The best gangster movies of all time reveal a treasure trove of memorable characters, unforgettable plot lines, dialogues, and violent set-pieces that are all grounded in a reality that feels so far away but is often just below the surface. Hats and pinstripe suits, cities and firearms. The best time for the gangster movie genre is the one of Martin Scorsese, De Palma, and the 1980s, but it has been revived in a splatter version by the postmodern Tarantino and more realist directors and remains a genre enjoyed by audiences and critics alike. A very American genre but that has been flourishing also in other parts of the world, it is often intertwined with mob stories and true stories.
Cinema has a habit of making gangsters look cool. It seems the big screens just can’t get enough of the bad guys, and gathering the best gangster movies of all time have not been an easy feat. But it’s not just the romantic tough-talk, the bloody action and the glitzy allure of high-flying mobsters that gets us. The gangster genre shows us how criminal networks operate with their own fiercely moral codes, for the possibility people have to build up their legacy from the ground up and for always walking the fine line between the need to resort to violence and protect their codes of honor and family, in their quest to become rich, powerful and remembered. All the while juggling the needs of their real families with that of their other mob “family”.
As they main charismatic characters, especially the mafiosi that have gone from rags to riches, are often left to wonder, the Tony Soprano’s timeless question of if “ Is this all there is?” We’ve sifted through the centuries of Hollywood work to unearth the 28 best gangster movies of all time. Call it an offer you can’t refuse.
The best gangster movies of all time. In no particular order.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
Mixing eye-popping action with existential steez, Infernal Affairs has something more mystifying than any gangster movie before it. What makes it special is the inner turmoil caused by living a lie. If everyone you know and everything you do indicates you are one kind of person and you’re not that person, how d’you live with that? The simple concept of a police mole among the Triads and a Triad mole among the cops – each racing to uncover one another – is the hook for a complex network of suitably tense crosses that have us hugging ourselves with excitement each time we sit down to revisit Chan Wing-Yan and Lau Kin Ming.
The Godfather I-III (1972-1990)
Coppola’s trilogy constitutes one of the greatest in cinematic history and – through an ingenious fusion of European cinema and American exploitation movies – an outstanding study of family life and organised crime falls into place. The films don’t spoon-feed answers and motivations. In fact, Coppola took a pulpy, salacious novel and pretty much turned it into a bunch of guys sitting around in dark rooms, murmuring. But, every review praises the living hell out of The Godfather trilogy. You know why? Because it’s the perfect character-drama. Few films ever made have been able to get the audience up to speed on so many members in such a short period of time. Brando created one of the most iconic characters in the history of movies with a couple of cottonballs in his mouth and you can virtually see Al Pacino’s inner struggle and decision to finally and irrevocably cross the line.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
“I – say – God – DAMN!” Still one of the most quotable films today, Pulp Fiction managed to synthesize the serious brutality of gangster movies before it with the wacky violence of cartoons and the kind of directionless excitement that only Tarantino can conquer; all to the story of a burger-loving hit-man, his philosophical partner, a drug-addled gangster’s moll and a washed-up boxer. A huge part of what makes this movie so massively memorable is the riffing dialogue that seamlessly combines humor and terror in intelligent conversations. From the very first words uttered, you know you’re watching something special.
The allure of the mafia is what this visceral view of New York’s gangster scene is really all about. To Henry Hill – who’s based on the real-life crook of the same name – joining the mob is a valid career choice. We’re taken on a seductive tour of a restaurant meeting between “good fellas” and “wise guys” (yep, the screenplay is based on true-crime author Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy) and made to covet the bling of gangsterdom; cars, watches, women. But later, we share the hero’s tragic-but-not-undeserved downfall. He’s no anti-hero. He’s no victim. He’s a dirty criminal who descends into a fidgety, paranoid mess. Somewhere, though, the real Henry Hill is still laughing; he got the fame he always craved!
The Traitor (2019)
Through the narrative focused on mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta, the so-called “boss of the two worlds,” the first mafia informant in Sicily in the 1980s, the director recounts the very serious vices and unforgivable sins inherent in Italy, in the State system in general, beyond the confines of the case dealt with. So we have the historical narrative and the consequent register alternating with a more human and intimate look not only directed at the figure of Buscetta but in general at that of the man who retraces his steps and who, betraying on several levels and in several directions, metaphorically rises to the title of hero. Albeit with all the caution of the case in defining as such those who espoused crime and retraced their steps not because they were truly repentant but because they disagreed with the new identity assumed by the Cosa Nostra organization following the rise of the Corleoneses.
