This August will see the 50th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic crime drama The Godfather. The picture and its 1974 sequel raised the cinematic depiction of The Mob from being crowd-pleasing shoot ‘em ups to a subject worthy of serious filmmakers and subsequent movies in the genre made explicit comparisons between organised crime and wider society, specifically government.
Indeed, thanks to The Godfather, the mobster movie has become a permanent Hollywood fixture – a genre that top directors seek to reference, if not wholeheartedly embrace, at some point in their careers. 2022 is no exception: this month sees the release of Graham Moore's The Outfit. Mark Rylance plays an English tailor who finds himself making suits for a notorious family of Chicago gangsters.
The Godfather (1972) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy
The first two Godfather films are (in my eyes) amongst the finest movies ever produced, both possessing a wealth of detail that makes them eminently re-watchable.
The less said about 1990’s belated second sequel, the better, although there are some decent sequences and Gordon Willis (who shot the original duo) is outstanding.
But…the dialogue is terrible compared to the first two films; case in point this piece of ripe cheese from Diane Keaton’s Kay to her ex-husband: 'I don't hate you, Michael. I dread you.'
My advice is to stick with Coppola’s earlier Godfather pictures.
The Long Good Friday (1980) Amazon Rent/Buy
In The Long Good Friday, London gangster Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) makes an unlikely advocate of the Common Market.
After being dumped by his putative partners from the USA, he angrily berates the departing Yanks: 'I'm setting up the biggest deal in Europe with the hardest organization since Hitler stuck a swastika on his jockstrap.'
The events prior to Shand’s tirade see the would-be entrepreneur find his empire-building dreams shattered when the IRA are drawn into his affairs, resulting in pub bombings, crucifixion, stabbings, and other unsavoury activities.
The Long Good Friday is a superb movie, aided by great performances from Hoskins and Helen Mirren as his posh girlfriend Victoria, as well as a terrific propulsive score courtesy of Francis Monkman.
The Iceman (2012) STARZPLAY, Amazon Rent/Buy
Michael Shannon (Knives Out) plays notorious hitman Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s little-seen and underrated thriller.
Kuklinski leads a double life with his wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) and family, who are unaware of his career as a professional killer, with over 100 successful hits committed over 22 years in the business.
Shannon is excellent in the role; a starry supporting cast also includes Ray Liotta (no stranger to mob movies), Chris Evans, David ‘Ross from Friends’ Schwimmer, James Franco and Stephen Dorff.
Sexy Beast (2000) Amazon Rent/Buy
For me the truly terrifying character in Sexy Beast is not Ben Kingsley’s unhinged gangster Don Logan but Ian McShane as his boss the saturnine Teddy Bass a.k.a. Mr. Black Magic.
Arch manipulator, orgy attendee, murderer and thoroughly bad egg, Bass is someone you definitely don’t want to cross.
The news of a prequel series set before the events of Sexy Beast does not fill me with much hope – the movie is pretty much perfect as it stands.
If you like Sexy Beast, make sure to check out two of Terence Stamp’s crime movies: The Limey from 1999 and 1984’s The Hit.
Goodfellas (1990) Amazon Rent/Buy, Sky Cinema
After a bad patch of box office and critical failures in the 1980s, Martin Scorsese went back to the gangster well, with his hit adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy, which told the story of real-life mobster turned fink Henry Hill, played in the movie by Ray Liotta.
For me, the best scene is towards the end of the picture, when Hill’s coke-fuelled paranoid fear that he is being followed by an FBI helicopter proves to be true.
Scorsese has of course gone on to direct many more gangster movies (Casino, The Departed, The Irishman and Gangs of New York), occasionally with diminishing returns.
The Yakuza (1974) Amazon Rent/Buy
Sydney Pollack’s absorbing crime drama takes us to Tokyo, where highly organised Yakuza crime gangs permeate every level of society.
World weary former military investigator Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) returns to Japan to fulfil a debt to former colleague Tanner (Brian Keith).
As you can probably guess, things don’t go to plan, with Kilmer forced to team up with his ex-girlfriend Eiko’s (Keiko Kishi) brother Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), a taciturn former Yakuza.
Mitchum is particularly good in the movie, giving a more committed performance than some of the ‘stroll, slouch, smoke and shrug’ roles he became associated with.
Ken Takakura (the ‘Japanese Steve McQueen’) is excellent; you can also see him in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), a Tokyo-set companion piece of sorts to The Yakuza.
A History of Violence (2005)
Despite being on screen for less than 10 minutes, the late William Hurt deservedly earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of Irish Mob boss Richie Cusack in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.
After years hiding out in Indiana with a new identity and a wife and family unaware of his background, former hitman Joey Cusack (Viggo Mortensen) is accidentally drawn back into his old life.
Specifically, his brother Richie and associates in Philadelphia, with whom Joey fell out with, necessitating a speedy departure to the Mid-West.
Miller's Crossing (1990) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy
More Irish mob-related malarkey, this time in an unnamed US city during Prohibition.
Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is consigliere to Albert Finney’s Leo O'Bannon; to thwart the ambitions of on-the-rise Italian mobster Johnny Caspar, Reagan initiates a tortuous plan, one that tends to result in his being repeatedly punch in the face.
For my money the best movie to date from the Coen brothers, with everything from casting to scenery dressing near perfect.
And not forgetting truly memorable music from the duo’s regular composer Carter Burwell, who also scored Martin McDonagh’s excellent In Bruges.
Eastern Promises (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy
Whilst not quite in the same league as A History of Violence, Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (scripted by Peaky Blinders Steven Knight) is a strong addition to the gangster canon, given extra relevancy today with its depiction of the Russian Mob in London.
Viggo Mortensen plays an FSB agent who has infiltrated the gang with the purpose of bringing it down from the inside. When he encounters Anya Khitrov, a midwife of Russian descent, having just delivered a baby by a teenager who died in childbirth, his life becomes even more complicated.
Much of the film was shot in and around St John Street in London’s Clerkenwell, with The Farmiloe Building depping as a Russian restaurant. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognise the structure from a host of other films including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Inception (2010), Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).
Jean-François Richet’s mammoth but engrossing two-part film stars Vincent Cassell (Eastern Promises), unfairly said by some to be France’s answer to Nicholas Cage.
Whatever the actor’s onscreen excesses, he reins it in to deliver his finest performance as real-life gangster Jacques Mesrine, who led a varied criminal career in France, Switzerland, and Canada until his death in 1979 at the hands of police marksmen in the outskirts of Paris.
A shame that Richet has directed little of note since, in 2016 he helmed the crime thriller Blood Father, Mel Gibson starring as an ex-con and former right-wing motorcycle club member, presumably not that much of a stretch for the actor.