Gangster paradise


Johnny Depp might be impressing some critics with his version of John Dillinger, but ‘Public Enemies’ is in the ha’penny place when it comes to great gangster flicks. Here are 10 films to tempt your trigger finger on the remote

1 The Public Enemy (1931)You can watch this with nostalgia – oh, look, there’s James Cagney ramming the grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, there he is shot to pieces in the rain-washed gutter, and here he is wrapped up like a mummy, delivered to his mother’s door, dead as a nail. So what is a gangster? He’s a young hoodlum who makes it big and then he’s erased. The film closes on a stern warning message about how society must rid itself of these monsters! You can hear Cagney’s sneer: “Are you kidding?” The deepest appeal of this 74-minute study in insolence is that Cagney is cock of the walk. He gets clothes, cars, dames, wads of money. And don’t forget Cagney was going to play the nicer sidekick, with Edward Woods as the gang leader. Director William Wellman switched parts – he saw the insight: we love this guy we fear.

2 Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)The gangster film flourished in the early 1930s, but it provoked civic indignation as well as the feeling that movies might be bad for young people. So Cagney flipped over and played cops, detective and heroes – or he took on the weird moral earnestness of Angels With Dirty Faces. That title tells the story: our bad kids are angels who went wrong – they got no education, they fell into dangerous company and they believed in shortcuts for getting rich. In Angels(directed by Michael Curtiz), once upon a time, there were two boys – pals on the streets – and they grew up to be Cagney (Rocky Sullivan, famous gangster) and Pat O’Brien (a sentimental priest). What troubles O’Brien is the way local kids worship Rocky, so he persuades Rocky to turn coward on his way to the Death Cell to shock them. Rocky screams and writhes (for Cagney it was all dancing), and the kids get the message: don’t be a gangster, try show business!

3 Force of Evil (1948)In wartime, there was an agreement among Hollywood studios to give up gangster pictures. So the best gangs of the era were in The Adventures of Robin Hoodand every platoon movie. Then, after 1945, film noir came in with a shadowy flourish. Usually, it dealt with lone or lonely criminals. But Force of Evil, written and directed by Abraham Polonsky, is noir squeezing past the blacklist, an authentic Marxist reading of money in the city. John Garfield is the mob lawyer in a July 4th scam to break the small banks and loan houses. Maybe the meaning still holds – crime got organised trying to control the money show. The social commentary is biting because these gangsters are odious parasites. They melt your money away – now try to see gangsters in a glamorous light. Written in blank verse so the hard-boiled dialogue feels like acid, Force of Evilmeans what the title says. Every fan of gangsters should have to see it.

4 White Heat (1949)Jimmy Cagney had quit Warner Brothers in 1942, with ill feeling on both sides. Seven years later, the actor and the studio each needed a hit, and someone thought of reviving the “old-time” gangster flick. Raoul Walsh directed and stressed the psychological insights in the script. Cody Jarrett (Cagney’s role) is a new character, a psychopath with “headaches” and a mother to look after him played by Margaret Wycherly: there wouldn’t be a better killer mother until Psycho. Jarrett is truly frightening – when Ma dies, he goes berserk – and the equation of violence and madness is emphatically clear. But Cody is surrounded by treachery: his wife (Virginia Mayo) and his sidekicks, not to mention Vic Pardoe (Edmond O’Brien), the police plant sent to betray him. With that material, Cagney builds a weird tragedy, and there is no more apocalyptic ending than when he and his world blow up to his triumphant cry, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

5 Kiss Me Deadly (1955)Delinquency in the 1950s was often teenage territory – think of Rebel Without a Cause. But Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadlyis grown-up and very sick. On the surface, it’s a story about Mickey Spillane’s pulp hero, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), who picks up a girl one night on the Pacific coast highway and gets into a heap of trouble. But the case that develops is a confrontation with a crime organisation that has its hands on the ultimate deterrent: a box that holds nothing less than nuclear heat.

The gangsters Hammer meets along the way are weird and effete (Jack Elam, Paul Stewart, Albert Dekker). But Hammer himself makes up for their defects and lives up to his name. He’s a private eye, a smug womaniser and a fascist who walks like Mussolini on his day off. The women are all mad in some way. Los Angeles is a hell on Earth, and gangsters have taken over the whole operation. Still a shattering film.