The film, which represents one of the highest examples of Italian cinema of the decade, is not devoid of violence, but it is not so much the violence of the shootings and executions that is shocking as the verbal violence of the trials and, most of all, the violence of omertà and denial that seeps out of the narrative.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Although the real Bonnie and Clyde lived during the ’30s, the 1960s flick just reinforces the fact that it’ll never be hard to relate to their story, because it builds upon the human desire to escape the tedium of life and enjoy being free. Everyone back in ‘67 was sticking it to authority and these two were certainly no different. As the criminal couple fall steadily in love with each other, they revolutionise the way sex, terror, and ferocious violence played out in world cinema. The movie depicts a kind of a glamourous vivacity that is still present in the gun battles of today’s gangster movies. And, for better or for worse, going out struck down by a mighty hail of bullets never looked so goddamn cool.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Ritchie took the cheeky, cockney charm of Alfie and propelled it into the ’90s with some distinct nods to Tarantino, some flashy camera effects, and a contrived plot in which a group of East End Londoners spend a frantic couple of days trying to raise half a million to pay a gambling debt (it doesn’t make for an easy heist). Whatever else, Lock, Stock is full of swag and helluva fun; the movie comes alive every time the rock-heavy soundtrack rears its head; the narration peppers its audience with sarcastic shotgun pellets; the guys sip drinks with umbrellas in them. Things turn to absolute chaos by the movie’s final hour and – thanks to the sadistic drug barons, pot-growers and porn kings – it never runs out of steam.
American Gangster (1998)
American Gangster is not only about the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, a black man from Harlem, who succeeds in the space of five years to become the heroin king in New York, peddling the purest stuff of this, heroin as the supreme commodity, but also about morality, corruption, money, and above all it is a splendid insight into two American lives, distant, different, yet in constant attraction.
On the other Frank Lucas, he manages to keep his family together and involved in his own affairs, and above all he is someone who never shows off, who keeps to himself (and who on the one time he wears something more conspicuous gets screwed), someone who is tied to Harlem, where he has lived since he was a kid and who helps by giving away turkeys on Thanksgiving and at the same time destroys by dealing heroin on every street corner.
Ridley Scott recounts a piece of the American underworld of the early 1970s with a sweeping narrative, autonomous, in large part, from all previous cinema that has immersed itself in this world, to reconstruct it or represent it faithfully (Scorsese, Coppola, Friedkin, Ferrara), choosing a direction that is balanced in form and staging, classic in never being intrusive in its storytelling, with livid and cold images, thanks also to a cinematography capable of capturing the frost and lights of New York’s winter streets.
The Departed (2006)
Another masterpiece in this list of best gangster movies of all time is Scorsese’s Boston-based undercover crime thriller. It is actually a remake of Infernal Affairs and, as such, the premise should sound pretty familiar: A police officer is actually a mole sent in by a gang to find out what the cops have on them while a police office is infiltrating the same gang; a mental chess match occurs. The Departed wins its own place on this list though – not least because it marks Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio’s best performances to date. Whichever way you look at it, the movie is an absolutely brilliant Americanization of a great Chinese film. While Infernal Affairs does cool, elegant symmetry between the two protagonists flawlessly, Scorsese’s version (feeling a lot like the stuff of his golden years) dots the i’s, crosses the t’s, and puts Dropkick Murphys on the soundtrack.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
A master mind behind some of the best gangster movies of all time, Tarantino has long wanted us to know about his capacity for dreaming up controversial dialogue and savage violence. He’s an auteur known for kitsch and gore; Reservoir Dogs is no different in that respect. In fact, the film’s unsettlingly tragic ending gives us a sense of Tarantino as a master of excess. Yet, with the portrait he paints of the ill-fated friendship between Mr. White and Mr. Orange and how he shows the bad guys wiling away the boring hours between jobs, the movie is also a window into the everyday (and sometimes quite mundane) life of individuals. It’s unexpectedly moving.
Gomorrah has become a benchmark for contemporary Italian cinema. In addition to establishing Garrone as one of the most important Italian directors of the moment, it has also been a model for gangster films about organized crime. Garrone’s film offers an “anthropological” look at Scampia (notorious mafia neighborhood from Naples) and the Camorra-led System, with an extremely realism that empties the depiction of criminality of any epic we have gown accustomed to see in the usual Hollywood blockbusters.
