No genre has influenced the public’s perception of criminals more than Gangster Movies. For more than 80 years, the best gangster movies have fascinated and allured the minds of millions; from Prohibition-era pre-code crime to 21st Century gang life. Our list of the 30 best gangster movies of all time includes films that span the globe and were produced in different time periods, with very different budgets.
Whether sensational like De Palma’s Scarface or grounded like Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, audiences have grown to see gangsters in new ways. But their binding similarity is that they are each responsible for shaping the publics’ view of gangsters.
GOOD MODERN GANGSTER MOVIES
30. American Gangster (2007)
What better way to begin than with a film with the genre in the name? The eponymous American Gangster had a strong showing at the box office in 2007, grossing over $266 million on a $100 million budget. The film was directed by Ridley Scott, written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), and starred Denzel Washington.
The plot of the film takes place mostly in the 1960s, which gives American Gangster the unique perspective of being able to look back at 20th-century crime from the present. The result is a blockbuster film somewhere between popcorn filler and violent think-piece.
FAMOUS NEW YORK GANGSTER MOVIES
29. King of New York (1990)
King of New York is a film that fits into the stylistic tone of other New York City underworld movies, Escape from New York and Good Time. The use of color; like neon deep blues, gives this sub-genre an interesting visual tone.
King of New York is a film with an all-star cast, headed by lead actor Christopher Walken. This gangster crime movie raises points about the “Robin Hood” nature of gangsters, and how gangsters sometimes envision themselves as heroes.
CLASSIC IRISH GANGSTER MOVIES
28. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the first great Boston mob films. Boston has a unique perspective within gangster movies because of the city’s long history with Irish, Italian, and African-American gangs.
This particular story is about the dealings of the Irish mob, partially inspired by Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. The Friends of Eddie Coyle shot entirely on location in the Massachusetts area and is one of the most authentic gangster films ever made.
GOOD 21ST CENTURY GANGSTER MOVIES
27. Killing Them Softly (2012)
The most modern gangster film on this list, Killing Them Softly addresses the impact of organized crime on American society after the collapse of the housing market. It also happens to be one of the best crime movies.
The themes of questioning loyalty and escape from poverty are shown in new and modern lights. It's one of the best Brad Pitt movies and James Gandolfini also gives an excellent performance. The last scene, although divisive among viewers, is one that has stuck with me for years.
CLASSIC GANGSTER MOVIES LIST
26. The Untouchables (1987)
Anchored by an incredible cast and helmed by Brian De Palma, The Untouchables is one of the most iconic gangster films ever made. Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro all turn in incredible performances. The Untouchables is a Prohibition-era crime film that mixes police procedural and thriller to a satisfying degree.
KUBRICK’S GANGSTER MOVIE
25. The Killing (1956)
There are heist movies and there are gangster movies, and then there’s Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Kubrick’s 3rd film, The Killing, has given enormous inspiration to the likes of Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, and Logan Lucky.
Kubrick’s picture follows a career criminal's last dance of stealing $2,000,000 at the racetrack. But, of course, complications arise. The Killing also shares many similarities to the 1955 film, Rafifi; both films exist in a transitional space between “Hollywood” gangster movies and film noir. Fun fact: Rafifi was a French film but it was made by a blacklisted Hollywood filmmaker.
ITALIAN GANGSTER MOVIES
24. Mafioso (1962)
Although nearly 60 years old, the themes of Mafioso still ring true today. In the first part of the film, the social and cultural distinctions between the North (Milan) and the South (Sicily) are portrayed beautifully.
From costuming to dialogue, everything is expertly crafted. In the second part, a tonal shift makes Sordi’s character despaired, haunted by the ghost of a life of crime. In Mafioso, the mafia renders a person into a cog within a machine, and watching that happen is more fascinating now than ever.
TOP MIAMI GANGSTER MOVIES
23. Scarface (1983)
Brian De Palma’s remake of the 1932 film of the same name, is bigger, bolder, and better. Pacino turns in an over the top performance in all the right ways. The 1983 Scarface was also significant for its style.
Television shows like Miami Vice and games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City would go on to draw heavy inspiration from Scarface in constructing their own vision of Miami crime.
