A countdown of the greatest British gangster movies of all-time. Featuring films set in London, Brighton, Newcastle and Spain. Featuring tales that are funny, tense, tragic, and pretty much always violent.
10. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Guy Ritchie injected new energy into the then-slumbering British gangster movie with Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. His hugely entertaining feature combined crackling dialogue with complex plotting, kinetic camera moves, sharp threads, and a superb soundtrack. The eclectic cast was also key to Lock Stock‘s success, featuring singer Sting, footballer Vinnie Jones, and introducing the world to the unique talents of Jason Statham. Nick Moran was the star however, playing a card shark who loses a fortune in a rigged game, and steals from a nearby gang to pay the villain he now owes. It temporarily broke the British film industry, with every other film released in its wake a Lock Stock clone. But the only movies that came close hitting the same highs were Ritchie’s own Snatch and RocknRolla.
9. Mona Lisa (1986)
Mona Lisa is a quieter, more understated entry than the other films on this list. But it’s no less powerful. Bob Hoskins plays George, an ex-con who takes a gig protecting and driving high-class prostitute Simone (Cathy Tyson) from job-to-job. The pair initially clash, but George starts to fall for Simone, with inevitably disastrous results. Especially as her boss is played by a bloody terrifying Michael Caine. It’s a tender, sad film, with Bob Hoskins so good in the lead that Mona Lisa won him the BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Actor. With Paul Newman pipping him to the post at the Oscars.
8. Gangster No. 1 (2000)
Gangster No. 1 is the most violent movie on our list, making it very probably the most realistic. And while the film — adapted from a stage play — isn’t based on a true story, it’s certainly inspired by the London villains of the 1960s. Paul Bettany plays the lead — listed simply as ‘Gangster‘ in the credits — who lands a job working as an enforcer for ‘Butcher of Mayfair’ Freddie Mays. Played with chilling malevolence by David Thewlis. What follows is a tale of cross and double-cross as we witness Gangster violently rise through the ranks, which in turn sets him on a deadly collision course with Freddie.
7. Night and the City (1950)
Night and the City isn’t just a terrific gangster flick, it’s also a sizzling film noir. The film revolves around an American, but the setting is very much 1950s London. Richard Widmark plays Harry Fabian, an ambitious yank hustling, grifting, scamming and flirting his way across town as he endeavours to make a fast buck. Wrestling quickly becomes his meal ticket, with Fabian doing deals with both the fighters, and the gangsters who control them. But his efforts to play one off the other go horribly wrong, resulting in Fabian running for his life through the city’s dark underbelly. A 1992 Night and the City remake relocated to the story to New York, with Robert De Niro playing the lead, but that version lacked the tension and nervous energy that so infused the original.
6. Performance (1970)
Donald Cammell’s Performance is quite possible the weirdest gangster flick, capturing the madness of what happens when the worlds of crime and music collide. Mick Jagger — in his acting debut — plays reclusive rock star Turner. While James Fox is Chas, a gangster who — following a gangland murder — ends up on Turner’s doorstep. The pair spend chaotic days and nights together, the film filled with sex, drugs and rock n roll. And the extreme nature of their debauched relationship resulted in Performance being heavily criticised when it was released. But the film’s reputation has been growing ever since, bringing the dark side of swinging ’60s London to life in away that hadn’t been captured before, and hasn’t been bettered since.
5. Brighton Rock (1948)
Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock is the chilling account of a murder committed by psychotic gangster Pinkie, and his efforts to cover the crime up thereafter. Richard Attenborough played the role on stage, then again on film. And it’s a truly chilling performance, as Pinkie kills indiscriminately with his razor-blade, all-the-while romancing sweet, innocent, unsuspecting waitress Rose to save his own skin. In spite of the fact that there were calls for the film to be banned due to its graphic violence, Brighton Rock was one of 1948’s biggest hits. And while Greene was unhappy that the film’s ending was changed to make it more upbeat, the more you think about that ‘happier’ ending, the darker it gets.
4. Layer Cake (2004)
Eyebrows were raised when Guy Ritchie’s long-time producer decided to direct a gangster film of his own. But the result ended up being even better than Ritchie’s efforts, with Matthew Vaughn delivering a slick, sleek, and seriously compelling crime drama about an unnamed gangster endeavouring to leave the drug business. But finding every route out blocked. Daniel Craig delivered a star-making turn in the lead, with many crediting Layer Cake for his landing the Bond role. The likes of Tom Hardy, Michael Gambon, Sienna Miller, Ben Whishaw and Colm Meaney fill out the fantastic cast, all of them at the top of their game. But this is Vaughn’s film, and he directs the hell out of author J.J. Connolly’s superb script.
3. Sexy Beast (2000)
Jonathan Glazer doesn’t direct many movies, the helmer managing just three features in nearly two decades. But they are worth the wait, with his 2000 effort Sexy Beast unlike any gangster movie ever made. Kicking off with a rogue boulder nearly flattening the film’s hero, and getting stranger from there. Ray Winstone is Gary ‘Gal’ Dove, an ex-con retired to a villa in Spain, while Ben Kingsley is Don Logan, a deranged former associate, who wants Gal to tackle one last score. A heist that has to be seen to be believed. Which is a pretty straightforward story, but Sexy Beast is made special by Glazer’s many surreal visual flourishes, some incredible sound design, and a pair of career-best performances from Winstone and Kingsley. The latter’s work truly the stuff of nightmares.
2. Get Carter (1972)
Most American gangster movies take place in New York, while the bulk of British gangster flicks are set in England’s capital. But Get Carter is different. With London criminal Jack Carter heading north to Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother. Jack is a ruthless man. A violent man. And he embarks on a brutal journey, doing whatever it takes to hunt justice down. Caine dominates proceedings, and Jack’s lack of remorse is disturbing. Especially when you are supposed to be rooting for the character. Get Carter is an unapologetically nasty film, about nasty people, doing nasty things. It’s also quite brilliant, miring the audience in a complicated moral maze from which there is no escape. And if you want to see the movie in a new light, pay attention to the guy smoking a cigarette during the opening credits.
1. The Long Good Friday (1980)
The Long Good Friday is an all-time classic. Which is remarkable as it very nearly didn’t get a cinema release, the film initially financed for TV transmission. But when the movie was being cut to shreds for broadcast, George Harrison’s Handmade Films stepped in, bought the rights, released it theatrically, and a legend was born. Bob Hoskins stars as Harry Shand, an East End gangster trying to go straight via the redevelopment of London’s Docklands. Though the fact that his plan involves partnering with the American mob means Harry is off to a questionable start. Then the IRA get involved, and it all kicks off, building towards an explosive climax. And one of the greatest final shots in film history. Along the way John Mackenzie’s movie — based on an air-tight script by Barrie Keeffe — touches on the social and political issues of the time. But The Long Good Friday is never dry or preachy. Instead, it’s tense, taut, and consistently thrilling; Hoskins delivering the finest performance of his career, in the greatest British gangster flick.