I’m calling this article How to Be a Gangster: Movies About Organized Crime. That’s because all you wanna-be gangsters out there can learn all you’ll ever need to know about the subject by watching the following films. Whether you’re interested in brushing up on how to whack out an informant or your inevitable death scene, these classics of the genre will provide a wealth of information. So load up your gat, grab your favorite moll, and prepare to pick up a trick or two about the fine art of crime (which, by the way, doesn’t pay).
- The Krays (1990) – Twins Martin and Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet play real-life British gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the most infamous criminals in the London underground of the 1960s. When asked by a reporter if they know The Beatles, one of the brothers replies, “No, but they know us.”
- The Godfather (1972) – If you want to know how to be a gangster, be sure to catch this groundbreaking film from director Francis Ford Coppola. As family head Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) attempts to deal with the changing face of organized crime, his son Michael (Al Pacino) is slowly sucked into the life of murder and betrayal. Also starring Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale.
- The Godfather: Part II (1974) – No list of movies about organized crime would be complete without this Oscar-winning sequel about the further bloody intrigues of the Corleone family. As Michael (Al Pacino) wrestles with the pressures of running the family, a series of flashbacks show father Vito’s (Robert De Niro) arrival in America and his rise to power within the mob.
- Eastern Promises (2007) – David Cronenberg directed this tense thriller about a London midwife (Naomi Watts) who gets caught up with the Russian mob while trying to find the father of a recently born child. Viggo Mortensen fights naked in a bath house, while Vincent Cassel seems all kinds of unstable. An interesting look at a Russian crime family, especially when it comes to their complex series of tattoos.
- Little Caesar (1931) – Edward G. Robinson stars as Rico, a cold-blooded thug who quickly rises to power as the head of the Chicago crime world. Meanwhile, his pal (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is more interested in chasing dames and becoming a famous dancer. Robinson became a star after the release of this film, this providing would-be mimics with an easy subject.
- Goodfellas (1990) – Based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi, this captivating Martin Scorsese film looks at life through the eyes of gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). There’s plenty of period music and graphic violence, and the presence of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci really puts this production over the top. Pesci is especially memorable as the quick-tempered Tommy DeVito, who was actually based on a real guy.
- While the City Sleeps (1928) – This silent film stars Lon Chaney as a flat-footed cop out to bring down a viscous gangster. Also starring Anita Page, Carroll Nye, and Mae Busch.
- Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Director Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene with his blood-soaked tale of a gang of criminals who meet back at a warehouse following a botched robbery. They soon come to the realization that they have a police informant in their ranks, and various flashbacks reveal the personalities and secrets of each man. Starring Harvey Keitel, Chris Penn, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, and Lawrence Tierney.
- City of God (2002) – A highly-regarded film about the rise of organized crime in a violent suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since the main characters are followed over a period of many years, it’s very reminiscent of Goodfellas (which, by the way, is one helluva compliment).
- Road to Perdition (2002) – After being betrayed by his employer (Paul Newman), a mob enforcer (Tom Hanks) goes on the run with his son and plots his revenge. Daniel Craig plays the jackass son of the mob boss, while Jude Law is a deranged hitman who likes to photograph his victims. Based on a graphic novel.
- Get Carter (1971) – While Sylvester Stallone made a remake in 2000, the better version came in 1971 and starred Michael Caine as a British gangster who returns home following the death of his brother. Convinced that his sibling’s demise wasn’t accidental, Carter begins shooting and torturing everyone who crosses his path, and watching Caine wield a shotgun will make you forget all about Alfred the butler.
- Miller’s Crossing (1990) – The Coen brothers turned out this overlooked gem about a gangster (Gabriel Byrne) caught in the middle of a gang war. Filled with the Coen’s trademark violence and black humor, Miller’s Crossing also benefits from strong performances from Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, and Jon Polito.
- Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Legendary director Sergio Leone abandons his Spaghetti Westerns to film this epic look at a group of childhood friends in New York City who grow up to become players in the world of organized crime. Starring Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Joe Pesci, Elizabeth McGovern, and William Forsythe. Avoid the shorter 139-minute version and go for the full 229-minute cut (as intended by Leone).
- Pusher (1996) – The first film in a trilogy, this Danish crime flick shot director Nicolas Winding Refn to international stardom. The subject of the film is Frank (Kim Bodnia), a drug dealer in Copenhagen who’s in debt to a Serbian drug lord named Milo (who also happens to be an awful cook). As he tries to scrape together enough money to cover his debts, Frank slowly drives a series of nails into his own coffin. Filmed fast and loose, Pusher maintains a gritty edge due in large part to the excellent performance from Bodnia.
- The Untouchables (1987) – Kevin Costner stars in this entertaining Brian De Palma crime film about the Prohibition era war between Eliot Ness and Chicago crime boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Sean Connery is a standout as Ness’s streetwise mentor, Andy Garcia is a rookie cop who’s a crack shot, and Billy Drago oozes sinister as Capone henchman Frank Nitti. Connery would go on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his part in the film, and that Ennio Morricone score will stick with you for days.
- Mean Streets (1973) – Before he hit a homerun with Goodfellas, director Martin Scorsese honed his skills with this work about Charlie (Harvey Keitel), an upwardly mobile gangster whose career is held back by his relationship with the self-destructive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Many of Scorsese’s signature techniques are already visible in this film, but it’s also obvious that the best is yet to come.
- Pulp Fiction (1994) – Quentin Tarantino delivers his masterpiece with this gritty and frequently comedic movie about organized crime in the city of Los Angeles. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson plays a pair of bickering mob hitmen, while Bruce Willis is an aging prizefighter looking to screw over the mob. Told in a non-linear fashion with plenty of violence and quotable dialogue, Pulp Fiction remains one of the greatest crime films for modern audiences.
The Public Enemy (1931) – Voted as the eighth best gangster movie by the American Film Institute, The Public Enemy was an important work that shaped the way every crime film afterwards would be approached. James Cagney cemented his tough guy image as Tom Powers, a criminal who rises in the ranks of the criminal world before suffering his ultimate downfall. The scene where he smashes a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face remains the movie’s most iconic image.
That concludes our look at How to Be a Gangster: Movies About Organized Crime. For even more films on the subject, be sure to check out online rental sites such as Netflix or GreenCine. With a little luck, you’ll be building your own crime empire in no time, at least until you’re betrayed by a colleague or gunned down by the cops.