Building any list of the best gangster movies ever made presents another opportunity to dive deep into film history. After horror movies, there probably isn’t another genre as enduring as the gangster film. You can find contenders for the top gangster movies among the releases of any decade. This is a journey that can almost take you back to the start of film as being more than just the novelty of a moment in action.
In other words, it’s fun, but it also has the potential to be an exhausting enterprise. This is another field where the criteria are often debated.
Some people think of the best mob movies, when they think about the best gangster films, and never go further than that. Others believe gangster movies are an American invention (which is arguably true), and therefore that should be the sole qualifier. Then you have the more open-ended approach, where you consider potential entries like The Godfather and Menace II Society with equal attention and seriousness. This is the messiest approach, potentially, since it casts the widest net, and demands an open mind.
So obviously, we’re going to make things hard on ourselves by throwing the net as far as it will go in every possible direction. Gangster movies are also interesting for the way they rarely seem to be concerned with advancements in movie technology. Some genres are at the forefront of cinematic innovation. Gangster movies benefit from the technical evolution of film, but nothing changes the essential elements of good characters, a strong story, complex subjects, and the likelihood of intense, steady violence.
These movies are a lot slicker than they used to be. At the same time, a movie like Widows draws consistent inspiration from the genre examples that came before it. All of this is run through an ongoing current that moves alongside the rest of film.
In other words, the genre continues to find new and exciting ways to tell such stories. This list of the best gangster films of all time reflects that with the blunt force of a decidedly cranky Joe Pesci.
The Best Gangster Movies of All-Time
1. Little Caesar (1931)
Gangster movies are a subgenre of crime dramas. That makes sense, although different gangster movies can approach the crime drama element differently from one another. They don’t come much more straightforward than Little Caesar, which depicts the rise and fall of a small-time criminal.
Released before the Hays Code was actually enforced, Little Caesar has an intensity in its violence that still sticks with an audience today. The film also retains its appeal for featuring a star-making performance by Edward G. Robinson, whose mannerisms and voice are still used to depict gangsters to this day.
Watch if: You want to see one of the true original gangster movies. Avoid if: You’re disinterested in movies that glamorize evil men (in which case, why are you reading a list on gangster movies?)
2. The Public Enemy (1931)
Released the same year as Little Caesar, William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy tells a similar rise-and-fall drama with James Cagney as Tom Powers. The main differences between the two comes down to the way The Public Enemy is perhaps a little flashier and stylized, with Cagney arguably being a little more charismatic than Robinson.
Despite these similarities, The Public Enemy is a legendary entry for its own unique reasons. Despite its age, the film is still more action-packed and thrilling than many of the movies being made today.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most exciting bad guys in movie history. Avoid if: You tend to root for the bad guy.
The French gangster film Bob le flambeur is so casually brilliant, in both its style and performances, it’s easy to mistake the movie for being breezy, or even superficial.
You can argue that the movie is a heist film, as it largely centers on a veteran gambler and reformed bank robber (Roger Duchesne) being forced into a final score. Yet the movie is very distinctly and clearly set in a world of gangsters, cops, pimps, and other shady/grey hat heroes and villains.
Bob le flambeur is one of the few entries on this list that’s not pure drama. It is a good example of the idea that you don’t have to tell a gangster story with a completely straight face. The film also got a pretty good remake in 2002 with Nick Nolte as Bob.
Watch if: You like stylistic gangster movies with a good heist as the centerpiece. Avoid if: You prefer those sorts of movies to be in English.
4. Branded to Kill (1967)
Quite frankly, the greatest Yakuza movies could fill a list all on their own. Even just a list of serious contenders for the best gangster films gives us a lengthy marathon of possibility. Branded to Kill, widely considered to be director Seijun Suzuki’s masterpiece, easily earns a place among the all-time greats.
Beyond a great cast, featuring the likes of Joe Shishido and Koki Nanbara, Branded to Kill is one of the most palpably tense gangster movies of all time. It builds to something truly unique, while simultaneously depicting an underworld riddled with chaos, greed, and the madness of a cruel industry.
Watch if: You want to see one of the most original gangster movies of all time. Avoid if: “Abstract” isn’t a word you want to see associated with movies about gangsters.
