Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2000) British have an honourable gangster tradition, too — from Richard Attenborough’s Pinky to Paul Bettany’s Gangster No. 1 (2000); but the most intense must be Sir Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, despatched from London to the Costa del Crime to wheedle retired thief Ray Winstone back for one last job. He’s a glorious, obscene, Pinteresque creation, seething with ugliness.
Marlon Brando in The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
Brando hadn’t specialised in criminals, but became the defining Mafia boss in the movies. Coppola’s film is superb, classy entertainment, but also a vision of the hollowness of American capitalism and its effect on the family — like Death of a Salesman with spaghetti and a criminal empire. The whole cast is superb — but Brando, fitted with a special mouth-appliance, mumbles his way into legend.
Hawks set out “to do the Capone family as if they were the Borgias set down in Chicago”. Incestuous undercurrents, murderousness, crass ostentation and illiterate swagger are the trademarks of Muni’s hulking, gurning Italian-American Tony Camonte in this scorchingly unsentimental black comedy of Mob life and immigrant experience.
Paul Muni in Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932)
“You need people like me so you can point your f---in’ fingers and say, 'That’s the bad guy’.” Encouraged by De Palma, Pacino moved from his subdued, simmering, satanically chilling Michael Corleone in Godfathers I and II (1974) to wild, more-than-Muni-style excess as taunting Tony Montana in this hyperviolent, deliberately “tacky” Oliver Stone scripted Latino updating of Hawks (with added cocaine). Some hate it, but Pacino’s remarkable. See also his sympathetic, unhappy mobster Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997).
Al Pacino in Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)
Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953)
Lee Marvin, himself a thoughtful, intelligent person, was one of the cinema’s major hard men — starting with his Vince Stone in Lang’s explosive noir classic. No grapefruit for this killer: a jug of scalding coffee in his flaky moll Gloria Grahame’s face is more Vince’s sadistic style. See also his complex, ferocious-but-decorous hitman Charlie Strom in The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964; great line: “Lady, I haven’t got the time”) and his vindictive, baffled Walker in Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967).
He’s a bit uncertain and even bumbling, but when he meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) in Depression-era Texas, small-time bigmouth Clyde Barrow is swept by her turbulent thrill-seeking into armed robbery, then murder, then into the realms of myth. Penn’s superbly fresh film — inspired by the French New Wave — suggests psychosexual instability beneath Clyde’s violence; Beatty is riskily uncool, but magnetic. See also his terrific crumbling portrayal of Vegas’s founder in Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991).
Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)
The French order these things with élan. The great Jean Gabin is Max, an ageing, dapper, sexually attractive gangster in an atmospheric Parisian night-world of cabarets, danseuses, cigarettes, sharp suits, submachine-guns and Max’s “grisbi” (loot) — clunking gold ingots from a job at Orly. “That job was my last,” he fondly hopes. Less bleak and stylised than Jean-Pierre (Le Samourai) Melville’s later masterworks — but great fun. See also Gabin’s doomed gangster Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937).
Jean Gabin in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Jacques Becker, 1954)
Among the 21st century’s great criminals is petrifyingly youthful drug lord Zé Pequeño, aka Li’l Ze, who starts Meirelles’s thrilling ensemble epic of the Rio favelas as a much-mocked small brother of a gangster, but quickly realises his “desire to kill”. Like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (below) he makes us sweat every time he appears. Supremely so in the long scene where he enjoys making one 10-year-old boy choose, at gunpoint, which of two others he will kill — a quite unforgettable vision of evil.
Leandro Firmino da Hora in City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
I wanted to Kill Hottest Person Alive
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