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The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies
Featuring the 100 Greatest Gangster Films of All Time
By Glen Macnow
Foreword by Joe Pistone
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The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies provides extensive reviews of the Top 100 gangster films of all time, including sidebars like “Reality Check,” “Hit and Miss,” “I Know That Guy,” “Body Count,” and other fun and informative features. Also included are over a dozen stand-alone chapters such as Sleeper “Hits,” “Fugazi” Flops, Guilty Pleasures, Lost Treasures, Q&A Interviews with top actors and directors (including Chazz Palinteri, Michael Madsen, Joe Mantagna, and more), plus over 50 compelling photographs.
Foreword by Joe Pistone, the FBI agent and mob infiltrator who wrote the bestselling book and acclaimed movie, Donnie Brasco.
Everyone loves gangster movies. From the colorful characters and intense situations to the complicated plotlines and ultra violence—moviegoers can’t get enough of the genre.
And it is true that gangster movies are the Westerns of this generation. White Hats vs. Black Hats; Law Enforcement vs. Made Men. It all comes down to the same basic theme of Good vs. Evil. And that battle has been a staple of storytelling for as long as people have told stories.
One of the greatest elements of gangster movies is the lineup of usual suspects that get fleshed out in unique ways in each new film. The power-hungry boss. The stone-cold killer. The industrious soldier. The beautiful moll. The lackeys and wannabes. The men in uniform. The undercovers. The innocent bystanders. Most of these types play a critical part in the making of just about every gangster movie.
Another common ingredient is the situational tension that drives gangster films—whether it’s a robbery gone bad, a deadly shootout, a tense undercover operation, a shadowy sit-down, a sudden double-cross, or a bloody hit.
People especially like gangster movies that are based on real-life stories. Of course there is Donnie Brasco—the film based on my experiences as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the New York City Mafia in the 1970s and 80s. A few other celebrated gangster movies based on real people and events are GoodFellas, Casino, and The Departed (which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2006). GoodFellas follows the rise of small-time wannabe Henry Hill; Casino documents the mob’s overtaking of Las Vegas in the 70s and 80s; and in The Departed, Jack Nicholson plays a character based on over-the-top Irish gangster Whitey Bulger, who ran the Irish mob in Boston for years. These four films (and there are others) get the gangster life right—portraying the reality of violence, murder, envy and jealousy that members of the life deal with every day. Great gangster movies capture these things with fearless detail.
Of course the all-time gangster movie is The Godfather, followed closely by The Godfather: Part II. Another great gangster movie of note is Mean Streets—starring young actors Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, and directed by a young Martin Scorsese—which portrays the life of low-level gangsters and their struggle to make a name for themselves in the life. This is a great film to watch if you want to see a bunch of young guys creating their first film in the genre for which they’d all become famous.
Funny things happen on a movie set. While shooting the movie Donnie Brasco, a wiseguy I knew when I was undercover in the life showed up on the set. I confronted him as to why he was there. He told me he was not there on mob business, but because his son wanted to be an actor and he wanted to ask if I would give him a part in the movie. I spoke with the kid and could tell he really wanted to be an actor—so I put him in a couple of scenes. Every day the kid worked, the father showed up with Cuban cigars; we sat, smoked and talked about the old days in the life. If I had seen the same guy back in the day, the scene would have played out a lot differently—and if it was anything like in the movies, one of us might have ended up dead.
The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies?
—Joseph Pistone (a.k.a. Donnie Brasco)
Walk into any bar where guys hang out and it’s a good bet they are discussing one of three topics: sports, women or movies. It’s also a good bet that most of those guys can speak with knowledge and intelligence about two of those topics.
This is a book about one of them—movies. More specifically, gangster movies.
Here’s a little test. Ask any guy you know between the ages of 21 and 65 to complete the following movie quotes:
“Leave the gun, take ___.”
“Say hello to my ___.”
“Now youse can’t ___.”
“I coulda had class. I coulda ___.”
These lines are part of the American lexicon, part of pop culture, part of every guy’s experience interacting with other guys.
Indeed, gangster movies have influenced the culture since Hollywood first turned on the lights. Six decades before Joe Pesci’s unhinged bantam tough guy terrorized the world in GoodFellas, Edward G. Robinson did exactly the same in Little Caesar.
