Tag: Gangster films

Miller's Crossing (1990)

Gabriel Byrne (and hat) is outstanding in the Coen’s brilliant gangster pastiche Miller’s Crossing

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Cast: Gabriel Byrne (Tom Reagan), Marcia Gay Harden (Verna Bernbaum), Albert Finney (Leo O’Bannon), John Turturro (Bernie Bernbaum), Jon Polito (Johnny Caspar), JE Freeman (Eddie Dane), Steve Buscemi (Mink Larouie), John McConnell (Bryan), Mike Starr (Frankie)

In a forest clearing, a black hat dances in the wind; sometimes it almost touches the ground before another gust lifts it up again. What does it mean – Who can say? That hat is the heart of the Coen Brothers marvellous pastiche of, and tribute to, gangster films – probably the only early Coen brothers film I really like (and the one I’ve seen the most). The Coens, bless ‘em, always liked to claim it was just a film about a man and his hat. But it’s also a rewarding, complex, jet-black film noir comedy about ethics and morals, with intriguingly unknowable characters. And lots of hats.

Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the friend and fixer of Irish crime boss Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who runs a prohibition era city. Cool, calm and collected Tom is the smartest guy in the city – and a compulsive gambler with a self-destructive streak a mile wide. Leo’s rival, Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wants to whack crooked bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), who’s spreading the word on boxing matches Caspar has fixed, making Bernie a packet and eating into Johnny’s profit. Problem is Leo says no – because he’s in love with Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden, very good), a ruthless femme fatale, who also happens to be sleeping with Tom. When Leo finds out, Tom finds himself in the middle of a struggle to control the city – and forced to play both ends against the middle to save his skin.

Miller’s Crossing is a masterpiece of pastiche. Shot with a coolly steady-hand by Barry Sonnenfield – deliberately apeing classic film noir– and production designed within an inch of its life to look like the perfect Hollywood idea of a 1920s-era gangster film, it’s a perfect mix of everything from Hammett to Chandler to Puzo. It’s a sort of hyper-remake of Hammett’s The Glass Key, where a crooked boss and his fixer are split apart by a woman, but fundamentally remain loyal to each other. Everything you could expect from a classic gangster film appears, but dialled up to eleven: from the grandiose design, to bullet-spraying Tommy gun ruthlessness and the bloody mess left behind.

Miller’s Crossing is great because, unlike those other early Coen films, it combines loving pastiche and quirky humour, with a genuinely gripping story and fully rounded, complex characters. You can enjoy it as a homage, but also on its own terms as a compelling piece of story-telling. It’s sense of atmosphere is faultless, with a delightful mood of whistful regret behind all the killing that comes from Carter Burwell’s pitch-perfect score, riffing brilliantly off Irish folk songs. The film is crammed with brilliant sequences, ranging from comedy, gun-toting action and stomach-churning tension.

It opens with an obvious, crowd-pleasing Godfather homage, with Caspar sitting across from Leo entreating him for action. But take a listen to what Caspar is talking about as he asks for the right to kill Bernie: Ethics. Ethics is what the film is really about. Every character in Miller’s Crossing makes a choice about their moral stand. Because, even in a world of killing and violence, man (and woman) gotta have a code. That’s not about right and wrong, but simple rules you live by.

A code is what Tom has. Superbly played by Byrne – Hollywood handsome, but world-weary with a touch of self-loathing and tired of always seeing several steps ahead of everyone else – Tom is one of the most intriguing enigmas in a Coen film. How can someone this smart be such a mess? He owes thousands to bookies and he’s screwing his best friend’s girl. For all his smarts, and ability to see all the plays (something he proves time and again), there is something fragile about Tom. The Coens remind us of this with their running joke of Tom being smacked about endlessly (every major character lands a blow at some point on him). For all this, Tom very rarely fights back: not only does he not like getting his hands dirty, there is also a sense of sado-masochistic guilt about Tom. Like he’s smart enough to know he’s in a dirty business, and deserves all this physical abuse.

The thing that makes Tom’s world work is ethics – in his case loyalty to Leo. Not even being kicked out by his furious friend changes that. Miller’s Crossing has a strangely sweet bromance at the heart of it, gaining a lot from Finney and Byrne’s natural chemistry and forging a relationship that’s part brotherly, part father-and-son. Of course, a girl can’t come between them. Tom’s clings to his loyalty to Leo – the thing that makes him able to exist in this world – and no threat from Berne or promise of a good deal from Caspar will make him compromise. Rather he will play all of Leo’s enemies (and Leo himself) off against each other, to make sure his friend emerges on top.

It’s all symbolised by that hat. Tom dreams about that hat dancing in the wind – his literal nightmare is losing that hat (his ethics) in the wind. In so many scenes, Tom keeps in constant contact with his hat, balancing it on his knee or rolling it around his hands. When Verna wants to grab his attention, it’s the hat she steals back to her apartment. It’s a physical representation of his grounding, of his contact with reality. Without the hat he’s vulnerable: it’s inevitably tossed away before a threat or beating.

Tom’s not alone: every character has their own ethics. Bernie is an appallingly mercenary, selfish, two-faced, cheating little rogue – but he’s just made that way, it’s nothing personal it’s how he gets ahead. Caspar is obsessed with loyalty, justifying to him the amount of violence he hands out. Leo has a little boy’s loyalty to old friends and family, the sort of guy shocked when bad things happen to friends but who is happy to literally shred people with a tommy gun. Verna is out for herself, but wants to protect her brother. Even the ruthless Dane is loyal to Caspar and to those he’s “soft on” to the bitter end. All these characters justify their actions by adherence to ethical rules they’ve made for themselves.

But only Tom is really worried about getting his hands dirty. That’s something Bernie exploits in the film’s pivotal – and most famous – scene as Tom is unwillingly forced to prove his new ‘loyalty’ to Johnny by executing Bernie in the woods. In a tour-de-force by Turturro, Bernie begs, pleads and weeps for his life urging Tom to “Look into your heart”. It’s the first – and only – decision Tom makes for sentiment in the film. Naturally, it comes back to bite him. Tom’s journey in the film is perhaps to remove sentiment and heart from the equation – after all it’s all leading to a Third Man-ish ending where our hero is left standing alone while the only person he cares about walks away.

Aside from Byrne, the film is crammed with sublime performances. Finney is excellent as a big puffed-up, violent Teddy bear. Polito is hilarious as a wound-up ball of violent energy and poor judgement. JE Freeman is terrifyingly sadistic but also strangely loyal. Harden is a nightmare image of a femme fatale, ruthless to an extreme. There is a great cameo from Buscemi as a fast-talking fixer. Best of all is Turturro – grasping, selfish, cowardly, cocky, weasily and brilliantly amoral.

It’s all superbly directed by the Coens, even if sometimes their delight in shocking violence goes too far (like the childish delight in seeing bodies shredded by bullets) – not only do they get the mood perfect, but if you have any doubts about their ability to direct a set-piece take a look at Finney’s masterful Danny Boy scored shoot-out. Their script is also a knock-out of pastiche gangster parlance, as well as building a fascinating exploration of how we use morals to justify any actions we want. Miller’s Crossing is about those fatal moments where we decide whether we can justify to ourselves the actions we take and the people we have become. Or maybe it is all just about a hat.

Scarface (1932)

Paul Muni wants the world in Scarface

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Paul Muni (Tony Camonte), Ann Dvorak (Francesca Camonte), George Raft (Guino Rinaldo), Karen Morley (Poppy), Osgood Perkins (Johnny Lovo), C. Henry Gordon (Inspector Ben Guarino), Vincent Barnett (Angelo), Boris Karloff (Tom Gaffney)

Before Tony Montana there was Tony Camonte. The suits may be sharper in 30s, but the bullets are just as lethal. Howard Hawks’ gangster film, strikingly violent for the 1930s (barely a scene goes by without a slaying), showcases the rise and fall of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) an Italian gangster embracing the mantra “The World is Yours”. Starting as a junior hood in Johnny Lovo’s (Osgood Perkins) gang, he rises through the ranks due to his capacity for violence and his willingness to break any rule. He wants it all: money, power, Lovo’s girl Poppy (Karen Morley) and he won’t be happy until he runs this town. So long as he can still control his sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak) – because not even his best friend Guino (George Raft) can even think about touching her.

