The best summer readingExplore now

Our recommended summer 2024 crime fiction Explore now

Top 10 Movie Gangsters

When it comes to Hollywood and crime, there’s nothing more glamorous and intriguing than the shady world of organised crime. Whether it’s a Machiavellian kingpin or an explosively unpredictable hoodlum, most of the movie world’s most unforgettable bad guys are gangsters. We’ve cast our eye over cinema’s most feared and memorable crime lords and compiled what we think is the ultimate collection of movie mobsters.

We’re gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse: Check out our top ten film gangsters…


Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) – Goodfellas

Classic quote: ”As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.“

Martin Scorsese’s 1990 tale of a rags-to-riches Mafioso is one of the greatest gangster films of all time. In fact, it’s one of the greatest films of all time, full stop. What makes Henry Hill so remarkable and memorable is, well, that he’s neither remarkable or memorable. He’s just a regular guy thrust into the lucrative world of hijacking, extortion, drug-running and murder. We see him from a young kid kicking about the streets of Brooklyn, to being a young hood, a Mafia stalwart, a prison inmate and eventually, a police informant. And it’s a revealing portrait, from the cradle to the grave.

Tony Montana (Al Pacino) – Scarface

Classic quote: ”Say hello to my little friend!”

A hyperkinetic psychopath that’s a hair’s breadth away from being a cartoon character, this is easily Oscar-winner Al Pacino’s most famous role. You’d think that this shouting, flashy coke fiend with a penchant for explosive violence and Hawaiian shirts wouldn’t stand a chance of building a criminal empire. But you’d be wrong. This Cuban immigrant rises from penniless nobody to king of the Miami underworld with a love of machine guns, a hatred for ‘cock-a-roaches’ and a whole lot of crazy.

Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) – The Long Good Friday

Classic quote: ”I’ll have his carcass dripping blood by midnight.“

Harold Shand is the classic old school East End of London gangster: vicious, aggressive and fond a good swear. He rules the London underworld with an iron fist. Shand’s about to pull off a massive deal with Mafia and then take his first step into legitimate business when – wouldn’t you know it? – he gets dragged back into the mire… It was the role Bob Hoskins was born to play.

Cody Jarret (James Cagney) – White Heat

Classic quote: ”Made it, Ma! Top of the world!“

Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarret was one of cinema’s original mobsters. Snarling, suited, ruthless. As we all know, behind every great man, there’s a great woman. And it seems that the same can be said for cold-blooded gang leaders. In Jarret’s case the woman happens to be his over-bearing and viciously ambitious mother, ‘Ma’. Cagney’s brooding, explosive little firecracker of a criminal set the tone for the next half a century of crime films.

Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) – Casino

Classic quote: ”There’s a lot of holes in the desert. And a lot of problems are buried in those holes.“

Joe Pesci was seemingly born to play volcanic wiseguys. Perhaps the diminutive actor’s most famous role being Goodfella’s Tommy DeVito (no relation to Danny). Remember the ‘funny like a clown?!’ scene? Exactly. But for our laundered money, it’s his performance as Nicky Santoro in the underrated Casino that really stands out. A mob enforcer that helps cement smoothie bookmaker Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) as a key figure in Las Vegas, what he lacks in stature, he more than makes up for in menace.

Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) – The Godfather

Classic quote: ”I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.“

The archetypal Mafia don, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone is quite literally the Godfather of cinematic crooks. But what makes the slow-moving Sicilian so special? He’s the antithesis of the traditional film gangster. There’s no bursting into rooms and unloading a Tommy guy with Don Corleone. He’s a gentleman. A businessman. A family man. He prefers diplomacy and deals to intimidation and violence. That’s not to say he’s not a ruthless man. But he’s a fair man. Though one who has severed horses heads put in people’s beds, admittedly.

Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) – Heat

Classic quote: ”Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.“

If there’s a better film about the pitfalls of crime and obsession, we’re yet to see it. Michael Mann’s sprawling 1995 epic famously sees Pacino and De Niro share screen time for the first time. And it was well worth the wait. Pacino’s obsessive cop hunts down the cool, calm and collected crook Neil MacCauley, but is always one step behind him. Why? Because McCauley’s so calculating, methodical and utterly ruthless.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) – American Gangster

Classic quote: ”The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.“

Frank Lucas was, well, an American gangster. But he’s no ordinary gangster. The real-life Lucas wrestled the drugs trade away from the Mafia in the ’70s and was said to earn a million dollars a day in his pomp. And he did it with style. So who do you get to play such a stylish crime boss – a man dubbed ‘The Original Superfly’? There’s only one man – Denzel.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) – Get Carter

Classic quote: ”You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape and with me it’s a full time job. Now behave yourself.“

Michael Caine’s vicious London gangster on a fact-finding-turned-revenge mission is undeniably iconic. The shotgun, the trenchcoat, the outbursts of violence, the Cockney insults… Cool-as-a-cucumber Carter spends the film tracking down the men behind his brother’s death (just as his does in the novel the film’s based on, Ted Lewis’ Jack Returns Home). And then killing them. If you don’t get Carter then you just don’t get gangsters.

Frank White (Christopher Walken) – The King of New York

Classic quote: ”From now on, nothing goes down unless I’m involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold in the park, I want in.“

Released from prison, Christopher Walken’s ostensibly mild-mannered drug lord Frank White is unique. How many other movie gangsters do you know would sanction an aggressive widespread takeover of rival gangs’ operations so they could raise enough money to build a hospital in a run-down area?
So those are our top ten big-screen mobsters. Have we missed one of your favourite wiseguys? Let us know in the comments below!


    Great list but my all time favourite gangster movie is ‘Things to do in Denver when you’re dead.’ Chris Walken pops up again as an icy mob boss putting out a hit on Andy Garcia and his gang.

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.