100 Greatest Gangster Films

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100 Greatest Gangster Films: The Godfather, #1

The Godfather made careers, most notably those of Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino, despite the fact that both of them were almost fired during production. All these years later, it’s still thrilling to watch Pacino as Michael, the Don’s youngest son, evolve from an innocent outsider among his own family into a stone-hearted killer. Watch Pacino’s eyes deaden over the course of the 175-minute film as he becomes the man his father never wanted him to be. It’s why The Godfather is, ultimately, a tragedy.

100 Greatest Gangster Films: The Godfather: Part II, #2

Al Pacino reprises his role as Michael and offers us an Ivy League Machiavelli. He has his father’s cunning and guile, but somewhere along the way lost his compassion. How else do you explain his decision to have his own brother, Fredo (John Cazale), killed long after any damage Fredo has done to the family has been repaired?

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Goodfellas, #3

There is no romance here. No looking out for one’s people. No myth of a moral code. Instead, GoodFellas is about psychopaths who steal, kill and ultimately betray each other. It’s two-and-a-half hours of blood, depravity and—that most American of vices—greed. Director Martin Scorsese summed up his subjects’ wiseguy lifestyle in three words: “Want. Take. Simple.” Oh, and by the way, it’s a brilliant movie packed with dozens of colorful characters.

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Pulp Fiction, #5

Part of the joy is not always knowing who the good guys are. Tarantino shot Pulp Fiction as a time-twisting weave of stories where villains can become heroes, or a guy peppered with bullets in one scene comes back from the dead, so to speak, in the next. Behind it all is a hipness in everything from the wardrobe to the set design to the beat-heavy soundtrack that kicks off with Dick Dale’s guitar classic “Misirlou” in the opening credits.

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Donnie Brasco, #8

One of the reasons the movie works so well is the interplay between Pacino and Johnny Depp, who established himself as more than just a pretty-boy actor with his performance here as Joe Pistone. Using the undercover name Donnie Brasco (a name Pistone “borrowed” from a cousin), the street-smart, New Jersey-raised FBI agent manages to infiltrate a major New York crime family by posing as a jewel thief and hustler who knows how to make money.

100 Greatest Gangster Films: The Usual Suspects, #9

The genesis of this complex thriller was a magazine article, or—more accurately—the headline of an article. Director Bryan Singer was thumbing through Spy magazine in 1992 when he turned to a story entitled, “The Usual Suspects” after Claude Rains’ classic line in Casablanca. Hmm, thought Singer. Now that would make a good title for a movie.

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, #11

Still, there’s something beyond the stereotypes and the arcane movie talk that makes this a great film. For one, the story it tells remains—as it was then—the American dream come to life: an immigrant from humble beginnings gets the money, gets the power, gets the women. The bad guy has always mesmerized audiences, and Muni is as magnetic as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were a half-century later.

Movie still: Leon the Professional

100 Greatest Gangster Films: Léon: The Professional, #13

He’s a highly efficient—but in many ways naïve—hit man who drinks milk, exercises religiously and seems obsessed with the care and maintenance of a houseplant. She’s a 12-year-old who smokes, curses and is wise way beyond her years. Together they form an unlikely crime team in this fascinating and unusual look at the New York underworld.