Hawks’ film is a dizzying whirligig of shootings, killings, mob violence and inventive camera-work. Fast paced and violent, many scenes are soundtracked by the rat-a-tat of Tommy guns. (Not a surprise in a film where the hero looks more excited grasping one of those in his hands than he ever does holding his girlfriend). Scarface has it all: fights, shoot-ours, car-chases, drive by shootings of bars, fist fights – you name it, Tony does it. It’s told with an electric pace and some nifty little tricks (my favourite a long cross fade of a calendar ripping off days and a Tommy gun blasting bullets, like its mowing down time itself).

Hawks uses a number of neat stylistic approaches to both present death and also signpost fate. Montage is used throughout the film, it’s inexorable build-up of violence and crime helping establish the excessive violence of Tony’s world. Shootings happen in a variety of ways, from silhouette to shadow to blatant on-screen death (though Tony’s fate, shot by several police guns, is the final blast, almost Bonnie and Clyde like as his body dances from bullet wounds under the streetlights).

You can get a good sense of whose card is marked by Hawks’ witty (and not overplayed) used of Xs. Before a St Valentine’s Day style shooting, the camera focuses on an iron girder above the victims with a series of X like metal cross beams in it – the camera returns to it, the row of Xs mirroring the victims lined up against the wall. Crime boss Gaffney is killed while bowling, his strike filled card literally marked with an X. The approach is subtle and even strangely witty.

The film is a maelstrom of excess. Starting in the aftermath of a wild party – which segues immediately into a gang hit – everything is overblown. From the violence, to the parties, to the wealth Tony builds up. It’s the same with the police as well – when it’s time for them to come out shooting they don’t hold back, assembling a small army of weapons fire which practically tears apart Tony’s apartment.

At its heart is a force-of-nature in Paul Muni’s Tony. Becoming increasingly Americanised as the film goes on (he starts heavily accented and the very picture of a scarred street thug, but becomes more-and-more accent free and smoothly dressed), Tony is not only ruthlessly ambitious he has a mania for getting more. Much like Montana, this is a man who is never satisfied until he has the world. He brags to his would-be girlfriend that he will only wear each of his new shirts once. He shows off his apartment and insists one of his henchmen (who is barely able to operate a phone) describe himself as his “secretary”. Muni’s performance mixes a grimy capacity for violence with a sordid impish delight at excess, all washed down with a childish lack of morality.

He’s also got a destructive obsession with his sister. Played with a coquettish charm by Ann Dvorak, Francesca is the apple of her brother’s eye. Is Tony even aware of the incestuous underlying his obsession? Any male attention at all sparks a jealous fury that goes way beyond a protective sibling. But there is perhaps as much to control as sexuality in this. Just as Tony wants to bring the entire city under his dominance, so he wants to control every element of his sister’s life. And in many ways she’s quite like him – as in love with flirtatious sexual excess as he is with the massive landgrab of power he’s carrying out.

Tony is moving shark-like through the city at every turn. Even while nominally following the orders of his boss Johnny (a strangely pathetic Osgood Perkins – but then power eventually makes all men weak in Scarface, even Tony. Perhaps it’s the fear of losing what you have?) he always pushes for bigger and bigger scores, making enemies Johnny can’t afford to make. The others seem paralysed in the face of him – Gaffney, default leader of the Irish mob, runs from safe house to safe house; despite the vast numbers of men following him, he never looks safe.

The film was criticised at the time for not having a sufficient moral message – tacked on in a studio reshoot was a more condemning ending with Tony (real “Shame of a Nation!” stuff), traces of which can still be seen in Tony’s brief flash of cowardice at the end. But really, in its excessive violence and cycle of destruction in a which an impulsive, brutal but not too bright killer (briefly) ends up on top was probably unsettling because it was a lot closer to the grim reality of organised crime in America. A world where the gun pays and a lunatic can take over the asylum. No wonder the censors at the time couldn’t take it. But Scarface’s compulsive violence, danger and relentless energy is what still makes it a classic today.

Scarface (1983)

“Shay hell-o to my leetle friend!” Al Pacino puts it all out there in Scarface

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Al Pacino (Tony Montana), Steven Bauer (Manny Ray), Michell Pfeiffer (Elvira), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina), Robert Loggia (Frank Lopez), Miram Colon (Mama Montana), F. Murray Abraham (Omar), Paul Shenar (Alejandro Sosa), Harris Yulin (Detective Bernstein), Mark Margolis (Shadow)

Remember when Al Pacino played the softly spoken, chillingly self-contained Michael Corleone? Watching The Godfather, who could have imagined that performance would be the outlier in a career that gleefully embraced the insanely OTT in a way few other great actors have dared. And possibly no other performance in Pacino’s career was as large as in Scarface, a ball of nervous energy, foul-mouthed aggression and drug-fuelled instability, the burning heart at the centre of Brian de Palma’s wildfire of a film. Scarface dials every single thing up to about 11 and then some, becoming the director’s brashest and most enduring work – but it owes everything to Pacino’s furious, unreserved energy at its centre.

Pacino plays Tony Montana, a working-class crook from Cuba dispatched (along with boatloads of undesirables from Castro’s regime) to Miami in the early 80s. There, in refugee camps and the local community, it’s crime and violence that give these guys the best chance of grabbing a share of the American Dream. Montana is no different, graduating from hits to drug deals and swiftly moving up the chain with his determination, gruff no-nonsense attitude, fierce loyalty and ruthless focus. But once you hit the top and the world is yours, there is really only one way to go – back down again, made easier when you are hooked on snorting mountains of your own product, incestuously in love with your sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and your increasing arrogance and unreliability put you on the wrong side of your partners and kingpins in South America.

A remake of the 1932 original by Howard Hawks (the film is dedicated to Hawks and the scriptwriter Ben Hecht), Scarface is a brash, unsettling, nervy and incredibly violent cartoon-style gangster movie that owes almost its entire legacy to Pacino’s snarling wit at the centre. Is Pacino taking the piss here with this performance? Surely, he must have wondered if he could get away with it. This is a whirlwind tour-de-force, Pacino throwing himself into it with nothing left in the locker-room. He delightedly wraps his vocal chords around a thick Cuban accent (turning words like cockroach into a three syllable delight – “Cock-ah-roatch”) and embraces his small stature by turning Tony into a little pressure cooker. Seemingly incapable (bar one scene) of staying still, he’s supremely tense, his shoulders hunched up, his teeth on edge, voice growling.

It gives the film an unpredictable energy, because you don’t know what Pacino the performer will do any more than the characters do. He’ll suddenly throw you off with a moment of silence, just as often as he will blast your eardrums with a roar of anger. Emotionally Tony is a complete mess. His obsession with his sister is obvious, a devotion that Tony seems to only half (if that) understand is sexual in nature. But he also has a slight homoerotic bond with best friend Manny Ray (Steven Bauer – the only actor of Cuban heritage in the film), their closeness and macho-posturing carrying more than a whiff of Top Gun-ish “he protests too much”.

Pacino also invests Tony with strangely sympathetic qualities. Sure he’s a violent and ruthless killer and dedicated criminal, but he’s also got a firm sense of loyalty and certain moral lines he won’t cross. He’s got no time for bullshitters and respects only strength and honesty – watch the scene where he brutally talks over the weasely Omar (F. Murray Abraham – jetting back and forth between shooting this and Amadeus for goodness sake!) during a negotiation with drug lord Sosa – he has no respect or regard for his more politically minded boss, only for straight-talking that makes a deal.

It’s all this that ends up making Tony an anti-hero the viewer sort of ends up liking – even while he dopes himself to the brim with coke and funnels piles of it onto the street (not that we see any of that). Tony is a violent killer, but he’s a sort of honest man, a monster yes but a public one that we enjoy seeing. Tony himself recognises this, calling out a crowd of people in a posh restaurant for treating him as a monster so that they can feel better about themselves (slightly undermined by the fact he’s coked to the eyeballs, incoherent and has brutally ended his marriage a second earlier).