On the long, long playlist of Michael Caine’s best movies, the gritty, violent Get Carter holds a permanent place near the top of the heap. What makes Get Carter interesting is the fact that at no point does the movie suggest a path of redemption for the title character. Jack Carter never fails to act in his own self-interest, even when he goes on a sadistic, understandable spree of revenge against those responsible for the death of his brother.
Get Carter uses Caine’s lowkey charisma and 60s cool to get away with a lot, including the way we root for Carter primarily because he’s the least horrible gangster in the bunch. Get Carter also has a lot to say on the subject of revenge.
Watch if: You like your gangster movies to have a believable ugliness about them. Avoid if: You dig the idea of revenge, and don’t need some movie from the 1970s to complicate that.
6. The Godfather (1972)
If not the best mob movie of all time, or the best gangster film of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic film The Godfather is at least the most widely known example of either of those types.
People have written dissertations and books about this movie, which was followed by two sequels, so it’s difficult to summarize this classic here. Simply understand that despite its stature, this is still a thrilling, well-acted (particularly by Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan, and Diane Keaton) epic of crime, revenge, and family.
The Godfather is an essential beginning to any education on the larger subject of gangster movies.
Watch if: You want to say you’ve seen one of the best movies ever made. Period. Avoid if: You don’t have 5+ hours to kill (because you have to then immediately watch Part II, which some argue is superior to the first entry).
Somewhat overshadowed by the more famous movies in Martin Scorsese’s thematic trilogy of gangster flicks, Mean Streets is nonetheless one of the best gangster films of the 1970s. Scorsese’s breakthrough as a director drew heavily from his own childhood experiences in New York’s Little Italy.
The idea of being weighed down by a place, particularly one’s history with that place, is a strong theme in this wild, unpredictable story. Mean Streets is one shocking burst of energy after another, with early standout performances from the likes of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, who would go on to appear in some of Scorsese’s best works.
Watch if: You want a movie that feels like a jarring travelogue at times. Avoid if: You think sacrifice is overrated.
8. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Is The Godfather Part II superior to the first film? The debate genuinely rages on. Truthfully, both films complement and enhance one another so flawlessly, they may as well be one story. Indeed, there is an edit that combines everything into a single viewing experience.
That aside, The Godfather Part II picks up on the story of Michael Corleone (Pacino), while also relating the history and rise of his father Vito (Robert De Niro). The sweeping social and political undertones of The Godfather Part II shows us what happens when such things collide with business and familial traditions/connections. If you just want a satisfying, emotionally devastating gangster film, The Godfather Part II accommodates you on that front, as well.
Watch if: You want to see a rare example of a truly perfect sequel. Avoid if: Again, you’re going to need like five hours for Parts 1 and 2. Longer, if you brave the murky, slightly underappreciated waters of Part III.
Personally, The Long Good Friday is my favorite British gangster movie to date. It is 114 ferocious minutes of Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren leaving nothing and no one in their wake, as they try to survive a day that seems bound and determined to do them in.
The Long Good Friday is one of the most riveting gangster movies ever made. It is a story of violence and arrogance that falls neatly under the shadow of the complex conservative monster that England would become during the 1980’s. The ending of this film is pure pleasure, as well.
Watch if: You want a movie that starts out exciting, and never really lets up. Avoid if: You prefer your resolutions in films to be from the concrete variety.
10. Scarface (1983)
It is hard to imagine this remake of a 1932 gangster movie would still be regarded so highly today, were it not for Al Pacino’s arguably iconic Tony Montana.
This is his story, involving a Cuban immigrant who parlays a Green Card for killing a man into an opportunity to dominate the Miami drug trade. Pacino not only plays this character with such overwhelming energy, but he projects that energy into every moment of the film.
There are a lot of good things about this film, directed by Brian DePalma from a relatively sane Oliver Stone script. Michelle Pfeiffer not only creates the other half of the performances that drive this story, but she also acts as a relatable reaction to everything going on around her, particularly where Tony is concerned.
Scarface also certainly delivers on the violence, which is still pretty potent to this day.
Watch if: You want a pulverizing mix of 80s aesthetics, Pacino in one of his best, and the occasional moment of savage chainsaw violence. Avoid if: You’d rather watch a story about Cubans with more than one actual Cuban in the cast (Steven Bauer, who is fantastic).
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