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D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley is generally recognized as the first gangster movie. Released in 1912 by the Biograph Company, The Musketeers of Pig Alley starred Elmer Booth and Lillian Gish in a sordid mobster tale set on the mean streets of New York City.
Since 1912, a plethora of gangster films have blasted their way into the international cinema. Here are ten classic gangster pictures that won’t disappoint fans of this tough, blood-splattered genre.
The Godfather (Paramount, 1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is duly recognized as the big boss in the field. Based on the best-selling novel by Mario Puzo, this classic gangster picture stars Marlon Brando (Don Corleone), Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), James Caan (Sonny Corleone) and Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen) in a sprawling story chronicling the bloody exploits of the fictional Corleone crime family.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, The Godfather delivers the family jewels. Memorable scenes abound: Michael Corleone’s murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey at an Italian restaurant, Sonny Corleone’s bullet-riddled demise at a toll station, and movie director John Woltz’s horrific bedside encounter with the severed head of his prized racehorse.
- Oscar wins: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), Best Writing/Screenplay (Puzo, Coppola)
- First-run box office gross: $86.691 million (#1, 1972)
- DVD: The Godfather – The Coppola Restoration Giftset (Paramount, 2008)
The Public Enemy (Warner Bros., 1931)
The incomparable James Cagney plays Tom Powers, an ambitious Irish mobster who rises to the top of the Chicago underworld during Prohibition days. Jean Harlow (Gwen Allen), Edward Woods (Matt Doyle) and Joan Blondell (Mamie) also appear in this violent gangster tale expertly directed by William Wellman.
Watch Cagney enter a warehouse packing two pistols. Screams are heard and Cagney is wounded. Emerging from the gunfight, Jimmy mutters, ”I ain’t so tough,” and collapses into a rain-soaked gutter.
- Oscar nomination: Best Writing/Original Story (John Bright, Kubec Glasmon)
- DVD: The Public Enemy (Warner, 2005)
Little Caesar (First National Pictures, 1931)
Edward G. Robinson has the title role in this mobster melodrama directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Robinson plays the power-hungry Caesar Enrico Bandello, a cheap, violent little hood who claws his way to the top of the syndicate. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Joe Massara), Glenda Farrell (Olga Stassoff), William Collier Jr. (Tony Passa), Sidney Blackmer (Big Boy) and Ralph Ince (Pete Montana) lend able support to Robinson’s dominating performance.
The famed Thompson submachine gun — aka the “Chicago violin” — is put to spectacular use. Equally scintillating is the movie’s gangster dialogue: “This is Rico speaking…Little Caesar, that’s who! Listen you crummy, flat-footed copper, I’ll show you whether I’ve lost my nerve and my brains!”
- Oscar nomination: Best Writing/Adaptation (Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee)
- DVD: Little Caesar (Warner, 2005)
Scarface (Universal, 1983)
Al Pacino portrays Cuban-American gangster Tony Montana in director Brian De Palma’s legendary bloodbath set in 1980s drug-infested Miami. Also on board are Steven Bauer (Manny Ribera), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elvira Hancock), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina Montana) and Robert Loggia (Frank Lopez).
There’s plenty of gunplay, along with the “f word” (uttered 226 times), to satisfy the most hardcore of gangster film fans. The blazing screenplay was rendered by Oliver Stone, who was battling a cocaine habit at the time.
- First-run box office gross: $23.333 million (#16, 1983)
- DVD: Scarface – Full Screen Anniversary Edition (Universal, 2003)
White Heat (Warner Bros., 1949)
James Cagney plays Arthur “Cody” Jarrett, a real mama’s boy whose criminal enterprise holds up trains, robs factory payrolls and shoots it out with coppers and rival gangsters alike. Abetting Cagney are Virgina Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Edmond O’Brien (Hank Fallon), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett) and Ed Cochran (Big Ed Somers), with Raoul Walsh behind the camera.
Watch the mad Cagney scale a massive storage tank and scream: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” And, boy, he ain’t kidding.
- Oscar nomination: Best Writing/Story (Virginia Kellogg)
- DVD: White Heat (Warner, 2005)
The Godfather: Part II (Paramount, 1974)
The powerful sequel to 1972’s The Godfather stars Al Pacino as Don Michael Corleone, the new head of the Corleone crime family. Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Corleone) and John Cazale (Fredo Corleone) are back from the original, with Robert De Niro playing a young Don Corleone in flashbacks.
One memorable scene: Michael and brother Fredo flee Cuba amidst the bloody 1958 revolution. Yet another, in which Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth declares: “Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.”
- Oscar wins: Best Picture, Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Music, Best Writing.
- First-run box office gross: $30.673 million (#6, 1974)
- DVD: The Godfather Part II – The Coppola Restoration (Paramount, 2008)
The Untouchables (Paramount, 1987)
Kevin Costner plays T-man Eliot Ness and Robert De Niro swaggers as Al “Scarface” Capone in this highly fictionalized story of the fabled crime busters in Prohibition-era Chicago. Also along for the bloody ride are Sean Connery (Jim Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Oscar Wallace) and Andy Garcia (George Stone), with Brian De Palma at the helm.
“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” Jim Malone tells young Eliot Ness.
- Oscar wins: Best Supporting Actor (Connery)
- First-run box office gross: $36.867 million (#5, 1987)
- DVD: The Untouchables Special Collector’s Edition (Paramount, 2004)
Al Capone (Allied Artists, 1959)
Rod Steiger has the title role, with Fay Spain (Maureen Flannery) James Gregory (Schaefler), Martin Balsam (Mac Kelly) and Nehemiah Persoff (Johnny Torrio) in support. Directed by Richard Wilson, this Hollywood biopic chronicles Big Al’s rise and fall, from undisputed king of the underworld to lowly inmate on Alcatraz Island.
- VHS: Al Capone (20th Century Fox, 1993)
The Roaring Twenties (Warner Bros., 1939)
James Cagney (Eddie Bartlett) and Humphrey Bogart (George Hally) enter the rackets following service in World War I. Priscilla Lane (Jean Sherman), Gladys George (Panama Smith) and Jeffrey Lynn (Lloyd Hart) also appear.
Director Raoul Walsh delivers plenty of action in the form of gangland bombings and mobster rivalries. “Here’s one rap you ain’t gonna beat!” Eddie declares, filling partner George Hally with lead.
- DVD: The Roaring Twenties (Warner, 2005)
Black Caesar (American International, 1973)
Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars as Tommy Gibbs, who works his way up to become the Godfather of Harlem. Gloria Hendry (Helen), Art Lund (McKinney) and D’Urville Martin (Reverend Rufus) are in support, with Larry Cohen in the director’s chair.
This crazy, jive-talking blaxploitation film is right out of the groovy 1970s. A side note: Sammy Davis Jr. was first offered the starring role.
DVD: Black Caesar (Warner, 2001)
Rat-a-tat-tat, fellow gangster movie fans…