So much is Tony a force of nature that, hilariously, it feels like many of the fans of the film – bling gangsters and wannabe street punks – miss that this film is a brutal satire of the culture of excess and greed. Tony’s life falls apart the more money he gets, his addictions and problems growing as his wealth does. He’s an instinctive, but not wise, man who builds a household of fantastic excess and tasteless ostentation (surely, like Saddam, his taps are gold-plated) but also manages to destroy his business and life in a few months due to his greed, stupidity and self-destructive streak.

The things that made him a high-riser are lost the more Tony surrounds himself with garish status symbols. Inevitable destruction walks hand-in-hand with Tony’s “more is more” attitude. The more he attempts to add class and polish to his life, the more he demonstrates his own lack of both qualities. Also, as he gets more obsessed with pointless status symbols he loses the very skills – honesty, energy, shrewdness – that made him a kingpin in the first place. Instead he becomes a drug-fuelled narcissist, making impulsively stupid decisions and wrecking everything he spent the first half of the film building up. Tony Montana is the face of a certain type of Reagan/Thatcher economics, where private enterprise rolls in and ruthlessly takes and takes, with no regard for the impact on other people and no interest in sustainability.

De Palma captures this pretty well – although he probably ends up making this satire of excess more of a hubristic tragedy. Largely because the film falls so hard for Tony – or rather Pacino – that the fact that Tony is, despite his own moral code, a pretty reprehensible person can be easily lost. Not that de Palma probably cares that much, since his main aim here seems to be to create a hell of a ride. And there are some great set-pieces, and some wonderfully character beats – not least a sequence where Tony seizes control of the empire from weak boss Robert Loggia and sinister corrupt cop Harris Yulin.

The film certainly does that, flying from set-piece to set-piece so swiftly and with such a sense of pace and shark-like momentum, you almost don’t notice that it runs for as long as it does. Every few minutes gives us a scene with stand-out moments of either Pacino grandstanding, shocking violence or both. Scarfaceis a very violent film – everything from chain saws to bullets are used to pull gangster bodies apart – and while it has a sort of moral message (“Excess is bad”) it’s really just an excuse like Cecil B DeMille to make us feel good about ourselves by watching someone pretty bad (but with a few redeeming qualities) dance like a bear for two and a bit hours doing terrible things (entertainingly) before being carved down in a hail of bullets as the devil comes round to collect.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Robert De Niro and James Woods are gangsters in Sergio Leone’s sprawling indulgent masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Robert De Niro (Noodles), James Woods (Max), Elizabeth McGovern (Deborah), Joe Pesci (Frankie), Burt Young (Joe), Tuesday Weld (Carol), Treat Williams (Jimmy O’Donnell), Danny Aiello (Police Chief Aiello), Richard Bright (Chicken Joe), James Hayden (Patsy), William Forsythe (Cockeye), Darlanne Fluegel (Eve), Scott Tiler (Young Noodles), Rusty Jacobs (Young Max), Jennifer Connelly (Young Deborah)

It had been thirteen years since Leone had made a film. During this time he turned down The Godfather in favour of his own dream of filming Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods. The final film, Once Upon a Time in America, seems destined to live in the shadow of The Godfather, from its settings and many of its themes through to its graphic design and cast. It’s a challenging, over-indulgent, sometimes difficult film that, never-the-less has its own sense of hypnotic power to it.

Told in a partly non-linear style, it opens with Noodles (Robert De Niro) a Jewish gangster on the run from thugs in 1930s New York days after the fall of prohibition. With his friends and his girl dead and his money stolen, Noodles flees the city – returning only in 1968 after a mysterious summons suggests his past is not as buried as he thought. Within this, the film weaves an intricate series of flashbacks that fill in the story of Noodles and his friend Max (James Woods) turning their teenage gang of hoodlums into an effective crew, muscling in on the money that can be made from prohibition. Carrying the story from 1918 all the way back to 1968, we discover why Noodles was on the run, what the money was, where it’s gone and who or what summoned him back to life.

Leone originally envisioned the film as a two-part epic: two films of three hours length. His original cut was almost ten hours long, cut down to six and then finally to just over four. This cut was released to critical acclaim at Cannes – but was still too long for the producers, concerned about making their money in America. To the fury of the cast (James Woods continues to be vocal about the butchering of the film), and the heartbreak of Leone, the film was cut again to just over 2 hours before its release in the States – a move that rendered it nearly incomprehensible and led to reviews that labelled it one of the worst of the year. Only with the much late release of the European cut (and work continues to restore something closer to Leone’s six hour cut) did the film find acclaim.

But you can see why the producers worried. Leone was never a director who felt the need to get where he was going quickly. As his films became ever more dominated by his love for artful compositions, meditative longeurs and drawing the tension out for as long as possible, so their running times ballooned. Leone matched this with a yearning to tell a story that was to be nothing less than about defining “America” – or at least, give a symbolic weight and depth to the Americana he loved. The film is overflowing with the feel of Old Hollywood gangster films and classic imagery of the immigrant experience in Manhattan. It’s like a brilliant coffee-table album bought to life and covered with blood.

So Once Upon a Time in America is a slow, lethargic even, film that takes its time to build up a picture of an immigrant community drawn together through bonds of culture and shared past that are nearly impossible to express – but fractured by the greed and capitalism of the American Dream, temptation to make an even bigger killing leading to old loyalties being sacrificed. Leone juggles some big ideas here, and if the film never quite comes to grips with any of them as it charts the fractured relationship of Max and Noodles, from brothers-in-arms to ambition, pride and private frustrations leading to betrayal it’s never less than strangely engrossing. 

In many ways this is a hugely indulgent film, but it is also remarkable (strangely) for how restrained and elegiac it is. The razzamatazz of some of Leone’s Westerns are mixed in with a golden age romantic view of the past – and its lost opportunities and loyalties – in a film particularly fascinated with the coming-of-age of young men. The film is nothing less than an old man taking a ruminative journey through the past (both Leone and Noodles in his memories), looking back at a life time of bad choices and lost chances. It all makes for one of cinema’s greatest mood pieces ever, with faultless period reconstruction, but also a piece that for all its focus on personal lives at cornerstones of histories, makes its characters seem strangely impersonal.

Part of that lies in Leone’s clear love for the film’s long second act (nearly a third of its runtime), which charts the young Jewish hoodlums teenage lives in 1918 New York – their meeting, first scores, rivalries with other gangs and inevitably the loss of virginity. For all its overextended backstory, the section of the film hums with love and elegiac romance. It’s the richest part of the film. There is a beauty in beats of the watching the boys encounter everything from first crime to first love – and easy as it is to mock a good 3-4 minutes watching one of them eat a cake intended as an offer in exchange for a first sexual experience with the local floozy, moments like that have an innocence and a beauty to them that Leone really captures.

It’s a shame that it’s the back-end of the film that suffers – and its plot and narrative drive. It feels like Leone fought to keep the beauty of this early section and sacrificed drive and narrative later. The fracturing of the relationship between Max and Noodles is less clear, and their adult characters never quite come into focus. Perhaps there isn’t quite room for actors in the long sequences of wordless silence and atmosphere, punctuated by bursts of shocking violence, in Leone’s world. Certainly the cut doesn’t help, with most of the supporting cast (Joe Pesci, Treat Williams, Burt Young, Danny Aiello) reduced to little more than one scene each, their storylines – particularly a crucial Teamsters plot – barely making any sense.

Max’s growing distance from Noodles is perhaps rooted in everything from his ambition being frustrated by Noodles small-time viewpoints, perhaps even in suggestions of a frustrated homosexual love for the defiantly straight Noodles. James Woods does very well to piece to together a suggestion of deep psychological unease and confusion in a character who remains unknowable, a man to whom loyalty is everything until it isn’t.

As Noodles Robert De Niro anchors the film with one of his quietest, most reflective performances. Noodles is a deeply flawed, low-key, humble character who carries in him a capacity for self-destructive and vicious violence. Leone’s film suggests Noodles is perhaps troubled by feelings and longings he can’t begin to understand or appreciate. He is a romantic character, deeply infatuated with both Max and his childhood sweetheart Deborah, but unable to express or communicate his feelings until it is far too late, a man traumatised by emotional connection.

