Movies nowadays, so the complaint goes, are much too long. But while the average running time may have expanded over the years – from around 90 minutes in the 1930s to just over 120 in the past couple of decades – epic narratives have always been a staple of cinema, from Intolerance (1916) to Avengers: Endgame (2019).
At 209 minutes, Martin Scorsese’s new gangster picture The Irishman is at the upper end of the scale – one reason, perhaps, that the film is being released on Netflix, home of the streaming series, with only a cursory release in theatres. Still, even this hefty saga pales beside some of the crime epics of the past, from Fritz Lang’s four-and-a-half-hour Dr Mabuse, the Gambler, released in two parts in 1922, to Sergio Leone’s sprawling Once upon a Time in America, of which the longest available cut runs to 251 minutes.
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But epic doesn’t have to mean punishingly long. In its standard definition, the term applies to a longform poem recounting the deeds of a legendary figure or dynasty, often spanning several years or even lifetimes. The same description might apply to epic cinema, as we follow our hero through the eras of their life, across years, decades and even generations. In the case of the epic crime drama, this often means following a ruthless character’s steady rise to power – or their final fall from grace.
Here are 10 great examples of the crime epic.
Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)
Director: Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang’s monumental silent drama follows the criminal exploits of the hypnotist, counterfeiter and gambling addict Dr Mabuse, and the Berlin authorities’ efforts to track him down. The only film on our list not to cover a span of years, at 268 minutes Mabuse is still a clear precursor of later epic gangster pictures, focusing not just on the villainous doctor and his adversaries in the police but on Mabuse’s employees – the hapless Pesch is the forerunner of every incompetent goon since – and his victims, aristocratic fools drawn in by the enigmatic conman.
Consequently, the film also anticipates movies like The Godfather by operating not just as mass entertainment, but as social satire: Mabuse, a corrupt charmer with the ability to bend others to his will, is a warped reflection of the populist leaders on the rise in Germany at the time, among them a certain Austrian corporal.
Rocco and His Brothers (1960)
Director: Luchino Visconti
Rocco Parondi arrives in Milan with his brothers Simone, Ciro and Luca and their elderly, shawl-headed Mama, immigrants from the struggling south come to visit their eldest sibling, Vincenzo. Soon, each of the brothers is forging his own path in this chilly concrete jungle, from shifts at the Alfa Romeo plant and success in the boxing ring to marriage, fatherhood, heartbreak and petty theft.
It may not deal with organised crime – what crime there is in Visconti’s film is badly disorganised, and often shockingly brutal – but in all other respects Rocco and His Brothers is the direct ancestor of later crime epics, a sprawling family saga crammed with emotion and melodrama, particularly in the operatic, nerve-shredding final scenes (“Jesus will regret what he did to this family!” bellows Mama, unforgettably). The comparisons are heightened by the fact that the great Nino Rota’s scores for this and The Godfather are at times almost indistinguishable.
The Godfather Saga (1977)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
For the first TV broadcast of his first two Godfather pictures, Francis Ford Coppola prepared something special: a complete chronological re-edit, tracing the fortunes of the Corleone family from turn-of-the-century Sicily to 1950s Nevada, and incorporating over an hour of unseen footage. This seven-hour-plus version loses a layer of dramatic irony, as we no longer cut between Vito Corleone’s brutal rise to power and his son Michael’s misguided efforts to keep it. But the gains are immense: with the additional scenes focusing largely on character rather than action, the Saga feels closer to a family epic like Rocco and His Brothers than a straightforward chronicle of violence.
The result is – like Coppola’s equally immense Apocalypse Now: Redux – an alternative rather than a replacement, a fresh way to experience a familiar story. Now if only they’d release it on Blu-ray.
Vengeance Is Mine (1979)
Director: Shohei Imamura
In Fukuoka, Japan, in 1963, conman Akira Nishiguchi murdered two people and then went on the run, committing three more killings and a string of frauds before he was finally apprehended some months later. In the hands of veteran director Shohei Imamura (The Insect Woman, The Ballad of Narayama), Nishiguchi’s lightly fictionalised life story becomes a forensic but always empathetic study of repression and regret, as the murderer and his family reflect on the choices that brought them here, picking back over their lives in an effort to understand the present.
Implacable behind black-rimmed glasses, Ken Ogata is terrifying as the unpredictable antihero, a vicious killer with a psychopath’s charm and a penchant for acts of random generosity. Gritty reportage for the most part, the film climaxes with an unforgettable moment of quasi-religious wonder, the unexpected emergence of the divine into a brutal world.
