There’s always something that’s just a little dirtier about Irish crime movies. Irish movie mobsters don’t wear silk suits and don’t tip off an impending whacking with a kiss on the cheek. In fact, in most cases, it would appear that they don’t even shower. That would require foresight and diligent planning, which are qualities not typically on display in an Irish-American crime film.
With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, we thought it would be a good idea to tip our hats to the grand tradition of Irish thuggery in American film while we are all still coherent enough to do so.
7. State Of Grace (1990) – Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman.
Based around New York’s Westies, State of Grace brought McCrime into the ’90s. In a theme that repeats itself throughout this list, namely the snitch theme, Terry Noonan (Penn) comes back to the old neighborhood after a long absence, but now he’s got a badge hidden in his pocket. He reunites with buddy Jackie Flannery (Oldman), who is the brother of up-and-comer Frankie (Harris), who is trying to make inroads with the Italians. From there Terry seeks to take down the whole operation.
The friendship between Terry and Jackie is played perfectly, and the sense of forboding that the audience feels is palpable from the time Terry’s motives are revealed. Still, the real tension in State of Grace is between brothers Jackie and Frankie. Jackie feels like Frankie spends too much time sucking up to the Italians, and everything Jackie does threatens to derail the relationships that Frankie is working so hard to cultivate.
State of Grace is filled with masterful performances by all the principles, and deserves your attention if you’ve never seen it, or have simply forgotten about it.
6. Gangs of New York (2002) – Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis.
It would be the cornerstone of the résumé of most big-time directors in film to put out a picture the scope of Gangs of New York. For Martin Scorsese, it is simply the fifth best film that he has made in this particular genre.
Gangs focuses on the early days of the underworld in New York City (with an interesting aside into the early days of pay-for-play firefighting outfits). DiCaprio gets lead billing for his role as young Amsterdam, working his way up through the hierarchy to avenge the death of his father, and Cameron Diaz uglies it up as hustler Jenny Everdeane.
Indisputably though, the star of the show is Day-Lewis, in an almost incomprehensibly brilliant turn as Bill the Butcher.
5. The Town (2010) – Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner.
By the end of the ’00s, it might have seemed like we were all finally done with Ben Affleck. After starring in a string of godawful films (Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, Gigli) and a very public role as J-Lo’s arm candy, the word on Affleck was that he had gotten lucky to win an Oscar with Good Will Hunting, and was basically the Art Garfunkel to Matt Damon’s Paul Simon.
Then he got into the director’s chair to turn out this taut heist flick, reasserting his relevance to the world and, in the process, further bolstering the career of co-star Jeremy Renner, who had come to prominence starring in The Hurt Locker. The Town offers audiences a nuts-and-bolts look at the heist game and the consequences of playing it.
4. Miller’s Crossing (1990) – Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro.
To a man, we’re all pretty big fans of the Coens around here. The brothers can take any genre they choose to focus their collective brainpower upon and bring you back a masterpiece. Here is one of the early pieces of evidence to that fact.
Miller’s Crossing doesn’t give you the grit and gutter that you’ll get from State of Grace or The Town. That isn’t what it’s about. In essence, Miller’s Crossing is a great movie about great mob movies. It is chock full of all the Coen brothers hallmarks: brilliant dialogue and casting, an ingenious plot that rivals The Sting in terms of its twists and turns, and gutbusting laughs throughout. You owe it to yourself, and frankly your friends and family, to check this one out if you haven’t already.
3. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) – Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle.
I must admit I came late to the party one this one. What can I tell you, but that I was brought up wrong.
Another thug procedural, The Friends of Eddie Coyle follows the life of a career criminal who continues to foster one scheme after another while under pressure to turn snitch in order to avoid another stint in prison.
This movie is filled with quality heists and shady deals, and is an incredibly incisive character study in regards to the criminal mind. I put Robert Mitchum’s role as Eddie at the very top of his distinguished resume. Every line he delivers evokes a lifetime of experience working in the shadows.
2. On The Waterfront (1954) – Marlon Brando, Karl Malden.
Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterwork about mob-controlled longshoreman’s unions in New Jersey is reknowned mainly for Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech, but On The Waterfront is still relevant for its exploration of the working class trying to rise above it station. It is also the only film on this list that displays a genuine social conscience.
But we can forgive that. Brando is captivating as a former boxer who gets manipulated by his own brother and eventually forced into a fight or flight situation with the Irish mob. It was based upon true events and shot on location around New Jersey, rather than a studio set. The stink of the waterfront breathes as a result.
1. The Departed (2006) – Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon.
This is a pretty easy pick to make. Based upon the 2002 Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, as well as the life and crimes of Boston mob heavy Whitey Bulger, The Departed is a loaded flick. In addition to the principles, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin all put in memorable work. Scorsese’s second-best mob movie (after GoodFellas, and yes, it’s better than Mean Streets, and no, I don’t consider Raging Bull to be a mob movie) tracks the lives of two undercover cops (DiCaprio, Damon) working to bring down Boston mobster Jimmy Costello (Nicholson). Well, sorta.
The parallel existences of the DiCaprio and Damon characters drive the film, as both men move in opposite directions professionally and ethically. The pressure that DiCaprio’s character is under working deep cover reminds me a lot of Kevin Costner’s character in No Way Out, and Nicholson’s performance as survivor Costello is in his personal top five. We learn who you almost can’t hit, and that firefighters are cocksuckers.
The degree to which The Departed works as a thriller almost precludes its entry into the mob genre. That said, the plot devices never obscure the stink of the Boston streets.
+Josh Converse work has appeared in Crime Factory, Plots with Guns, Black Heart Magazine, Out Of the Gutter, and A Twist of Noir. He is the only person to have ever simultaneously held the WBO and WBC middleweight and welterweight titles without any witnesses. Josh can talk his way out of any situation, particularly when on the cusp of runaway success. In 2010, he was the recipient of Nick Tosches’ final apology. He lives and works and eats cereal in Chicago.