Not that this excuses Noodles for his actions, particularly towards women. If there is one troubling aspect of the film it is its attitude towards women. There are two prominent women in the film, both of whom are raped. One of them, Carol, is a shrewish temptress, who deliberately provokes Noodles to rape her and is then shown enjoying it. The second rape, this time of Deborah, comes from Noodles after a romantic date where he has finally done everything right. While Leone shoots the scene with an almost unwatchable grimness – Elizabeth McGovern’s screams and distress make for very hard viewing – the film still asks us to feel not only for her pain, but also (perhaps more so) Noodles regret. Further when they encounter each other late in life, Deborah matches him in sadness at chances lost – an unlikely reaction you feel for someone who has suffered as traumatic experience as she has. 

But then to Leone perhaps this is part of the corruption of America – or rather the vileness of gangsters. The gangsters are a grotesque bunch in this film, killing without compunction, torturing, stealing, using violence as second nature. Loyalty is barely skin deep and arrogance abounds. There is no romantic sense of family behind it all – perhaps the thing Leone rejected most from The Godfather – just a series of people on the make and on the take. 

But for all its faults and over extended length the film is increasingly hypnotic and engrossing, Leone’s understanding of mood being near faultless. While the ideas are perhaps not quite pulled into sharp focus in the film – and leave the audience having to do a lot of supposition – it still works over time. And the film has so many astonishing merits – from its awe-inspiring shooting and production to the sublime score from Ennio Morricone that gives the film even more poetic depth – it more than merits its existence.

And of course there is the cheeky sense Leone throws in that some – or indeed all – of what we are seeing may not even have happened. The film opens and closes with Noodles in an opium den, stoned out of his mind, in the 1930s. In the opening he lies there, haunted by the sound of a ringing phone (the memory of the phone call he made betraying Max), and we see him arrive at the film’s end taking his first puff and lying back with a grin. Is the film’s off-kilter 1968 even real? Or just an opium den dream? Is the past – and the film’s disjointed narrative flying back and forth – just a stoned man lost in his own fantasies? Who knows? What we do know is that Leone’s indulgent epic is a flawed but genuine masterpiece – and the opium fantasy angle may just be the perfect cover for the fact more than half the film is on the cutting room floor of history.

Casino (1995)

De Niro gets sucked into temptation and vice in Scorsese’s Casino

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam “Ace” Rothstein), Sharon Stone (Ginger McKenna), Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro), James Woods (Lester Diamond), Don Rickles (Billy Sherbert), Alan King (Andy Stone), Kevin Pollak (Philip Green), LQ Jones (Pat Webb), Dick Smothers (Senator), Frank Vincent (Frank Marino), John Bloom (Don Ward)

Scorsese’s Casino often gets overlooked in the master’s CV. Marking his first gangster film since Goodfellas, Casino is a very different film, a sort of combination history lesson and slice of violent gangster interplay, in which Las Vegas first gives these gangsters all their dreams coming true before chewing them up and spitting them out like all the other hopeless gamblers. And in doing that, it’s a perverse sort of nostalgia for the little guys being allowed to run the show – even if they did that by putting heads in vices – before they were shunted out by the even more ruthless efficiency of the mega-corporations. Because a world like Las Vegas only makes it easier for basic greed and personality flaws to take hold and ruin everything that’s good.

Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a gambling and odds fixer, a man so expert at what he does and how he does it, so skilled at working the odds to spin out a profit for the Mafia, that the Chicago mob hires him to run their casino in Las Vegas. Rothstein turns the casino into the ultimate money making machine, understanding the odds of every bet and squeezing money out of every pore of the operation. While Sam takes care of the money, childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) handles the other side of the Mafia business – increasingly abusing his position to make his own fortune on the side. Sam is further undermined by the only “against the odds” bet he ever made in his life: falling in love with Ginger (Sharon Stone), a selfish, self-destructive former hooker who is happy to take Sam’s money but will never offer him the love he craves. Disaster awaits.

Part of the reason perhaps why Scorsese’s Las Vegas epic (and the film is nearly three hours long) doesn’t have the warm regard of many of his other films is its focus on an intricate – although fascinating – explanation of how a Las Vegas casino operates, and the film’s reliance on voiceover to convey a vast amount of backstory, personal motivation and character insight. The opening hour of the film is almost entirely narrated (largely by De Niro and Pesci, although other characters occasionally intrude), as Scorsese shows exactly how a mob-skimming operation works in a casino, as well as nearly every detail of its operation, from day-to-day workings to dealing with cheats. The mechanisms of Las Vegas – along with its corruption, violence and blatant theft – are what fascinates the film. These sequences are assembled with the expected grace and skill of Scorsese and his regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, but they lack the emotional connection of Goodfellas.

In fact, Casino might almost be some sort of tribute to silent film, so much of it is images accompanied alone by voiceover and well-chosen pop songs. It’s a film where imagery is all, with the camera prowling along the red-lined interiors of the casino itself (where daylight never intrudes), or lovingly following the progress of coins from slot machines to counting rooms to bags stuffed with cleaned bills for gangsters to carry away to their masters. It all makes for a rich and fascinating social history, even if you do feel slightly distanced from it by its near-documentary style voiceover.

But then, this voiceover does allow for a surprisingly rich character study once you plug into it. With the design stressing the demonic red-lined rooms and lights of Las Vegas – and the Saul Bass designed title sequence of a man falling through flames into a neon lit underworld – the idea of this place as some sort of hell is there all the way through. This context allows us to see three characters who are corrupted and destroyed by the pressures and temptations of five years running an operation in America’s capital of temptation and excess. And as the film goes on, everything gets bigger, from the garish colours and clothes to the music to the increasingly graphic violence.

And this film is astonishingly violent. Heads are placed in vices, people are brutally murdered by everything from pens to baseball bats, hits happen with a gruesome immediacy. And the person carrying out most of these acts is Pesci, a demonic imp lacking any sense of charm. Pesci retreads his role from Goodfellas, but even worse if possible, a man for whom violence is as second-nature as breathing. 

It makes a neat contrast through with De Niro, who dominates the film (and either appears in or narrates almost every minute). It’s one of De Niro’s calmer, most reflective performances ever in a Scorsese picture (arguably until The Irishman). He’s a quiet, meticulous, fastidious professional gambler, who never takes a chance professionally but takes huge gambles with his personal life. De Niro brings the film a calm centre, and the precision of a man who both loves what he does but is so obsessed with making things perfect he gets no pleasure from it. Unlike many De Niro roles in Scorsese, Sam is the closest you can see as a regular guy, someone who works in a world of theft and violence but sees that as a cost of doing business rather than a career choice.

It’s why he remains sympathetic, despite the destruction around him. Perhaps also helped by his simply appalling wife. Sharon Stone gets her finest part ever (she received the film’s only Oscar nomination, for Best Actress) as the self-destructive, greedy addict Ginger who doesn’t want to change anything about her life and marries Sam solely for his money, but continues her relationship with her pimp Lester (a sleazy James Woods) and snorts cocaine in front of her five-year-old daughter. But Sam takes the chance because he loves her – and this Jewish outsider, who moves in circles of Italian mobsters and Southern societies that control the state, wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted. It’s what keeps him close to Nicky – for all his horrific impulsiveness – because Nicky is the closest thing he has to a genuine friend.

