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What are the greatest gangster movies?

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The cast of 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, which was controversial for its glamourous gangsters and balletic violence. (Columbia Tristar/Getty Images)

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13 memorable gangster movies

By Martin Morrow, CBC News

On July 1, like a burst of Tommy-gun fire, Michael Mann's Public Enemies will blast its way into movie theatres. The film stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, the 1930's bank robber who was finally ambushed by the FBI while stepping out of a Chicago cinema. Dillinger had just been watching the Clark Gable gangster flick Manhattan Melodrama.

Much has been made of that irony, but gangland dramas were already a Hollywood staple by the time Dillinger and other Depression-era desperadoes began to make headlines. Today, the genre remains as popular as ever. Just when you think organized crime as a subject has been exhausted, along comes a new twist.

We've seen the gangster movie as psychological study, love story, social commentary and family drama. It has come in guises as various as the European art film (Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders) and the lurid exploitation quickie (Roger Corman's Bloody Mama). Two of the most outstanding television series in recent times, The Sopranos and The Wire, concerned the daily lives of gangsters. Italy, home of the Mafia, has recently given us a couple of excellent new films in the genre, Gomorrah (about the Naples mob) and the forthcoming Il Divo (about the politician/gangster axis).

The following is a baker's dozen of variations on the gangster theme, along with 13 classic movies that epitomize them. They appear in chronological order. Be forewarned: this doesn't pretend to be a "best of" list – a lot of great films, from Jules Dassin's seminal heist thriller Rififi to the Coen brothers bloody gem Miller's Crossing – are missing. If you've got a favourite gangster movie not mentioned here, we encourage you to leave a comment below.

1. The gangster as king: Little Caesar (1930)

Movies about criminal gangs are as old as movies themselves (see 1903's The Great Train Robbery). The gangster movie as we know it, however, laid down its template in the 1930s, inspired by the real-life exploits of Prohibition bootleggers like Al Capone. Little Caesar, starring the incomparable Edward G. Robinson, tracks the rise and fall of a small-time crook who bullies his way to the top of the criminal heap. Robinson's preening, cigar-chomping Rico Bandello articulates the drive of the Napoleonic criminal, motivated as much by power and vanity as money. "Have your own way or nothing!" he crows. "Be somebody!"

2. The gangster as bad boy: The Public Enemy (1931)

As Tom Powers, a juvenile delinquent who grows up to become a trigger-happy Chicago bootlegger, James Cagney is bad. He spits beer in a barkeep's face, he shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend's kisser and he literally kicks a man when he's down. But the ladies love him – from his platinum-blond moll (Jean Harlow) to his sweet old ma (Beryl Mercer). You can see why: Cagney's cocky, fast-talking punk is so lively, he's irresistible.

Here's that infamous grapefruit scene:


3. Funny gangsters: The Ladykillers (1955)

A fiendish mastermind (Alec Guinness) and his motley band of thieves (including a young Peter Sellers) are foiled by Katie Johnson's dotty little old lady in this sublime black comedy that pits criminal "genius" against pure innocence.

4. Gangster lovers: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Seminal in its juxtaposition of comedy and brutal violence, controversial in its glamourous portrayal of cop-killing bank robbers, Arthur Penn's bloody, exhilarating tale of the Depression-era Barrow gang remains a masterpiece of criminal romance. It's also intriguingly Freudian, with Warren Beatty's impotent Clyde wooing Faye Dunaway's Bonnie by showing her his big gun.

This is the groovy '60s trailer, complete with catchy ad slogan ("They're young. They're in love. They kill people"):


5. The mob as family: The Godfather trilogy (1972, '74, '93)

Francis Ford Coppola's three-part epic about an Italian-American crime family amplified the themes of its predecessors and re-invigorated the gangster genre. It also launched the career of Robert De Niro and gave us one of the most-imitated performances in movie history: Marlon Brando's jowly, raspy-voiced Vito Corleone.

6. Child gangsters: Bugsy Malone (1976)

One of the oddest entries in the genre, Alan Parker's musical comedy has a cast of kids (including the teenage Jodie Foster and Scott Baio) playing Prohibition-era mobsters and molls. It's all good, gooey fun, with the bad guys firing Tommy guns full of custard instead of bullets. This is the original trailer:


7. The British gangster: The Long Good Friday (1980)

Stocky, mug-eared Bob Hoskins stars as a cockney Little Caesar on the verge of legitimacy whose shady real-estate empire is suddenly assailed by an unknown enemy. Director John Mackenzie's superb whodunit deftly cruises the murky waters between big business, politics and organized crime. It also has Helen Mirren as the classiest moll in gangster-movie history.

8. The gangster as American dreamer: Scarface (1983)

Al Pacino is Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who embraces the land of opportunity and becomes a sleazy Miami drug lord supplying the 1980's demand for cocaine. Brian De Palma's movie was reviled by critics when it was first released, but since then Pacino's grotesque Montana, with his bad haircut and bad jokes ("Say hello to my leetle friend!"), has become a bizarre icon of success-as-excess.

9. Gangsterism as a way of life: GoodFellas (1990)

Martin Scorsese's bravura film about the career of a workaday wise guy stars Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (as one of the scariest loose cannons in gangster-movie history). Its ironic scenes of the Mafia as suburban family guys anticipated (and inspired) The Sopranos.


10. The African-American gangster: Boyz N the Hood (1991)

Choice has been a long-standing theme in gangster movies, as characters resist or succumb to the temptations of the criminal life. John Singleton's heartfelt drama follows three childhood pals growing up in gang-plagued South Central L.A. Smart kid Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and athlete Ricky (Morris Chestnut) struggle to stay on the straight-and-narrow, while the indolent Doughboy (Ice Cube) chooses the way of the gun.

11. Postmodern gangsters: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino's hilarious/horrifying deconstruction of a jewelry heist gives us a band of thieves as yapping mutts, who fill the spaces between the violence by bickering absurdly over trivia – such as the meaning of Madonna's Like a Virgin or in this clip, whether or not to tip a waitress. (Warning: Coarse language.)

12. The Yakuza gangster: Sonatine (1993)

The Yakuza, Japan's answer to the Mafia, have inspired countless Japanese films. This is one of the best – and most disarming. Takeshi Kitano wrote, directed and stars as a Tokyo mobster who is forced to lie low with his minions at a beach house on Okinawa, where they pass the time playing innocent children's games. A gorgeous piece of cinema art, it also features what may possibly be the only gangland shootout in a crowded elevator.

13. The Chinese gangster: Infernal Affairs (2002)

The Buddhist concept of a "continual hell" is the theme of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's smart, gripping Hong Kong thriller. Tony Leung and Andy Lau star as a cop and gangster, respectively, each of them a mole so deeply planted in the other's territory that they begin to lose a grip on their identities. (Martin Scorsese's Hollywood remake, The Departed, won the 2007 Best Picture Oscar.)

What's your favourite gangster movie? Comment below.

Public Enemies opens July 1.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.

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