The bad guy is always mesmerizing. We all want to believe we’re rebels underneath our law-abiding skins. And so when we sit in a dark theater rooting for the gangster, we get the vicarious thrill of striking out at authority without, well, actually breaking the rules ourselves.
In some ways, the gangster represents the American dream come to life—he gets the money, he gets the power, he gets the women. This country was built on guts, vision, bloodshed and a good deal of criminality. It is no coincidence that each of those elements contributes to a solid gangster film.
Gangster movies are also the urban version of Westerns, that great early genre of film. As Americans moved from farms and small towns into the cities, Tom Mix became Tom Powers and, later, Tommy DeVito. The James Gang became the John Dillinger Gang and, later, the Corleones.
Even the real gangsters have always loved these movies. Dillinger was gunned down by lawmen in 1934 while leaving a theater showing Manhattan Melodrama, a film featuring Clark Gable as a racketeer. Decades later, infamous Gambino crime family hit man Sammy “The Bull” Gravano quoted lines from The Godfather to his allies and enemies.
There is also a Godfather connection to Joey Merlino, a young wiseguy long suspected of the attempted murder of fellow mobster Nicky Scarfo Jr. in an Italian restaurant on Halloween night in 1989. A gunman wearing a mask and carrying a trick-or-treat bag walked up to Scarfo’s table in a South Philadelphia eatery and opened fire. Scarfo survived the hit, but that’s not the point.
Merlino, according to law enforcement and underworld sources, deliberately dropped his gun as he walked out of the restaurant. The reason? He knew Scarfo’s father, jailed mob boss Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, was a big fan of The Godfather and especially liked the scene where Al Pacino blows away a mob rival and a corrupt cop in a Brooklyn restaurant. In that scene, Pacino drops his gun as he walks away.
In a case of art honoring art, the great HBO series The Sopranos often nodded to the mob films, including when Silvio Dante imitated Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III or when Christopher Moltisanti spouted another of his always-errant movie quotations, such as:
Christopher: “Louis Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”
Big Pussy: “Luca Brasi. Luca.”
Getting those lines correct is important. As part of our analysis in this book, we highlight both the quotes that “made” the gangster movies, as well as those that have made it into our national consciousness. We’ve transcribed these quotes directly while watching the films. In these days of fast-and-loose information dispersal via the Internet, you never know if a film quote referenced in informal discussion is accurate.
This book is designed to identify and discuss what we consider the Top 100 gangster movies ever made. It is not a book geared toward critics or film students; neither of this book’s authors went to film school. Rather, it’s a book for guys (and gals) who love the genre, who know what they call a Quarter Pounder in France, who would agree that while Pacino certainly earned the Oscar he won for Scent of a Woman, he probably deserved seven more for the roles he played in movies featured on our Top 100 list.
You may not agree with our choices. In fact, we would be disappointed if you had no quibble with our rankings or omissions. The point of a book like this is to spark debate. De Niro or Pacino? Coppola or Scorsese? A Bronx Tale or Gangs of New York or, for that matter, King of New York?
One of the biggest issues we dealt with was how to define a gangster movie, which is not as easy as defining a sports movie or a romantic comedy. To that end, we came up with this: a gangster movie is a film featuring an ongoing illegal enterprise conducted by a group of criminals; a movie in which the bad guys—not the police—are the central characters.
Under that litmus test, excellent films such as L.A. Confidential and Bullitt don’t make the cut. Some entertaining caper films like Ocean’s Eleven and The Sting also fail to meet our criteria due to their lack of an “ongoing” criminal enterprise.
Bottom line: Your definition may be different than ours. And sometimes we make exceptions to our own rule, such as our inclusion of The French Connection. We’ll suggest that our label of “gangster film” mostly follows U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s inarguable characterization of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
In selecting our Top 100 gangster films, we considered both artistic merit and historical value. We looked for movies that had a powerful script, three-dimensional characters, memorable scenes and a good bit of action and violence. Because a movie where no one fires a gun is not much of a gangster movie.
Gangster movies can make you laugh (Get Shorty, Snatch). They can shock you with their brutality (Scarface, Reservoir Dogs). They can even make you cry (check out our 69th-ranked movie, the underappreciated Let Him Have It).