It’s a theme that runs throughout the whole film. The Mafia allowed its “street” operatives to run this operation in Las Vegas – and would never allow such regular soldiers such power again – and Las Vegas itself closed its doors to these more “independent” operators in the future to give the riches to corporations and insiders. It’s part of what makes Casino such a fascinating history lesson – this is the Las Vegas we all kind of think of, dirty, corrupted and sexily run by gangsters (even if the film makes clear that these guys would crush your head for looking at them the wrong way). But it’s now a circus, an entertainment ride.  Because our heroes here make the same mistakes as the guys that go through their casino – “the longer they play, the longer they lose”.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Al Pacino defines his career (and film history) as The Godfather Part II

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Al Pacino (Michael Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Corelone), Robert De Niro (Vito Corleone), John Cazale (Fredo Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), Michael V. Gazzo (Frank Pentangeli), GD Spradlin (Senator Pat Greary), Richard Bright (Al Neri), Gastone Moschin (Don Fanucci), Morgana King (Mama Corelone)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul? It’s the question that drives this triumphant, Oscar-laden, sequel to Coppola’s cinema-defining masterpiece, The Godfather to create what is, without doubt, the greatest one-two punch in cinema history, two films that develop and contrast each other naturally it’s very easy to consider them as one perfect film.

It’s 1958 and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has seen his power grow to control Crime across several states. However problems confront him including rivalry from Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) his business partner, a disaffected capo Frank Pentangeli (Michael V Gazzo) talking to a Senate investigation and growing tensions in his marriage to Kay (Diane Keaton). The story is intercut with the rise to power of his father Vito (Robert DeNiro), a man raising his family in Little Italy and realising the temptations of a life of crime.

Happy with just one Godfather film, Coppola only agreed to a second in return for a pile of cash and complete creative control. He used that to create a film even deeper, richer and mesmeric (perhaps) than the first film. While The Godfather is high grade pulp fiction, shot and assembled with arthouse skill and layered with depth, Part II is a profound family saga, an arthouse epic spliced with rich vein of pulp fiction at its heart. A multi-generational story that illustrates the dark corruption at the heart of America from top to bottom, it also demonstrates the stark differences in personality and action between two ruthless, authoritarian father figures who do all that they do in the name of family, one of whom sees that family prosper and grow around him, the other who destroys everyone near to him.

Coppola’s film removes much of the slightly cuddily family element from the Corleone family to show a darker, bleaker, chillier movie than its landmark predecessor. Coppola uses his control to expand and deepen the Corleone saga both in the past and present, but also in the dark hearts and secrets of a family built on crime, extortion and murder. It’s a thematically rich, engrossing and beautifully assembled piece of film-making. Exquisite in every touch and beat, completely convincing and breath-taking in its confidence it is clearly the greatest sequel ever made.

The film charts the final descent of Michael Corleone into the dark recesses of his own worst desires and instincts. The brutal, unforgiving, unrelenting coldness and absolute certainty matched with the overwhelming hunger to win that has left him hollowed out and unrecognisable from the naïve, idealistic young war hero we were introduced to at the wedding that opens The Godfather. Of course, even at the start of the film, as Michael holds court with a chilling coolness and maintains only awkward contact with his family – all of whom must submit to him and his wishes or face lethal consequences – it’s clear that the man who talked of “it’s my family Kay, it’s not me” is a long, long way away.

During the film we see Michael seem to harden even further, an adamantine chillness captured superbly by Al Pacino. In, without doubt, the greatest performance of his career, Pacino restrains bar maybe three times, the explosive energy and ferocity that has been the hallmark of his career (a feat that allegedly made him physically ill). Instead, he presents a Michael who is an almost pathologically cold fish, a fiercely intelligent, scheming observer with eyes that observe and understand everything, jet black boreholes that suggest only whirlpools of emptiness behind them. He’s unrelenting, lacks any doubt and (it becomes clear) has not a vestige of pity left in him, with empathy forced out of his body like water from a squeezed sponge. Pacino prowls every frame like a quiet tiger, oozing sharpness, intelligence and lethal, ruthless ambition.

Everything is done to protect and secure his family and its legacy, but each action seems to strip him one by one of everyone he claims to be protecting. His children seem to live in intimidation and later terror of him. His wife turns from misery to loathing to being ejected from the family home, even aborting her pregnancy to prevent herself bringing another Corleone into the world (a reaction that leads to a final, relationship severing explosion of rage from Michael). His brother Fredo, poor sweet, foolish Fredo, is sacrificed to an unrelenting desire for revenge. The man who did everything for “the family” ends the film by having his last surviving brother executed. The brother who, the film’s coda reveals, was the only member of the family to support his signing up for service in World War Two.

As Coppola’s camera drills into the face of Michael, cold, greying, alone in an autumnal garden – and how often the film simply studies the ruthless calculation of Michael, the man who understands every move everyone makes before they even make it – you know we are looking at a man who has damned himself, who has destroyed everything who claims to hold dear while working to protect it.

Brilliantly, Coppola intercuts the storyline of Michael’s damning collapse into complete moral damnation with the rise of his father. The Young Vito Corleone – played with Oscar-winning skill by De Niro who superbly channels the basic facets of Brando’s performance mixed with his own charm – arrives in America to find it a land as in thrall to the rule of the gangs as his hometown in Sicily. Like Michael in the first film, he is tempted by the world of crime and finds he has a natural aptitude for it: like his son he is a man who people follow, and the man who has the will to do what must be done. Like him he is an empire builder who commands respect and honour.

But unlike his son, he is a man capable of warmth, of empathy. He is man who can be playful, who respects others, who can feel forgiveness, who sees others as people, not just (as Michael does) simply being tools to be manipulated. Vito may be a murderer like his son, but he loves his wife, he loves his children and he can form bonds with them – natural, warm, loving bonds – that Michael can only dream of doing. For Vito it is all about the family, and providing for them is what inspires his actions. For Michael it’s words, but for Vito – it is everything.

Coppola masterfully intercuts these two storylines so they brilliantly comment and contrast with each other. Each step of Michael’s struggles to overcome the plots around him, are perfectly bookended with contrasting moments of Vito’s own rise to power, and the bonds of loyalty he builds even as Michael destroys those own bonds in his own life.

But then Michael is dealing with high stakes. While Vito’s early life shows Mafiosi running Little Italy, and calling the shots on the neighbourhood, a local tradition inherited en masse from the mother land, Michael moves in the worlds of government corruption. The empire we see Vito start to build is destined under his son to interfere in the rule of whole countries in Cuba, and commit unspeakable crimes to bring Senators and witnesses under their control in Senate Hearings into Organised Crime.

Coppola had intended the storyline around the reluctant family witness to be Clemenza, but Richard Castellano famously refused to reprise his role unless he was allowed to write his own dialogue. (The Godfather Part II was blighted with actor disputes: Brando refused to reprise his role in the film’s coda, while James Caan was paid more for a day’s work than he was for the whole of the first film). Instead the role was passed to Michael V Gazzo (Oscar nominated) as Frankie Pentangali, a loud-mouthed Capo manipulated into thinking he has been betrayed by the family. This threat hangs over the second half of the film – but Michael barely seems to break sweat under interrogation.

He has more problems with the Meyer Lansky inspired Hyman Roth (played by Pacino’s teacher, the legendary Lee Strasberg – also Oscar nominated). Roth it is who immerses Michael in a corrupt takeover of the Cuban government by the Mafia – an attempt foiled by the revolution – and Roth who becomes his nemesis, an old man in a hurry, who believes he can match the ruthlessness of this man without a soul. Coppola’s scenes of Cuban excess – not to mention the danger on the street as the country starts to tear itself apart – are of course masterful.

Cuba destroys Fredo, a snivelling John Cazale (inexplicably not nominated, despite extraordinary work here – never mind nomination he arguably should have won). Cazale’s Fredo is endearing but simple, a fundamentally weak man in a family of wolves, whose guilt is almost embarrassingly easily unveiled. Petulantly – but terrifyingly – raging late in the film at Michael at being passed over, he sits (sweaty and veins throbbing) in a reclining chair that bounces on each point he makes – a simple touch that makes him seem more and more impotent and pathetic every second.

The film echoes much of the structure of the first film, but here retold with a chilling coldness as the warm heart that – for all his crimes – Vito bought to this family is removed. The opening family event, Anthony’s confirmation, is a public show with no personality at all, where the Italians feel all at sea, their culture not known or cared for. Doors are closed on Kay with an alarming regularity – their marriage is so non-functional that even at the start they seem to have very little to say to each other. Vito returns to Sicily, as Michael did, but this time to extract revenge for his parents not to fall in love. The ending of the film culminates in a dark, ruminative and tragic hinged cleansing of Michael’s – crucially not the families but Michael personally – enemies.

