A week from now The Irishman comes out on Netflix: finally I can start making some money back. If you’ve already seen it then don’t spoil the ending for me (let me guess – someone gets whacked). If you have no idea what I’m talking about you may wish to pan away and find something else to do. I am, in case you were wondering, very excited. All the right people have made all the right noises about it and frankly I don’t care if it’s very long – sometimes size does matter. The bigger question won’t be whether it is good but rather how good it is and then where it will sit in the pantheon of great gangster movies; that is any movie which revolves around organised crime of some sort. Here are 10 of the best, again, just in case you were wondering (sorry, they’re all technicolour and all post 1970 – it’s a generational thing).
1. Goodfellas. The best of the best. An insane whip through the lives, deaths and betrayals of assorted middle order mafia types. All shiny suits and flashy violence and crackling dialogue and quite possibly the best music ever collected to soundtrack a film. It is in this kind of work that Martin Scorsese best demonstrates his particular brand of genius and it is worth noting that what makes Goodfellas such a triumph is not the blood or the profanity or the razor sharp editing but the sense of humour. Watch it a couple of times and you’ll see it is a very, very (darkly) funny movie. Some critics complain that it glamorises the subject matter, but when it looks and sounds this good who really gives a toss? (Casino is a sister piece and belongs on this list, but I’ve broadened the range a bit. A very bit.)
2. The Godfather/The Godfather Part II. Choosing these may be a cliché but there is a reason. They are more than just gangster movies; they are two of the finest events in all cinematic history and should be watched with hushed tones of reverence. To watch them is the film equivalent of staring at The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel (the ceiling is not the masterpiece) or listening to Mozart’s Requiem. They are flawless, but Goodfellas is marginally better simply because it canters a bit faster and has a bit more, er, joie de vivre.
3. The Long Good Friday. Power, corruption and cockneys. Bob Hoskins’ first appearance on this list is probably as good as he ever got. The man who Pauline Kael described as a testicle on legs rips through this film like a Christmas Day fart in a lift. His logic is unarguable but his clarity on the complexities of his problems is undermined by hubris, arrogance and misgiven trust. If gangster films offer anything to popular culture then it is a vast, fertile swamp of quotable lines, and this has more than its fair share: the last proper line in this film, summing up America’s contribution to culture as no better than the hot dog, is magnificent.
4. Carlito’s Way. To my eyes this is the lost American gangster masterpiece. It draws admiration from some but not enough have seen it to make it a proper classic. And it is a proper classic. Perhaps it is also the best Al Pacino has ever been on screen – reflective, tiring, wary of creeping peril, improbably romantic and longing to put his feet up for good (but not in the usual gangster sense). Discuss. I love him in Scarface but I’d take this film instead, anytime. One screen finest effort that cannot be refuted is Sean Penn’s, he simply has never been better. He is positively comical in his criminality and a text book study in sleaze. A fabulous film to revisit. Or visit for the first time.
5. Get Carter. There is a tone of grey/dirty blue to this film that lends it all the melancholy it needs, though it’s not as if the plot isn’t grim enough already. Anyone who doesn’t rate Michael Caine as an actor just needs to watch the scene where he sits in bed watching a home movie and then follow his response to it as the world falls apart. In keeping with the notion that all good films must have good soundtracks this one has a tailor made effort by Harold Budd. Beyond cool.
6. Leon. And speaking of cool. Leon is supercool, and perhaps a little simple in his thought processes, except when it comes to killing strangers for the mob. This film is technically a hitman kind of thing but it has plenty of Little Italy/lower rung mob stuff, a very early and very significant Natalie Portman role and a stupendous, greasy, vein popping villain in Gary Oldman, who delivers a performance so hammy you’d think he’d taken lessons off Miss Piggy. Great gun fight at that end, if that rings your bell.
7. Mona Lisa. A second outing for Bob Hoskins, but this time he’s much further down the pecking order – fresh out of prison and hired as a driver for a high class prostitute ring. Gangster number one is played by Michael Caine, who is seedier than an artisan loaf of bread, and for such a limited screen time makes a massive impact. But it is Hoskins’ film and he is a deeply sympathetic character. This is low key British gangster movie nirvana and a tremendous film than not enough people have seen. It is also essentially a love story and makes me wonder if at heart all gangster films are essentially tragic, doomed love stories. Again, discuss.
8. Sexy Beast. The British gangster film hauled into modernity. You don’t see much of the gangster world so much as feel it: through every line barked by Don, Ben Kingsley’s genuinely terrifying London mob Rottweiler. Ray Winston has his expat comfort thoroughly buggered by the arrival of this angry stain of a man, but the script and the performances allow plenty of dark humour to dilute the mood. The moment, early on, when the rifle breaks is very special. It might just be me.
9. A History Of Violence/Eastern Promises. Not a double bill per se but the same director (David Cronenberg, of horror genre fame) and leading man (Viggo Mortensen, you know, lords and rings and stuff) shot through 2 different narratives – the humble American family man with a dark past and the Russian mob enforcer and bodyguard who lets his attention waver, with rough implications. They are both very good films and neither really outdoes the other; but if you judge a film by whether it has a truly brutal, watch-through-your-fingers scrap in a steam room then Eastern Promises has the edge.
10. The Limey. There are so, so many options – Scarface, The Third Man, The Untouchables, King Of New York and so on and so on. But this is a premature swansong and love letter to the man who was once the world’s very prettiest – Terence Stamp. For someone so beautiful he plays one hard bloody bugger and despite a few other familiar faces the stage is his and his alone. Beautiful in many more ways than one. Tell ’em I’m comin’.
Take your pick or take your chances. Just don’t mess with this lot.
G B Hewitt. 20.11.2019.