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Top 4 Recommended Gangster Movies to Watch Before American Gangster

by
October 31, 2007

Top 4 Recommended Gangster Movies

If you read my last recommended list, Top 4 Recommended Westerns to Watch Before Seeing 3:10 to Yuma, then hopefully you took my advice and brushed up your knowledge of the western genre. With the release of American Gangster this coming weekend I wanted to come up with a diverse list of gangster movies to whet your appetite and give you a few films to compare American Gangster to.

If you have the time then watch one or two of these, even if you have seen them, to get in the mood for American Gangster. Get together with a few of your friends, or your significant other, and enjoy some truly classic films, then when you see American Gangster compare it to one of these classics below. So without further ado, I give you my Top 4 Recommended Gangster Movies to Watch Before Seeing American Gangster (in no particular order).

#1 - The Godfather (1972) / The Godfather: Part II (1974)

The Godfather is about the fall of one of the mafia's top crime bosses. Marlon Brando plays Don Vito Corleone who is trying to run his family while also running his illegal businesses. When he refuses to make a deal with a drug dealer they try to take his life. Vito's sons try to take revenge for the attempt on their father's life. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ends up the stronger of the sons and takes over for his father. In Godfather: Part II we watch two story lines, one being a flashback to Vito when he was younger and how he came to power. The other being Michael now running the business with a ruthless fist, while struggling to keep the family together.

Francis Ford Coppola's two masterpieces are considered two of the greatest films ever made. The Godfather placing 3rd and The Godfather: Part II placing 32nd on the AFI's Top 100 Films of all time. In my opinion, these are hands down the greatest gangster films of all time. The Godfather won 3 Oscars and was nominated for 8 more. The Godfather: Part II won 6 Oscars and was nominated for 5 more. They encapsulate everything that I love about gangster movies. It's all about family and honor in the midst of illegal business deals and murder. Even as bad and evil as they are, these films glorify and make you want to be a gangster. Of all the organized crime gangster films these two reign supreme. If you haven't seen either one of these then you must watch them as soon as possible.

The Godfather

#2 - Goodfellas (1990)

I hadn't seen this one in forever and I just watched it again the other night. This movie just makes me smile. As violent as it is you can't help but love it. The movie starts with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) saying, "As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster." Then it cuts to him as a kid watching the gangsters across the street while we hear Liotta narrating why he wants to be like them. Hill starts working for them and starts making his way up the ranks within the mob. Cut to years later, Hill is now a grown man and working alongside James 'Jimmy' Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). They steal and murder all in the name of making a buck. To them anyone who works a 9 to 5 job is a sucker. Ruling the streets through bribes and fear they go wherever they want and get whatever they want. Soon betrayal and paranoia take their toll and Hill is picked up on drug charges. Disowned by the family the FBI gives Hill a choice of spending the rest of his life in jail or snitching and turning everyone in.

What makes Goodfellas great is the direction and performances. Martin Scorsese is a wonderful director who only recently won an Oscar for best director for his work on The Departed. In my opinion he should have won his first best director Oscar for Goodfellas and was robbed by Kevin Costner and Dances with Wolves. This is a story that by itself was interesting but not amazing. Scorsese was able to tell us this story in a fascinating way that sucks you in right from the beginning. Plus the performances by Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro were wonderful. Besides his work in Field of Dreams, I have never been impressed with Ray Liotta, but his performance in Goodfellas is still one of my all time favorites.

Goodfellas

#3 - The Untouchables (1987)

Besides the family style organized crime movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, you also have two other kinds of gangster films. The gangster films from the cop's viewpoint and the gangster films from the unorganized gangster's viewpoint. In The Untouchables we follow famous federal agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) as he tries to bring down mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Ness wants to bring justice to Al Capone but learns that the police force is dirty and in Capone's pocket. Knowing that he can't do it alone, Ness hand picks three others to help him in his battle. Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) who is a cop known for being a stand-up and honorable guy; George Stone (Andy Garcia) who is fresh out of the police academy; and Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), an accountant looking to catch Capone for tax evasion. Teaming up they start at the bottom and work their way up Capone's organization wanting nothing more then to bring him down.

When I think of The Untouchables I think of two things. First, it is immensely entertaining but nowhere near the caliber of films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Second, I think this is the Tombstone of the gangster film genre. This is probably the film I would start someone on if they had never seen a gangster movie before. It just doesn't get as in depth and dirty as most other gangster films. It has some great performances, mostly from Sean Connery. And the train station scene has become one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. But, when taken as a whole, although wonderfully entertaining, it is missing the substance that we seem to get from some of the other films.

The Untouchables

#4 - Reservoir Dogs (1992)

You might not want to call this a gangster film, but it definitely is. Six strangers are hired by a mob boss to rob a bank. During the robbery something goes wrong and chaos breaks out. One by one the robbers make their way back to the rendezvous. As they meet back up they start to suspect that one of their own might be a cop. As they start to question each other, tensions rise and not everyone is going to make it out alive.

