Up there in Technicolor glory are John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis and Pretty Boy Floyd. Four of the most notorious of gangsters wreak havoc on the streets of Chicago while the Feds led by Melvin Purvis, G-Man, try to take them down.
Public Enemies is a high-class affair all the way, helmed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Channing Tatum as Floyd, Giovanni Ribisi as Karpis and Stephen Graham as Nelson, while French actress and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard plays Dillinger’s girlfriend. The good guys include Purvis (Christian Bale) and J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup).
The retro gangster thing has certainly brought to mind other classic cinema hoods from bygone eras, so here’s a list of ten that are hard to top.
Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in The Untouchables (1987): Paul Muni’s memorable turn in the original 1931 Scarface laid the groundwork for a succession of cinematic Capones played by the likes of Rod Steiger, Neville Brand, JasonRobards, Jr., F. Murray Abraham and, most recently, Jon Bernthal in Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian. But while De Niro’s frightening turn in Brian De Palma’s Untouchables may have had less screen time than most of the others, he sure registered in the menacing department. Wielding a baseball bat and wearing mucho expensive threads (including a pair of silk undies like Capone wore), Bobby D is fabulous as “Scarface Al,” his presence felt throughout the stylish reworking of the old TV series. FYI: De Niro plucked the role away from Bob Hoskins, who was originally cast. We think, he too, would have made an awesome Al.
Joe Valachi (Charles Bronson) in The Valachi Papers (1972): The same year The Godfather became a sensation, producer Dino De Laurentiis cashed in on the mob mania with the true story of Joe Valachi, the Brooklyn hood who becomes a targeted man by the Genovese crime family when he decides to become a witness for the FBI in early 1960s. Bronson, known for his macho movie roles, proved he could act by underplaying the part, and the top-notch cast of Italian and American actors orchestrated by James Bond directing specialist Terence Young included Lino Ventura, Joseph Wiseman and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. Shot in Italy because of threats to the production in the States, The Valachi Papers is a highly energized, violent escapade without The Godfather’s artistry but boasting “B” movie thrills to spare (along with anachronisms and bad dubbing).
Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (Tony Curtis) in Lepke (1975): Jewish actor Bernard Schwartz (Curtis’ real name) gets to play Jewish mobster Louie “Lepke” in this pulpy outing designed by Israeli director/producer Menahem Golan to cash in on the 1974 release of The Godfather, Part II. Tony appears to be having fun in this change-of-pace role, doing some over-the-top emoting as the dangerous mobster who forms an uneasy alliance with fellow ganglord Lucky Luciano (Vic Tayback?!) and—at least according to the film—has hood Legs Diamond stabbed at Coney Island.
Benny “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) in Bugsy (1991): A return to gangsterdom from the guy who donned the fedora for Clyde Barrow in the landmark Bonnie And Clyde (1967), Bugsy offers Beatty one of his richest roles as Benny Siegel. Looking like he just got out of a tanning salon and dressed like a dandy from central casting, East Coast mobster Bugsy heads to Los Angeles where he falls for Hollywood extra Virginia Hill (soon-to-be-Mrs.-Beatty Annette Bening), congregates with movie types, and brainstorms the idea of turning Las Vegas into a desert gambling and entertainment destination. The film mixes the glossy with the brutal, which makes sense considering that Barry Levinson directed and James Toback penned the script. Wonderful support is added by the likes of Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen) and Elliott Gould (stool pigeon Harry Greenberg).
Kate “Ma” Barker (Shelley Winters) in Bloody Mama (1970): It’s no surprise that Shelley gave her all for director Roger Corman in her portrayal of “Ma” Barker, who lead her four sons on a wild crime spree throughout the Ozarks in the 1930s. Dysfunction runs rampant through this demented backwoods family led by maladjusted mama Winters and psychologically troubled sons Robert De Niro, Robert Walden, Don Stroud and Clint Kimbrough. Bruce Dern and Pat Hingle also provided fine support.
“Dutch” Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) in Billy Bathgate (1991): Robert Benton’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel was a box-office and critical disappointment, but its pluses certainly overwhelm its shortcomings, and actually make it a somewhat underrated film in the gangster canon these days. Loren Dean plays an East Bronx teen who befriends the ruthless hoodlum Schultz (Hoffman) and becomes romantically interested in his moll, played with abandon by Nicole Kidman. Hoffman dives head first into the supporting role, showing a cool and calculating side one minute and unpredictably violent behavior the next.
Salvatore Giuliano (Pietro Cammarata) in Salvatore Giuliano (1962): An important film for Italy’s Francesco Rosi, in that it mixes a gangster story with fascinating political themes that proved to be important and controversial. The same character was the center of Michael Cimino’s 1987 disaster The Sicilian. Here, Rosi uses mostly non-professional actors and a semi-documentary form to tell the story of Sicilian mobster Giuliano’s rise from a young Robin Hood-like bandit to a violent Mafia chieftain who was ultimately gunned down by his best friend. The time-shifting narrative is brilliantly realized by Rosi, who went on to direct another top-notch mob famiglia bio, Lucky Luciano, in 1973.
Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) in Hoodlum (1997): Fishburne first played a veiled version of the African-American gangster in Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1985), and got a chance to bring him front and center of a story here which covers some of the same turf that Coppola’s film did. Here, the Harlem-based crimelord is caught between feuding bosses Lucky Luciano (a charismatic Andy Garcia) and Dutch Shultz (an enjoyably shifty Tim Roth) after he takes over the empire run by the “Queen” (Cicely Tyson). Spirited performances by all and Bill Duke’s stylish direction help the film overcome some clunkiness resulting from to a limited budget.
John Dillinger (Warren Oates) in Dillinger (1973): Oates is a knockout as “Public Enemy #1,” a ruthless criminal with a sense of humor and an egomaniacal streak, telling his victims that “you’ll tell your grandchildren about this”. The first film helmed by rabble-rousing John Milius is a tabloid salute to gangsters with Ben Johnson as g-man Melvin Purvis, Michelle Phillips as the Lady in Red, Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd and Richard Dreyfuss as the temper-tantrum-taking Baby Face Nelson. But it’s Oates’ magnetic presence that makes this thing hum between the bursts of machine-gun fire.
Meyer Lansky (Richard Dreyfuss) in Lansky (1999): This made-for-HBO movie offers an interesting look at the life of mob kingpin Lansky, memorably fictionalized as Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in The Godfather, Part II. Here, Dreyfuss is the aged Jewish hoodlum, whose life we see in flashback as he attempts to find a country to live in so he can dodge his U.S. income tax liabilities. We witness Lansky’s machinations of taking his criminal businesses legit through transportation companies, unions and Las Vegas. Because Lansky wasn’t as flamboyant as the other hoods shown here like Bugsy Siegel (Eric Roberts) and Lucky Luciano (Anthony LaPaglia), Dreyfuss plays him in a ruminative mood, and the film—scripted by David Mamet and directed by John McNaughton—reflects this tack, accenting dialogue and family drama over shootouts and action.