Martin Scorsese’s epic 1990 mafia masterpiece, GoodFellas, is, like his other mob movies, marked by tough-talking wise guys, Rolling Stones bangers and stomach-turning violence. It pulls back the curtain on a world of dodgy deals and stone-faced killers who operate in the shadows of New York City. Whether filming a half-dead body in a boot of a car or a husband holding his gun to his wife’s head, Scorsese’s camera never flinches. Even if we do. A lot.
Based on the true story of one of the most violent mafia gangs in America – which was even more brutal in real life, for all you doubters – GoodFellas follows the rise and fall of Brooklyn mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). First comes the allure of life as a mafioso: the dough, the respect, the movie star treatment, the best table at the Copacabana. Then comes the dark side: the paranoia, the glances over the shoulder, the fear of getting whacked. It’s all conveyed in the eyes of the three main players: Joe Pesci’s diminutive loose canon Tommy DeVito; Robert De Niro’s wise guy ‘Jimmy the Gent’ Conway; and Liotta’s Henry Hill, a man whose addiction to life as a gangster is as severe as his addiction to coke.
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With those three blinding performances, those iconic lines (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) and that masterful Scorsese storytelling, GoodFellas has all the ingredients of an endlessly rewatchable classic. No wonder it’s been parodied so often. No wonder every subsequent gangster film routinely features cigar-chomping mobsters who are guaranteed to die from one of two things: being pumped full of slugs, or sky-high cholesterol.
Scorsese’s mafia picture (it’s always a ‘picture’ if it’s by Scorsese) returns to UK cinemas this week, accompanying a two-month retrospective of the director’s work at BFI Southbank. As you probably know, it’s not the only knockout gangster film by Scorsese, who can lay claim to being the don of mob movies. But, as you’ll see in the below line-up of heavy-hitting mafia movies, that turf is fiercely contested…
The Big Heat (1953)
Director: Fritz Lang
Penned by former crime reporter Sydney Boehm, Fritz Lang’s film about a cop who takes on a shady syndicate after they murder his wife is darker than most 1950s noirs. There’s a brutal scene in which Lee Marvin, in full tough guy mode as Vince Stone, tosses a jug of boiling hot coffee over Gloria Grahame, scalding one side of her face (she gets her own back later). Elsewhere, Stone, clearly a raging misogynist, stubs his cigarettes out on two other women. The Big Heat may be centred on Glenn Ford’s cardboard homicide detective, but Marvin’s bad guy owns the movie. With his deep baritone drawl and off-centre features, he was born to play a mobster.
The Godfather trilogy (1972-90)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
It’s clear in the opening 30 minutes – an extended wedding scene in which all the main players are established – that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is not only one of the best mafia movies but also one of the best movies about family. Not one gun is fired, not one drop of blood is spilt (yet). That’s the beauty of the trilogy as a whole: they’re more about generational divides and what happens when business becomes personal, when a son has to step up for his father. So much so that you catch yourself welling up during the death of someone – you remind yourself – who has been responsible for the killings of so many. Tell yourself it was Nino Rota’s sombre strains that got you.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie
“The mafia? I’ve shit ’em.” That’s how London gangsters like Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) deal with American wise guys in John Mackenzie’s classic British crime film The Long Good Friday. He’s the ruling kingpin of the capital’s underworld, building partnerships, building casinos, getting a little too greedy. Then the bombs start exploding and the murders begin, the ground beneath him revealing its cracks. It all sounds like run-of-the-mill stuff, but Hoskins’ performance as the small but formidable Shand shows the witty side of the East End underworld, as he reels off zingers like: “Shut up you long streak of paralysed piss.”
Director: Brian De Palma
Al Pacino has an electrifying screen presence in Scarface, Brian De Palma’s crime classic about the rise and fall of Tony Montana (Pacino), a Cuban immigrant who climbs up the ranks of the Miami drug scene in the 1980s. He looks every inch the mobster in his pressed suits, with his coke-smeared nostrils, casually wielding his ‘little friend’ like a deranged madman. You can’t tear your eyes away from him. Like De Niro’s mobsters – equally ubiquitous in the genre – Pacino never looks as comfortable as when he’s being a boss. No wonder both actors have been cast in so many tough guy roles. They own this genre as much as Scorsese and Coppola.