The film is blessed with a brilliant array of supporting turns, from Diane Keaton’s soft-faced sadness masking deep and lasting resentment as Kay, to a flashily amusing tone from GD Spranlin as the greasily corrupt Senator. Robert Duvall does unsung but powerful work as a Tom Hagen coldly loyal, perhaps even in slight fear of his adopted brother, but despite his seeming decency willing to carry out truly terrible deeds for the family. Talia Shire (also nominated) is great as the rebellious Connie who pleads in vain for Fredo’s salvation.

This is all beautifully packaged together by Coppola into a film that meditates on the building and the destruction of a family, two stories neatly told together in parallel, with each echoing the other. It is a film shot at a riveting but controlled pace, that uses the classical filmic style of the original but mixed even further with the genius shooting of Gordon Willis to add a dark tinged 1970s style to ever shot. The film is an art house classic, but also a superb plot boiler, a gangster film that tells us profound truths about the attitudes that make us men and those that destroy us, just as it suggests that the darkness at the heart of crime will eventually consume the very thing it starts out to protect (even if it does take generations). While it is not as entertaining or engaging perhaps as the first film – it is perhaps an even greater achievement, a superb triumph of atmosphere and tone and a terrifying insight into the darkness that man can achieve.

For at the end Michael has won utterly. But he is also utterly defeated.

City of God (2003)

Violence is a way of life in Fernando Meirelles calling card sensation City of God

Director: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund (co-director)

Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket), Leandro Firmino (Li’l Zé), Phellipe Haagensen (Benny), Douglas Silva (Li’l Dice), Jonathan Haagensen (Shaggy), Matheus Nachtergaele (Carrot), Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned), Jefechander Suplino (Clipper), Alice Braga (Angélica), Emerson Gomes (Stringy), Edson Oliveira (Older Stringy)

After Parasite’s win for Best Picture, it’s easy to remember the last foreign language film that made such a comparative impact at the Oscars – and it didn’t even win anything! Capturing the public imagination, City of God is that most American of things: a gangster film. Chronicling the life and death danger of the lawless slums of Rio de Janerio in the 1960s and 1970s, the film is an electric mixture of Latin and US film-making, a compelling shot of adrenalin that captured the imagination of the film-going public and made many Hollywood films look staid and dull. 

Shot on location with a largely non-professional cast, the film uses as our window into this world aspirant photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has a front-row seat for an emerging (true life) gang war that erupts in the slumps between unstable psychopath Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and his rival Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and bereaved former sniper turned bus conductor and killer Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Starting at the end, the film rewinds through time and moves from perspective to perspective in a series of dynamic short stories that slowly merge and meld together to complete the film’s whole.

The film is directed by Meirelles (who got an Oscar nomination) and Katia Lund (who didn’t). Meirelles invited Lund to collaborate with him on the project, and is generally credited with the film’s look, editing style, frenetic pace and distinctive style of sharply exposed Latin colours mixed with the look of a rock video, all dynamic angles and immersive action. Lund bought her documentary realism to the film, as well as working closely with the actors and helping to shape their parts of the story. Agreeing to take a specific “co-director” credit probably cost Lund the nomination, and it feels inexplicable she was unrecognised today, even more so since Lund has pioneered several successful TV series based around the world of the film.

Controversy aside, it’s a high water-mark certainly for Meirelles who has never quite managed to match it since (The Constant Gardener remains his best work since, marrying the dynamism here with one of Le Carré’s most emotional and strongest stories). With its lashings of Scorsese, Tarantino and De Palma (among others), City of God remains a hugely engaging and engrossing gangster flick that really feels like it captures the threat and grimy reality of the streets of Brazil. Each section of the city we see feels like a lawless wild west, where guns rule, the police have no say and a whole population of ordinary people keep their heads down and just try to avoid getting caught (literally) in the crossfire. 

In this world violence is endemic, life is a short and brutish cycle of slaughter where danger leads inevitably to death, short-termism is the norm and a series of essentially childish young men see the excitement of crime turn into the brutality of a life of violence. None more so than the film’s vicious dark heart, Li’l Zé a young man with a flickering temper, a love of violence and death, barely able to relate to other people, unanchored in the world whose life is a self-destructive quest to be the biggest fish in his pond. Played with a swaggering panache by Leandro Firmino (and a chilling coldness as a child by Douglas Silva), the self-named Li’l Zé dominates the film as the sort of life-wire threat Joe Pesci used to be for Scorsese, never certain whether he will laugh or shoot.

Which makes him perfect for the unpredictability of the slums, where everyone wants to be a hood, drugs are rife and crime and murder is a legitimate way of living. The film splices together several short story narratives to illustrated this with Altmanesque confidence. Each section of the film is introduced as “the story of X”, all of them expanding from the starting story based around three wanna-be-hoodlums whose mixed fates reference everything from The Third Man to A Bout de Souffle. From this the film organically expands, using Li’l Zé as the fulcrum who hinges every other story around him towards disaster. It’s neatly cross-cut as well, starting the end before rewinding through a neat transition shot into the past to explain how we got where we are.

There seems to be no good deeds in the city. The most likeable character, Benny, is himself a gangster (and Li’l Zé’s only friend and restraining influence) who is fun-loving and cool while not adverse to theft and murder when needed. Kingpin Knockout Ned starts out as a man of good intentions, determined to clean up the town that has left him bereaved and hurt, but becomes consumed by the dark impact of violence. All the time, many of these gangsters are in love with their public image both the awe and fear they inspire in those around them as the most powerful people in the neighbourhood, and from their growing coverage in the press.

It’s a cycle that seems doomed to repeat itself, not least through the film’s introduction of “The Runts” a group of trigger happy pre-teen would-by gangsters, who roam through the streets waiting their chance to turn small stick-ups into a criminal empire. They are no more than following in the footsteps of Li’l Zé, shooting his gun and experiencing murder at their age and now zeroing on owning the whole slum. It’s the dark ambition of capitalism playing out on the streets.

The film works however as framing it around the jaunty, relaxed narrative of Rocket gives it the feeling of a series of shaggy dog stories and coming-of-age tales (and the film carefully mixes in among the gangsters plenty of reminiscences from Rocket around his teenager upbringing, his first love and his passion for photography). With someone as easy-going as Rocket as our guide, the film never becomes overbearing or depressing but instead as entertaining and engrossing. In a way it’s a shock to remember it features as much killing (including of a child) and mayhem as it does, as well as a world-weary nihilism too it that the odd person may escape the streets, but the general world there will never change. 

A staggeringly confident piece of film-making, City of God remains an exciting and compelling piece of cinema.

White Heat (1949)

Top of the World Ma! Cagney excels in his final and greatest Gangster role White Heat

Director: Raoul Walsh

Cast: James Cagney (Cody Jarrett), Virginia Mayo (Verna Jarrett), Edmond O’Brien (Hank Fallon/Vic Prado), Margaret Wycherly (Ma Jarrett), Steve Cochan (“Big Ed” Somers), John Archer (Philip Evans), Wally Cassell (“Cotton” Valletti), Fred Clark (Daniel “The Trader” Winston)

After winning an Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney left Warner Brothers to form his own production company. When that folded, he swallowed his pride and re-entered the Warners’ fold. Money was driving the relationship: and it was the pay cheque that got Cagney to return one last time to the role of a psychotic gangster in White Heat. And if he had to go back, why not make that gangster the most psychotic of the lot? After all who else could make it to “the top of the world”?

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is the leader of a gang of criminals, to whom no act of larceny, violence or murder is taboo. A botched train hijack – during which Jarrett shoots two unarmed train drivers – attracts the full attention of the law, but Jarrett dodges justice by having himself sent down for a minor crime that happened at the same time as the train hijack. Not fooled, the Feds send an undercover operative, Hank (Edmond O’Brien), into the prison as Cody’s cellmate “Vic Prado”, tasked with getting the details of the train job and locating the mysterious fixer who set up the job. But such schemes didn’t take into account Jarrett’s psychological disturbance – powered above all by his obsessive, overwhelming love for his mother (Margaret Wycherly), the one dominant influence over his life.

