Top 4 Recommended Gangster Movies to Watch Before American Gangster
by Ken Evans
October 31, 2007
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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
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.