won by Godfather II. What is amazing is how different the first sequel is from the first movie. Whereas the first Godfather is classic American narrative cinema at its best, The Godfather, Part II is a looser, more oblique narrative, influenced by the French nouveau vague and by such continental masters as Antonioni. Yet, both films — though quite different — are among the finest achievements in American cinema.
That cannot be said about The Godfather: Part III, which is mediocre. By the time he made the second sequel to the original classic, Francis Ford Coppola seemed to be more focused on becoming a mogul rather than a filmmaker. Coppola ought to do us a favor and remake The Godfather: Part III without his eye focused so much on the money.
6.) Key Largo ( 1947) Johnny Rocco, played memorably by the great Edward G. Robinson, is an exiled mob boss forced to return to the States due to a hurricane. In a shuttered Florida hotel overseen by hotelier Lionel Barrymore and his daughter-in-law, played by Lauren Bacall. Rocco meets his match in the man he calls “Soldier,” the returning WWII vet played by fellow movie legend Humphrey Bogart. John Huston, himself a legend, was at the height of his powers when he adaptated Maxwell Anderson’s play Key Largo, a mediation on power, class relations and domestic fascism. Claire Trevor won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her turn as Rocco’s former mistress, a desperate alcoholic. (Thomas Gomez appears in the film as Curly, Rocco’s henchman.)
7.) Mean Streets (1973) Director Martin Scorsese’s first classic. Every slob Tom, Dick & Harry raves about Goodfellas, but this is the real thing, stripped of the glamor of the latter film. Scorsese’s great weakness is his inability to visualize (and ths dramatize) the passage of time, a defect no more apparent than in Goodfellas (a film fatally weakened by the mediocre performance of Ray Liotta in the main role). Mean Streets takes place in a compressed time frame, and benefits from superb performances by Havey Keitel as Charlie, a small-time hood working for his uncle who dreams of bigger things, and Robert De Niro in his break-out performance as Johnny Boy, Charlie’s psychotic cousin. It’s a tragedy on a small-scale, but oh! How beautifully realized. This film showed the world that a great director and a great actor had arrived on the scene.
8.) Once Upon A Time in America (1984) An epic film of Prohibition-era America, Italian director Sergio Leone’s last masterpiece is a must-see for all cinephiles. Godfather writer Mario Puzo has long dreamed of witing a prequel to The Godfather that would have dealt with the gang wars of the late 1920s and 1930s, the forge in which the modern American Mafia was forged, that are alluded to in the novel. This is the era and millieu that Once Upon a Time in America deals with, focsing on Jewish-American gangsters rather than Italians.
Leone — who turned down an offer from Paramount to direct The Godfather — resented it when some American critics characterized his movie as the “Jewish Godfather“. Leone’s original cut was nearly four hours long, and featured a complex narrative told through mulitple flashbacks that has the rhythms and imagery of an opium dream. Even the truncated 144-minute version released in the U.S. has moments of stunning beauty and power, though it made the narrative nonsense. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert, who had seen the uncut version at the Cannes Film Festival and declared it “an epic poem of violence and greed,” denounced the US release as a “travesty.”
According to Wikipedia, “James Woods, who considers Once Upon a Time in America [to be] Leone’s finest work, mentions in the DVD documentary that one critic dubbed the film the worst of 1984, only to see the original cut years later and call it the best of the 1980s. Ebert…called the original uncut version of Once Upon a Time in America the best film depicting the Prohibition era. When Sight & Sound asked several UK critics what their favorite films of the last 25 years were in 2002…Once Upon a Time in America was placed number 10.”
9.) Public Enemy (1931) Wild Bill Wellman virtually invented the Sound Era gangster picture with The Public Enemy, the film that made Jimmy Cagney a star. Still packs a wallop.
10.) Roaring Twenties (1939) Raoul Walsh helmed this rousing epic that stretches from World War I through the height of Prohibition-era violence. As George Stevens’ took every Western cliche and distilled them in his classic Shane, so too does Walsh distill a decade of gangster flicks into this rousing coda to an ear. The performance by the legendary James Cagney, at the height of his power, is matched by Humphrey Bogart in a first-rate supporting turn. No one dies like Bogie does, his hands paws clawing the air after Cagney has settled the score.
11.) Scarface (1932) Another 1930s movie made about the Prohibition-era, Howard Hawks’s classic features a masterful performance by Paul Muni as a reckless crime boss based on Al Capone. The pyrotechnics in the cafe shootout are still hair-raising, three-quarters of a century after they were shot!
12.) The Usual Suspects A brilliant screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and top-notch performances by a fine cast, which includes Kevin Spacey ‘s Oscar-winning turn as a man who is not quite he seems to be, makes this one a modern classic.
13.) White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh reteamed with Jimmy Cagney and the results are incendiary! Top of the World!