This is definitely a twist on the classic crime/gangster genre film. But if this is the film that it takes to get you turned on to these types of movies then so be it. Reservoir Dogs is filled with humor, amazing dialogue, intense scenes and twists. It presents a unique and fresh look at the crime/gangster genre from the hired guns viewpoint. It features an all star lineup of actors like Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Chris Penn who all give outstanding performances. If you don't mind excessive language and can appreciate the unique style of Quentin Tarantino then this is definitely a must see.

Reservoir Dogs

And so ends another list of great classic films. Try to make some time to enjoy them, whether you're watching them for the first time or reliving all the great moments. It always makes viewing a new release more rewarding after watching some of the same types of films from the past. I loved the comments from the last list so keep them coming. What movies are you going to watch to get hyped up for American Gangster? What are your favorite gangster films? After watching American Gangster how would you compare it to other gangster movies? Remember, in order to truly understand and appreciate the films of today, we must understand and appreciate the films of the past. Let me know what you think!

Honorable Mention for films not on the list: Casino, Scarface, Miller's Crossing, Heat, Once Upon a Time in America, The Godfather: Part III.

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  • Good four. If you can delete the statement where Casino and, for the love of God, Godfather Part III are honorable mention, you got a nice condensed list. But, you know what the problem is with the list of things, they are usually overly subjective at best or No Duh" at best. For more inspired choices, how about 1. City of God 2. Road to Perdition 3. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels 4. Gangster No. 1 Hopefully you'll get a reader who has not seen at least one of these four and take it for a spin.
  • I have to agree with grendel on road to perdition. Not sure why Reservoir Dogs is in the list. I can agree with the first 3, but not that. I could put Mobsters (1991) in that spot or Road to Perdition, scarface, etc
  • Grendel- I disagree that Casino and Godfather Part III should be taken off the honorable mention list. Casino although scattered and long was still a great film. Godfather III...well...I have to put it on there. Even though it wasn't a very good movie you have to mention it just for closure from the first two. It's kind of like Matrix Revolutions where you have to watch it to complete the story. The list is really to introduce the genre to some and remind those of us who already love these films to give them another viewing. Rewatching Goodfellas and The Untouchables was really enjoyable since it had been quite awhile. I still stick with the list of 4 but I would add City of God and Road to Perdition to the honorable mention list. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels I would have to think about more, it seems like a stretch. I haven’t seen Gangster No. 1, but if you are putting it on your list I will have to check it out. Bob Buskirk- Reservoir Dogs is a gangster film although it might not seem like it at first glance. It really depends on how you define gangster. Wikipedia says, "A gangster is a general term, though frequently misused, for a career criminal who is, or at some point almost invariably becomes, a member of a violent crime organization, such as a gang or mafia. Gangsters as a collective therefore are typically organized criminals who are actively engaged in crime as a group activity or enterprise for pleasure and profit. The visibility of activities of gangsters can range from the low-level such as drug-trafficking or protectionism, which are prone to be 'under the radar', to the in your face spectacular…" Although not fitting into the classic view we have of a gangster movie, which is typically The Godfather. Reservoir Dogs fits into the definition above and I think is enjoyable because of its unique twist on the classic gangster film.
  • Good list....I like Reservoir Dogs but calling it a gangster movie is a stretch...its as much a gangster movie as Pulp fiction. I don't think The Untouchables deserves mention here...I would replace it with either Casino or Miller's Crossing....
  • mos
    this entire list is wrong. they have nothing to do with the actual story. there are 3 movies that you should watch before American Gangster and they are: (in chronological order) 1. The French Connection 2. The Cotton Club 3. Hoodlum These movies deal with Bumpy Johnson and the drug problem in Harlem
  • Dez
    Hoodlum should be number 1 because American Gangster picked up where Hoodlum left of.
  • Dez
    I totally agree with mos.
  • Mos and Dez- I hear what you two are saying and would agree with you guys if the list was about movies dealing with drug problems in Harlem, but thats not what the list is. The list is to introduce and remind people of other great films in the Gangster movie genre. Good list though if anyone wants to know more about that subject.
  • J
    All the movies mentioned are okay , but if you really want to emerse yourself in a gangster / mob bravado , you must see Corky Romano . Corky Romano is one of , if not thee best mob movies ever produced !!!! The acting is reminicent of Casablanca or Gone With The Wind but with the furor of classics such as The Lion King and Tommy Boy . I am not a Homo .
  • Mark P
    I'm not a fan of "The Untouchables", but I guess I have to see it again. Brian De Palma's best scenes are always ripoffs of other, better movies (which is why I don't like his movies very much). "Reservoir Dogs" was an interesting choice for variety. It's definitely a classic (though very different) gangster movie. As for the honorable mentions, I have to defend Godfather III, since if it were not for the first 2 movies (and Sofia Coppola), everyone would've liked it better. "Road to Perdition" sucked. Tom Hanks is as lame of a gangster as they come. "Miller's Crossing" is a way better Irish mafia movie. My own top four would be: 1) Godfather II (assuming you've seen the 1st one, this one gives you a taste of 2 eras). 2) Public Enemy (James Cagney is the best gangster ever) 3) Donnie Brasco (for a look at the lower brass in the mob) 4) Goodfellas (It's got to be in every gangster movie list) HM: "Miller's Crossing", "Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels", "The Departed", "Once Upon a Time in America".