The realism of the staging is also given by the use of real settings, as well as the use of dialect and lines often improvised on set by the actors and offers a homogeneous cross-section of a society corrupted by organized crime.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
While Sergio Leone will perhaps be best remembered for his work in the Western genre – having been the architect of screen gems like A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, he trained his sensibilities on the mob genre in 1984.
For most, this was surprising since the auteur had actually turned down The Godfather when it was offered to him. However, when he became enthralled with the life of Herschel Goldberg, he knew he had to explore the depths of the character.
The result is a film rife with drama thanks to a memorable performance by Robert De Niro as Noodles – who was forced to reconcile with the guilt that had plagued him for most of his life – and illustrated prominently through the use of dreams, hallucinations and flashbacks.
When the ‘83 remake movie arrived in theaters, it was seen by many as shallow – at least in comparison to Howard Hawks’ original Scarface of 1932. Apart from the new Scarface being endlessly quotable, however, it also documented the vicious side of the American underworld in a way never done quite so tastelessly. There’s nothing understated about the Al Pacino-starring flick following the rise and fall of Tony Montana and telling a satirical tale of greed. Set to the backdrop of drugs and chainsaws, the celebration of materialism is garish and glaring, with the final scene descending into a huge orgy of violence. Whatever people thought of the movie back then, it became a phenomenon. It’s 100% over-the-top and that’s exactly what makes it awesome.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Who IS Keyser Söze? One of the most inventive gangster movies of all time, The Usual Suspects absolutely nailed it with its macabre, serpentine journey into the dark corners of the criminal mind. A bent cop, a comic burglary double act, and a “cripple” are among the not-very-usual suspects being blamed for a massacre on the shipping docks of LA. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s got a whopper of a surprise ending. One so good, in fact, that it makes you want to rewatch the movie almost immediately and catch Singer out on parts of the story that don’t fit. Unfortunately, as far as twists go, this one is seamless.
A Bronx Tale (1993)
A Bronx Tale blends traditional gangster film tropes with a rock-solid coming-of-age backbone which speaks not only to the growing pains of getting older, but also issues relating to love, race, duty, and heroic influences.
For as wonderful of a film as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was, A Bronx Tale is a shining example of how the film could have possibly played out if the director had decided to focus the entire film on Henry Hill’s youth.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Before Johnny Depp became the master of over-accessorizing and got somewhat lost among his own neckerchiefs, he was doing cool things like gangster movies. Enter: Donnie Brasco. Depp’s turn as Joseph Pistone is a clever move. As an FBI agent, he’s granted access into the mob family of Lefty (Al Pacino, nonetheless) and as the two get closer, their loyalties blur. As Donnie, Depp is so effortlessly convincing that when he amps up the “tough guy,” it’s easy to forget he was once the small-town, softly-spoken Gilbert Grape and is now draped heartily in silk.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
A character-driven gangster movie that delivers a disturbing coming-of-age story (that’s the uncut version, y’all) with the stylish action and thrills any cinephile has come to expect from a Luc Besson movie. Jean Reno plays a loner hitman whose only pleasure in life is the odd glass of milk and a trip to the pictures. When almost all of the family next door are gunned down by crooked cops, he takes Natalie Portman under his wing and sets about taking out Gary Oldman and co. Nobody – NOBODY! – can do evil like Gary Oldman and his mad contortions.
Although the pairing of director Brian De Palma and Al Pacino will probably be best remembered for their work on Scarface, there’s no denying that their reunion a decade later is a certifiable classic of the gangster movie genre. In Carlito’s Way, De Palma opts to tell the story of Carlito Brigante non-sequentially – showcasing his demise before we ever see the tireless work he puts into crafting his empire.
What makes this plot device so satisfying is that the best mafia movies don’t rely on smoke and mirrors. Rather, it’s the inevitability and sense of dread that comes along with living a certain lifestyle. As the audience, we get to feel that sense of unease for the film’s entire running time.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
The concept of Ghost Dog is wonderful: a hitman played by Forest Whitaker follows the code of the samurai. But the film is so much more than that. It’s a reflection on race, death, and the mythical… a “spiritual gangster movie,” if you will. Jarmusch manages to transform the samurai into some kind of phantom that only Wu-Tang’s RZA can see. It’s one weird, genre-bending flick that only gets away with its own far-out style because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. A massively seductive movie.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Elia Kazan’s gripping study of mob culture and corruption along the docks in New York is that rare cinematic jewel that is – in equal parts – romantic and climactic. The role of gutsy whistleblower Terry was first offered to Frank Sinatra, but it was Marlon Brando’s beefcake that won the role. Luckily, too, because On the Waterfront changed the face of gangster movies with its emphasis on naturalistic acting. Brando managed to convey a melancholy that few other actors have ever matched, in telling his audience that he “really coulda been somebody…” Arguably Brando’s best role.
