The onset of the Great Depression-era in the late 1920s America somewhere led to the origination of gangster movies sub-genre. Although D.W. Griffith and Raoul Walsh dealt with mobster characters in the silent era, the sub-genre gained prominence with the talkies.
The gunfires, police sirens, squealing tires, quick-witted dialogues brought a fullness to the gangster cinema. The megalomaniacal hero’s craving for an underworld empire became a symbol of the darker side of the ‘American Dream’.
The advent of ‘Film Noir’ (first used by French critics), infused a poetic tone to gangster movies alongside its showcase of decadence and cynicism. Then came the game-changers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, etc.
Elsewhere, the gritty Eurocrime films of the 1950s & 60s and flashy Hong Kong action classics of 1980s fascinatingly broadened the confines of on-screen ganglands.
People may not condone the immoral protagonist’s behaviour. But there’s a certain appeal in gangster cinema, providing us with an adrenaline rush and serving the warning note, ‘crime never pays’.
Here’s an exhaustive compilation of movies to enrich your gangster-film grammar (in alphabetical order):
1. A Better Tomorrow (1986)
A Better Tomorrow is a Hong Kong-based action film directed by the legendary John Woo. This film is a milestone and revolutionised the entire international industry of cinema.
2. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
Amazing Korean gangster action drama movie that has a lot of amazing action and a lot of heart poured into it. There are a lot of hidden messages under the seemingly simple screenplay.
3. A Bronx Tale (1993)
A Bronx Tale is a De Niro directed movie that masterfully depicts the contrasting lives of a New York City everyman and a local mobster. He shows how difficult it is to synonymously carry out dual identities.
4. A History of Violence (2005)
A very interesting crime drama concerning a normal diner owner who gets involved in foiling a robbery. He gets on the bad side of a gangster. This movie is a brilliant dark tale of mass murder and deadly deception.
5. A Prophet (2009)
A Prophet is a well-felicitated crime drama. It is a story about the apotheosis of a common man in the ranks of a mob and the consequential hardships that follow suit.
6. American Gangster (2007)
Ridley Scott’s all-American gangster movie is a celebration of old Hollywood. With a simple plot with complex meanings and extremely sincere performances, this is a movie for the ages.
7. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
A crime drama about how the same circumstances can produce a very small difference which through a butterfly effect, heavily influences the lives of individuals.
8. Aaranya Kaandam (‘Jungle Chapter’ 2010)
An amazing action crime thriller that is about gang wars between an ageing gangster and his arch-enemy. A thrilling movie that perfectly captures the essence of the tension involved in an all-out gang battle.
9. Atlantic City (1980)
This movie is extremely thrilling as it pits a female gambler and a failed mobster against her criminal husband. The main theme of this movie is the achievement of dreams through collaborative efforts.
10. Bob le flambeur (‘Bob the Gambler’, 1956)
Bob, a gambler loses all his money after gambling. He fabricates a daring plan in order to break into the vault of a well-guarded, mob-backed casino.
11. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The quintessential Bonnie and Clyde movie is a biographical crime film. This is the true story of two criminals who are notorious for their daring bank robberies in the Depression-ear United States.
12. Branded to Kill (1967)
A Japanese hitman-assassin type movie in which an assassin fails in his duty and a marker is put out on him, Another assassin tries to go after him and this leads to some thrilling drama.
13. Brighton Rock (1948)
A man murders a rival gang member and marries the only person who could prove his involvement in the murder. But the murdered man’s sister goes into detective mode to discover her brother’s murderer.
14. Brother 1 & 2 (1997, 2000)
A younger brother completes his military service and asks his elder brother to help him out. The elder is a member of a gang who recruits him as a hired gun. After a few scuffles with some rivals, he begins to question his life choices.
15. Bugsy (1991)
Bugsy is a biographical crime and romance drama coupled with the spice of romance and his set in the backdrop of Hollywood and with a dream to create a gambling haven in Las Vegas.
16. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
A young playwright finds himself in a difficult position as he is forced to cast the girlfriend of a gangster in order to raise funds. But the problem is that she has no talent whatsoever.
17. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way is based around the life of an ex-convict. He tries to lead a quiet life after being released from prison. But his past soon catches up with him as he slowly realises that there is no escape from the criminal life.
18. Casino (1995)
A Goodfellas-esque setting, except it’s in Las Vegas. Which isn’t a bad thing, of course. Scorsese may have been a little off-colour compared to Goodfellas, but that in itself was far, far better than any other filmmaker’s best work. It tells a time when Las Vegas was different, not the family-friendly modern version, but a city which was controlled by the mafia.
At the heart of it is a bloody love triangle with Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone all giving grandstanding performances. It was a classic Scorsese gangster drama, with all the Scorsese elements we know and love – tracking shots, voice-over narration, free frames and kickass jazz/rock soundtracks.
19. Charley Varrick (1973)
A small-time criminal, Charlie and his wife accidentally rob a bank that is under the protection of a mafia gang. As expected, things don’t go too smoothly for them.
20. City of God (2002)
One of the greatest Brazilian films of all time, City of God is based on the semi-autobiographical eponymous novel by Paulo Lins. Two children are brought up under very difficult and painful circumstances. Despite that, they both take different paths in their lives – one a photographer, the other a drug dealer.
21. Classe Tous Risques (‘The Big Risk’, 1960)
A self-searching of a cornered criminal. In the final moments before he is caught by the police, he reminiscences about his relationship with his broken family and former friends.
22. Company (2002)
A Bollywood crime thriller in which two people coming from the lower ends of the foodchain collaborate and form a gang together. As the gang gains more power, their relationship slowly falls apart.
23. Donnie Brasco (1997)
A movie with a lot of tension as an FBI agent goes undercover in order to infiltrate a crime family. He quickly raises his reputation within the family and tries to destroy it from the inside.
24. Drive (2011)
A very enigmatic movie that pits a stunt driver against a dangerous criminal and some gangsters as he tries to save his lady love from her criminal husband.
25. Drunken Angel (1948)
A classic noir film from legendary director Akira Kurosawa. A reluctant doctor who hates the yakuza is brought into their world as he aligns with them under peculiar circumstances.
26. Eastern Promises (2007)
A brooding and intense Russian gangster drama that is told from the perspective of a woman who faced continuous sexual assaults from a Russian mob family.
27. El Mariachi (1992)
A stylish Mexican gangster movie that follows the deadly adventures of a musician as he is mistaken for a dangerous criminal who carries his weapons in a guitar case similar to his.
28. Election Duology (2005, 2006)
A Hong Kong crime film that features a great cast and depicts a power struggle between two gangsters who fight to become the leader of a Hong Kong triad.
29. Exiled (2006)
The movie deals with a renegade Hong Kong mob member who is trying to turn on a new leaf and has settled down with his wife and family. He is chased by two hitmen in an amazing thriller.
30. Gangs of New York (2002)
A young man gets caught up in a civil war between two rival gangs. He tries to avenge the murder of his father by the leader of one of the gangs.
31. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
One of the best crime films to come out of India. It is a raw and brutal depiction of rural gang wars and is a story of revenge that spans three generations.
32. Get Carter (1971)
A story of a cold-blooded gangster who goes berserk and just leaves bloody death in his path as he goes on in search of his brother’s killer.
33. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1998)
A story of a master contract killer who is almost like a ghost – unnoticed and unknown. He pledges his loyalty to a mobster who saved his life years ago.
34. Gloria (1980)
This is the story of a badass female gangster who has problems of her own, and yet takes in a six-year-old street urchin, which further complicates problems between her and the gangsters.
35. Gomorrah (2008)
The right-hand man of an Italian don questions his duties as he recognizes the ruthlessness of his boss. He deliberates upon it but stays loyal to the family.
36. Goodfellas (1990)
“As far as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Goodfellas stands with The Godfather Part I and Part II as one of the greatest gangster epics of all time. While The Godfather trilogy dealt with themes of family, betrayal and humanity, Goodfellas gives us the whole shtick. It gives us the suits, the cars, the Italian food, the glamour of being a mafioso.
