The onset of Prohibition and the Great Depression era in the late 1920s America led to the origination of the gangster 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 gun fires, police sirens, squealing tires, and quick-witted dialogues brought a fullness to gangster cinema history. 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’ infused a poetic tone to the gangster genre 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 gangster films of the 1950s & 60s and flashy Hong Kong gangster movies of the 1980s fascinatingly broadened the confines of on-screen gangland. One may not condone the immoral protagonist’s behavior. But there’s a certain appeal in gangster movies, providing us with an adrenaline rush and serving the warning note, ‘crime never pays.’
Here’s an exhaustive compilation of the best gangster movies to enrich your gangster-film grammar (in no particular 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 revolutionized the entire international industry of cinema.
2. A Bittersweet Life (2005)
A great Korean gangster action drama with some amazing action, A Bittersweet Life has 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 masterfully depicts the contrasting lives of a New York City everyman and a local mobster. He shows how difficult it is to carry out dual identities simultaneously.
4. Casino (1995)
A Goodfellas-esque setting, except it’s in Las Vegas. A time when Vegas was different, not the family-friendly modern version, but a city whose gambling games were strictly controlled by the mafia. The film’s central character, Sam “Ace” Rothstein, is a professional gambler tasked with managing a mob-controlled casino in Las Vegas. The narrative offers a unique look into the operations of casinos, capturing the thrill and excitement of it. Casino was lauded for its realistic depiction of the people playing and conducting games like Blackjack, Poker, Roulette, Baccarat, etc. It was one of Scorsese’s commercially successful films, proving that the gambling world of glitzy Las Vegas compelled audiences.
5. A History of Violence (2005)
An extremely interesting crime drama concerning a diner owner who saves his customers from gun-toting intruders. Subsequently, he gets on the bad side of a gangster. This movie is a brilliant dark tale of murder and deception.
6. A Prophet (2009)
A Prophet is an epic crime saga set in prison. It is a story about the apotheosis of a common man in the ranks of a mob and the consequential hardships that follow suit.
7. American Gangster (2007)
This all-American gangster movie is a celebration of old Hollywood gangster tropes. With a simple plot with complex meanings and extremely sincere performances, this is a movie for the ages.
8. 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.
9. Bob le flambeur (‘Bob the Gambler’, 1956)
Bob, a gambler, loses all his money. He fabricates a daring plan in order to break into the vault of a well-guarded, mob-backed casino.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Bugsby (1991)
Bugsy is a biographical crime and romance drama coupled with the spice of romance. It’s set in the backdrop of Hollywood and with a dream to create a gambling haven in Las Vegas.
13. Carlito’s Way (1993)
Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way is based around the life of an ex-convict (Al Pacino). He tries to lead a quiet life after being released from prison. But his past soon catches up with him.
14. City of God (2002)
City of God, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins. Two children are brought up under very difficult circumstances. Despite that, they both take different paths in their lives – one a photographer, the other a drug dealer.
15. Company (2002)
One of the best gangster movies from Bollywood, in which two people coming from the lower ends of the food chain collaborates and form a gang together. As the gang gains more power, their relationship slowly falls apart.
16. Donnie Brasco (1997)
A movie with a lot of tension as an FBI agent (Johnny Depp) 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.
17. Drive (2011)
A very enigmatic movie that pits a stunt driver against a dangerous gangster as he tries to save his lady love from her manipulative husband.
18. Eastern Promises (2007)
A brooding and intense gangster drama that is told from the perspective of a woman who investigates the sexual assaults of a teen from a Russian mafia.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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. Two hitmen chase him throughout this amazing thriller.
22. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
One of the best gangster movies 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.
23. Get Carter (1971)
A story of a cold-blooded gangster who goes berserk and just leaves death in his path as he goes on in search of his brother’s killer.
24. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1998)
It’s 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.
25. Gomorrah (2008)
One of the subtle and best gangster movies, Gomorrah is a docu-drama-like study of the Camorra crime syndicate in the Italian region of Campania.
26. Goodfellas (1990)
“As far as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” While The Godfather trilogy dealt with themes of family and betrayal, Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese gives us the whole shtick. It gives us the suits, the cars, the Italian food, the glamour of being a mafioso.
27. Hana-bi (‘Fireworks,’ 1997)
Takeshi Kitano’s subdued tale of cops and gangsters. Kitano plays the central character, a cop who escapes from a yakuza gang without paying a loan.
28. Hard Boiled (1992)
An amazing Hong Kong gangster film that is filled to the brim with twists about undercover cops, ruthless triads, and a police inspector with anger issues.