6 Bonnie and Clyde (1967)David Newman and Robert Benton wanted to write a script for François Truffaut. Benton, a Texan, recalled Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, a couple of hicks who held up country banks and were shot to pieces in 1934. Cinematic magic struck and suddenly they were ravishing beauties, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The 1930s clothes were as accurate as the guns and the cars, but the picture caught the mood of the late 1960s, with kids angry at society. Plus, with Arthur Penn directing, this became a very sexy film about two kids who were on an illegal rampage in search of a great orgasm. This was a passion beyond reason, where the audiences learned to laugh at murder. The law-and-order characters in the film were mean, reactionary cheats. A young generation agreed with Clyde – “You told my story!”

7 The Godfather (1972)It’s the gold standard, the family jewels and the pasta special on the gangster menu. Film-makers had avoided the Mafia connection and Paramount was very nervous about adapting Mario Puzo’s trashy novel. The casting was a battlefield (it might have been Sinatra or Mitchum instead of Brando). But the young director, Francis Ford Coppola, clung to what he knew – the Italian family in America – and the essential story arc whereby the clean kid, Michael, will be drawn into the family business and reveal himself as the most natural of the new gangsters – quiet, well-dressed, self-disciplined and deadly. What no one foresaw was the way the audience longed to be part of the Corleone family – no violence, no outrage offended. It won best picture at the Oscars and made a fortune. And The Godfather Part IIis even more frightening and far-reaching. Are the films pro-gangster? Are they the greatest modern American films? Are we all Mafia now?

8 The Brink’s Job (1978)Time and again, the facts prove it: criminals and gangsters are uneducated, brutish and stupid. Actors generally don’t like playing “stupid”, so movie gangsters often flatter the real breed. But in January 1950, in Boston, Massachusetts, the big job occurred. A gang of stiffs and cretins broke into the offices of the security firm, Brink’s, and went away with about $2.7 million in cash and securities. The movie, written by Walon Green and directed by William Friedkin, recreated the shabby look of Boston and the idiocy of the gang with loving care. We see the preparations, the sweet caper itself, the rapture of so much money, and the gradual disintegration of loyalties and pacts. It’s a triumph for supporting actors – Peter Falk, Peter Boyle, Paul Sorvino, Warren Oates, Allen Garfield, Kevin O’Connor. In the end, everyone is dead or in prison. So who says crime pays? True-life footnote: in the exhaustive operations to find the loot, $58,000 was recovered.

9 Scarface (1983)Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932), in which Paul Muni played a version of Al Capone, is a deserved classic, but the 1983 remake, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian de Palma, is even better. For a start, shifting the action to Miami and making Tony Montana an outlaw from Castro’s Cuba is very clever, and it allows Al Pacino to play with a Cuban accent the way a cat teases a dying bird. It was as if all the restraints Pacino had respected to play Michael Corleone were tossed aside. Beyond that, this Scarfaceis a modern opera (with music by Giorgio Moroder) that builds from the first bloody job on Miami Beach to the assault on Tony’s cocaine palace by Colombian thugs. Along the way, we get deliciously sleazy performances from F Murray Abraham, Harris Yulin and Robert Loggia as low-lifes for whom Tony finds appropriate executions. Then there is the young Michelle Pfeiffer as the bad-tempered prize Tony craves, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the sister he can share with no one.

10 Goodfellas (1990)If The Godfathergave the impression of Mafia life being sedate, clubby and aristocratic, Goodfellasstruck a blow for the rowdy, sordid lives of made men and their families. It’s a Martin Scorsese film, adapted by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi from the latter’s book, Wiseguy. The result is very funny, but shapeless: we follow the life of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as he rises in the family business and gradually succumbs to cocaine and tasteless decor. Scorsese loves the camaraderie of the guys, who seem to live just as well inside prison as on the outside. The attempt to keep an ironic stance fades away as the camera enlists us in such things as the back-door entrance to the nightclub and the casual execution of a loudmouth rival (played by Frank Vincent). The paranoia builds, and the fabulous soundtrack – it’s like a self-operating jukebox – never flags. Paul Sorvino and Robert De Niro are two of the guys. Lorraine Bracco is the stupid wife. But Joe Pesci steals the film as maybe the most unpredictable and dangerous gangster ever put on screen.