Sunday, April 08, 2007


Gangs for the memories

This post is running as part of the Mob-a-Thon being conducted by The Boob Tubers to mark the return of The Sopranos for its final nine episodes.

By Edward Copeland
To mark the return and final stand (at least as we've been led to believe) of The Sopranos, the folks at The Boob Tubers have called for a Mob-a-Thon today on mobsters and gangsters in general. So, I've tossed together a list of 10 of my favorite movie gangsters, in no particular order, to mark the occasion. Inevitably, many good ones have been omitted such as the various Corleones and Duke Mantee. I've also limited myself to one role per actor, so people such as James Cagney won't be doubling up.

James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat

Not just top of the world ma, but top of the heap. Cagney's triumphant return to the genre that made him famous in 1949 marked one of the greatest criminal creations ever put on screen. How on earth he failed to get an Oscar nomination for Raoul Walsh's classic is mind-boggling. I haven't seen Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart, but I'd rank Cagney's Jarrett higher than Broderick Crawford's winning Willie Stark in All the King's Men, Kirk Douglas in Champion, Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High and John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima. Jarrett beats them all — and would probably do it literally if given the chance. Jarrett's mental instability makes Tommy in Goodfellas seem well adjusted. He has mother issues that almost rival Norman Bates' and can be particularly detached from his killings. When the henchman of a rival asks if Cody can really kill him in cold blood, Jarrett replies, "No, I'll let ya warm up a little."

Joe Pesci as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas

Speaking of Tommy, he did win an Oscar for Martin Scorsese's mob masterpiece which really should get the bulk of credit for The Sopranos. Sure, no one went to a shrink here, but the depiction of "normal" family life among mobsters wasn't really portrayed until this movie. (Let's face — it the Corleones were upper class all the way.) I had to laugh when in the series finale of HBO's Rome, the by-then barking mad Marc Antony starts ranting, "Am I a clown? Do I amuse you?" Pesci's Oscar was most deserved. His ability to change moods on a dime truly frightens. He's laughing one second, killing the next, but in all of the movie's minutes with him, he's riveting.

Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar

"Mother of Mercy. Could this be the end of Rico?" Not as long as prints of Mervyn LeRoy's landmark gangster film exist and keep being preserved and transferred to whatever new media arrive. It was hard to pick just one Robinson performance for this list, but I settled on the most famous. Part of me wanted to go with John Ford's delightful The Whole Town's Talking from 1935 where Eddie G. got to play both an ordinary schmuck and the vicious gangster he's mistaken for. Another part wanted to single out Rocco in John Huston's Key Largo. Honestly, both of those other films are better ones than Little Caesar, but it's hard to argue with a character and a performance this iconic.

Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne in The Cotton Club

I had to go with a tag team on this one because Hoskins and Gwynne as Owney Madden and his invaluable lieutenant Frenchy Demange in Francis Ford Coppola's underrated Cotton Club simply are inseparable. Sure, the real gangster of the piece is James Remar's menacing Dutch Schultz, but Hoskins as club owner Madden and Gwynne, miles removed from Herman Munster, really highlight the film with their loving, fractious platonic relationship. The bond between the two is exemplified by the scene where Frenchy returns to Owney, battered and bruised after being held hostage by some young thugs. He conceals his anger at Madden's handling of the crisis before asking to see Owney's beloved pocketwatch and smashing it to smithereens. As Owney is ready to explode, Frenchy pulls a wrapped box out of his coat pocket and Madden sees that Frenchy already had a replacement pocketwatch at the ready. The duo hug. The viewer shouldn't be worried about the romantic fates of Richard Gere and Diane Lane or Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee — Hoskins and Gwynne are the couple we couldn't bear to see part ways.

William Hickey as Don Corrado in Prizzi's Honor

"This killing of the police captain's wife is costing us ... all ... too ... much." Don't let Corrado Prizzi's decrepit and near-death demeanor deceive you: This don is still sharp as a tack and able to manipulate those around him like a pro. The iconoclastic Hickey earned an Oscar nomination for this great role, but lost to the sympathy vote for Don Ameche in Cocoon who, let's be frank, wasn't even the best supporting actor in Cocoon. Decades from now, when people no longer know what breakdancing even is, John Huston's great comic mob tale should stand the test of time and Hickey will be one of its strongest assets in a great cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, Robert Loggia and Anjelica Huston. Have another cookie, my dear? I certainly will if it's Don Corrado offering the treat. It's a snack you can't refuse.

Bill Murray as Frank Milo in Mad Dog & Glory

Bill Murray as one of the great movie gangsters? You wouldn't be puzzled if you'd seen his work in John MacNaughton's Mad Dog & Glory. The movie itself is a mixed bag, telling the story of a shy police photographer (Robert De Niro) who unwittingly saves the life of the mobster and would-be stand up comic who rewards him by giving him one of "his girls" (Uma Thurman). Murray has been justly praised in recent years for his acting chops, but truly 1993 may have marked the turning point. Not only did Murray create a complete original with Frank Milo, smooth and scary simultaneously, it also was the year he starred in Groundhog Day, so really the Academy snubbed him in two categories that year, though that was a particularly fruitful year for male performances. If you'd never seen Bill Murray before and Mad Dog & Glory were your introduction, you'd ask in amazement: Where has this guy been hiding? It would have made him a star if not for the fact he already was one.