Once upon a Time in America (1984)
Director: Sergio Leone
If the producers of Sergio Leone’s monstrous prohibition-era gangland drama thought they were funding the next Godfather, they were to be bitterly disappointed. Hacked almost in half for its US release, the film was a drastic critical and commercial failure. But even in its longer versions – like the near complete 251-minute restoration screened at Cannes in 2012 – this is a far less approachable film than Coppola’s.
The apparent hero, Robert De Niro’s bitter street hustler Noodles, is a rapist and a murderer, a vicious thug with few redeeming features. The characters he surrounds himself with are equally seedy: petty thieves, bootleggers and corrupt union men. With its immense historical canvas, gold-tinged photography and an Ennio Morricone score that defines the term ‘sweeping’, Leone’s film is genuinely epic. But it’s a tough, unflinching ride.
Bullet in the Head (1990)
Director: John Woo
Like numerous directors before and since, Hong Kong action maestro John Woo parlayed the success of his first international hit – 1989’s The Killer – into a major passion project, a gloriously overblown, gleefully violent crime saga inspired by American war movies, his own slum upbringing and the still-fresh Tiananmen Square massacre.
In 1960s Hong Kong, a trio of small-time hoods led by Tony Leung’s aspirational Ben decide to exploit the war in Vietnam for their own gain, heading for Saigon to set themselves up as smugglers. The ensuing years will see them kidnapped by the Viet Cong, taking part in a village massacre and joining protests against the war, coming up against hitmen, heroin addicts, American soldiers, street prostitutes and Buddhist monks. Wildly uneven in tone, Woo’s film is nonetheless hugely entertaining, a grand, unpredictable and emotionally raw tale of friendship and revenge.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
Director: Brian De Palma
Not as culturally iconic as their previous collaboration, Scarface (1983), but not as messy, overacted and downright silly either, director Brian De Palma and star Al Pacino’s second crime epic together is a more measured affair. Once again nursing an almost believable Latino accent, Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican mobster who returns to the New York streets after five years inside, hoping to get rich quick and retire quietly.
In Scarface, Pacino’s mobster was a raging storm, here he’s the calm centre around which a cast of more picturesque oddballs revolve, notably John Leguizamo’s hustling Benny Blanco from the Bronx, Viggo Mortensen’s treacherous, wheelchair-bound Lalin and Sean Penn’s cocaine-crazed, Garfunkel-haired, accident-dying-to-happen Kleinfeld, one of the most memorably untrustworthy associates in gangster movie history.
City of God (2002)
Directors: Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
At a mere 130 minutes, this street-level account of life in the Rio slums is a little short for an epic. But Fernando Meirelles and his co-director Kátia Lund make every frame count, cooking up a wild storm of violent deaths, unexpected twists and shifting sympathies. Working with an almost exclusively amateur cast hand-picked from the real Rio favelas and trained over a period of months, Meirelles and Lund chronicle the intersecting lives of a disparate group of small-time thieves and drug dealers across three decades.
Centred on the quiet, thoughtful Rocket and his vicious, unpredictable polar opposite Li’l Zé, the film depicts a time of torturous change, as the favela and the city itself expand out of all recognition, and corruption and violence seep into every corner of public life. A massive success at home and abroad, the film inspired its own small-screen spin-off, the equally grandiose City of Men.
Director: David Fincher
A crime epic without the criminal, David Fincher’s forensically detailed account of the investigation into the Zodiac killings that terrorised San Francisco in the 1970s confines itself to murky shots of backwoods slayings and a lineup of creepy potential suspects. The focus shifts instead to the sleuths themselves: Mark Ruffalo’s police detective Toschi, Robert Downey Jr’s world-weary journo Avery and Jake Gyllenhaal’s political cartoonist turned amateur gumshoe Graysmith, on whose book the film was based.
Given how little on-screen violence Fincher depicts – and the fact that the case is still unsolved – it’s extraordinary how much tension he manages to cram in, from a horrifying incident on a night-time freeway to a deeply disturbing basement encounter between Graysmith and one of his chief suspects, played with ghoulish intensity by Roger Rabbit himself, Charles Fleischer.
Birds of Passage (2018)
Directors: Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra
Tracking the downfall not just of a criminal family but of an entire way of life, this Colombian odyssey depicts in stark detail how the country’s increasing reliance on illegal drug production lured and destroyed its indigenous population. Rapayet is a member of the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest native ethnic group, whose intricate customs and vividly coloured costumes are depicted in documentary detail in the film’s opening scenes. When a gang of American NGO workers ask him to score them a large quantity of marijuana, Rapayet starts along a path that will ultimately consume his entire clan.
Not as cosmically inclined as Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s phenomenal debut Embrace of the Serpent (2015), but every bit as rigorous in its evocation of South American history, Birds of Passage recasts the crime epic as social tragedy, as the lure of power and money takes precedence over long-held tradition.