We all know at least five of them. We all owe at least three of them favors. They are like guardian angels that would just as soon break our arms if we disrespected them, which makes them Old Testament angels. To know them is to love them and to love them is to get whacked.
Of course I’m talking about mobsters and the love they inspire in us all. Having recently gotten back into “The Sopranos” reruns courtesy of my library, I started thinking: What is it about these scumbags we find so darned fascinating? Is it the lifestyle, the attitude, the feeling of being allowed inside to see a secret society? How should I know? I don’t get paid to write these things!
However, in the fine dual traditions of American obsession with criminals and lists, I thought I’d compile a list of the top ten movie & TV gangsters of all time.
10. BIG PUSSY- For the name alone, this guy deserves to be on the list. It’s so much fun to say. He only ranks tenth because he’s a henchman but his tenure on “The Sopranos” revealed a character with surprising depth and an inherent likeability. Watching him betray his childhood friend is actually painful for the viewer.
9. SONNY STEELGRAVE- What a great name, huh? It makes no sense when considering he’s supposed to be a member of La Cosa Nostra, but the first story arc of the acclaimed “Wiseguy” series was more about archetypes than accuracy. And Ray Sharkey’s portrayal of a multi-faceted mobster on the rise is as memorable as his suicide scene when he realizes his best friend was a federal agent.
8. PAUL VITTI- The idea of a mobster seeing a psychiatrist for panic attacks was prime comedy subject mater before The Sopranos made it a serious plot point. Billy Crystal is unfairly disregarded when the “Analyze This/That” films are discussed because Deniro’s channeling of every gangster he ever portrayed into one bundle of hilarious, disturbing neurosis is a fitting swan song to that period of his career.
7. CAGNEY’S PUBLIC ENEMY CHARACTER- Define tragedy: An angry youngster with no way out of the life he chose headed for a fall. That might sound like a cliché but it wasn’t in the 1930’s. The idea of the tragic gangster was a new one in those days, meaning Cagney had nothing to draw from when he brilliantly portrayed his tortured Irish wiseguy.
6. RAY LUCA- In the days before episodic story arcs were all the rage, the Michael Mann produced Anthony Yerkovich create “Crime Story” told the ongoing tale of tough cop Michael Torello and up and coming gangster Ray Luca in stylish fashion. Luca was an Italian wiseguy who hooked up with the Jewish mob in the 1960’s to forge a potentially powerful empire stretching from Chicago to Las Vegas. Despite the fact that he was a worthless psychopath, Luca’s character was so cool you couldn’t help but care what happened to him.
5. EG ROBINSON (KEY LARGO)- The only Bogie film that rivals “Casablanca” in its greatness, Key Largo concerns a bunch of mismatched characters trapped in a hotel in Florida during hurricane season and the unfortunate arrival of banished gangster Johnny Rocco portrayed with brilliant relish by Edward G Robinson. It’s obvious his character is a sort of “what if Al Capone had survived” and he plays a man desperate to reclaim his kingdom with a dark, desperate intensity. Best. Performance. Ever.
4. FAT TONY- He advertises his services in churches. He once tried to convince a courtroom that Bart Simpson was the Don of Springfield. He helped Marge establish a pretzel wagon empire by muscling out other snack merchants. Every time he is seen at the bottomless pit, he and his boys are throwing a tightly wrapped “carpet” into it. Voiced by Joe Montegna, Fat Tony epitomizes every Mafia stereotype in a way that’s actually charming. It was only a matter of time before he was shown driving through the streets of Springfield with a cigar jutting from his mouth to the Sopranos theme song.
3. TONY SOPRANO- Just when we thought the Mafia was old hat, they pulled us back in! Creator David Chase found a way to breathe new life into a tired genre by introducing us to a conflicted mobster whose desire to provide a normal life or his family creates an avalanche of disasters. We get to see his dysfunctional childhood, his horrible mother and conniving sister and the daily pressures of the life he lives. I won’t say he’s likable but “compelling” is an accurate word choice.
2. MICHAEL CORLEONE- Talk about your Shakespearean tragedies! Mario Puzo’s book describes Al Pacino’s iconic heir apparent to the Corleone throne as vaguely effeminate and in no way interested in being part of the Family Business. But the untimely butchering of his hotheaded brother and attempted murder of his father drives Michael away from his wholesome life-path and on a direct heading for Mobsterville. Even by the underrated third film he still thinks he can get out, but yet another tragic death (this one his fault) destroys all hope for redemption and he dies a sad, withdrawn old man.
1. JABBA THE HUTT- I saved the best (and fattest) for last. Nobody can match Jabba’s greatness. He’s a giant worm and he still rules the galactic underworld with an iron…claw? This is a gangster who lives in a palace, for god's sake! He’s referred to as “exalted” and gets to watch chicks dance for his pleasure at night before feeding them to a mutated carnivorous beast. Shall I even bother to mention that Jedi mind tricks don’t work on him? Who hasn’t daydreamed about that very same life?