Johnny Depp throws his cutlass to the wind this week and turns gangster. Not that it’s the first time: he was John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” (2009) and this time round, he’s another real-life hoodlum, Whitey Bulger, in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass”.
As a genre, gangster movies are a cinema mainstay, one with built-in longevity that goes back as far as the silent era. The first ‘all talking picture’ was gangster blockbuster “Lights Of New York” in 1928, but it was in 30s Hollywood that the gun-toting, Homburg wearing anti-heroes really came into their own on the big screen. “The Public Enemy”, “Scarface”, “Little Caesar” and “The Roaring Twenties” established the careers of the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson. Closer to home, the British film industry developed its own, even grittier version and a cult following to go with it. Think “Get Carter”, “Sexy Beast” and the recent spate of films about the Kray twins.
Here’s just five gangster flicks, each showing a particular facet of the genre. They’re also in alphabetic order. Who could choose between them?
Brighton Rock (1947)
So good they made it twice. But, like the proverbial cornflakes, the original is the best. Graham Greene adapted his own novel of the same name (with help from no less than Terence Rattigan), bringing to life one of the nastiest gangsters ever to grace the big screen.
Director John Boulting’s choice to play small-town hoodlum, Pinkie Brown, was a stroke of genius. Richard Attenborough’s cherubic face was marred by a scar down one cheek – and a streak of psychotic evil a mile wide. He marries naive waitress Rose (Carol Marsh) because she could implicate him in the murder he set up. The moment when he records a message for her on Brighton Pier will make your blood run cold.
The most famous of British gangster movies stands repeated viewings.
The Departed (2006)
Martin Scorsese eventually won that long-overdue Best Director Oscar, alongside one for Best Picture, for this one. Whether it actually is his best film is another matter, but there’s no denying this portrait of Boston’s Irish gangland is a powerful watch. With an A list cast including Scorsese regular, Leo Di Caprio, plus Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, this story of an undercover cop and a mole in the police who infiltrate the same gang, simply grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you along at breakneck speed for two hours.
This big, brash, bloody, spectacularly foul mouthed re-working of the 2002 Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs” may be more violent than the original, but it stands up quite happily on its own. And The Stones’ Gimme Shelter has never sounded better.
The Godfather (1972)
The word ‘masterpiece’ is used too liberally but this is one instance where it genuinely applies. Acres of print and hours of air time have already been devoted to the sprawling saga of a mob family that often tops ‘greatest movie of all time’ polls, or comes very close. Yet it was a film that risked both not being made and being a huge flop. Marlon Brando was box office poison when he was cast as Vito Corleone. Real life organised crime bosses were less than keen on it being made, exerting pressure on the producers and, reputedly, securing, changes to the script.
Yet Brando’s performance as the aging patriarch resurrected his career and the film was a massive hit at the box office, grossing more than 20 times its original budget. More importantly, with its rounded characters, period detail and occasional shock tactics, it held audiences in a vice like grip, one that hasn’t lessened over the years. Nor have those mixed feelings about sympathising with people who build their lives on crime and corruption.
The Untouchables (1987)
Let’s go classic. Think gangsters and you think Al Capone and 1930s Chicago. Which is exactly what you get in Brian De Palma’s supremely stylish version of the downfall of the city’s most powerful mobster at the hands of Treasury man, Eliot Ness. With its Armani suits, haunting Ennio Morricone score and cracking cast, headed by Kevin Costner, it was a straight fight between good and evil, but with the good guys employing some of the bootleggers’ tactics.
It’s full of pitch-perfect scenes: the demise of Federal Agent Oscar (Charles Martin Smith) in the lift, the lurking presence of the white-suited henchman Frank Nitti (Billy Drago with a smile like a shark), Ness and Malone (Sean Connery) recruiting new agents ….. the list goes on. If it has a weakness, it’s Robert De Niro’s Capone. Not that it’s a bad piece of acting, but it looked and sounded like a straight lift of Rod Steiger’s performance in “Al Capone” (1959).
White Heat (1949)
If there was ever an actor associated with gangster movies, it was James Cagney. This was the last major gangster film from Hollywood’s quintessential tough-guy, who’d built his reputation play hoodlums yet was just at home as a song and dance man or playing light comedy.
Cagney was never better as Cody Jarrett, a sadistic psychopath with a mother fixation, a more complex proposition than on-screen gangsters from the previous decade. This makes the film just as much of a psychological study as a gangster movie and it succeeds on both levels. More importantly, it’s one with a long-reaching influence, reflected decades later in modern gangster flicks like Al Pacino’s “Scarface” (1983) and Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). To use Cagney’s words in the film’s explosive climax “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
Black Mass is released in cinemas on Wednesday 25th November.
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