Here are 15 gangster pictures that had a profound effect on me and the way I thought about crime and how to portray it on film. They excited me, provoked me, and in one way or another, they had the ring of truth.
I stopped before the ‘70s because we’re talking about influence here, and I was looking at movies in a different way after I started making my own pictures. There are many gangster films I’ve admired in the last 40 years— Performance, the Godfather saga, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, The Long Good Friday, Sexy Beast, John Woo’s Hong Kong films.
The films below I saw when I was young, open, impressionable.
The Public Enemy (1931)
The shocking, blunt brutality; the energy of Cagney in his first starring role; the striking use of popular music (the song “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”)—this picture led the way for all of us.
[Howard] Hawks’ film is so fast, so fluid, so funny, and so excitingly expressionistic. The audacity of it is amazing. It was finished by 1930, but it was so violent that it was held up by the censors.
Blood Money (1933)
Rowland Brown, a largely forgotten figure, made three tough, sardonic movies in the early ‘30s, each one very knowledgeable about city politics, corruption, the coziness between cops and criminals. This is my favorite. The ending is unforgettable.
The Roaring Twenties (1939)
In 1939, Raoul Walsh and Mark Hellinger’s classic was seen as a sendoff to the gangster genre, which seemed to have run its course. But it’s more than that. Much more. It plays like a journal of the life of a typical gangster of the period, and it covers so much ground, from the battlefields of France to the beer halls to the nightclubs, the boats that brought in the liquor, the aftermath of Prohibition, the whole rise and fall of ‘20s gangsterdom, that it achieves a very special epic scale—really, it was the template for GoodFellas and Casino. It also has one of the great movie endings.
Force of Evil (1948)
John Garfield is the mob lawyer, Thomas Gomez is his brother, a numbers runner who’s loyal to his customers and his employees. The conflict is elemental—money vs. family—and the interactions between the brothers are shattering. The only gangster picture ever done in blank verse, by Abraham Polonsky. Truthfully, it had as great an impact on me as Citizen Kane or On the Waterfront.
White Heat (1949)
Cagney and Walsh bit into this movie about a psychopathic gangster with a mother fixation as if they’d just abandoned a hunger strike. They intentionally pursued the madness of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, a psychopathic gang leader with a mother complex. The level of ferocity and sustained energy is breathtaking, and it all comes to a head in the scene where Cagney goes berserk in the dining hall… which never fails to surprise me.
Night and the City (1950)
Desperation, no holds barred. We all loved and admired Richard Widmark from his first appearance in Kiss of Death, but his performance as Harry Fabian marked us forever. As did the rest of this hair-raising picture set in post-war London, the first made by Jules Dassin after he escaped the blacklist.
Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954)
Jacques Becker, who had worked as Jean Renoir’s assistant, made this picture with Jean Gabin, about an aging mobster who is forced out of retirement to save his old partner. The style is elegant and understated, the aura of weariness and mortality extremely powerful.
The Phenix City Story (1955)
A completely unsentimental picture by Phil Karlson that closely follows the true story of wholesale corruption, intimidation, racism, and terrifying brutality in the once-notorious town of Phenix City, Alabama—where it was shot on location… in 10 days! Fast, furious, and unflinching.
Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)
A beautifully made picture, in glorious color and Scope, directed by and starring Jack Webb as a cornet player in the ‘20s whose professional life is infiltrated and turned inside out by a Kansas City gangster (Edmund O’Brien). This kind of situation happened over and over again in the big-band years and later during the doo-wop era. It’s also at the center of Love Me or Leave Me, another tough Scope musical made around the same time.
Murder by Contract (1958)
A highly unusual, spare, elemental picture made on a low budget by Irving Lerner—a lesson in moviemaking. It’s about a hired gunman (Vince Edwards), and it’s from his point of view. The scenes where he’s alone in his apartment preparing for a hit were very much on my mind when we made Taxi Driver, and we studied the haunting guitar score and its role in the action when we were working on the music for The Departed with Howard Shore. For me, an inspiration.
Al Capone (1959)
This sharp, spare low-budget film by Richard Wilson, one of Orson Welles’ closest collaborators, deserves to be better known. Rod Steiger is brilliant as Capone—charming, boorish, brutal, ambitious. There’s not a trace of sentimentality. Wilson also made another striking crime film, Pay or Die, about the Black Hand in Little Italy right after the turn of the century.
Le Doulos (1962)
The French master Jean-Pierre Melville, a close student of American moviemaking, made a series of genuinely great, extremely elegant, intricate, and lovingly crafted gangster pictures, in which criminals and cops stick to a code of honor like knights in the age of chivalry. This is one of the best, and it might be my personal favorite.
A transplanted northerner living up north with his wife and family (the great Alberto Sordi) goes home to Sicily, and little by little, gets sucked back into the old loyalties, blood ties, and obligations. It starts as a broad comedy. It gradually becomes darker and darker… and darker, and by the end you’ll find the laughs catching in your throat. One of the best films ever made about Sicily.
Point Blank (1967)
This was one of the first movies that really took the storytelling innovations of the French New Wave—the shock cuts, the flash-forwards, the abstraction—and applied them to the crime genre. Lee Marvin is Walker, the man who may or may not be dreaming, but who is looking for vengeance on his old partner and his former wife. Like Burt Lancaster in the 1948 I Walk Alone, another favorite, he can’t get his money when he comes out of jail and enters a brave new corporate world. John Boorman’s picture re-set the gangster picture on a then-modern wavelength. It gave us a sense of how the genre could pulse with the energy of a new era.