On March 15, 1972, The Godfather opened in New York City, restoring the public’s fascination with the Mafia and organized crime. Mobster movies of the 1930s, such as Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy (1931), were popular at the time of their release, but presented a more adventurous “shoot ‘em up” world of organized crime. The Godfather is not without its thrills, but more importantly, it looks at the Corleone crime family from the inside out, showing how, as Sicilian immigrants, they consistently struggled to live their version of the American Dream. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel, the film is loosely based on The Five Families of New York City, with the Corleones inspired by The Gambino crime family.
In the 40 years since The Godfather’s release, many films have capitalized on the Mob’s popularity on the big screen. Here are five movies based on real-life mobsters that captured the imagination of audiences.
Bugsy Siegel, played by Warren Beatty
Benjamin Siegel’s unpredictability and reputation for violence earned him the newspaper nickname “Bugsy,” which meant “crazy.” He spent his childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan running rackets and committing petty theft. After a stint as a hit man, Siegel joined forces with members of the Genovese crime family. He eventually found himself in Las Vegas and built one of the first casinos.
Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) mostly follows Siegel’s endeavors in Las Vegas and his relationship with his girlfriend, Virginia Hill. The film ends with the failure of Siegel’s expensive Las Vegas casino and his ultimate assassination in 1947.
American Gangster (2007)
Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington
Frank Lucas moved to Harlem in the late 1940s and established the largest heroin ring in the world. During the conflict in Vietnam in 1968, he traveled throughout Asia and built a direct connection with Thailand. He smuggled drugs into the United States with the help of members of the military he knew through family. Lucas gained control of the mafia scene in Harlem and earned a fortune, which he subsequently lost upon his arrest in 1977. After his conviction, he became an informant and provided evidence on the heroin market. He was released from prison in 1991.
After over 10 years of development, Ridley Scott’s biographical film about Frank Lucas, American Gangster, was released in 2007. Starring Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as narcotics prosecutor Richie Roberts, the film follows Lucas’ years as a heroin trafficker while Roberts tries to stop him. Based almost solely on Lucas’ accounts, others portrayed in the film have challenged its accuracy.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Joseph D. Pistone aka “Donnie Brasco,” played by Johnny Depp
Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent assigned to investigate the Five Families of New York City, spent six years working undercover as “Donnie Brasco” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He worked with the Bonanno family and set up his own operations in Florida. The FBI had no contact with him as he worked, but eventually pulled the plug on the operation, since moving up the ranks of the mafia placed Brasco in greater danger.
Donnie Brasco (1997) depicts Brasco as so successful at pretending to be a young, upstart gangster that others in the Bonanno crime family see him as a protégé who will elevate their status among the New York families. Eventually, this promise turns to embarrassment as the other families learn that they allowed an FBI agent to infiltrate their operation.
Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta
Growing up in Brooklyn, Henry Hill began running errands for members of the Lucchese crime family at a young age. After a stint in the Army, he immediately set up his own operation, through which he stole $420,000 worth of cargo from an Air France Flight. He opened a restaurant called The Suite, which became the meeting place for his mobster friends, including Tommy DeSimone and Jimmy Burke. After more heists and drug trafficking, he was arrested and soon grew paranoid that his associates were planning to kill him. He struck a deal with the Justice Department and became an informant.
In Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill says, “As far back as I could remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” The film is considered one of the best mobster movies of all time. David Chase cites Goodfellas as the inspiration for his critically acclaimed TV series The Sopranos.
The Untouchables (1987)
Al Capone, played by Robert De Niro
After years of trying to arrest Al Capone, Bureau of Prohibition agent Eliot Ness attempted to convict Capone for bootlegging. Capone bribed corrupt police officers who warned him about raids by Eliot Ness and his agents, known as “The Untouchables.” Ness’ team helped provide information about Al Capone’s finances to the IRS, leading to his conviction for tax evasion. The Untouchables (1987) focuses mostly on Ness and his team, following the good vs. evil formula established by gangster movies of the 1930s.
Film Actor / 1954 -
Former star of the hit TV drama St. Elsewhere, actor/director Denzel Washington has earned popular and critical acclaim for his roles in several feature films, including Training Day and American Gangster.
Film Actor, Television Actor, Television Personality / 1954 -
American actor Ray Liotta is best known for his on-the-edge tough-guy characterizations in films like Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1992) and No Escape (1994).
Film Actor, Theater Actor, Director / 1943 -
Legendary award-winning actor Robert De Niro has starred in such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Godfather: Part II and Silver Linings Playbook.