Top 5 Gangster Films of All Time

January 24, 2023 1:48 pm30 commentsViews: 79

The gangster genre has been popular since it first appeared in the early 20th-century. While there were a few in the silent era, the genre really took off with the invention of sound. Screeching car tires, gunshots, and the unique language of the New York and Chicago gangsters contributed greatly to their success. The rise of contemporary organized crime during the prohibition era also played a huge part in encouraging the genre at the time. Since then the gangster film has become a fixture in mainstream Hollywood cinema.


There are dozens, hundreds even, of great gangster films that have been made over the last century. Below is a list of five of the best.

The Public Enemy (1931)

No list of great gangster movies would be complete without mention of James Cagney. In The Public Enemy, Cagney plays Tom Powers, a small-time thug who turns into a big-time prohibition-era gangster. The film was violent for its day, and even contemporary audiences will still find the final scene disturbing. While films like The Godfather focus of the importance of family, in The Public Enemy the plot focuses on how the Powers family is torn apart by crime. Along the same lines, while some gangster films have been accused of glorifying the lives of crime lived by their heroes, The Public Enemy went to great lengths to expose the violence and horror beneath the sexy exterior.

White Heat (1949)

James Cagney is again a ruthless and sadistic gangster in this 1949 film. In a performance that can only be described as ‘iconic’, Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a frighteningly unbalanced criminal on the run, who is oddly obsessed with his mother. White Heat is a particularly intense gangster film that, before Rhett Butler uttered those oh-so-famous words, contained the most famous line ever uttered in a film: “top o’ the world, Ma!”

The Godfather (1972)

It’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t have good things to say about The Godfather. Not only is it a great crime film, it makes many critics lists of the best movies ever made. Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel of the same name is a sweeping epic about the son of a mob boss reluctantly drawn into the family business. An intense family drama, The Godfather explores the complexities of holding on to old-world values in the face of new challenges. The Godfather is considered by many to be the perfect example of a gangster film.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

It’s a shame more people haven’t seen Sergio Leone’s epic tale of Jewish gangsters spanning over 40 years in New York. Told mostly in flashbacks and flash-forwards, the movie centers on small-time hood, David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (played by Robert De Niro), and his lifelong partners in crime. It’s a tough movie to watch: violent, disturbing and at times, just plain ugly, and at four hours it’s also a big time commitment. It’s also a stunning example of filmmaking at its best.

Goodfellas (1990)

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” So begins the stylish gangster flick that is arguably Martin Scorcese’s best work. Based on the true story of gangster Henry Hll, Scorcese’s Goodfellas tells the tale of the bravery and cowardice in the life of an aspiring criminal. Featuring unforgettable performances (“Do I amuse you?), innovative camera work (the uber-famous Steadicam shot), an awesome soundtrack, and gritty realism, Goodfellas is a thrill ride from the very first scene.

There are far too many great gangster flicks to put in one list. These are only five of the dozens of excellent films that every fan of the genre should see.


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