HOOD GANGSTER MOVIES
22. Menace II Society (1993)
Menace II Society is one of the great Los Angeles gangster movies. Released just one year after the ‘92 LA riots, Menace II Society spoke sympathy to some and stoked the fire for others. Nonetheless, The Hughes Brothers directorial debut is one of the most essential gangster films ever made.
SCORSESE GANGSTER MOVIES LIST
21. Mean Streets (1973)
Martin Scorsese’s third directorial feature Mean Streets is one of his most influential. Scorsese said that he was attracted to the idea of making films about him and his friends. He even compared himself to De Niro’s character Johnny Boy, the irresponsible fool of the film.
The film takes place in Little Italy, New York, and puts Scorsese’s experiences in the neighborhood front and center. There’s mafia, police corruption, and crime in spades. What more would one expect from a Scorsese gangster picture?
FAMOUS GANGSTER CRIME MOVIES
20. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Donnie Brasco is a good mafia movie elevated by extraordinary performances from Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. It tells the story of Mafia crime in the 1970s from two perspectives; the FBI and the mob.
Depp finds a rare balance of emotional depth in playing a dual role as an FBI agent (Joseph Pistone) who becomes someone new after infiltrating the mob (Donnie Brasco). This is also inspired by a true story which lends a sense of credence and authenticity to the film.
GREATEST BRITISH GANGSTER MOVIES
19. Snatch (2001)
Guy Ritchie made an explosive entrance to the world of cinema with his debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But in his second film Snatch, Ritchie improves on the British Gangster formula with an all-star cast and heavy stylization.
Brad Pitt steals the show as a gypsy prizefighter. Much of the movie is about the different sects of British gangs — “pikeys,” bookies, and London crooks. There’s even an element of international gang commentary between Irish and British. This is all packed into 100 minutes of violent crime and rollicking fun.
IRISH GANGSTER CRIME MOVIES
18. The General (1998)
Paranoia seeps into the mind of gangster Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) like a drug by the end of The General. After drawing the ire of the IRA with his business dealings, Cahill is forced to reflect on a lifetime of mischief and crime.
This is an authentic Irish film that portrays authentic Irish crime; such as the crimes of the Catholic church and the corruption of the police. Cahill is a real Irish gangster played by a real Irish actor.
But the differences between the Italian Mafia and the Irish Mob have never been clearer. Still, the themes of controlling your city and pride in your work stay at the forefront of the seminal film, The General.
JAMAICAN GANGSTER MOVIES LIST
17. The Harder They Come (1972)
The Harder They Come is perhaps best known for its infectious reggae soundtrack, which holds its own against the best movie songs. But at the heart of the picture, is an important commentary on gangster celebrity. The protagonist Ivan, played by Jimmy Cliff, wants to be a reggae singer but corruption and poverty keep him from success.
Instead, Ivan finds himself enraptured in a life of crime. He becomes infamous for killing police officers. In turn, his former record label releases his song and reaps the profits of his celebrity. Ivan succumbs to a glorified view of the gangster which ultimately forces his downfall.
JAMES CAGNEY GANGSTER FILMS
16. Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Billed as “the most devastating blast of drama to hit the screen since Public Enemy,” Angels with Dirty Faces mostly makes true on its assertion. In many ways, this is the spiritual successor to Public Enemy; the chief difference being that Angels With Dirty Faces was produced after the institution of censorship guidelines.
The film condemns the gangster lifestyle even more than before. This is also one of the first gangster films to heavily involve the Catholic faith, which would go on to become a major characteristic of Mafia films.
GREATEST SCORSESE GANGSTER MOVIES
15. The Departed (2006)
The Departed is adapted from the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs is an excellent movie in its own right and I considered putting it here in place of The Departed. But I came to the conclusion that if one film outranked the other, it was The Departed.
Scorsese paints a sensational portrait of South Boston crime with Jack Nicholson commanding the screen in one of his all-time great performances. In some ways, The Departed is the antithesis of The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Whereas the former is loud, explosive, and consequential, the latter is quiet, understated, and contextual.
The Departed is one of the great gangster movies of all-time, it just doesn’t say much beyond its subject matter.