Once upon a Time in America (1984)
Director: Sergio Leone
Though your bladder may wish this four-hour epic was just a skosh shorter, Sergio Leone’s sprawling masterpiece, Once upon a Time in America, makes for gripping Sunday afternoon viewing. Its decades-spanning story follows a group of Jewish ghetto kids in 1920s NYC, as they sink deeper and deeper into a world of organised crime. With names like Noodles and Bugsy, you probably saw it coming.
The story is told non-chronologically, so you can see, jumping forward, how this life of crime screwed up their lives. In the end, what leaves the greatest impact, along with the reflective story about friendship and the changing shape of American society, is how vividly pre-war New York comes to life, as if you could step into the world on screen, hop on the back of a wooden cart and roll out of frame accompanied by a sweeping Ennio Morricone score.
A Bronx Tale (1993)
Director: Robert De Niro
De Niro’s face alone, by this point in film history, was synonymous with all things gangster. But in his directorial debut, A Bronx Tale, he casts himself as the level-headed father whose son lands a job in a mafia bar. The promise of riches and respect entices the teen, and soon he’s caught between two father figures: his dad, a hard-working bus driver, and his boss, local mobster Sonny LoSpecchio (Chazz Palminteri).
With its nostalgia-heavy doo-wop soundtrack, and its evocation of a time in New York when teens hung out on stoops and played stick in the street, De Niro’s mafia movie is an iron-clad classic. What’s most remarkable, though, is how they managed to find a kid who looks so believably like he sprang from the loins of De Niro. Seriously, it’s uncanny.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Scorsese’s three-hour epic doesn’t waste a second, with its breathless portrayal of a gambling empire, ruthless mobsters and a coke-addled trophy wife. On first viewing, it’s hard to shake the image of Joe Pesci clamping a guy’s head in a vice, or Joe Pesci stabbing a guy in the throat for mildly insulting his friend, or Joe Pesci being Joe Pesci. On second viewing, it’s the richness of the relationships that comes to the fore: the loveless marriage between Ginger (Sharon Stone) and Sam (Robert De Niro), or the old friends, Sam and Nicky, who’ve dramatically grown apart. Never in doubt, though, are the three dazzling performances from De Niro, Pesci and Stone. How can one director reel out so many masterpieces?
The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Departed, a more recent Scorsese crime caper, is a twisty tale derived from the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Transposed to Boston and centred on the Irish mafia, it follows a mole (Matt Damon) in the Massachusetts state police, planted by the formidable Irish mobster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). The police, too, have planted an undercover cop in the mafia (Leonardo DiCaprio), and what ensues is a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase across Boston, with multiple attempts to smoke out the rats and the moles. Expect shady mobsters hanging out in the back of dive bars, thick Boston accents, generous use of a Dropkick Murphys song, and zippy camerawork from Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Director: David Cronenberg
The Russian mafia come to London in David Cronenberg’s crime thriller Eastern Promises, and they don’t mess about. Naomi Watts plays the midwife plunged into this underworld when she delivers the baby of a drug-addicted 14-year-old Russian prostitute. As the film unspools, we learn about the Vory v Zakone family’s presence in the shadows of the city, their sex trafficking ring, and Viggo Mortensen’s heavily inked mob driver, who’s as ruthless as they come – not least when he’s fighting two guys who come at him with knives in a public shower, while he’s unarmed and naked as the day he was born.
Director: Matteo Garrone
‘Presented by Martin Scorsese’ and based on a true story, Matteo Garrone’s blistering Neapolitan mafia movie, Gomorrah, spotlights Italy’s modern crime families. We see everything – the turf war, the organised crime in Naples and how it’s corrupted all levels of society – through the eyes of two lanky, Scarface-obsessed teens. They strive to be local bosses themselves, like Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, but they’re a long way from Miami. And Hollywood, for that matter.
Garrone’s gloss-free film feels singular in the genre, in that the police or the authorities aren’t so much a part of the story. Perhaps because of that, it’s raw and immersive in a way most American mob movies aren’t, as if the genre had been filtered through a neorealist lens.