Los Angeles, 1949. The streets of this post-war paradise hum with the din of a thousand nefarious deeds and are soaked with liters of regret and heavy-handed film noir metaphors. This is the world in which Ruben Fleischer has set his latest film Gangster Squad. The movie is a largely dramatized account of the LAPD’s attempt to bring down west coast mob boss Mickey Cohen. Fleischer has crafted an ultraviolent throwback to the stiff fedora brims, and stiffer drinks, of the classic gangster films of the 1930s, while also nodding to the movies of the’ 90s equally reverent toward that era; namely The Untouchables. This gave us the idea to assemble our own gangster squad… that is, our favorite obscure gangster movies. Here are the hoods and heavies we’d enlist.
If you are looking for something almost exactly as kill-crazed and kinetic as Gangster Squad, with bad guys equally as exaggerated, look no further than Walter Hill’s The Last Man Standing. Essentially a re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Bruce Willis plays a gun-toting stranger who breezes into a Prohibition-era ghost town in West Texas. The town is run by two rival gangs, and Willis proceeds to play one off the other for his own profit. Last Man Standing is a dusty, bloody, noirsploitation, but Hill’s well-struck action sequences, coupled with the staggering cast of outstanding character actors, sets this one apart.
It would behoove you to abandon the notion that the U.S. has the market cornered on great gangster films. From the late 50s to the early 70s, French director Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the hardest hitting figures in crime cinema. Le Samourai stars frequent Melville collaborator Alain Delon as a mob assassin who accidentally leaves a witness after killing a nightclub owner. The quiet French noir is uniquely compelling from the first frame. What gives the movie its true voice, as well as its title, is the fascinating crossover of samurai culture–the rituals, the extremely modest lifestyle, and most importantly the “armor” comprised of trench coat and fedora—with familiar gangster conventions.
1948’s Key Largo is not as violent as Gangster Squad, point of fact it’s not even as bullet happy as its gangster cinema contemporaries. This film noir stars perennial tough guy Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, one of the most prevalent actors of the golden age of Warner Gangster flicks. Robinson was born to be a heavy; his face locked in permanent scowl. The prologue makes a point of noting that Key Largo is the largest of the Florida Keys, which nicely juxtaposes the claustrophobic atmosphere of being trapped in that tropical hotel with menacing mobster Johnny Rocco during a hurricane. That claustrophobia also plays into the movie’s phenomenal climax on that tiny boat. Key Largo is powerful, calculating, and sweltering with tension.
The mustering of sympathy for the devil is a core component to scores of organized crime films. We are often asked to pledge our allegiance to protagonists who are objectively reprehensible. Scorsese’s Goodfellas is full of these compelling antiheroes. That innate ability to root for the bad guy was possibly never more strongly challenged than in 1980’s The Long Good Friday. British gangland boss Harold Shand has his turf bombed by competing thugs and he will not rest until he identifies them. Bob Hoskins plays Shand with such bitter, bile-spewing viciousness as to appear rabid. The scene of him interrogating enemy footsoldiers while they hang upside down is encapsulating of his character as a whole. Hoskins’ performance, the whodunit nature of the plot, and the stellar score are what make this film so fantastic. Watch out for a young Pierce Brosnan as a not-so-loquacious hitman.
It’s interesting to see how different cultures have their own gangster societies. The Japanese Yakuza have an entire branch of cinema unto themselves, just as does the Italian Cosa Nostra, and one of the best in this category is 1967’s A Colt is My Passport. The story centers on a pair of killers making their escape after an especially high-profile hit. Produced by then-thriving action studio Nikkatsu, A Colt is My Passport infuses elements of the great American westerns to create a distinctive and captivating journey for its two leads. Jo Shishido is cast as the Japanese take on the Gary Cooper strong silent hero, and his climactic showdown with a car full of enemies is spectacular.
The Coen Brothers aren’t exactly obscure filmmakers. In addition to their Academy acclaim, they have directed a plethora of films that have been inducted into pop culture canon. That being said, their 1990 crime comedy Miller’s Crossing is criminally underseen. Gabriel Byrne plays a mob lieutenant who is constantly trying to keep the peace between his boss and a rival gang. The Coen’s outrageous farce is well woven into this mafia parable and the score and cinematography are operating on otherworldly levels. Of all the sensational talent assembled here, it is John Turturro’s performance as the uber slimy Bernie Bernbaum that steals the show.
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]