That whole movie has more iconic moments than most directors’ entire filmography. The ‘funny guy’ scene, the walk into the restaurant, the pistol whip on the neighbour, the shine box scene. That’s what I got off the top of my head. I’ve seen the movie so many times I could replay it scene-for-scene in my head.
One of the greatest achievements in cinema, it has had an influence on all cultural levels, from Tarantino movies to The Sopranos. They even did a parody of the restaurant tracking shot in an episode of Family Guy.
37. Hana-bi (‘Fireworks’, 1997)
An anime movie that is focused around two classmates who discover a magical ball which allows them to reset time. But each reset changes something fundamental and this leads to all new complications.
38. Hard Boiled (1992)
An amazing Hong Kong action crime drama that filled to the brim with twists about undercover cops, ruthless triads and a police inspector with anger issues.
39. Heat (1995)
One of the greatest crime dramas to date, Heat follows a detective who is after an ultra-genius criminal who has vowed to execute one last robbery before his retirement.
40. High Sierra (1941)
High Sierra is a noir styled heist movie that is brilliantly shot in the exciting high ground mountains in Sierra Nevada of California.
41. Il camorrista (‘The Professor’, 1986)
A crime drama featuring a lot of violence as an imprisoned man executes a brutal takeover in order to gain control over a Naples underground crime syndicate.
42. In Bruges (2007)
Two hitmen are stranded in Bruges, Belgium after an unsuccessful assassination. Matters further escalate when their boss orders one of them to kill the other.
43. Infernal Affairs (2002)
A heartless police officer uses his colleagues as pawns in order to fulfil his own evil wishes. The internal affairs department of the LAPD soon steps in.
44. Jackie Brown (1997)
A flight attendant is caught while smuggling gun money. She has a choice – she can either work with the police in order to apprehend her boss or she can stay quiet and fo to jail.
45. Key Largo (1948)
In the looming tension of an approaching hurricane, a man tries to find his friend but finds a gangster in his place. He tries to confront the man.
46. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
One of the most iconic and entertaining martial arts gang wars blend movies ever. The provides an exaggerated account of gang wars in China.
47. Layer Cake (2004)
A successful drug dealer is pulled out of retirement as he is forced to rescue the daughter of a bigshot businessman while acquiring drugs worth $2 billion.
48. Le Cercle Rouge (‘The Red Circle’, 1970)
A criminal gets released from prison and vows that he would never return to that world. But he is quickly taken back to the underworld after a chance encounter with a vicious murderer.
49. Le Samourai (1967)
A professional hitman is caught because a witness says that they saw him killing a man in a night club. He provides a number of alibies but none of it seems to work.
50. Leon: The Professional (1994)
A seasoned assassin takes under his wing a small girl whose family his killed. They form an intimate relationship and he teaches her the secrets of his trade.
51. Little Caesar (1931)
This crime drama is inspired by the life of Al Capone. A small-time criminal rises up the ranks and becomes a leader of a powerful gang.
52. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
A man persuades his friends and raises some money for a gambling game. against a powerful mob boss. He loses and is given only a week to pay him 500,000 pounds.
53. Mafioso (1962)
A Milan worker takes his family on a vacation to Sicily. There, he is forced to work for a mob boss in order to protect his family.
54. Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets was a story of guilt, sin, loyalty and friendship which circled around the relationship between Charlie (played by Harvey Keitel), a Catholic who works for the Italian Mafia and his friend Johnny Boy (played by de Niro), a gambling addict with countless debts to loan sharks. It helped shape Scorsese’s signature style which he’d use for future movies. Cinema would never be the same again.
55. Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008)
Mersine is a dangerous, vicious and charming criminal. The two movies depict the story of his rise through the crime ladder and his eventual arrest and subsequent escape.
56. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
An Irish mob boss offers protection to the brother of his moll. His rival intends to murder the man and the gangster’s right-hand man gets stuck between the two warring sides.
57. Mona Lisa (1986)
An old-time crook who is no longer fit for the crime business gets reduced to a driver of a rich high-class girl. He has to listen to her every bidding and this causes him a lot of trouble.
