What are the Most Gangster Movies?
The gangster movie is a staple in modern cinema, in which the story follows a criminal or group of criminals breaking the law and carrying out various criminal activities. These movies often focus on the rise and falls of the characters, their relationships, and sometimes their redemption. Many gangster movies have gone on to become international box office successes and remain popular with both viewers and critics. Here, we examine what makes a gangster movie and take a closer look at some of the all-time greats.
Most gangster movies feature characters who act outside of social conventions and the law. The focus is often squarely on the criminal, to the point where actions of law officers and traditional societal representatives such as politicians are peripheral. Stories tend to be about individuals or small groups, and are higher in emotional stakes than most other genres. This can range from the tragedy of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface to the redemption story of Brad Pitt’s Mickey O’Neil in Snatch. The common element in all gangster stories is the antihero central character.
The first gangster movie is said to be 1919’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, starring Lillian Gish. Since that time, the genre has grown to become one of the most popular around the world, and with good reason. The characters, their stories and their often seedy lifestyles tend to entice viewers, as do their rise and falls. Indeed, for many, the gangster movie is about as formulaic as movie genres get, building tension and ultimately ending in a climactic shoot-out.
The most popular gangster movies come from all types of directors. Goodfellas, the 1990 film starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, is seen as a seminal classic of the genre and launched the career of director Martin Scorsese. Other greats include the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Michael Mann’s Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, is also seen as one of the greatest of the genre, famed for its long, intense shoot-outs and interplay between the two main characters.
Another well-known and much-loved gangster movie is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, the 1972 movie follows the ascension and eventual fall of crime family patriarch Don Vito Corleone. The movie was revolutionary for its time, and inspired countless imitators and sequels.
The growing popularity of the gangster movie genre partly stems its wider appeal. While these movies often focus on violent themes, they also contain relatable characters and exciting plotlines. This combination of diverse facets makes them unique and particularly appealing. Indeed, many gangster movies—especially those that focus heavily on storylines rather than purely criminal activity—subvert the traditional action genre, transcending typical ideas of time and place.
Influence of Gangster Movies
Gangster movies have had a major influence on popular culture and perceptions of criminal activity. While these films don’t necessarily present criminal activities in a positive light—most often, the bad guy gets his due—they certainly suggest that criminal activity gives the individual certain freedoms not available to the regular, law-abiding citizen.
This combination of intrigue and risk, combined with an exciting plot and strong characters, is highly attractive to movie-goers and a major reason for why these films remain popular. Indeed, some might suggest that the influence of these films has had more of a societal effect, with young people being particularly susceptible to the lure of outlaw lifestyles and ethical decisions.
Viewers can learn a lot from gangster movies, particularly the antihero characters that occupy the middle ground between right and wrong. The messages are clear—while criminal activity may look attractive in the short-term, it often carries grave consequences with it. In the end, the viewer is always left with the message that crime doesn’t pay.
Advances in Technology
Advances in technology have also been an enormous boon to gangster films. A major feature in most films is the action aspect, and filmmakers now have more than ever before at their disposal to help bring these scenes to life. Visual effects in films such as The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan, for example, have allowed for complex stunts and action sequences—particularly gunfights—to be integrated into a cinematic experience for maximum effect.
Furthermore, real-world shooting styles in films like Reservoir Dogs and True Romance have allowed for ultra-realistic gunfights. Knowing how to use a gun and being able to accurately act it out to look realistic onscreen has become a major part of the contemporary gangster movie experience. This has been made easier with the use of digital technology and computer editing, which can be used to perfect and enhance gunfight scenes far beyond what was even conceivable a few decades ago.
Overall, gangster films can be seen as an ongoing and ever-evolving cultural force. While these films have often been criticized for glamorizing criminal activity, they can also be seen as cautionary tales, warning of the dangers of living outside of the law. Movies in the genre have come a long way since The Musketeers of Pig Alley, and there’s no doubt that they will continue to be popular in the future.
Gangster movies feature some of cinema’s most iconic characters. From Tony Montana in Scarface to Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, these characters remain etched into the movie going public’s consciousness. Tony Montana, Al Pacino’s character from Scarface, is perhaps the most notorious—with his rise and fall encapsulating some of the genre’s key themes. It also makes for an incredibly watchable story, with Montana’s eventual death leaving a lasting impression on the viewer.
Other infamous characters include Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. While not strictly a gangster, the character is no doubt a criminal and dangerous one. His rise and fall once again encapsulates the genre perfectly, with Tommy’s violent tendencies ultimately leading to his undoing. His crimes—while celebrated by his criminal peers—ultimately talk him to his downfall.
Meanwhile, Robert De Niro’s Don Vito Corleone from The Godfather remains an iconic representation of gangster culture. Cold, calculating and sophisticated, Don Vito is the very definition of a gangster. His story acts as a cautionary tale, warning of the consequences of a life of crime and its ultimate toll on both himself and those around him.
Redemption and Aftermath
Like many movie genres, the ultimate resolution of gangster films tends to capture the interest of viewers. In many cases, the bad guy doesn’t get away with it, and is ultimately destroyed. This is particularly evident in examples such as The Untouchables, in which Al Capone is ultimately brought down due to the actions of his enemies.
On the other hand, as noted earlier, gangster films can also be about redemption. This is especially true when stories are focused more on human redemption than on the downfall of criminals. Examples include Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, in which Eddy’s attempt to gain salvation despite his criminal past plays out in the form of a violent comedy. Meanwhile, American Gangster follows a similar path, with Denzel Washington’s character Shepherd eventually imprisoning himself in order to save those close to him.
Regardless of the resolution, the gangster movie is and continues to be an important genre in cinema. The complexities of morality and redemption are often explored, along with the inner workings of criminal operations and hierarchies. It is a genre that seems unlikely to go away, with it evolving and adapting to changing times and trends.
Of course, an exploration of gangster movies would be incomplete without an examination of the wider cultural impact they have had and continue to have. These films are popular around the world, and the characters and stories often capture the imagination of viewers. In many cases, film-goers may go on to emulate certain criminal lifestyles, particularly those associated with characters from movies.
Of course, as noted earlier, the criminal activity remains a secondary feature in most full-length film and is rarely glorified. Many times, these films act as a warning of the dangers of living outside the law. With this in mind, it is clear that gangster movies have had a major influence on popular culture, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Style and Gameplay
The gangster movie genre has also spilled out into other mediums, notably in video games and other interactive formats. The Grand Theft Auto franchise, which first debuted in 1997, is perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon. Each level of the game is based on one or more gangster films, the player assuming the role of the anti-hero and taking part in a variety of criminal activities. The attraction of the game is undoubtedly the story and characters, with direct references or inspirations from movies such as Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs and The Godfather.
Overall, the influence of gangster movies has extended far beyond the realms of cinema and into other mediums. Whether in video game form, on a stage, or simply spoken about in everyday conversation, references to these films and their characters are commonplace. From the crime-ridden alleys of Pig Alley to the modern digital age of gaming, the gangster movie has become ubiquitous in popular culture and will no doubt endure for generations to come.