10 Gangster Movies Every Filmmaker Should Watch and Study



Who doesn’t enjoy cheering for a hardboiled anti-hero as he and his gangster friends make the streets of Chicago unsafe while offering “protection” for the small business owner?

No wonder gangster flicks have become so popular.

Cinema history has produced some fantastic must-watch gangster movies everyone needs to see. Below, I’ve curated 10 of the best gangster movies of all time (in no particular order).

1. The Godfather (1972)

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

– Don Vito Corleone
  • Genre: Crime
  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • Screenwriters: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan

Why you should watch it:

“The Godfather” showcases masterful storytelling, character development, and the use of symbolism. It is essential because it revolutionized the gangster genre with its masterful storytelling, character development, and visual style.

One key scene that highlights these aspects is the restaurant scene, where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) assassinates two rival gangsters. The tension builds throughout the scene, and lighting and framing emphasize the power dynamics.

Also, study how the opening scene establishes the power and control of the Corleone family through lighting, music, and dialogue.

This film serves as a blueprint for filmmakers to study the art of storytelling and character arcs in a crime saga.

The Godfather is the best mafia or gangster movie of all time. Period!

2. Scarface (1983)

“Say hello to my little friend!’

– Tony Montana
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Director: Brian De Palma
  • Screenwriter: Oliver Stone
  • Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer

Why you should watch it:

“Scarface” is renowned for its iconic performances, memorable quotes, and its exploration of the American Dream gone awry.

The climactic scene, where Tony Montana utters the famous line “Say hello to my little friend!” during a shootout, showcases the film’s gritty violence and the consequences of a life of crime through slow motion.

Filmmakers can learn from De Palma’s ability to create tension and build to a pivotal moment.

Scarface is a classic gangster movie and a remake of the 1932 film of the same name – but a remake that’s even better than the original! Scarface also was the nickname of top gangster Al Capone.

3. City of God (2002)

“It was like a message from God. ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’”

– Buscapé
  • Genre: Crime
  • Directors: Fernando Meirelles and Kàtia Lund
  • Screenwriter: Bràulio Mantovani
  • Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Jonathan Haagensen

Why you should watch it:

“City of God” is essential for its portrayal of gang violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, its non-linear storytelling, and its visual style.

For example, study how the opening sequence combines frenetic editing, dynamic camerawork, and a pulsating soundtrack to introduce the dangerous world of the favelas.

It’s based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Paulo Lins.

4. Goodfellas (1990)

“As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a gangster.”

– Henry Hill
  • Genre: Biographical Crime
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Screenwriters: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci

Why you should watch it:

“Goodfellas” is known for its kinetic editing, voice-over narration, and intense performances. It provides an immersive portrayal of the life of gangsters and the rise and fall of protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta).

The famous “Copacabana tracking shot” is a standout example of Scorsese’s directorial style, using long takes and fluid camera movement to create a sense of excitement and immersion.

“Goodfellas” is a must-watch for filmmakers interested in exploring non-linear narratives and visually engaging techniques.

5. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

“I like the stink of the streets. It makes me feel good.”

– David “Noodles” Aaronson
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Director: Sergio Leone
  • Screenwriters: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
  • Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci, Jennifer Connelly

Why you should watch it:

“Once Upon a Time in America” explores themes of friendship, betrayal, and the passage of time. It follows a group of Jewish gangsters in New York City from their childhood in the 1920s to their later years in the 1960s.

Leone’s use of non-linear storytelling and his attention to detail make this film a masterclass in visual storytelling.

One example is the scene where Noodles (De Niro) remembers watching Deborah (Conelly) dancing among the flour for the first time, contrasting the youth’s innocence with the harsh realities of their lives.

Studying this film can help us understand the power of visual motifs and the impact of editing choices.

Once Upon a Time in America is an epic tale that follows the life of a group of kids as they transition from poor street kids to hardboiled Jewish gangsters in New York City as adults.

6. Pulp Fiction (1994)

“Say ‘what’ again. Say ‘what’ again, I dare you, I double dare you motherf*cker, say what one more Goddamn time!”

– Jules Winnfield
  • Genre: Black Comedy
  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
  • Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman

Why you should watch it:

Tarantino’s nonlinear storytelling, witty dialogue, and eclectic soundtrack make Pulp Fiction a standout gangster film. The “diner scene” is a prime example of Tarantino’s ability to create tension through dialogue and build memorable characters.

A postmodern masterpiece, Pulp Fiction portrays the edges of gangster life. It’s not the inner circles of a mob family that we see, but the brotherhood of two hitmen, as they must deal with difficult situations—a must-watch for any gangster flick or Tarantino fan.

7. The Untouchables (1987)

“Never stop fighting till the fight is done.”

– Eliot Ness
  • Genre: Crime
  • Director: Brian De Palma
  • Screenwriter: David Mamet
  • Starring: Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery

Why you should watch it:

“The Untouchables” showcases De Palma’s mastery of suspense and tension-building.

The famous “staircase shootout” scene demonstrates his use of slow motion, dramatic framing, and sound design to create a memorable and thrilling sequence.

8. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

“I am gonna send you to a deep dark place, and I am gonna have fun doin’ it!”

– Eddie Dane
  • Genre: Gangster
  • Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Screenwriters: Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro

Why you should watch it:

Miller’s Crossing is a beautifully shot neo-noir gangster film and an homage to earlier gangster films by the Coen brothers.

It is known for its stylish visuals, complex characters, and nonlinear narrative. The “Danny Boy” scene exemplifies the Coens’ ability to create tension through dialogue, staging, and cinematography.

9. The Departed (2006)

  • Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller.
  • Director: Martin Scorsese.
  • Screenwriter: William Monahan.
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Vera Farmiga.

Why you should watch it:

“The Departed” demonstrates Scorsese’s ability to create complex characters and maintain tension throughout the narrative.

The rooftop scene, where the two main characters finally confront each other, showcases the film’s suspenseful atmosphere and the moral ambiguity of the characters.

You can learn from Scorsese’s pacing mastery and ability to create compelling and morally complex characters.

10. A Prophet (2009)

  • Genre: Crime, Drama
  • Director: Jacques Audiard
  • Screenwriters: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit
  • Starring: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Reda Kateb

Why you should watch it:

This French film offers a unique perspective on the gangster genre. It explores themes of power, survival, and identity.

The film’s use of a prison setting and the protagonist’s transformation showcase Audiard’s ability to create a compelling character arc.

Closing Thoughts

Mob movies consistently engage audiences with their raw action, intricate characters, and complex moral issues.

From the sinister paths of organized crime to the detailed structures of mafia power, gangster films offer unique perspectives on the secretive criminal underworld that has intrigued movie lovers for years.

They not only showcase riveting cinematic craftsmanship but have left lasting impressions on the history of filmmaking as cultural landmarks.

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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