From Al Pacino’s tragic portrayal of Michael Corleone, a fresh-faced former marine who becomes a morally compromised mob boss in the Godfather movies, to his bloodthirsty Cuban drug lord Tony Montana in Scarface – few actors are as synonymous with a particular genre of film as Pacino is with gangster movies. That’s why the announcement that the 72-year-old will join the cast of the forthcoming movie Gotti: Three Generations, was greeted with almost universal delight.
Scheduled for release this year, the film will tell the story of the New York-based Gambino family, once considered the most powerful criminal organisation in the world. Pacino will play Aniello “Neil” Dellacroce, an underboss in the organisation and a mentor to John Gotti Sr, who will be portrayed by John Travolta.
With the Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) set to direct from a script based on John Gotti Jr’s personal accounts, early indications suggest the film could be a mobster classic in-the-making. And it’s a genre packed with greats; here are 10 of the finest gangster movies that world cinema has to offer, not counting the soon-to-be released Gangster Squad, starring Josh Brolin.
• Tagline The shame of a nation.
Arriving two years before the strict Hays Code clamped down on onscreen violence, Howard Hawks’ Scarface contained a level of brutality that would not be seen again until decades later. Set in 1920s Chicago and depicting the rise and fall of a cut-throat mobster played by Paul Muni, it was the inspiration for Brian De Palma’s 1983 film of the same name.
• Trivia When the real-life mobster Al Capone (whose nickname was Scarface) heard the film was in production, he sent some heavies to the set. When the filmmakers assured Capone’s associates it was non-biographical (only half true), they were left unharmed.
Once Upon a Time
in America (1984)
• Tagline As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did.
While the Italian director Sergio Leone is most commonly associated with the Spaghetti Western, his four-and-a-half-hour gangster movie is an undisputed classic of the genre. The story chronicles the lives of two poor Jewish New Yorkers who, as adults (played by Robert De Niro and James Woods) become key players in the criminal landscape of the 1930s.
• Trivia Although many expected the movie to receive a negative reaction from critics due to its length, it earned a 15-minute standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes.
• Tagline Rififi means trouble!
The much-loved French crime classic was actually directed by a US filmmaker, Jules Dassin – blacklisted in Hollywood for his communist sympathies. Rififi is the story of four wily European gangsters who plan to steal from a jewellery shop in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Perhaps the archetypal heist movie, Rififi’s centrepiece is a half hour-long scene intricately depicting the crime, delivered without dialogue or music.
• Trivia The film was reportedly withdrawn from screens in Mexico, where it was blamed for inspiring several copycat burglaries.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
• Tagline In 1978, the US government waged a war against organised crime. One man was left behind the lines.
If there’s one thing gangsters hate, it’s a snitch. While most mob movies deal with eager Feds urging Mafiosi to inform on one another, few cast the snitch as the protagonist. Mike Newell’s movie is based on the real-life infiltration by the FBI agent Joseph D Pistone (played by Johnny Depp) of the Bonanno crime family in 1970s New York and the lengths he must go to in order to avoid suspicion.
• Trivia Tom Cruise had previously been attached to star in the title role.
The Infernal Affairs Trilogy (2002-2003)
• Tagline Loyalty. Honour. Betrayal.
The brilliant Hong Kong series tells the story of a police officer working undercover in the Triads while a member of the same criminal organisation is simultaneously working as a mole in the police. If it sounds familiar, that’s because Martin Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs as the Boston-set gangster film The Departed in 2006, which won him his only Oscar. The original movie was credited with revitalising Hong Kong cinema after many years in the doldrums.
• Trivia All four members of the Cantonese pop group EO2 appear in the film, playing the Triad boss Hon Sam’s henchmen.
City of God (2002)
• Tagline 15 miles from paradise...one man will do anything to tell the world everything.
Impoverished street kids turn into hardened gang-members in the blink of an eye in this fiery Brazilian drama. Based on a true story beginning in the 1960s, it sees two boys growing up in a violent neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro; one becomes a photographer, the other a drug dealer. The stylish, fast-paced film was a rare international critical and commercial hit for Brazil.
• Trivia Many of the actors were recruited from the same favelas in Rio where the film is set.
Eastern Promises (2007)
• Tagline Every sin leaves a mark.
The world of Russian gangsters (Vory V Zakone) shown in David Cronenberg’s film is more violent and intimidating than almost any other onscreen depiction of organised crime. It features Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel as a pair of heavily tattooed Ruskie henchmen living in London, whose paths cross with an innocent midwife, played by Naomi Watts. What begins as a standard tale of double-crossings in the mob quickly becomes a film about something else entirely.
• Trivia The tattoos of Russian gangsters, such as those seen in the film, are usually inked in prison and act like résumés outlining the details of the wearers’ crimes.
• Tagline Italy’s other Mafia.
With an unrivalled sense of realism, the film tells the stories of five individuals who make pacts with the Camorra – the ruling criminal organisation of Naples, Italy. The movie shows the devastating effects of organised crime on people from all walks of life, as well as the environment, and even asks whether Hollywood movies, such as Scarface, glorify the gangster lifestyle.
• Trivia The author Roberto Saviano received death threats for exposing the Camorra’s activities in the novel on which the film is based. He now lives under permanent police protection.
The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990)
• Tagline An offer you can’t refuse.
Not just the greatest gangster saga ever committed to film but arguably the crowning achievement of 20th-century cinema, Francis Ford Copolla’s sprawling trilogy brought the endless power struggles of the New York Mafia to audiences around the world. From Marlon Brando’s iconic, wheezing Don Corleone to incredible supporting work from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan and Diane Keaton – the trilogy has more stand-out scenes, performances and one-liners than perhaps any other.
• Trivia The real-life crime boss Joe Colombo and his organisation The Italian-American Civil Rights League campaigned to stop The Godfather from being made but relented when producers agreed to remove the word “mafia” from the script.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
• Tagline Who lit the fuse that tore Harold’s world apart?
As well as being influenced by violent and uncompromising predecessors such as Performance and Get Carter, The Long Good Friday added a new depth and complexity to the Brit gangster mould. It sees the world of London’s criminal kingpin Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) torn apart after a series of bombings and murders targeted to affect his interests. The story grows to include corrupt politicians, IRA terrorists and even a plan to redevelop London’s disused docklands for the Olympics (spooky).
• Trivia Features the film debut of the future James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, playing an IRA gunman.