Raoul Walsh’s film is a brutally efficient gangster flick which may be a little too long (the mechanisms of tracing and tracking a car are covered in far too great a depth…), but ticks all the boxes of the genre with exceptional skill and dexterity. It’s shoot-from-the-hip (literally) melodrama, and has all the internal logic of a schoolground game of cops and robbers, but Walsh’s direction is pin-point perfect, and the film is based around a series of stunning and effective set-pieces and crammed with a sort of deep (even disturbing) psychological insight that puts it miles ahead of many of films of the genre. Walsh also throws in some of the finest stylistic touches of film noir, with Virginia Mayo’s femme fatale, darkened frames, dubious morals among even our heroes (one of whom is a practised deceiver and liar) and a whirlwind monster at the centre.

But the film soars and flies because of Cagney, and the no-holds barred sharpness of Jarrett. The film revolves above all around the deep emotional emptiness and need in Jarrett, which sees him lean on O’Brien’s Falon (“like my kid brother!”) and, most famously, fixate like a toddler on his mother. Freud would have had a field day with Jarrett’s obsessive love for his mother, with Cagney turning him into the little boy lost. Consumed with headaches, he literally climbs into her lap so she can comfort him. The slightest criticism of her leads to instant reaction (not least knocking his wife off her chair – how can the poor woman compete with this beatified mother figure?)

This culminates in one of the film’s most famous sequences, as Jarrett digests in prison the news that his mother has died. Sitting in a crowded dining room, he passes word down to a new inmate for an update on his mother. Slowly the question is passed down the line of prisoners – and with trepidation the news of her death is passed back. And here is the Cagney magic. He seems too stunned at first to take it in then a series of low moans explodes into a titanic screaming fit, matched only by the violence he takes out on all who stand in his way. Walsh and Cagney kept the response secret from the entire room of 300 extras, all of whom seem as stunned as us by Jarrett’s total lack of control, his complete consumption in grief.

Cagney’s performance is just about perfect, a simmering mummy’s boy who is also a charismatic leader of men. A dangerous psycho who seems aware that he is not quite normal. A lonely man desperate for love. And Cagney has so many beautiful touches that could only be him – the quip as he plugs with bullets a car boot with a luckless gang member in it, the sly kick away at Virginia Mayo, that screaming sequence. It’s a performance of complete power and charisma, the gangster psychoanalysed and reduced to his bare essentials for a personality barely functional and obsessed with his mother.

Margaret Wycherly is similarly excellent as that mother, as sly and self-confident as her son and clearly as accomplished at leading a gang as him (I love the smug half smile she gives herself after evading the FBI tail she picks up). Edmond O’Brien does sterling work in the “straight man” role of the undercover cop, walking a line between judging and even perhaps sorta liking Jarrett a bit (even if he does get saddled with the mandatory “that’s the moral of the story” final line). Virginia Mayo is a wonderful mix of sex appeal and needling cheapness as Jarrett’s two-faced wife.

The film culminates in one of the most famous endings of all time – one you’ll know even if you haven’t seen the film – as the law catches up with Jarrett at last in a shoot-out at a gas plant. Finally driven mad by betrayal and abandonment – although lord Cagney’s performance makes clear that only a tenuous grip on sanity has been present in Jarrett from the start, fractured beyond repair by the loss of his mother – Jarrett insanely shoots at the police from atop a burning gas plant, before immolating himself (and most of the factory) with the cry “Made it Ma! Top of the world!”. As Jarrett heads down to a firey hell, so Cagney signed off on the gangster flick with perhaps the most dangerous, disturbed and also intriguing gangster on film. It’s such a mighty performance that the Hays-Code mandated final line of tutting disapproval at the criminal life from O’Brien feels even more forced and unnecessary than ever.

The Irishman (2019)

De Niro and Pacino under digital facelifts bring to life Scorsese’s meditative The Irishman

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio), Anna Paquin (Peggy Sheeran), Stephen Graham (Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno)

Scorsese had wanted to make this film for almost 20 years but it took the mega bucks of Netflix (to the tune of over $150 million) to finally bring it to life. With complete creative control, we get Scorsese’s epic as he saw it, an over three-and-a-half hour long sad meditation on the life of the gangster. For the first time in almost 25 years, Scorsese is reunited with his muse Robert De Niro – appearing here under various digital facelifts to tell the story of Frank Sheeran, an Irish member of the Mafia, and his relationship with infamous Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Was the film worth the effort to make it?

I first saw The Irishman in the cinema. I now feel that was a mistake. This is a film that needs to be soaked in like a warm bath. Like reading an involving novel, it needs to savoured and consumed at your own pace. In the cinema in one take – with no intermission – its runtime is punishing. It’s the worst form of criticism but in one take, the film can overstay its welcome. In fact it can become a little boring.

Re-watching the film a year later at home – where I could break it up into three chunks as (I feel) so many people have, it becomes a richer and more engrossing viewing experience. Because this is a totally different beast to Scorsese’s previous gangster movies, a quiet mood piece, contemplative, sad, a genuinely tragedy-tinged, doom-laden reflection on the emptiness and costly violence of the gangster life, and the empty shells it leaves of the people in it. And at its centre, a man so dehumanised by war, by obeying orders, so lacking of personality, so incapable of emotion it seems, that he ends the film as a blank, lonely, abandoned slate. It’s a real, and deliberate, counter-point to his electric gangster films of the past, from Mean Streets via Goodfellas to Casino and the cartoonish The Departed. Here the price of doing business is your soul – and when that final bullet comes (as it inevitably will) you have nothing to show for it.

It makes for a late Scorsese epic – nearly a TV mini-series – slow-paced, wintery and a perfect counterpoint to Goodfellas. There crime is ruthless but you can see it’s also fun. Here it’s hardwork, unrewarding and inevitably leads to a bloody demise. Time settles on the shoulders of its leads like deadweights and their is a weary sadness as they trudge from one feud to another, each of which can only be resolved by putting another body in the ground. And everyone knows that the next feud might well mean it’s their body that will end up six feet under.

Frank Sheeran is a drained automaton, a human being possibly in name only, who takes on violent acts without question, who can kill without remorse. This is the very picture of a second-tier career criminal, a man who takes orders and carries out missions. De Niro brilliantly creates an sociopathic monster, a man almost devoid of his own personality, with little to him but a taciturn killer. Sheeran is a tough character to relate to or understand – but that’s because he’s not really a character at all. Interestingly he doesn’t have the sort of flaws that undermine other Scorsese gangsters, like Henry Hill. His flaw is in fact his entire existence. His sociopathic acceptance of violence, his thoughtless carrying out of killing, his inability to relate to human beings. It’s what leaves him alone, unloved and isolated in a care-home. This is a man who can barely muster much emotion about killing his best friend, whose quiet, placid nature perhaps only hides his lack of capability of even experiencing emotion.

The Teamster union politics content of the film is often dense and hard-to-follow. At times it tips into being not that interesting. So it’s tough that it takes up almost two hours of the film’s run-time. It’s a sign of the films overindulgence. At the end of the day I’m not sure it adds much to your overall impression of the film. But reviewing the film perhaps that’s the point. The very shallowness and even pettiness of this feuding – not to mention the naked, unromantic greed – over how to distribute union pension money, explodes the myth of any romance to this crime. These are blue-collar conmen, using violence as a way to conclude a board meeting.

As Jimmy Hoffa, Al Pacino is the best he’s been in literally decades – the film uses his “hoo hah” shoutiness to great effect, but Pacino also makes Hoffa an unexpectedly vulnerable and lost figure amongst all the politics, a showman who overestimates his importance and invulnerability. The entire film is shaped (we discover) around a series of flashbacks from Sheeran on a road trip on what turns out to be the final days of Hoffa’s life (the film includes a solution to Hoffa’s famous disappearance). De Niro and Pacino spark beautifully off each other as a bond forms between them – the films lingering on their growing friendship (and at times strangely homoerotic intimacy) one of its strongest elements, as well as carefully demonstrating how disloyalty is a crucial survival skill in this world.