  • Flickhead
    Wow. I think my niece wrote that list back in 1995. Can anyone say "obvious"? The films that "Gangster" most resembles are "Serpico", "French Connection 2", "Across 110th Street", and "Donnie Brasco". But if you're given the opportunity to talk about "real" mafia films then you should really take that opportunity to shed a little light on some true overlooked classics: 1. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973). This is just about the most realistic film about the lower ranks of the mob that has ever been filmed, and I'd include the uber-classic Goodfellas in that assessment. Robert Mitchum nails the regional Boston accent, and after seeing Gone, Baby Gone, I hope someone gives Ben Affleck a stack of George V. Higgins books for Christmas so he can remake this, and then do Digger's Game, which is a phenomenal crime novel from the series that spawned this incredible film. 2. The Seven-Ups (1973). Aside from having one of the all time greatest car chases (no surprise when you learn that the director produced "Bullit"), this second installment in the French Connection series (released after the first film, but before French Connection II) lacks the star performance (Gene Hackman) of the first film, and the celebrity director (John Frankenheimer) of the official sequel, but it makes up for it all by remaining a great genre film throughout. The cast reads like a who's who of 70s action film B-listers who are finally given their chance to shine, which they do. And it was written by Sonny Grosso. Though not officially part of the French Connection franchise, it bears the same producer and cast, was written by the cop portrayed in the films and some of the actors portray characters with very similar names. 3. Palermo Connection (1990). Directed by the Italian master of Crime films Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giulino, Hands Over the City, Lucky Luciano), this incredibly overlooked film starring James Belushi as a NYC politician leading a war-on-drugs campaign follows the opium trail back to Sicily, and sheds a lot of light on the Italian Mafia culture. It's a very current examination into the mix between crime and politics, and the reasons why prohibition may always win over legalization. It should have resonated with audiences of its day, but didn't. Upon viewing it recently, it seems almost prophetic. 4. Prince of the City (1981). Sidney Lumet had already made a name for himself making gritty cops & robbers films (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon), but this action/drama about an undercover cop with crooks in his own family was the last of his truly great films. It was nominated for 5 Oscars and picked up dozens of other awards, as well as making a leading man out of Treat Williams, though failing to launch him as a star the way it probably should have. Some people upon seeing it for the first time are surprised to learn that it's not a Martin Scorsese film. It was heavily abridged on it's initial theatrical release, which doubtlessly contributed to it's failure, but it became a smash television success when its runtime was restores and the film aired as a two-night mini-series just a few years later. *Bonus pick La Scorta (The Escort) (1993). Ricky Tognazzi's incredible, adrenaline packed thriller follows the men whose job it is to guard judges overseeing mafia trials. It is gritty, realistic action in the tradition of Frankenheimer, but organic in it's presentation of Italian thugs and hoods who have infiltrated the police force, and how their fellow officer's handle them. This is an Italian film in the Italian language, and makes a great double feature with Carlo Carlei's wonderful "Flight of the Innocent" which is a fly-on-the wall view of mafia kidnappers in Sicily, their methods and motivations.
    • Erinecfl
      Good call on Palermo.  Has anyone else noticed that it is impossible to find this movie.  There is an English version, I know because I watched it, yet according to IMDB, there was no release in the US.  Maybe the Palermo conspiracy isn't all fiction!
  • Flickhead - Like the title of this article says, Top 4 Recommended Gangster Movies to Watch Before Seeing American Gangster. This wasn't supposed to be a list of the more obscure gangster films. The list is to introduce and remind people of great films in the gangster movie genre. It is something to start people off watching so that they can get into this type of genre. Of course its obvious, but I have talked to many people who need a list like this. They want to get into the gangster genre but wanted a few films to start with. Thanks for the list though. There are a few on there I need to see again, and a few I need to see for the first time. Maybe next time I'll add on a section of the more obscure films for the advanced movie viewer that wants to get deeper.
  • Nazreen Jefrizal KL Malaysia
    For me the best gangster movie got to be : - 1. goodfellas 2. casino 3. godfather - all the series 4. infernal affair (hk movie) - cantonese - i know it a chinese movie but one have to check it out before you disagree with me.
  • camross
    1.godfather collection 2.menace II society 3.scarface 4.casino
  • Prospect
    I am kinda new in to this genre but I have seen some of the so called "greats". My top 4 consists of: 1. The Godfather (only seen the first part) 2. Goodfellas 3. Scarface 4. Carlito's Way HM: Pulp Fiction, Donnie Brasco. P.S. I would like a reply with the top 10.
  • larry
    boyz n hood, menace II society and american me are movies also based on real life that is happening to this day. drugs are controlled by the mexican mafias with local gangs which have expanded across the nation.
  • Magic_80
    Sin nombre is as gangster as it can get !! 
  • Brittneyquintana
    you suck bitches all of you

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