Crime week, part 2: The Onscreen Gangster

In honor of the final season of one of my favorite HBO show, “Boardwalk Empire,” this week I decided to write about my favorite portrayals of organized crime onscreen (that is, in television and in movies).

First, I need to put my cards  on the table: I’m totally fascinated by gangsters. In addition to watching shows about them, I read books about them. I write papers about them. Heck, I’m even working on an original comic book project entitled “Baby’s First Mafia.” (It’s about the conflict that spawned the modern structure of the Mafia, in case you’re curious).

The history behind the Mafia (and other organized crime) is important and says a lot about our own history in terms of racial prejudice, immigration, social status and certainly



“Boardwalk Empire”

Time period: 1920s

Seasons: 5

Stars: Steve Buscemi, Michael K. Williams, Dabney Coleman, Kelly MacDonald

Showrunner: Terence Winter

Brief description: The show begins in the Roaring Twenties, on the night that Prohibition goes into effect.

It takes place mostly in Atlantic City, where Nucky Thompson (Buscemi) basically runs the town. Nucky, who’s always walked a fine line between politician and gangster, gets heavily involved in the alcohol trade. While making the transformation to full gangster, he deals with other key crime players, including real-life baddies like Charlie Luciano, Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, as well the fictional Chalky White (Williams), Oh, and there’s also a young driver named Alphonse Capone. What ever happened to him, huh?

Why I love it: This show has had its ups and downs, but my god is it a beautiful production. The music, the clothes, the sets, the cinematography””it’s all so perfectly done. I’m also a pretty big Buscemi fan (not to mention a huge Shannon fan, too!), and the cast around them is phenomenal.

Finally, I think the 1920s are one of the least explored, most fascinating times in American history, in no small part because of the crime, and this show is clearly run by people who agree.

Who steals the show?: Probably Oscar nominee and all-around genius Michael Shannon as Nelson Van Alden, a religious “Prohi” (Prohibition agent) whose story takes a crazy turn. Also, Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein. Because wow. Just wow.



Time period: 1950s-1980s

Length: 2 hours 26 minutes

Stars: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Brief description: Based on a true story, “Goodfellas” tells the story of Henry Hill (Liotta), a half-Irish, half-Italian kid living in Brooklyn who gets involved with the Lucchese crime family (one of the Five Families). He befriends a peer, Tommy DeVito (Pesci), and a man 10 years their senior, Jimmy Conway (De Niro), and in the 1960s and 1970s they are powerful criminals. In 1978 they pull off what was, at the time, the biggest heist in American history: the Lufthansa heist.

Why I love it: This is my favorite movie, period. This is also my favorite movie soundtrack.

Simply put, I pretty much watch “Goodfellas” whenever possible: when I’m doing homework, when I’m painting, when I’m cleaning. I can’t get enough of it!

Why is that, you ask? Well, because of its variety. It’s funny, sad, frustrating and scary. It’s everything a movie should be.

Throughout his career, director Martin Scorsese has shown that he’s capable of terror (“Taxi Driver”), humor (“After Hours”), thrills (“The Departed”), and striking insight (almost everything he’s ever done). “Goodfellas” has all of Scorsese’s strengths, and everything you could ask from a movie of this or any genre.

Who steals the show? Joe Pesci won the Oscar for his unforgettable scene-chewing (“You think I’m funny, huh?!”), but I’m gonna be a contrarian and go with Isiah Whitlock, Jr. He plays a doctor in one scene and then he’s gone, but I love him on “The Wire,” where he plays the foul-mouthed, smooth operator of a politician named Clay Davis.

So that’s who we’re going with, as well as Kevin Corrigan, who plays Henry’s little brother but is more famously “Drama Professor Sean Garrity” on “Community.”

This is truly a career high for everyone involved, so I can’t pick!


“The Godfather Part II”

Time period: 1950s and 1900s (flashbacks)

Length: 3 hours 20 minutes

Stars: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, Robert Duvall

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Brief description: The second film in the “Godfather” trilogy, this one tells two stories (spoilers if you haven’t seen the first “Godfather”). In this Best Picture-winning sequel (how often do you hear THAT phrase?), Michael Corleone (Pacino) is trying to lead his family as the new Don, though he is now much more comfortable in the role. He survives assassination attempts and plots with and against Hyman Roth, a Jewish mobster.

His main struggles, however, are not with his “family,” but with his actual family. Managing his siblings and his wife and kids is painful and difficult.

Meanwhile, flashbacks tell the story of Michael’s dead father, Vito (Robert De Niro), as he arrives in America and makes his fortune in New York City.

Why I love it: It’s a big commitment (three hours!) but it tells a fascinating family story against the backdrop of crime. My favorite parts are with De Niro, since his character only speaks Sicilian. No wonder he won the Oscar.

However, Pacino kills it as well. If you only know Al Pacino as a joke, watch this movie. This is his best work.

Who steals the show?: Is that “When Harry Met Sally” actor Bruno Kirby as Vito’s friend? What?