Messing with organised crime should be avoided at all costs unless one is willing to face the often fatal music. Mark Fraser looks at a selection of American movies in which encroaching upon gangster activity results in some serious grief.
10. Livers Ain’t Cheap AKA The Real Thing (James Merendino, 1996)
When a small group of ex-cons led by a paroled bank robber (James Russo) attempts – with partly honourable intentions – to steal $1 million from a Los Angeles nightclub on New Year’s Eve, they undertake the task knowing full well they will irreversibly upset the mobsteresque owner of the premises (Rod Steiger). What they don’t expect, though, is the sudden appearance of a rival crew looking to pull off the same heist. Naturally, things don’t go to plan.
9. Gloria (John Cassavetes, 1980)
Moonlighting as an FBI informant doesn’t work out too well for mob accountant Jack Dawn (Buck Henry) and most of his family when they are wiped out in their South Bronx apartment by some hitmen. Just before the fireworks, however, Jack and his wife Jeri (Julie Carmen) quickly convince their reluctant neighbour Gloria Swenson (Gena Rowlands) to harbour their young son Phil (John Adames). Having been romantically involved with the gang’s boss (Basillo Franchina) during a previous life, Gloria understands only too well what is in store for both her and the boy if they are captured by her erstwhile lover.
8. Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973)
What should be a simple bank heist in a small New Mexico town turns into a major nightmare for the thieves (Walter Matthau, Andrew Robinson, Fred Scheiwiller and Jacqueline Scott) after their game plan goes seriously awry and, later, the survivors find out a substantial part of their booty is laundered mob money. As a result the titular Charley (Matthau) – who has already been forced to unceremoniously cremate his wife (Scott) immediately after the robbery – must outwit both his remaining partner in crime (Robinson) and a ruthless killer (Joe Don Baker), who has been dispatched by the syndicate to wipe out the perpetrators and recover the cash. Also known as The Last of the Independents and Kill Charley Varrick.
7. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
Ex-con and safe cracker extraordinaire Frank (James Caan) is doing pretty well for himself, having set up a couple of businesses to cover his jewel heist activities and finding a bride (Tuesday Weld) with whom to start a belated family. His troubles begin, however, when he lets himself become involved with Chicago mobster Leo (Robert Prosky), who ends up significantly undercutting his margins and demanding that he continue working despite some retirement plans. After Leo’s gang kills his partner (James Belushi), Frank destroys everything he holds dear before seeking blood-soaked retribution.
6. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012)
Although holding up an illegal mob-run backroom poker game seems like a good idea at the time, it ends up backfiring on the thief who organises it (Vincent Curatola) and the two boneheads he employs to carry out the job (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) when a ruthless assassin (Brad Pitt) is brought in to sort out the mess. Even the man running the gambling premises (Ray Liotta) – whose past indiscretions include orchestrating a similar robbery – is spectacularly wasted in the process.
5. Across 110th Street (Barry Shear, 1972)
Three incompetent African American thieves from the ghetto (Paul Benjamin, Ed Bernard and Antonio Fargas) find they have bitten off far more than they can chew after stealing a bunch of cash ($300,000) from the mob in a Harlem hotel, gunning down five gangsters and two policemen in the process. They then get hunted down one-by-one by a particularly sadistic mafioso henchman (Anthony Franciosa).
4. (TIE) The Godfather Part II (Francis Coppola, 1974)
Godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) gets so annoyed when his older (and weaker) brother Fredo (John Cazale) betrays the family’s business interests in Cuba that he has him bumped off by one of his goons (Richard Bright) during a fishing outing on Lake Tahoe. Interestingly, this is not the first family member Michael has rubbed out – in The Godfather he also had his brother-in-law Carlo (Gianni Russo) slain for his role in the killing of his older brother Sonny (James Caan).
4. (TIE) Romeo is Bleeding (Peter Medak, 1993)
Having made a pretty penny on the side by providing information to the Mafia, New York detective Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) finds himself in something of a pickle when he is ordered by syndicate boss Don Falcone (Roy Scheider) to kill the ruthless (and sexy) Russian assassin Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin). The trouble is Grimaldi can’t resist the vicious woman’s seductive charms. In the end he loses a toe, while his mistress (Juliette Lewis) is inadvertently killed and his wife (Annabella Sciorra) deserts him, taking all of the blood money with her. Ironically he is eventually hailed a hero by the police department for shooting Demarkov just as he is about to have the book thrown at him. While not a totally US-made movie (it was also funded by the British), this violent piece of sleazy neo-noir is worth mentioning given it is not only pretty funny, but works as a tour de force in bizarreness. One of the best-looking English speaking crime films of the 1990s, thanks in no small part to Dariusz Wolksi’s superb cinematography.
3. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
When washed up boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) refuses to throw his last fight for gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the crime boss sends out his main muscleman Vince Vega (John Travolta) to waste him. Although Butch outsmarts the assassin, he accidently (and literally) runs into the mobster in the street. Before they know it, the fighting pair find are kidnapped by a pair of weirdo sodomites (Duane Whitaker and Paul Greene), who bring “The Gimp” (Stephen Hibbert) along to their planned re-enactment of Deliverance. While Butch turns the tables on their assailants and they end up escaping, the pugilist and his erstwhile boss are put through a fairly nasty wringer. As a result Wallace relishes telling the surviving rapist (Greene) what tortuous activities are in store for him once his back-up goons arrive at the scene. Earlier in the movie Vince and his sidekick Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) also dish out some mob retribution when they ruthlessly gun down three wannabe thieves (Frank Whaley, Burr Steers and Robert/Alexis Arquette) after the trio have tried to steal the glowing contents of Marsellus’ brief case. Interestingly, a young couple (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), who inadvertently cross the pair of hitmen during a diner heist that bookends the film’s non-linear narrative, is allowed to escape, proving that even cold blooded killers are capable of giving those who encroach upon their activities a second chance.
2. Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
Low rent gangster Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider) gets put on Don Carlo Ricci’s (Cosmo Allegretti) hit parade after his small gang of Irish hoodlums rob the Italian crime boss’ New Jersey church and shoots his Catholic priest brother during the raid. To make matters worse, as driver of the getaway vehicle, Scanlon inadvertently kills everyone when their car collides with a freight truck. With nowhere else to go he flees to a squalid Latin American backwater, where he takes on the seemingly impossible task (along with three other desperate international outlaws) of transporting some shaky nitroglycerin across 218 miles of unfriendly jungle terrain to put out an oil well fire. Although he eventually survives the perilous trip, Scanlon’s past catches up with him during the movie’s closing moments.
1. Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993)
Crooked (and perpetually coked up) New York lawyer David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) more or less asks for it when he steals $1 million worth of bribe monies from crime kingpin Tony Taglialucci (Frank Minucci) before murdering the old man and his abrasive son (Adrian Pasdar) during an ill-fated midnight prison break from the Rikers Island prison barge. His exterminating angel eventually comes in the form of Tony’s other son Vinnie (Joseph Siravo) who, sneakily disguised as a policeman, blows the legal counselor’s brains out in hospital while he is recouperating from an earlier knife attack. As Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) tells the wayward Kleinfeld just before he severs ties with him: “You ain’t a lawyer no more, Dave – you a gangster now. On the other side. A whole new ball game. You can’t learn about it in school, and you can’t have a late start.” If anything, this is a lesson a few of the characters on this list learn the hard way.
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
Over to you: what are your fave US films which warn against crossing the mob?
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