COCKNEY GANGSTER FILMS
14. The Long Good Friday (1980)
The Long Good Friday is the quintessential British gangster film. Bob Hoskins plays the leader of a British gang that plans to start a partnership with the American Mafia in hopes that he can become a legitimate businessman.
But things start to unravel as conflicts between British, American, and Irish gangs arise. The Long Good Friday is also significant because of its detailed re-creation of Cockney crime.
LA HOOD GANGSTER FILMS
13. Boyz n the Hood (1991)
John Singleton’s directorial debut Boyz n the Hood is a landmark achievement in film-making. It started a whole sub-movement of art that addressed street life in Los Angeles during this period of rioting and fear. Boyz n the Hood is a cautionary tale about the gangster lifestyle; and how even if you don’t choose it, it might choose you depending on who you are and where you live.
The film is also a warning to the audience about the effects of gentrification and how institutions proliferate crime to keep people down. Many films before Boyz n the Hood explored the idea of community gang life but none put into words its effect like Laurence Fishburne’s Furious Styles did on a Compton street corner.
PROHIBITION-ERA GANGSTER MOVIES
12. Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing is a phenomenal Prohibition-era crime movie. What does crime do to a man? Does it strip him of his morals and humanity or make him more of who he always was? These are the questions that Miller’s Crossing explores across a thrilling backdrop of Irish and Italian gangs.
ORSON WELLES’ GANGSTER CRIME
11. Touch of Evil (1958)
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is one of the greatest gangster crime movies ever made. The film served as a return to Hollywood for Orson Welles, albeit a brief one at that. The original release of the film was partially re-written and re-shot after Welles was dismissed from the project. Despite the arduous production, Touch of Evil emerged as the seminal gangster film about the corruption of the drug trade on the U.S. — Mexico border.
TOP 10 GANGSTER MOVIES
10. The French Connection (1971)
Part police thriller, part international gangster drama, The French Connection is one of the most praised films of each genre. Gene Hackman plays New York detective “Popeye” who uncovers a New York City drug trade with a French connection (Ha! How ironic!).
This story is unique within the gangster genre because it’s told from the perspective of the cops, who solve the gang case one clue at a time. Still, I consider The French Connection a gangster movie although it’s told from the other side.
TOP ITALIAN GANGSTER MOVIES
9. Gomorrah (2008)
By the year 2000, world culture had grown to see gangster films as a mostly sensational, idyllic genre. Popular gangster movies were rife with moral praise; often creating heroes and badass anti-heroes out of people the court would sentence to death.
Gomorrah, which is based on a book of the same name about the real Mafia group from Napoli, has no intent of glamorizing gang life. In fact, Gomorrah is an indictment of gangster films that have inspired young people to take up a life of crime.
One film in particular that is condemned in this way is Scarface. Children in the film say they want to be like Tony Montana but the life of crime they find is not the one that they had envisioned from the movies.
TOP FRENCH GANGSTER FILMS
8. A Prophet (2009)
Jacques Audiard directs this thrilling gangster film about a young man who finds himself recruited into the Corsican Mafia while serving a prison sentence. A Prophet is a remarkably modern gangster movie.
At the center of the film is a struggle between Muslim and Corsican French cultures. The protagonist, played Tahar Rahim, is a man that is caught between these cultures. On one side, he has his ancestry. On the other, he has the illusion of a future.
This is a film that has roots in older gangster films like The French Connection and The Godfather. Similar themes arise but are shown in unique lights.
TOP BRAZILIAN GANGSTER MOVIES
7. City of God (2002)
City of God is a unique gangster film for a few reasons.
- It’s told by a narrator.
- It uses photography to connect the story.
- It’s one of the few prominent Brazilian gangster movies.
We’ve explored gangster movies from the perspective of the criminal, the cop, and the bystander. But what about a gangster movie from the perspective of someone documenting it?
City of God is about the rise and fall of criminal under lords throughout the Cidade de Deus favela in Brazil. It also represents a cast made up primarily of people who lived in that favela. The whole film has a documentary-style feel to it while very much still being a thriller.