58. Nayakan (1987)
The gangster epic — inspired by Mario Puzo’s Godfather — brought together three great personalities of Indian cinema. Kamal Haasan, Illayaraja and Mani Ratnam. It’s the story of a downtrodden young, rebellious guy becoming a saviour of fellow downtrodden people. The film is partly based on real-life Tamil gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar. The nuance Kamal Haasan brings to the central role (Velu Naicker) is up there with Brando’s Corleone. While Mani Ratnam had creative freedom in Mouna Raagam, it was only in Nayakan that he fully developed his directorial voice. His penchant for sharp angles, light and darkness, sweeping set-ups were well established here.
This was P.C. Sreeram, Mani Ratnam’s second collaboration. Both were at an early phase of their career. It was with Nayakan that they started their journey of capturing a slice of life with all its layered features. There are few dated and mediocre elements in the film. But, Nayakan was much ahead of and different from the films of its time.
59. On the Waterfront (1954)
Our protagonist works for a mob boss involved in illegal activities. He then meets the sister of a man who was murdered by the same boss and decides to rebel against him.
60. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
A former gangster returns to New York. Here, he tries to face his old demons and confront his past in order to rectify the mistakes he made.
61. Only God Forgives (2013)
A drug smuggler is coerced into taking revenge for his murdered brother by his mother. The trail leads him to a lieutenant who is involved in the killing.
62. Pepe le Moko (1937)
A notorious gangster has been hiding in a small city for two whole years until he falls in love with a tourist. A local cop tries to use her to get to him.
63. Pudhupettai (2006)
A young boy witnesses the murder of his mother and is forced to escape. He is then recruited by a gangster and makes a lot of trouble.
64. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction has its own version of cool that the world accepted with no hesitation whatsoever. From the non-linear storyline to characters like Vincent Vega, Jules Winnfield, Mia Wallace, Marsellus Wallace and Butch Coolidge, 25 years on, the film is still an integral part of pop culture. It takes the cake as Quentin Tarantino’s best film, and can, undoubtedly, be called one of the greatest films ever made.
65. Pusher Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2005)
The Pusher movies explore in vivid detail the criminal underbelly of Copenhagen. All the movies feature different leading characters with previous leads coming back as supporting cast.
66. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Reservoir Dogs introduced Quentin Tarantino to the world, with his signature non-linear narratives, prolonged dialogues and lots and lots of blood. Bringing together a stellar cast, many of which would frequently collaborate in future projects, this movie gets off to a running start and doesn’t stop.
Whenever people think of Reservoir Dogs, the image above is what comes to mind. Tarantino’s production company, A Band Apart, even uses this image as its logo. Reservoir Dogs will forever remain one of the greatest directorial debuts in cinema.
67. Rififi (1955)
Four friends make an elaborate jewel heist plan. They account for everything apart from the human factor variables. This leads to complicated and interesting results.
68. Road to Perdition (2002)
An assassin is forced to go on the run because his son witnessed a murder committed by him. He is torn between the choices of staying loyal or protecting his child.
69. Salvatore Giuliano (1962)
The movie is based on the life of a Sicilian bandit, Salvatore Giuliano and is shot in the style of a neo-realist documentary. It mainly revolves around the people involved in his life.
70. Satya (1998)
A man’s brother is killed. He is fueled with rage and this leads him on the path of bloody revenge. He receives help from unlikely sources.
71. Scarface (1932)
A man forces his way to the top ranks of gangs and all the while protects his sister from his criminal life.
72. Scarface (1983)
A man and friend create a powerful drug empire in Miami. He gains immense power and with that a lot of enemies and paranoia, which eventually leads to his downfall.
73. Sexy Beast (2000)
A former gangster retires from his life of crime and wants to leave the underworld behind. But his boss threatens him and forces him to conduct one last heist for him.
74. Snatch (2000)
The movie explores the influence of gangs in boxing as a boxing promoter is brought into the world of match-fixing by a ruthless gangster.
75. Sonatine (1993)
A group of Yakuza are sent to Okinawa from Tokyo in order to curb a gang war. Their attempts fail and the war escalates. They then decide to lay low at the beach.