They often show a slice of history. Gangs of New York portrays the rise of street gangs in the Five Points area in the 19th century. Kill the Irishman accurately recounts the Cleveland mob wars of the 1970s, down to every last car bomb.
And they are sometimes just nonsense. Nobody’s going to argue that Billy Crystal’s attempt to pass himself off as a mob boss (“Benny the Groin, Sammy the Schnozz”) in Analyze This bears any resemblance to reality. Still, it is damned entertaining.
DIRECTOR: FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
DIRECTOR: FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
The Godfather changed everything. This milestone in cinema revived a genre that had languished for decades. Nearly every gangster movie produced since starts with The Godfather as its primary point of reference.
“It created the game,” said Chazz Palminteri, whose film, A Bronx Tale, centers on growing up around mobsters. “Any of us today who make a movie about organized crime should realize that without The Godfather, we never would have had the chance.”
But it did more than that. For better or worse, The Godfather changed how audiences view Mafiosi, elevating them from nasty thugs to a modern incarnation of Roman royalty. The Godfather does not present organized crime as an evil empire presided over by heartless men. Indeed, we never even see victims with lives destroyed by the mob’s illicit activities. The treachery only occurs against traitors within the business, and the mob is a family enterprise presided over by a sympathetic patriarch. Decades later, Vito Corleone would become Tony Soprano.
The Godfather made careers, most notably those of Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino, despite the fact that both of them were almost fired during production. All these years later, it’s still thrilling to watch Pacino as Michael, the Don’s youngest son, evolve from an innocent outsider among his own family into a stone-hearted killer. Watch Pacino’s eyes deaden over the course of the 175-minute film as he becomes the man his father never wanted him to be. It’s why The Godfather is, ultimately, a tragedy.
Of course, it also revived Marlon Brando’s career after he was deemed box-office poison. Brando’s Vito Corleone is one of cinema’s all-time greatest characters—gruff but charming, brutal but genteel. Brando and Coppola invented the persona—right down to the puffed-out jowls—and in doing so spawned a million imitators.
“It’s the underworld and it’s interesting to look on the dark side,” actress Talia Shire, who plays Vito’s daughter Connie, told Vanity Fair. “But in this darkness there is the Vito Corleone family. Remember when Vito says, ‘There’s drugs,’ which he didn’t want to touch? He’s a decent man on the dark side who is struggling to emerge into the light and bring his family there. That’s what still makes it dramatically interesting.”
Indeed, the movie has aged better than any Barolo. Filmed in 1971 and set in the period of 1945-55, The Godfather still amazes, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. The detail is awe-inspiring, from the beautiful tree-lined mountains of Sicily to that small moment when Enzo the Baker, after staring down assassins outside the hospital, cannot flick his cigarette lighter because of quavering hands.
There’s a brilliant balance of action and drama, perhaps best exemplified by the baptism-massacre scene. Notice the rapid shift between shots of Michael at his nephew’s baptism—vowing to renounce Satan—to shots of his enemies being gunned down all over town. The organ music swells as Michael becomes Godfather—by both definitions.
The Godfather is packed with rich characters, even in secondary roles. Clemenza (Richard Castellano), the jovial caporegime who teaches Michael how to cook the sauce. Fredo (John Cazale), the weakling brother who botches his father’s protection. Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), the blustery Vegas casino owner who tries to dismiss Michael (“I made my bones while you were going out with cheerleaders”) and ends up paying with a bullet through the eye.
Consider, too, what this movie brought to the modern vernacular: “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Sleeps with the fishes.” “Go to the mattresses.” “This is business, not personal.” Even the word “godfather” had no real meaning in modern culture until this movie. Now Google lists over three million references that start with “the godfather of. . . .”
There is a scene in the movie You’ve Got Mail (a film you definitely won’t find in this book’s Top 100), where Tom Hanks’ character describes The Godfather as “the I-Ching . . . the sum of all wisdom.” Certainly, it provides life lessons:
“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”
“Don’t ever take sides against the family.”
“Women and children can be careless, but not men.”
Okay, maybe that last reference seems dated. But the rest are words to live by. Not everyone, however, has used those lessons for the greater good.
