Saturday, September 18, 2010

The 10 Most Compelling On-Screen Gangsters

By Nicholas Stix

An hour or so ago, my Inbox told me that one of Salon’s hacks just came up with a list of “The 10 Most Compelling On-Screen Gangsters.” Not to be outdone, before perusing the Salon list, I spent about 30 minutes coming up with my own list; another 10 minutes moving them around and cutting off four honorable mentions (Robert DeNiro, The Untouchables, 1987; Humphrey Bogart, The Petrified Forest, 1936; Paul Muni, Scarface, 1932; and Al Pacino, The Godfather: Part II); and another 15 or so minutes adding another seven (DeNiro and James Woods, Once Upon a Time in America, 1984; Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, in Bonnie and Clyde (1967);, 1974; Warren Oates, in Dillinger (1973); and Andy Garcia and Eli Wallach, The Godfather: Part III (1990).

I did not consider Al Pacino in the remake of Scarface, because I have only seen a few minutes of it, and did not consider Denzel Washington in American Gangster, because I have not seen the picture at all.


My List

1. Marlon Brando, The Godfather, 1972.
2. Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra, 1941.
3. Jimmy Cagney, Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938.
4. Jimmy Cagney, White Heat, 1949.
5. Robert DeNiro, The Godfather: Part II, 1974.
6. Lee J. Cobb, On the Waterfront, 1954.
7. Humphrey Bogart, Dead End, 1937.
8. Jimmy Cagney, The Public Enemy, 1933.
9. Edward G. Robinson, Key Largo, 1948.
10. Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesar, 1931.


The Salonista List

1. Al Swearengen, "Deadwood" (2004-2006)
2. Tony Soprano, "The Sopranos" (1999-2007)
3. Michael Corleone, "The Godfather Saga" (1972, 1974, 1990)
4. Tom Reagan, "Miller's Crossing" (1990)
5. Connie Corleone, "The Godfather Saga" (1972, 1974, 1990)
6. Cody Jarrett, "White Heat" (1949)
7. Nino Brown, "New Jack City" (1991)
8. Sam "Ace" Rothstein, "Casino" (1995)
9. Aniki Murikawa, "Sonatine" (1993)
10. Tony Camonte, "Scarface" (1932), Tony Montana, "Scarface" (1983)

The Salon list, compiled by Matt Zoller Seitz, got one thing right: Jimmy C. in White Heat. Otherwise, it was clearly compiled based on multicultural mishigass, rather than aesthetics. And you don’t mash together movie and TV lists.

Thus, although the performances by James Gandolfini in The Sopranos and Ian McShane in Deadwood were wonderful, they belong on a different list.

Seitz listed Gabriel Byrne (Miller’s Crossing), who is one of the most incompetently hammy actors on the face of the earth, because he’s a communist. Heck, the best performance as a gangster in Miller’s Crossing was by Albert Finney! I guess Finney wasn’t far enough left, to be considered for Seitz’ list.

In another ridiculous pick, Seitz listed Talia Shire (The Godfather Saga), merely because she’s a woman.

Likewise, Wesley Snipes ("New Jack City") got the black supremacist AA slot. (Snipes was good, but not nearly good enough.)

Seitz chose Robert DeNiro’s performance in Casino, one of the least distinguished of his many performances as a gangster, while snubbing the three great performances I cited, because in Casino, DeNiro played a Jew.

Seitz either gives Jews an AA slot, or he did it to be cute, since people who know nothing about the history of crime in America don’t think of Jews as gangsters. But other actors have given much more compelling performances as Jewish gangsters: Warren Beatty, Harvey Keitel, and Ben Kingsley, in Bugsy; and Lee Strasburg, in The Godfather: Part II. But as great as those performances were, they don’t come close to the ones I chose.

He filled the Asian slot with Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine).

And while Al Pacino may well, for all I know, have given a great, if hammy performance in Scarface—I’ve heard the blurb of him saying, “Say hello to my little friend” at least 100 times—Seitz chose the role, because it was Cuban in the remake.

Indeed, a great many performances that I didn’t even give honorable mentions to now come to mind, that leave Seitz’ affirmative action choices in the dust: Jimmy Caan and Richard Castellano, in The Godfather; Michael V. Gazzo, John Cazale, and the aforementioned Strasberg, in The Godfather, Part II; Richard Widmark, in Kiss of Death (1947); Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990); Roman Polanski in Chinatown (1974); and Tony LoBianco and Fernando Rey in The French Connection (1971).

I’m sure that with a little thought, and a review of gangster movie lists, which I did not do for this essay, I could add plenty of other great performances. But that’s not even necessary, in order to counter Seitz’ list. For the most obvious slights: No Brando?! No Bogey?! If it seems as if Seitz purposely snubbed greatness, it’s because he did.

(The Salon list’s teaser, which I read only after having written this essay, is “Slide show: From the Corleones to Nino Brown, the characters that breathed new life into the mobster genre.” But that’s just a pretext, in order to multiculturally cleanse almost all of Hollywood’s Golden Age.)

Conversely, my criterion was greatness. And I chose based on performances, since if you’re going to talk about the characters, without judging the actors’ performances as them, you would have to read the scripts, and try and forget the performances. But Seitz didn’t say anything about reading scripts, so we’re left with performances. He talks about “characters,” because he’s reducing them to the political significance they have for him. And his politics leaves no room for greatness.

Matt Zoller Zeitz loves neither great movies nor great acting.

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