True Romance (1994)
Given that the screenplay comes from Tarantino, it’s hardly surprising that True Romance exudes the kind of casual concern we’re used to seeing in his other flicks. Christian Slater is somewhat of a genius for creating cooler-than-thou weirdos – especially ones who get the girl – and in True Romance he manages to pick up the gorgeous Alabama (Patricia Arquette) just by being a comic-book nerd. Alabama’s pretty great, too. As things start to unravel in typical Tarantino style – loaded guns, stolen drugs, and lots of bloodshed – she’s the four-day hooker who’s sugary innocence keeps everything together right up until the end.
The Killing (1956)
If you haven’t yet seen Kubrick’s The Killing, then you’ll want to remedy that as soon as possible. It’s a little noir film that Tarantino borrowed heavily from for Reservoir Dogs and probably the best “just one last job before we retire” gangster movie ever made. Kubrick’s third feature film (which he made at just 27-years-old) follows a career criminal who assembles a mob for a racetrack heist that’s going to get him enough cash to be able to marry his woman. Don’t these gangsters ever learn? As predicted, the plan is foiled and everything goes to sh*t. But – as one of Kubrick’s most perfect films – it’s sure as hell fun to watch.
Criminally good, Casino is nothing less than a Scorsese masterpiece, based on the true story of the violent life and death of Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, the mob’s chief enforcer during the early 1970s. For those interested in the development of the American mafia, Casino is a fantastic translation of the gaudy haven for high rollers of that time and brings the dusty pages of Las Vegas history to life. It’s glitzy, glam, and seedy, with the best psychotic sidekick in movie history; Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro.
Featuring one of the greatest casts in the history of gangster movies- including Brian De Palma, David Mamet, Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and the late great Ennio Morricone – The Untouchables dips its feet into true events which chronicled the vice grip hold that Al Capone had on the city of Chicago and the subsequent response from Bureau of Prohibition agent, Eliot Ness.
Whereas even the most casual fan of mob movies is aware of Al Capone’s exploits, they may be surprised to learn that one of the most brutal scenes in the entire film – where Capone unsuspectingly lures turncoat associates to dinner and beats them all to death with a baseball bat – was rooted in truth.
The violence depicted was relatively bold for audiences in the late 1980s. Specifically, there’s a shot that depicts brain matter being splattered against a white, marble wall. At the time, this sense of authenticity was quite jarring for moviegoers who only associated a gunshot wound with the faux-grabbing of one’s torso.
City of God (2002)
The exhilarating and insanely violent portrait of young lives gone wrong in the shanty towns of suburban Rio is an exciting insight into the resurgence of Latin American cinema. Director Meirelles does some pretty innovative things with the camera, despite guiding a cast of unknown actors who were chosen from the slums of the city and had never before acted. Selected for their charisma, the boys were trained in improvisation for six months – and it shows. The coming-of-age gang-warfare picture is as impressive as they come.
Jackie Brown (1997)
We all wondered where Tarantino would dare to tread after Pulp Fiction; he chose a surprisingly safe option by telling the story of Jackie Brown, based on a book called “Rum Punch.” It’s a solid movie (although not in the same league as Tarantino’s preceding movies), but what makes it special is the major league cast. Pam Grier reestablished her career with her amazing performance which echoes her previous blaxsploitation flicks like Foxy Brown. But, unsurprisingly, it’s Samuel L. Jackson as wild antagonist Robbie who really steals the show.
The Irishman (2019)
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was a decisive film for many fans of the gangster genre. For some, it was a reassembling of a murder’s row of talent — featuring De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino — inevitably working with each other for the final time For others, they felt it was too long, and were off-put by the de-aging technology.
At its core, the film is more so about loyalty, as it is about violence. The push and pull between Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa was simply electric to witness.
Mean Streets (1973)
One of the most effective underlying subplots in any of the best mafia movies is the direct competition between one’s real family/friends and the mafia brotherhood. In Mean Streets, Harvey Keitel’s character, Charlie, is torn between his ambition to rise up the ranks, and his brother-like bond with Robert De Niro’s, Johnny Boy, who is like bacon grease slathered on each rung of a ladder.
In film, we tend to latch onto the people and events that have grandiose qualities. Brian De Palma’s Scarface comes to mind. Mean Streets is the antithesis. It’s one of the rare mafia movies about those who get stepped on.