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Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Gangster

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This is the continuation of a series I began in January of this year that examines and remarks on The American Film Institute and its recent propensity to create Top 10 lists. Specifically, the organization’s need to gather publicity by documenting their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. Each time, the AFI went about giving importance to a set of motion pictures based on criteria and judgments their groups of ‘experts’ determined. It has generated opinions among fans and film aficionados ever since in varying degrees of disagreement. If you’re unaware, the AFI is a non-profit organization created by the National Endowment for the Arts back in the 60s. One of its main charters is the preservation of American film legacy. As they put it,

“Each special honors a different aspect of excellence in American film.”

Unquestionably, their prime purpose was to get people talking about film. So be it. This series on AFI’s Top 10s (out of their 100s lists) for 2012 is my motivated response to compare their picks with a moviegoer (me) per each of their indexes. Naturally, I’m fully aware that readers’ mileage may vary (indeed, we know they will) when it comes to these selections. Fair enough. Either way, it’s going to be painful as picking one above the other always is in such endeavors. You’re invited to add your own and/or disagree all you want in the comments or your blog site (all I ask is that you leave a link so we, the readers, can peruse). Shall we continue?


AFI defines the “gangster film” as a genre that centers on organized crime or maverick criminals in a twentieth century setting.

  1. The Godfather
  2. Goodfellas
  3. The Godfather Part II
  4. White Heat
  5. Bonnie and Clyde
  6. Scarface: Shame of a Nation
  7. Pulp Fiction
  8. The Public Enemy
  9. Little Caesar
  10. Scarface
My list:
  1. The Godfather [AFI #1] – the no-brainer of agreement in AFI terms. If I choose this film as the best Best Picture for the 70s in a recent Oscar article for Ruth’s recent mini-blogathon, it’s for damn sure I wasn’t about to dislodge this #1 pick. I’ll not waste text and will just refer you to that link which gives the why I thought it is Francis Ford Coppola’s masterwork.
  2. The Godfather Part II [AFI #3] – and since this is the greatest film sequel for that decade, and arguably ever, I’ll move up and snuggle Mr. Coppola’s ’74 film closely to its older sibling. There’s a reason many contend it is better than the original (if I thought other wise, it would be in my #1 slot), and that’s why it displaces AFI’s selection for second.
  3. Goodfellas [AFI #2] – no disrespect intended toward Martin Scorsese’s stellar gangster that began the 1990s by my downward move of it. In many ways, it offered the other side of gangster life, perhaps overly romanticized, from The Godfather. Plus, this film was closely and accurately based on a true story (Henry Hill’s from Nicholas Pileggi’s book).
  4. Pulp Fiction  [AFI #7] – I move up something I believe just keeps getting better over time with repeat screenings — Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore film. It told a gangster tale, with familiar elements from the genre, in a totally unexpected, original manner. Like others on this list, it is a cinema experience beyond its catchy memorable dialogue.
  5. White Heat [AFI #4] – again, no way I’ll displace Raoul Walsh’s gangster/psycho drama from my Top 10 (just bump it down a notch). James Cagney, the earlier star of so many gangster films like Public Enemy) was in top form in this, too. He, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, and Humphrey Bogart owned this genre for so long.
  6. Bonnie and Clyde [AFI #5] – Arthur Penn’s landmark gangster film helped put the final nails into Hollywood’s Hayes Code coffin with its violence and content; and with a stellar cast and wonderful direction and script, it was damn entertaining, too. 60s audiences were simply floored when this one landed upon them.
  7. Get Carter – of course, I’m referring to Mike Hodges’ first film from 1971 (and not the Stallone remake). Adapted from the Ted Lewis novel, it represents the best of Brit grit in this category and one of Michael Caine’s finest roles ever; see Rachel’s and my look at this one in an earlier duo post from a year ago this month.
  8. The Untouchables – I could have placed any of three remarkable Brian De Palma films in my tensome (including Scarface and Carlito’s Way), but it had to be this 1987 picture. For crowd-pleasing genre filmmaking, a cast to die for, and script written by David Mamet, it just doesn’t get any better or rise any higher than this gangster flick.
  9. Casino - if I’m to add another second from a previously named director in this Top 10 bracket, it’s going to be Martin Scorsese and it’ll be with this under-appreciated almost three-hour gem. Goodfellas gets the majority of the racketeer glory, but this one (another real life story penned by Nicholas Pileggi) doesn’t take a backseat — not one bit.
  10. Once Upon a Time in America – this gangster ten of mine wouldn’t be complete without Sergio Leone’s final film to round it out. Naturally, we’re not talking about the initial butchered U.S. release, but the four-hour allegory about friendship as told through the life of one Jewish hoodlum over the course of decades.
Note: unlike the previous list, I don’t have a glaring issue with the top ten the AFI put out for this category as they’re all great films, except perhaps in the order and the rise of some lesser known or recent film that are on my list. No question, Scarface (both the ’32 and ’83 remake), Public Enemy, and Little Caesar are more than splendid film works of this genre. And only after I decided upon my list order did I spot the subconscious pattern I grouped them. My top six all come from AFI’s roll and the rest were those they didn’t place that high, or not at all. Seemingly, this is a class of film I’ve followed since childhood (along with westerns, science fiction and fantasy), and I guess I somehow felt those not as well or widely known had to be mentioned.