“It made our life seem honorable,” Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, of the Gambino crime family, told the New York Times in 2000. “I would use lines in real life like, ‘I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.’ And I would always tell people, just like in The Godfather, ‘If you have an enemy, that enemy becomes my enemy.’ It influenced the life, absolutely.”
Well, we wouldn’t endorse that. But if the real goodfellas buy into it, there must be something genuine there.
For all of those reasons, there is no doubt that The Godfather is the greatest gangster movie ever made. In fact, we would argue that it’s the greatest movie of any type ever made. But that’s for another book.
“I DON’T THINK PEOPLE REALIZE THE EXTRAORDINARY ALCHEMY: AN AGING STAR, A YOUNG ACTOR, A LOT OF PEOPLE IN THE RIGHT MOMENT IN THEIR CAREERS. IT WAS A GREAT MOMENT IN THE MOVIE BUSINESS—A GREAT ERA—AND IT ALL CRYSTALLIZED IN THIS TIME.”
—PETER BART, vice president of production for Paramount Pictures, quoted in the book The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay
The Godfather was a sensation before its first scene was even filmed. Author Mario Puzo’s novel spent 67 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Unfortunately for Puzo, he optioned the rights to Paramount before his book’s release, getting a mere $12,500 advance, plus $80,000 more if a movie was actually made. Puzo later received more for cowriting the screenplay.
Despite owning the rights and despite the book’s international buzz, Paramount shuffled its feet. Overblown epics fared poorly in the 1960s and mob movies did worse. The Brotherhood, starring Kirk Douglas as a Sicilian gangster, was a horrid flop in 1968.
As Paramount sat on the rights to The Godfather, others came sniffing around. Burt Lancaster, who loved the novel, tried to buy the property so that he could play Don Corleone. Eventually, Paramount executives decided to make the movie, but on a small budget. The template, believe it or not, was Love Story (1970), another Paramount project that had been filmed on the cheap and ended up turning a huge profit.
The first task was to hire a director. Richard Brooks (The Professionals, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) declined because he thought Puzo’s story glorified organized crime. Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) was committed to another film. Finally, after a dozen directors turned it down, Paramount approached Coppola. He was 31 years old and had yet to direct a major hit, although he was about to win an Oscar for cowriting the screenplay for Patton.
Coppola was also reluctant. He had read the novel and was put off by a major subplot involving Sonny’s girlfriend, Lucy, and her abnormally “loose vagina.” In the book, Lucy can only enjoy sex with the well-endowed Sonny. Coppola didn’t want to create a movie about that.
His friend and business partner, George Lucas, recognized the commercial opportunity of The Godfather and urged him to find an element of the novel he liked and could build around. So Coppola reread it and latched onto the family dynamics, viewing the tale of a father and his three sons as a Shakespearean tragedy. He further saw the element of the mob struggling to adapt after World War II as a metaphor for capitalism.
Paramount hired the young director—and the battling began immediately. Cost-conscious executives wanted the story set in modern times because it would be cheaper to shoot a movie in contemporary settings than to create elaborate sets for a period piece. And they wanted it filmed either in a studio back lot or in an inexpensive Midwestern city, like Cleveland. Coppola, meanwhile, foresaw an epic. He fought to remain true to The Godfather’s time period and to film it in New York and Sicily. He got the studio to agree to a $2.5 million budget—and then exceeded it by $4 million.
The combat continued throughout the process. Bart, one of few Paramount executives who stuck up for Coppola, said afterward that the director was nearly fired five times—even as late as during the editing process.
The largest skirmishes were over casting. In Coppola’s mind, just two men—the two he considered the world’s best actors—could play Vito Corleone: Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. Sir Laurence was committed. And Paramount was adamantly against hiring Brando, calling him overbearing, overweight and over the hill. “I assure you that Marlon Brando will not appear in this motion picture,” studio CEO Stanley Jaffe wrote to Coppola. “And furthermore, I order you never to bring the subject up again.”
Jaffe preferred Ernest Borgnine or Anthony Quinn. George C. Scott and Richard Conte were considered, with Conte later landing the role of Don Emilio Barzini, Vito Corleone’s rival. Comic actor Danny Thomas was even discussed, in what would have become Make Room for Godfather.