76. Subramaniapuram (2008)
Two friends kill a man who humiliated their third friend’s brother. They then surrender themselves to the police. They later discover that their friend had betrayed them.
77. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
A man released from prison plans a daring jewel heist. He recruits a few small-time criminals and all goes well until one of them dies. This is a story of backstabs, treachery and deceit.
78. The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005)
A violent gangster is fed up of hurting people. He tries to rekindle his dream of becoming a professional classical piano player but his past soon catches up with him.
79. The Big Heat (1953)
A detective’s wife was killed by a mob. He then teams up with a moll in order to bring the whole gang down.
80. The Departed (2006)
The Departed holds special significance to me as it was the first Scorsese movie I ever watched. This cat-and-mouse (well, rat) crime drama was Scorsese’s return to the gangster genre after more a decade. It saw him win Best Picture and Best Director for the first and only time in his career.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg play cops and gangsters who have moles on both sides. Wildly entertaining with engaging performances from almost everyone, The Departed is Scorsese’s best movie this century.
81. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This is the story of an ageing gunrunner who is given a choice- either cooperate with the police and become a snitch or rot in jail. The simple plot soon turns complex.
82. The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990)
The Godfather is one of those rare films that will stay with us as long as an apocalypse doesn’t hit us, destroying even the last vestiges of human civilization.
83. The Hit (1984)
A mobster turned informant is kidnapped by two hitmen. They must take him to Paris for his execution. But many unexpected things await them on the long and arduous journey.
84. The Killer (1989)
A hitman tries to retire after one last job but is betrayed by his boss. He then joins hands with an inspector in order to assert vengeance.
85. The Killing (1956)
A criminal recruits some interesting men for his final heist job before he marries his fiancee. But one of the men reveals the plot to his wife, who starts to make her own plans.
86. The Long Good Friday (1980)
A mob boss tries to go clean by reconstructing his neighbourhood for the Olympic games. But that place gets bombed. He suspects a mole and goes on a brutal hunt.
87. The Petrified Forest (1936)
Humphrey Bogart’s ticket to stardom in which an escaped gangster holds a number of people hostage in a restaurant. The tension is exhilarating.
88. The Public Enemy (1931)
An emotional tale of two gangsters who become the best of friends during the age of prohibition.
89. The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)
A cop from Jakarta goes undercover, impersonating a ruthless criminal. He attempts to bring down a host of criminals and corrupt members of the government.
90. The Roaring Twenties (1939)
A crime thriller following three war veterans who encounter various instances in their lives during the pre Prohibition period.
91. The Sicilian Clan (1969)
An old-time gangster and a young killer team up to hijack a plane carrying jewels from France.
92. The Untouchables (1987)
A Prohibition agent is tasked with exposing and subsequently putting a stop to Al Capone’s illegal liquor trade during the prohibition era.
93. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Usual Suspects was one of the standout films of nineties, as well as one of the coolest, and remains just as powerful and ambitious today. It feels even more distinctive and effective in age when films as daring and impeccably constructed are becoming scarcer.
94. The Yellow Sea (2010)
A taxi driver attempts to murder a professor. This attempt goes terribly wrong and now he is on the run.
95. Thief (1981)
A skilled jewel thief associates himself with a powerful gangster in order to carry out a big heist before retiring for good. But the gangster does not let him do so.
96. Things Change (1988)
A gangster lookalike is arrested and presented before the court in charge of a murder he did not commit. The following events completely change his life.
97. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Not to be confused with the Fast and Furious movie, this one is about the yakuza. A gang member has a hit on him which he desperately tries to escape.
98. Touchez pas au grisbi (‘Hands off the Loot’, 1954)
An ageing gangster and his companions carry out a robbery. Then the men fight amongst themselves for the haul.
99. True Romance (1993)
An Elvis fan falls in love with a prostitute. Consequences lead to him carrying a bag of cocaine that he wants to see with the mob on his tail.
100. White Heat (1949)
An interesting tale of a heist-gang and its leader as they carry out robberies. But they have a mole among them who is connected to the police.
How many have you ticked off your list? Which are your favourite gangster movies? What did we miss? Let’s talk in the comments below.