Top Ten New York City Mob Movies
Ranked by Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd
1. (tie) The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974). This is like choosing between the Mona Lisa and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Both are perfect in their own way—even if they do perpetuate the myth that the mafia often operated as a sort of cross between a settlement house and Tammany Hall. Both are also two of the best examples—maybe the two best examples—of historical fiction in American cinema. The personal relationships, the language, the clothes—nearly all of it is spot on. More than all that, it looks right, thanks to both the fact that so much of the old New York was still standing at the time . . . and the fact that Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant cinematographer, Gordon Willis, was burning a substance known as “Fuller’s earth” to capture the grimy look of industrial-age America. Don’t expect to see it again anytime soon. The burning of Fuller’s earth in movie-making is no longer allowed, thanks to its toxic qualities. Well, we all must make some sacrifices for art...
2. On the Waterfront (1954). Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg rip the cover off the waterfront rackets, in a gritty drama that has outlived the authors’ odious, pro-McCarthyist subtext. Shot largely on location in Hoboken, it’s highly accurate in detailing how the longshoremen of New York Harbor were brutally exploited by both the bosses and their own mobbed-up union. Readers of The Big Crowd will get the whole behind the scenes story of the mob rackets that ran the docks and the brave men and women who fought them.
3. Mean Streets (1973). For all of its operatic trappings, Martin Scorsese rips the glamour off the mob, taking it back down to a group of tragicomic, petty criminals, hustling the streets of Greenwich Village and going nowhere. A terrific look at the New York of the 1970s, as well as the bottom level of the mafia.
4. Goodfellas (1990). And here is Scorsese’s bookend: his brilliant adaptation of Henry Hill’s confession via Nicholas Pileggi. The characters we see here are considerably bigger time, the city often more glamorous. But the aimlessness, the viciousness, and the despair oozes out of every scene. Another chapter in that continuing lesson, “The mafia is not your friend.”
5. Force of Evil (1948). Terrific piece of film noir, with many exteriors shot on location in a beautifully stark, black-and-white New York. At its heart is a brothers story, starring the inimitable John Garfield as a crooked mob lawyer and Thomas Gomez as the head of a small-time numbers, or “policy,” racket. It was no doubt many Americans’ introduction to policy, the big city’s homemade, nickel lottery of the time, and a source of much of the mob’s wealth.
6. Donnie Brasco (1997). How can we possibly overlook the movie that brought “Fuhgeddaboutit!” into the common parlance? Wonderfully acted and directed, this true-life story of an undercover cop crackles with tension and the brutality of actual mob life.
7. The French Connection (1971). A great movie that is not ranked higher only because a good part of it is less a “mob” movie than an “international heist” movie or a “cop buddies” movie. Nonetheless, it’s an indelible look at the ragged New York of the time. Taut, often funny, and thoroughly entertaining.
8. The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). Here again is the less-than-heroic, back end of the mob, albeit with plenty of dark humor. Lots of fun—and very much about the New York of the 1970s and ’80s, as well as its decaying mob culture.
9. Once Upon a Time in America (1984). It’s hard to actually call this a good movie. It’s much too long, the plot is ludicrous, and it’s full of the usual Sergio Leone affectations... Leone never really understood much about America or American history, preferring usually to see it through a scrim of condescending, pseudo-intellectual European academic theory. But the first half of the film, set mostly in the 1920s and ’30s, does a beautiful job of showing us life in the Lower East Side slums. It’s worthwhile for that alone.
10. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). This is a D.W. Griffith silent and only 17 minutes long. I include it as the start of a genre; probably the first mob movie ever made, and certainly the first of any note in New York. It also takes a game stab at depicting Lower East Side street life and generally succeeds. In this, it is obviously inspired by the iconic photographs of Jacob Riis, thereby linking Hollywood to this earlier, vital look into immigrant life.
Honorable mention: There are so many other great candidates, many of which didn’t make it because they really fit better into another genre. Prince of the City, for instance, is really more of a film about corrupt cops, while Gangs of New York is more of an immigrant story—and much the same can be said for James Gray’s brilliantly evocative Little Odessa and We Own the Night. But I’m happy to hear anyone’s suggestions.