Coppola stuck to his guns. He met with Brando, who had to overcome his own doubts that he could play an Italian. Finally, the studio capitulated, and signed Brando at the bargain rate of $50,000 upfront and a back end of the gross, not to exceed $1.5 million. To his eternal dismay, Brando later sold back the royalties for a measly $300,000.
Casting the role of Michael proved as nettlesome. Higher-ups favored a star for the crucial role, suggesting Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson or Robert Redford. Coppola wanted Pacino, who had yet to appear in a substantive movie role, but impressed the director by winning a Tony on Broadway. Robert Evans, Paramount’s head of production, dismissed the five-foot-seven Pacino as “a runt.” And when Coppola pointed out that Pacino’s grandparents had immigrated to America from Corleone, Sicily, he was told that the actor looked “too Italian.”
“The war over casting the family Corleone was more volatile than the war the Corleone family fought on screen,” Evans wrote in his 1994 memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture.
To his credit, Coppola stood by his choice for each major role—James Caan as Sonny, Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, John Cazale as Fredo and Diane Keaton as Kay. The only time he deferred was hiring his sister, Talia Shire, to play Connie. Coppola did not want to be accused of nepotism. He also thought she was too pretty for the character.
Brando studied for his role by meeting with people connected to the Mafia who were relatives of actor Al Lettieri (Virgil Sollozzo in The Godfather). He designed the wide-jowled mien for his character, saying that Vito should “look like a bulldog.” And he created the voice by listening to audiotapes of testimony from the 1950s Kefauver Committee hearings, which probed organized crime. “Important people don’t need to shout,” Brando concluded.
“I thought it would be an interesting contrast to play him as a gentle man, unlike Al Capone, who beat up people with baseball bats,” Brando wrote in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me. “I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement, a man of unerring instinct who just happened to live in a violent world and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment.”
Caan, who grew up Jewish in Queens, modeled his character’s mannerisms after gangsters he met over the years. He had a tougher time creating Sonny’s machine-gun speech pattern until coming upon an unlikely muse.
“I started thinking of Don Rickles,” he recalled to Vanity Fair in 2009. “Somebody was watching over me and gave me this thing: being Rickles, kind of say-anything, do-anything.”
It shows through in Sonny’s best line: “What do you think this is, the army, where you shoot ‘em a mile away? You gotta get up close, like this—and bada-bing! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.” Caan says that “bada-bing,” which became an iconic mantra, wasn’t in the script. “It just came out of my mouth,” he told Vanity Fair. “I don’t know from where.”
Improvisation like that played a huge role in The Godfather’s success. Consider, for example, Don Corleone’s hard slap across the face of singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) and his barked instruction to “act like a man.” That unscripted moment occurred because Brando felt Martino was acting stiffly, so he tried to get a rise out of him.
As the movie was being filmed in New York, an actual mob war broke out, initiated by Crazy Joey Gallo. The same week that the crew shot scenes of Michael ordering the execution of his enemies, real-life Mafiosi Joe Colombo Sr. was shot in the head at a Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle. Colombo (as you will read further down) had fought against The Godfather’s production until forging a deal with Paramount. He slipped into a coma after the shooting and lingered for seven years before dying in 1978.
The mob war only added to the buzz around the movie. The Godfather opened nationwide in March 1972 and, within months, became the highest-grossing film of all time, a distinction it held until “the summer of Jaws” in 1975. Stock in Gulf + Western, which owned Paramount, jumped $97 million within a month. Ticket prices, which averaged $1.50 at the time, were doubled or tripled for The Godfather. NBC bought the television rights for a then-record $10 million and later broadcast the film to an audience of 42 million Americans.
The Godfather won the Oscar for Best Picture. Coppola and Puzo won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Brando was announced as the Best Actor Oscar winner, a moment most remembered for Brando’s sending of a faux-Native American named Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award on the actor’s behalf in protest. Overall, it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Pacino, Caan and Duvall all got bids for Best Supporting Actor, but split the vote—allowing Joel Grey to take home the prize for his work in Cabaret.
Perhaps the person most shocked at the film’s success was Coppola, who had been told throughout that his dream would fail. “I fantasized that Mephistopheles popped out of the bushes and said: ‘Francis, how would you like this movie to be the most successful movie ever made?’ “Coppola said in The Annotated Godfather
- On Sale
- Sep 27, 2011
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Running Press