What would be yours?

Next Up: Sci-Fi

The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series:

54 Responses to “Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Gangster”

  1. Jamie Helton

    I never was able to get into “Goodfellas,” so I’m not really sure why everyone raves about it so much. I don’t find it a bad movie by any means, just nothing special. Maybe I need to try it again.

    • le0pard13

      Hey, Jamie. Yes, not all of Scorsese’s films work for everyone. I have a distinct problem with ‘The Departed’, but that’s just me (perhaps because ‘Infernal Affairs’, the original film Marty remade, is a favorite HK film of mine). Thanks for reading and offering a comment, my friend.

      • Jamie Helton

        I’m just recently getting into Scorsese films. I never really got into his earlier films due to the subject matter, though I liked “The King of Comedy,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and especially “Cape Fear.” I’ve really liked a lot of his recent work, and really enjoyed “Hugo.” I need to go back to his previous work and look at it anew.

        • le0pard13

          Scorsese does have a remarkable filmography, Jamie. All those films you mention meet that definition. Let me know what you think when you go back and look at his films in the genre. Thanks.

  2. rtm

    I really should watch more gangster movies! I’ve only seen the first Godfather movie and The Untouchables, no doubt those are the best of the genre. Does Road to Perdition count as a gangster flick? If so I’d add that one :D

    Thanks for the link love, Michael and that is a darn good pick for Best Picture!

    • le0pard13

      Naturally, I’m all for that :-). Yes, ‘Road to Perdition’ certainly qualifies in this category, and it is fine one. Always happy to send link love your way. Thanks, Ruth.

  3. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    I enjoyed that piece and a greta list on the part of both.

    Now help me with this because I have been forever befuddled about it.

    Not that long ago, I watched about 45-55 minutes of Once Upon A Time In America. My friend, I gave up on it. I was kind of bored by it. I’m sure I missed out on some great payoffs but just could not get through it. What are your thoughts on this?

    Also, is Once Upon A Time In The West better? I have that one on standby but was so put of by your number 10 pick I have yet to pop it in the player.

    Thanks and as always I enjoy your assessments on both the films I love and the ones that I… well, don’t love so much. CHeers – sff

    • le0pard13

      OUaTiA is Sergio at his most operatic and unhurried in his storytelling (almost four hours!). Very languidly paced is that one. OUaTitW is almost frenetic compared to OUaTiA. I can see why you’d find it boring. It pays off in the second half, though (I think).

      OUaTitW is one of the great westerns because of the uniqueness of Sergio’s style and grand manner in bringing the tale. That one, too, pays benefits at the end. Uf you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, you’ll recognize Sergio Leone’s influence and story aspects from OUaTitW. I admire both films, though very different they are from each other. OUaTitW is more approachable, but then I have a strong admiration for the venerable oater ;-).

      Thanks for the wonderful comment and kind words, my friend.

      • The Sci-Fi Fanatic

        Thanks my friend. I’d sen parts of OUATITW and liked what I saw, which is wy I was so disappointed with Once Upon A Time In America. I can’t wait to see the other one start to finish. Thanks for the info.

        • le0pard13

          I hope you do, SFF. OUATITW is well worth the experience. You’ll never look at Henry Fonda the same way afterwards ;-). Thanks, my friend.