The film strongest elements are the doom-laden nihilism of the gangster life. Told by Scorsese deliberately without flash and excitement, with a score so sparse that long stretches of the film echo with silence, there seems to be no fun at all in the gangster world, instead a series of mundane men sitting in small restaurants, talking about admin and punching the clock. Many of the gangster characters are introduced with on-screen captions that detail the dates and natures of their violent deaths. It’s the exact opposite of what you might expect from a Scorsese film. It’s a director showing the dark flipside of his previous films, of the way the gangster life is a dwindle through a dull life marked with moments of danger, where death is a sudden violent explosion that ends a life too soon.

And it leaves families in a mess. Anna Paquin speaks very few words as Sheeran’s adult daughter, but only because her silent disapproval and disgust at her father’s life becomes the haunting of Sheeran’s whole life. His daughter’s silent disgust is a recurrent theme (even from childhood, she is repulsed by his capacity for violence and his heartlessness). Sheeran’s attempt to break through her silent disapproval, to get her to acknowledge him in some way becomes a large part of the sad coda of Sheeran’s life. It’s all part of Scorsese’s message: what is the point of a life like this that brings wealth and power, but also leaves you broken, lonely and despised by everyone around you?

And you can’t argue with the skill with which this quiet, meditative, grim and slow exploration of the gangster world is put together by Scorsese – or the artistry that every moment of the film has, or the control of the director. It’s beautifully shot and edited. It’s pace is at times glacial, but this is resolved by watching at your own pace on Netflix. It’s not a film to be binged (ironically Scorsese has made a television novel that he wants you to watch in one go) but instead one to be savoured and considered. That’s where it’s strengths are.

There are also excellent performances. Joe Pesci, lured from retirement, is outstanding. He’s a revelation as a sort of cool, calm, grandfatherly fixer a million miles from the lunatics he played in Casino or Goodfellas. Pesci quietly dominates several scenes, using stillness and quiet like a vicious badger who knows he only needs to swat once to remove his foes. This is a performance of beautifully judged grace and stability, a calm reflectiveness that carries a vicious coldness at its heart. Russell may prefer a peaceful solution – but he will order your death without thinking twice. Also excellent is Stephen Graham as the sort of dangerously impulsive bully Pesci played to such great effect in those earlier movies.

And those famous digital facelifts? Well they are fine technically. You ignore them after a while. But no matter of digital trickery can make De Niro move with the gait, physicality or certainty of a man more than 30 years younger than he is. As we watch De Niro (supposedly a killer in his prime) shamble forward, or gingerly give a rude grocer a kicking, you can’t forget that he’s really a much older man. To be honest the film would have been just as good – maybe better – with actors the correct age filling in for the younger roles. Watching it again, I’m never convinced that I am watching a De Niro the age he was in Mean Streets or even Goodfellas. To be honest, at times the facelifts don’t look a lot more convincing than hair dye and a little tape to stretch the skin back.

In fact the digital facelift at times is almost a metaphor for the film: it’s a film where age and time are a constant presence. Knowing the lead actors are old men, trying to look young kind of sits with that. These are not dynamic, triumphant young men. But then they never were. These are men who feel the burdens of the world on their shoulders every day. Who at the end of their lives will have nothing to show for it over than a satisfaction that they managed to live slightly longer than they expected. Whose friends and family will hate them and who find they sold their souls and gained nothing but dust in exchange. Long, slow, sometimes trying – but on a second rewatch, also compelling, thought-provoking, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

James Cagney leads the way as a hardened criminal in Angel with Dirty Faces

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: James Cagney (Rocky Sullivan), Pat O’Brien (Father Jerry Connolly), Humphrey Bogart (Jim Frazier), Ann Sheridan (Laury Martin), George Bancroft (Mac Keefer), The Dead End Kids

It has perhaps the most famous ending of all gangster films. Faced with his final few minutes on Death Row, charismatic gangster Rocky Sullivan meets with his oldest friend, Father Jerry O’Connell. Rocky is a hero to the kids on the block, and Father Jerry pleads with him: go the chair yellow and just maybe you can help turn these kids away from a life of crime. No way Rocky is going to lose his pride – until the final few moments, when suddenly he collapses into a morass of whimpering fear and terror. Did he decide to listen to Jerry’s pleading? Or did he really go yellow after all?

It’s the question that you are meant to take from Angels with Dirty Faces, a superb example of the gangster genre, brilliantly directed by Michael Curtiz. And it works so well because quite simply no other actor in the history of film could have pulled it off as well as Cagney does. If you have any doubts about whether Cagney deserves to stand as one of the truly greatest film actors of all time, this film erases them. 

Cagney is simply superb as Rocky. Has there ever been a gangster who was so charismatic, so magnetic, so strangely decent in his way, who plays in the corrupt world of crime but has his own absolutely rigid moral code? Few other actors could have you so ready to believe he would ruthlessly pull the trigger at the drop of the hat, and yet would still be someone you’d consider inviting round for dinner. Every single scene hinges on his brilliance as a performer, and his interaction with each character is superbly judged. He is an unapologetic bad guy, a man who openly says that he isn’t sure he is capable of empathy in the same way as normal people, yet he also has a fierce sense of loyalty and doesn’t hesitate to take the rap for others or to put himself in harm’s way to protect those he feels loyalty towards.

It’s all part of the intriguing moral puzzle of the film, that rather bravely inverts the idea of good and evil that the Hays Code mandated. On the surface this is a Board approved plot of two kids from the wrong end of the block, one who ends up good one who ends up bad, with the bad one getting his comeuppance and the good saving souls all around. But scratch the surface and actually this is a film that is making far more subtle points about a world that is in shades of grey. For starters, the most faithful and loyal character in the film is the hoodlum Rocky. 

But more than that, the film stresses that the margin between priest and criminal is very thin indeed. Repeatedly it’s stressed that Jerry is only a priest – rather than a fellow criminal graduate of the reform system like Rocky – because he was able to run away faster from the police during their days of mayhem as tearaway boys. It only takes chance and a few lucky turns, and the priest owes his ability to find God and the good life solely because the criminal happily took the whole rap as a Kid. The priest and the criminal work almost hand-in-hand trying to encourage the local kids to engage more in their community (even if they are teaching subtly different lessons) and their friendship is unaffected by the events of the film. 

Much as the film is building a traditional narrative of crime being attractive but not in the end paying, it is also subtly suggesting that good and evil perhaps coexist in harmony more than we might think (or might be comfortable to acknowledge). Which brings us back to the title I guess: Jerry is an angel with a dirty face from his flawed childhood, but in a way Rocky himself is an angel whose face is covered with the muck of crime. Both characters have lives that have crime and misdemeanours behind them, even if they have eventually chosen different routes.

Curtiz’s film allows this commentary to bubble subtly and cleverly under a host of wonderful scenes and carefully composed sequences. The highlight of which might well be an extraordinarily well made extended shoot out scene, as Rocky faces his final show down with the cops after one crime too many. But it’s a peak of a series of superb sequences that make excellent use of framing and intent. Curtiz even makes the Dead End Kids – a group of, I’ll be honest, rather irritating child actors, whose fates I find it hard to get worked up about – reasonably engaging. There are several other fabulous performances, not least a wonderfully snivelling turn from Humphrey Bogart as a cowardly and corrupt lawyer with more than a few criminal connections.

It all comes back to that final sequence as events catch up with Rocky and the electric chair awaits. Cagney is simply brilliant in this scene, a perfect steel front of composure and pride that we are invited to question whether it cracks or he does so deliberately. Curtiz shoots the sequence in shadow play (apart from one shot of Rocky’s hands clinging desperately to a radiator) – to meet the Hays Code rules about what you could and couldn’t show on screen, the chair being a no – but it works superbly and Cagney’s powerhouse but also restrained performance nails it perfectly. While you like to think Rocky has done the “right thing” you can’t be sure – and it’s that question that hangs over it that helps cement this as a brilliant inversion of the black-and-white morals of the era: we like to think decency has prevailed, but maybe it’s all just being yellow after all…