These days movie gangsters only seem to come out of The Sopranos or Goodfellas mould. Most of the time we’re limited realistic wise guys who are both charming and frightening.
That’s all well and good — some of the best movies ever made have sprung from this style — but whatever happened to the romantic gangsters of old?
The classic ’30s mobsters who spat out tongue twisting one-liners as fast as the bullets that came out of their Tommy guns; the guys who dressed in sharp suits, lived in the finest hotels, and went out with high-class dangerous ladies who could only be described as “dames.”
With the release of Michael Mann’s highly anticipated Public Enemies next week, it’s time to look back at the best of the old school gangster flicks. From the original black and white classics that created the genre to the stylized modern mobsters movies that contemporary directors have made in honor of the past.
• Scarface (1931) Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Howard Hawks, this nasty little movie was so shocking at the time that it was one of the primary causes of the start of film censorship. Al Pacino’s instantly iconic performance in the 1983 remake may have eclipsed this Scarface in terms of brand name recognition, but original still holds up quite well.
• Little Caesar (1931) This film might not be as polished as the other founding mobster movies, but it wins points for having the most memorable gangster of the era, seeeee. Edward G. Robinson’s unforgettable nasal voiced crime lord was the go-to mobster voice in countless cartoons and parodies until Marlon Brando created The Godfather.
• The Public Enemy (1931) You simply can’t have a list of classic gangster movies without at least one entry featuring James Cagney. His “top of the world ma” speech in White Heat might be one his most memorable onscreen moment, and The Public Enemy is his best movie by a mile. The rags-to-riches crime film was considered so shocking at the time that a warning was attached to the opening and re-releases had to be edited for content.
• The Untouchables (1987) Brian DePalma brought back smart suited gangsters with style in this ’80s blockbuster. Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone made organized crime look more decadent that anyone else thanks to a massive costume budget. Just don’t get in his way when he’s clutching a bat and spitting out an eloquent David Mamet monologue about baseball. That’ll get you into trouble.
• Millers Crossing (1990) The Coen Brothers brought black Tommy gun gangsters with their trademark style and self-conscious wit in this modern masterpiece. With character names like “the Dane” and loopy lines like “take your flunky and dangle,” the Coen’s classic seemed like the ultimate ’30s gangster revival. Well, at least until Michael Mann headed to Chicago with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.