  4. Rachel

    I don’t watch a lot of gangster films. I’m not averse to reading stories, though, and just recently added Goodfellas to my TBR pile. I will watch/read anything about trafficking which usually ends up being about drugs but that’s not a requirement. My interest lies in the organization of goods movement not in the enforcement of power (if that makes any sense) and gangster movies usually focus on enforcement.

    I did enjoy our Get Carter post, though. It’s cool that it came up and thanks for the HT.

    • le0pard13

      That certainly a fair point, Rachel. I tend to look at the gangster genre almost as a sub-genre to crime films because of their organization, family, group element are so vital in the story. I’m sure I’m splitting hairs regarding this. I’m glad to have included our work looking at ‘Get Carter’, Rachel. Many thanks.

      • Rachel

        We can split hairs together… I would agree on the sub-genre for sure though all those things you mentioned aren’t really the things that interest me. I’m literally interested in the book keeping. Ugh! How boring am I? Turns out I’d rather watch a movie about what amounts to a UPS documentary than one that looks into the hierarchy of a powerful family. :/

  5. Castor

    I find Scarface to be quite overrated so I definitely am in agreement with you to keep it out of the top 10. Haven’t seen White Heat yet but definitely intrigued now. I would definitely have City of God in my top 5.

    • le0pard13

      Out of those three De Palma gangster films, Scarface is in third place. I think Carlito’s Way is the better work (and Pacino’s acting is much less excessive in that film).

      Oh, yes. Please check out ‘White Heat’. Cagney is ‘on top of the world’ with that one. Glad you mentioned ‘City of God’. That one has been on my list for a while and your endorsement is high incentive for me to finally watch it. Thanks, Castor.

      • rtm

        I still haven’t been able to muster up the courage to see Scarface, I did see some clips of it. Seems like there are a lot of quotable lines from that movie.

        • le0pard13

          De Palma’s ‘Scarface’ has manifested quite a following through the years (and multiple disc releases). It is certainly ferocious in places (surely where you have your concerns), and Pacino does give a bravura performance (even if his Cuban accent is woeful).

  6. Scott Lawlor

    Great post Michael.

    Both lists seem pretty solid actually. But yours is the winner in my eyes as it has the amazing UNTOUCHABLES in it… Win For Michael!

    • le0pard13

      Great to find another fan of Untouchables, Scott. For a film many thought was just a paycheck, commercial movie for De Palma, it certainly has lasted and only gained in popularity. Many thanks, my friend.

  7. Nostra

    Great list, although personally I’m not a fan of Bonnie and Clyde and Get Carter. Happy to say that I did see all of these on your list. Haven’t seen the original Scarface movie yet…

  8. Eric

    I’m digging these top 10 features! I have only seen half of your list (1-4 and 9), but I agree with all five. I really need to see The Untouchables already… not sure what has taken me so long.

    • le0pard13

      Very kind of you to say, Eric. Many thanks. I’m sure I speak for Ruth, Scott, and others when I say, “Tee up ‘The Untouchables’!”

  9. Ronan Wright

    Fantastic post Michael, informative as ever. It’s interesting to know what makes you tick when it comes to your favourite movies in a particular genre. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Elizabeth White

    Nicely done. Glad to see The Untouchables and Get Carter on your list. Miller’s Crossing and Carlito’s Way would also be on mine. Do you consider Reservoir Dogs ‘gangster’ by the AFI definition? If so, that’d be on my list too.

    • le0pard13

      Thanks for the kind words. It does get a little hazy regarding gangster verses crime film. I see gangster referring to organized crime, family, syndicate-type things at the core of the story. Either way, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is a great one to have on any list. Great comment, Elizabeth.

  11. John

    I would have to add Angels With Dirty Faces to your list. It is my favorite Cagney film of all-time. I also think EG Robinson’s mastery of the gangster spoofs genre doesn’t ever get enough recognition by bloggers. Larceny Inc., Bother Orchid and A Slight Case of Murder are just fun films.

    • le0pard13

      It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ and should revisit it. Can’t have enough Cagney ;-). I haven’t seen Larceny Inc., Bother Orchid and A Slight Case of Murder, so I should add them to the viewing list, as well. Many thanks once again for the read and recommendations, John.

  12. John

    Sorry, typo on the EGR film Brother Orchid. Also Larceny Inc. is a cool film, we are treated to a young Jackie Gleason as a soda jerk in this one. Robinson made so many of these gangster spoof type films. What a difference from Little Caesar, he is such a more polished actor in these movies.


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