29. Heat (1995)
One of the greatest crime dramas to date, Heat follows a detective who is after an ultra-genius criminal (Robert De Niro) who has vowed to execute one last robbery before his retirement.
30. High Sierra (1941)
High Sierra is a noir-styled heist and gangster movie that is brilliantly shot in the exciting high-ground mountains in the Sierra Nevada of California.
31. Infernal Affairs (2002)
A heartless police officer uses his colleagues as pawns in order to fulfill his own evil wishes. Soon, he finds a righteous nemesis.
32. 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.
33. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
One of the most iconic and entertaining martial arts gang wars blended movie. It provides an exaggerated account of gang wars in China.
34. 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.
35. Le Cercle Rouge (‘The Red Circle,’ 1970)
It’s a French gangster film by Jean-Pierre Melville. A criminal gets released from prison and vows that he will never return to that world. But he is quickly taken back to the underworld after a chance encounter with a vicious murderer.
36. Le Samourai (1967)
A professional hitman is caught because a witness says that they saw him killing a man in a nightclub. He provides a number of alibies, but none of it seems to work.
37. Little Caesar (1931)
The life of Al Capone inspires this gangster film. A small-time criminal rises up the ranks and becomes a leader of a powerful gang.
38. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
A man persuades his friends and raises some money for gambling games. against a powerful mob boss. He loses and is given only a week to pay him 500,000 pounds.
39. 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.
40. Mean Streets (1973)
Mean Streets was a story of guilt, sin, loyalty, and friendship that circled around the relationship between Charlie, a Catholic who works for the Italian Mafia, and his friend Johnny Boy (Robert de Niro), a gambling addict with countless debts to loan sharks.
41. 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.
42. 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.
43. Nayakan (1987)
The gangster film brought together three great personalities of Indian cinema: Kamal Haasan, Illayaraja, and Mani Ratnam. It tells the story of a downtrodden young, rebellious guy becoming a savior of fellow downtrodden people.
44. 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.
45. 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.
46. 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.
47. 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, and Marsellus Wallace, the film is still an integral part of pop culture. It takes the cake as Quentin Tarantino’s best film.
48. 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.
49. 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.
50. Road to Perdition (2002)
An assassin is forced to go on the run because his son witnessed a murder. He is torn between the choices of staying loyal or protecting his child.
51. Salvatore Giuliano (1962)
The gangster film 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.
52. 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.
53. Scarface (1932)
A man forces his way to the top ranks of gangs and, all the while, protects his sister from his criminal life.
54. Scarface (1983)
A man and friend create a powerful drug empire in Miami. He gains immense power and, with that, a lot of enemies, which eventually leads to his downfall.
55. 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.
56. 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.
57. 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.
58. 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.
59. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)
A violent gangster is fed up with hurting people. He tries to rekindle his dream of becoming a professional classical piano player, but his past soon catches up with him.
60. The Big Heat (1953)
A mob killed a detective’s wife. He then teams up with a moll in order to bring the whole gang down.
61. The Departed (2006)
This cat-and-mouse gangster film was a return to the genre for Martin Scorsese after more than a decade. It won him win Best Picture and Best Director for the first and only time in his career.
62. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
This is the story of an aging gunrunner who is given a choice- either cooperate with the police and become a snitch or rot in jail. The simple gangster film plot soon turns complex.
63. 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.
With acting greats like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and many others, this trilogy stands as a milestone in the history of cinema.
64. 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.
65. 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.
66. 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.
67. The Long Good Friday (1980)
A mob boss tries to go clean by reconstructing his neighborhood for the Olympic games. But that place gets bombed. He suspects a mole and goes on a brutal hunt.
68. 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.
69. The Public Enemy (1931)
An emotional tale of two gangsters who become the best of friends during the age of prohibition. It’s one of the very defining prohibition-era gangster movies.
70. The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)
A cop from Jakarta goes undercover and befriends a ruthless criminal. He attempts to bring down a host of criminals and corrupt members of the government.
71. The Roaring Twenties (1939)
A crime thriller following three war veterans who encounter various instances in their lives during the pre-Prohibition period.
72. 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.
73. The Yellow Sea (2010)
A taxi driver attempts to murder a professor. This attempt goes terribly wrong, and now he is on the run.
74. Touchez pas au grisbi (‘Hands off the Loot’, 1954)
An aging gangster and his companions carry out a robbery. Then the men fight amongst themselves for the haul.
75. 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.