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.