Samuel L. Jackson as Jules in Pulp Fiction

When you think of conflicted movie mobsters, most people leap to poor Michael Corleone, pulled into the family business he never sought but becoming as ruthless as he needs to be. Do we know why Michael is conflicted? Does he ever say that he recognizes that the path he goes on is the wrong one? No. He just wants to stay rich but become legit. Jules Winfield however, a gangster of a different kind, decides to change his ways because of what he considers divine intervention. Samuel L. Jackson has never really been able to equal the greatness he was able to display in his role in Pulp Fiction. While the film is filled with great lines and performances, no one quite puts the brilliant spin on Tarantino's words the way Jackson did as Jules. To watch his transformation from ruthless killer to reformed criminal in gestation, even within the fractured narrative, is a wonder to behold. Jules tells his partner Vincent (John Travolta) that he considers himself retired and plans to "walk the earth" like Cain in Kung Fu. I hope Jules got his wish and got out and no one pulled him back in.

Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast

Who knew that Gandhi could be so frightening? When Ben Kingsley arrives on the screen in Sexy Beast, he unleashes such ferocity and heat that you fear that the celluloid will melt as it runs through the projector (if anyone still gets to see films that way). He should have won that supporting actor Oscar that year. To think that one man could give performances for the ages as the epitome of nonviolence and the embodiment of brutality truly amazes. Kingsley even got to do a sardonic take on himself on an episode of The Sopranos when last we saw them and he was really the only highlight of one of the series' weakest episodes.

William Hurt in A History of Violence

Here's another recent case of a past Oscar-winning best actor who comes back with a memorable supporting turn as a bad guy. Hurt, sometimes criticized for coldness and who the late Spy magazine once labeled "the thinking man's asshole," uses that reputation to his advantage here in David Cronenberg's most accessible film. He enters the film late, after Ed Harris has already given a memorable appearance as a villain, and proceeds to steal the entire film. While Hurt does have scary moments, what really makes Hurt's Richie so memorable is that he's so damn funny. Some complained that his appearance in the film was so brief that he didn't deserve a nomination. It's not the size of the role, it's the impression it leaves afterward.

Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi

It's hard when you've been called "the most vile gangster in the galaxy" to leave you off a list of memorable gangsters, even if that galaxy is far, far away. Jabba's appearance in Return of the Jedi was a great payoff for a character who'd been mentioned but not seen in two previous films (until George Lucas had to go back and ruin things by inserting him unnecessarily in Star Wars). Tony Soprano often is noted for his girth, but he's got nothing on the Hutt, who outshines the New Jersey boss in his lust for money, power and pleasure. He was a truly unique creation but thanks to Leia's strength with chains (though I still don't see how she'd be strong enough, Jedi blood or not, to pull off strangling him to death), Jabba is bantha fodder now.

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Bonnie and Clyde had 4 performances that could have made your list--Warren Beatty, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, or Faye Dunaway.
No Oliver Stone? What about Scarface, or NBK. I loved Al Pacino in Scarface, though I know most sensible critics consider that movie and his acting in it way over the top.
As I said, these weren't supposed to be a definitive list, just 10 I wanted to single out, especially ones that wouldn't get much notice. Also, I wouldn't count Natural Born Killers as gangsters per se on top of the fact that my hatred of that tremendously crappy film knows no bounds.
In case you are interested, here is my review of Natural Born Killers from 1994.
Jeesh. I liked NBK a bit more than that. The Doors, I'll give you--that movie was as limp as a Pat Boone cover of Little Richard. But NBK was more like a car crash you had to look at, knowing it was not just bad taste but really sick to stare, that the carnage was a waste, pointless, but riveting nonetheless.
EC, I liked NBK a lot more than you did, but I don't think Mickey and Mallory are gangsters so I wouldn't have put them on the list. Plus, in my review, I blatantly asked what all the fuss was about, as I didn't find it to be as violent as advertised. In fact, in reading it again, I saw that I said some really bad things about QT, things I had to retract in my review of Pulp Fiction.

I can't go with you on William Hurt, as I watched his performance I wanted to ask him his famous line from that movie: "How could you fuck that up?" He's terrible in A History of Violence. (And The Dead Zone is Cronenberg's most accessible film, not this.)

I'll go with you to a point on Bill Murray in MDAG, a movie I think is woefully misdirected by John MacNaughton. Murray is surprisingly good but I never fully bought the premise nor his gangster. Still, he's worth investigating in this movie.

I'm glad you picked Hickey and Cagney and "the frog" from Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse (aka Edward G. Robinson). Jabba was a true surprise and I'm glad for that mention too. If I had to choose, I would have added Don Cheadle's Mouse from Devil in a Blue Dress and Bob Hoskins in a much better movie (The Long Good Friday) than that embarrassing piece of shit about Harlem that Coppola did when his studio was self-destructing.

And though he's not a gangster per se, I would have included John Huston's Noah Cross from Chinatown.
I forgot about Cheadle. He would have been a great choice. I'm ashamed to admit that I've never seen The Long Good Friday.
You've never seen The Long Good Friday? For shame. Hoskins has never been better, and it will probably make you rethink this list. And it's got Helen Mirren too.
Speaking of Helen Mirren, I was watching the documentary on the Blue Velvet DVD last night. I never realized that she was Lynch's first choice to be Dorothy. I'm trying to picture that.
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