Bonnie and Clyde 1967, 111min: Shot on Texan locations and alternating between rollicking humour and savage violence, this crime drama defined a generation and depicts the outlaw pair as a couple of crazy kids out of kicks. The film perplexed studio executives by heralding the youth-oriented, low-budgeted auteur movies that would change the industry, though intriguingly it was offered to Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut before Penn took it on. Steeped in a vernacular nervous energy that seems thoroughly native, it is a landmark in modern American cinema.
The Godfather 1972, 175min: Much more than a dynastic Mafia romance, The Godfather is an epic exploration of the structures of power that animated America in the post-war period. It revolves around stupendous performances of Marlon Brando as the patriarch Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as the reluctant rising son, with this film New Hollywood really arrived and finally delivered.
Goodfellas 1990, 145 min: Firing on all cyllinders, Scorsese taps the exhilaration and exhaustion of the 1980s in this brazen, euphoric gangster movie. A biopic inspired by writer Nicholas Pileggi’s interviews with low-level Mafioso Henry Hill. On a technical level the structure, the amoral voiceover and the breathtakingly bold editing strategies come together spectacularly, and Joe Pesci’s portrait of a psychopath is absolutely unforgettable. For a younger generation of fans, this is Scorsese’s most gratifying film, older viewers may bemoan the lack of depth.
Scarface 1983, 170min: This deliriously excessive blood splattering remake of Howard Hawks’s 1932 gangster classic plays like a game of dare between the director, writer and actor to see who can go the most over the Top: Al Pacino with his barking performance as Cuban criminal Tony Montana, Oliver Stone and his epigram strewn script or De Palma with his violent, opulent and operatic set pieces.
White Heat 1949, 111min: When James Cagney made a reluctant return to the gangster genre after ten years, he insisted that Walsh be the director and that his character have some form of psychosis. So the writers gave him a king size Oedipus complex, and his beloved mother is one of his gang of armed robbers. It all ends in the greatest climax in gangster film history, with Cagney atop a gleaming gas tank, taunting the police, crackling with coiled energy and shouting the immortal line: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
Bibliography: The Rough Guide to Film by Richard Armstrong, Tom Charity, Lloyd Hughes and Jessica Winter