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Home Blog Features Public Enemies: Cinema's Greatest Gangsters
Public Enemies: Cinema's Greatest Gangsters Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 03 July 2009 10:48

"The cops ain't tough enough, smart enough or fast enough. I can hit any bank I want, any time. They got to be at every bank, all the time." So speaks John Dillinger, officially FBI's most wanted man in 1933. He robbed banks, broke out of jail, lived life to the max. But was he really that dangerous? I bet he never took down a rival drug-ring or threw Martin Sheen off a roof.

So that begs the question: who are cinema's greatest gangsters? It's a dog-eat-dog world, but who gots bigger teeth than the rest of them? Who is the Public Enemy Number One?


10. Don Logan (Ben Kingsley - Sexy Beast)

"No, no, no, no, no, no!" Jonathan Glazer's 2000 gangster flick was the Brit director's debut film. Introducing the world to English criminals who didn't walk around like Guy Ritchie characters, it brought us Ray Winstone's Gary Dove, a safe-cracker who has now retired after 9 years in prison. Cue the return of the underworld into his life - not just in the form Lovejoy (who runs a mini-empire of evil in London), but also Don Logan.

A recruiter with a penchant for expletives, Don is perhaps most politely described as a violent, malevolent sociopath ("You want me to cut your hand off and use it as an ashtray?") Refuse his offers and he'll swear at you until your ears fall off and die. The kind of abusive tirade that earns an actor an Oscar nomination - and inspires Raiph Fiennes' turn in In Bruges. Forget Gandhi; Malcolm Tucker's got nothing on Ben Kingsley. Check him out in action over here.



9. Cheech (Chazz Palminteri - Bullets over Broadway) 

David Shayne (John Cusack) is a struggling playwright. Desperate for his play, Gods of our Fathers, to a get a run on broadway, he agrees to get financing from the mob. Cue the big cat's girlfriend Olive becoming the leading lady - she can't act. She can barely read. As her bodyguard Cheech puts it: "She can't act. Are you listening to me? She makes stuff not work - stuff she ain't even in - it comes out all twisted!" But as Olive ruins the play, Cheech comes up with some ideas of his own. Sure, Cheech could whack a guy if you needed him to, and he knows his way around a gun, but this little mobster has one thing The Godfather doesn't have: a pure talent for writing. "What am I? A f*ckin' idiot? They taught me how to read and write in school before I burned it down."



8. Chilli Palmer (John Travolta - Get Shorty)

In Elmore Leonard's eyes, there ain't no guy quite as cool as Chili Palmer. Swaggering into LA, all loan-shark and no morals, Chili has no problems chasing down his man. But when he comes across loser producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), Chili starts making his own plans: he wants to get into the movie business. Seducing seasoned star Karen, facing off against the local mob, Palmer is all set for a film career. All he has to do is nab the vertically-challenged Hollywood actor Martin Weir (Danny DeVito). How will he do that? "I'm gonna take a gun, I'm gonna put it to his head, and say, 'sign the f*cking papers, Martin, or you're dead.' That's it." Sitting down across the table from the midget megastar, he starts his gangster shtick: "Martin? Look at me..."



7. Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects)


"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." Bryan Singer's brilliant noir-tinged thriller is all kinds of awesome. Starting with a line-up, a post-massacre shakedown uncovers a web of intricate deals, from mysterious lawyer Kobayashi, to bent-cop-gone-straight Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). As Detective Dave Kujan pieces together the puzzle, one man looms over it all: Keyser Soze. No-one knows what he looks like. No-one knows if he's real. But as far as the underworld goes, he's the prince of darkness himself. The one time he pokes his head up from under the water? "Just like that... he's gone."



6. Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson - The Departed)


With this remake of the excellent Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese made the movie his own, transposing events to Boston, where crime lord Francis Costello lauds it up in the fed's faces. He's even got his own guy in the academy, trained up by State's finest. But as Sullivan (Matt Damon) infiltrates the police, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is worming his way up Frank's gang, soon to expose Costello's mole. But while Scorsese's masterful movie bears all his well-honed hallmarks, the fresh angle comes from Frank himself. "How's your mother?" Costello asks one punter in his bar. "On her way out," replies the guy. Costello swaggers past: "We all are. Act accordingly." Then, as he quizzes Billy about his loyalty, he does something gangsters never do: he starts squeezing up his nose and making rat noises. De Niro would never do that.



5. Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci - Goodfellas)


We all remember Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro. But what of Joe Pesci, he of Home Alone fame? Thanks to this gem from Scorsese - king of the crime genre - Joe will never be forgotten. A walking trigger-happy madman, Tommy DeVito is a guy you don't want to cross. Or insult, for that matter. Hell, just calling him funny set off this legendary bout of crazy: "You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little f*cked up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to f*ckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?" They all laugh at his rage. But once he pulls out the gun, it's a different story. Joe Pesci's Oscar-winning performance even outshone De Niro's method acting: he was, quite simply, completely psychotic.


4. Al Capone (Robert De Niro - The Untouchables)

"I want you to get this f*ck where he breathes! I want you to find this nancy-boy Eliot Ness, I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD! I want his house burned to the GROUND! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna P*SS ON HIS ASHES!" Al Capone, there, legend of the unlawful and brought to the big screen by Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro. Although not De Niro's greatest performance (his Goodfellas' boss had more presence and depth), Capone's status as king of the crime lords places him amongst the top dogs of Hollywood's history. Charismatic, confident and mildly caricatured, this uncompromising criminal was never afraid to get his hands dirty. In the middle of a speech about teamwork, you can guess what he's about to do with the baseball bat...



3. Tony Montana (Al Pacino - Scarface)

There's no introduction needed for Tony Montana. He worked his way into the country, up the ladder until he became the lead man. The American dream for everyone - with added violence, sex, drugs, murder and violence. From tables covered in coke to stairwells plastered in blood, De Palma's elaborate remake of Howard Hawks' 1932 film of the same name was excessive. But its stylistic exuberance epitomised a genre (and a director), capturing the imaginations of thousands of cinemagoers. Tony Montana is truly a Hollywood icon. Let's just not talk about Al Pacino's accent.


2. Cody Jarrett (Jimmy Cagney - White Heat) 

Cody Jarrett is a ruthless leader of a ring of robbers, a married man with an attachment to his mother, "Ma" Jarrett. Raoul Walsh's 1949 gangster classic features the usual suspects, but never shies away from the psychology or emotions of Cody - a psychopath with a loving mum and frequent headaches. But with Vic Pardoe sent from the cops to betray Cody, the scene is set for one hell of a tragic denouement. With Jimmy Cagney on full throttle, the temperature set to max, White Heat climaxes with a killer explosion and Cody's final cry: "Made, Ma! Top of the world!"


1. Don Corleone (Marlon Brando - The Godfather)


So good they cast his twice, Don Vito Corleone is the head of the Corleone crime family, and arguably The Godfather of all crime fiction. No other Italian has ever had such power or authority - Silvio Burlesconi aside - and Corleone's command of the crime syndicate has made his name entirely synonymous with the Mafia. Credit to De Niro for his youthful portrayal in The Godfather Part II, and respect to Al Pacino for the tragic corrupting influence his father has upon young Michael Corleone, who grows up to take on The Godfather's mantle. But the original is still the best and Marlon Brando, who came close to not getting the part at all, oozes intimidating authority whilst barely moving his lips - literally, he outclasses Alan Rickman in that respect.

With Francis Ford Coppola's sympathetic angle and spot-on direction, this 1972 classic is a rarity in film: it's absolutely perfect. From Nina Rota's beautiful theme to the simple closing shot, this is what all crime film's aspire to be. For all his grey hairs, Brando's Godfather is the definitive cinematic gangster, and without a doubt Public Enemy Number One.