TOP RUSSIAN GANGSTER MOVIES
6. Eastern Promises (2007)
The story follows a British nurse who becomes entangled in the Russian Mafia after discovering the notebook of a young girl that connected her pregnancy to a prominent mobster. Eastern Promises is the definitive Russian Mob movie and one of Mortensen’s best performances ever.
BEST CLASSIC GANGSTER MOVIES
5. The Public Enemy (1931)
The pre-code era of film from the late 1920s to 1934 produced some of the most interesting Hollywood films ever made. Pre-code exists after the silent era but before the advent of censorship guidelines. Perhaps no film is more iconic of this short time than The Public Enemy.
This was an era of fundamental transition for the American people. The wealth and grandeur that pushed the 1920s through, exhausted itself entirely for the decade to come. The Great Depression was a time of intense strife and complex moral decisions.
The Public Enemy put these issues center stage while telling one of the first large-scope stories of gangsters in cinema history.
GREATEST GANGSTER MOVIES
4. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
He originally wanted the film to be split into two three-hour features but the studio told him he had to cut it into one film. Leone cut it down to 269 minutes but the studio was not satisfied with his attempts at shortening it. He conceded to a 229-minute version but the American version was further cut without his permission to 139 minutes.
The result of the cuts was mass confusion amongst audiences. If the confusion wasn’t enough, the film was further censored for explicit content. It wasn’t until 2012 that the restored 255-minute version was made available to the public — which is a shame because it’s such a terrific film.
It’s a decades-spanning story of friendship and loyalty in the mob in New York City. De Niro gives one of the best performances of his career as a conflicted, opium sick, mobster dreamer. Some of the content is extremely heavy and pushes the boundary, even for a gangster film. But when all is said and done, the full cut of Once Upon a Time in America is one of the top five best gangster movies of all-time.
BEST GANGSTER MOVIES OF ALL-TIME
3. The Godfather (1972)
Saying something against The Godfather is like complaining about winning a million-dollar lottery — nobody wants to hear it. Francis Ford Coppola’s undeniable masterpiece is an adaption of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name. Marlon Brando gives his all-time great performance as Don Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the Corleone crime family.
This is the most iconic gangster film ever made. Every cinema fan knows the image of Don Vito holding the cat, the horse in the bed, or Michael shutting the door on his former life. And for good reason, these are some of the most expressive and emotional moments in film history. Puzo and Coppola's brilliant screenplay is like a cherry on top and if there’s any argument against The Godfather, it’s that its story wasn’t fully told in the first film.
FAMOUS GANGSTER FILMS
2. Goodfellas (1990)
Goodfellas is a film that I’ve watched nearly a dozen times and have found a new way to appreciate it every time. Martin Scorsese directed the film based on an adaption of the novel Wiseguy by Nicholas Pillegi.
The film begins with Liotta as the narrator saying “as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” From there, the film takes you on a tour of the Brooklyn Italian crime world, and halfway through it, you’ll probably want to be a gangster too.
There’s sex, drugs, and vice galore — and the wiseguys on-screen seem like they’re having the time of their life. But by the end of the film, Scorsese does away with the glamorized view of gangsters and cripples his protagonist to the one thing every gangster hates — a rat.
GREATEST GANGSTER MOVIE OF ALL-TIME
1. The Godfather Part II (1974)
No shot in film history has sobered me more than that of Pacino’s Michael Corleone, fist over the face, pondering the choices that have led him to this moment.
The camera zooms towards him, and all we hear is silence. Michael’s eyes gaze into oblivion. Then, the unforgettable music swells and the tragedy of both Godfather films wash over you like a monsoon. Perhaps no character demonstrates the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely” more than Michael Corleone.
Over the course of two films, we see how his gangster ascent correlates directly to his moral descent. Both films are masterclasses, but it’s The Godfather Part II that takes the top spot on this list, for its flawless execution of gangster film themes.
The Best Mafia Movies
Gangster movies cover a lot of ground, including Mafia movies, but this is our list of Mafia-centric entries only. But in case you're thinking this list is only Italian Mafia, you're dead wrong. Sure, the word Mafia is Italian and there are obviously Italian mob movies on the list but we've got entries from around the world — including the best Irish, Japanese, Russian, British mob movies, and more. Read on or else we'll have to go to the mattresses.