Some of the most memorable gangsters to have graced the silver screen in the past four decades have been played by Robert De Niro. To his credit he has never been typecast as a gangster despite leaving an indelible mark on the genre. It’s testament to his dedication and hard work that he’ll still be remembered as much for Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta as he will for Don Vito Corleone or Goodfella Jimmy Conway.
Famed as a method actor, De Niro has been so intrinsic to how we imagine gangsters to be that if he was to hang out with a bunch of gangsters today, in preparation for a role he would likely find that he’d been a greater influence on them then they could ever be on him.
Top 10 gangsters played by
Robert De Niro
7. Al Capone – The Untouchables (1987)
Al Capone in Brain De Palma’s Untouchables is De Niro’s most-over-the-top gangster performance. It’s clear that from an early stage he decided to take this character to town and have a little fun; afterall Al Capone does not carry this movie, he just pops up every now and again to steal a few scenes.
Capone has been done many times but De Niro’s version is one of the best; helped in no small part by the David Mamet script. He oozes charm in front of the gathered press with an easy charisma, but behind closed doors his malevolence is evil personified - not content with demanding that the home of Eliot Ness is burned to the ground; Capone wants to piss on his ashes.
Robert De Niro’s Al Capone may borderline on the cartoon villain, dishing out very brutal violence (baseball bat anyone?), but he lights up the screen in all of his brief appearances.
De Niro’s stint as Louis Gara is not one of his most celebrated performances and is often overlooked, but he got under the skin of Gara and worked out exactly who this burned-out criminal was supposed to be and he played it to a tee.
There are no fireworks, no grand schemes, and barely even any catchy Tarantino dialogue, just a career criminal who’s spent too much time behind bars and is now just mooching along, attaching himself to gun-trafficking, big time gangster-wannabe Ordell Robie, played by Samuel L Jackson. As Louis Gara, De Niro proved just how brilliant he can be at doing very little, not as easy as you would think (honestly!).
The big moment for this character comes during the big money-drop scene. In a shopping mall car park, in the middle of the day, he shoots down Bridget Fonda’s lil’ surfer gal character in cold blood. Why? Because she’s nagging him! He forgot where they parked the car and she taunted him for his incompetence; it turns out Louis has a low threshold for being mocked. There is not a trace of remorse or even slight discomfort over his extreme reaction to the senseless murder. What makes this whole scene so intriguing is that it changes our perception of Gara. It hints at a much darker and dangerous gangster that he perhaps once was before his prison stint dulled his appetite.
8. Louis Gara - Jackie Brown (1997)
9. Paul Vitti - Analyze This (1999)
Robert De Niro sends-up his tough guy gangster image in this Harold Remis comedy. De Niro plays insecure mob boss Paul Vitti who seeks out a therapist after he suffers a panic attack – not unlike Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, which coincidently debuted at around the same time. The movie is chock full of gentle (and some not so gentle) ribbing of gangster flicks; a little self-deprecation of the genre every now and again is always healthy.
The movie works well as a gangster movie roast because it has De Niro in the lead role. Anyone else, with the exception of Al Pacino and it would have come across as more of a spoof and likely treated more harshly by the critics and box office.
It’s been the better part of two decades since this film was released and we’ve become accustomed to seeing De Niro in comedy roles, but as a performance it was refreshing at the time to see the lighter side of a very serious method actor.
He has since poked fun several times at his tough guy persona, Bag Man, The Family, Shark Tale even Analyze That, all of which were unnecessary… with the possible exception of Shark Tale – I liked that.
10. Victor Tellegio - American Hustle (2013)
It’s a small role, uncredited as a matter of fact (dunno why!), but it’s the most recent on this list and one that puts Robert De Niro’s gangster performances into perspective. In the movie the FBI uses con artists in an attempt to bring down corrupt politicians and powerful businessmen using a fake sheik to bankroll casinos in Atlantic City. But casinos don’t get built in the 1970’s without the involvement of the mafia and the deal needs the union connections of Meyer Lansky’s right hand man Victor Tellegio (think Johnny Ola from The Godfather Part II) before it can be given the green light.
So who better to parachute into a small but pivotal role as an aged gangster than Robert De Niro? Despite only a few minutes of screen time, De Niro’s preparations for Victor Tellegio were as meticulous as ever. He held “endless conversations” with director David O Russell to help him create a character that was both powerful and threatening; without the need to obtusely demonstrate either. De Niro achieved this and the movie is all the better for it.
At the time of its release all the hoo-hah was about the face-off between De Niro and Pacino. Both were outstanding in their respective roles on opposite sides of the law, but shared only a single scene… but what a scene! The two characters are shown to be two sides of the same coin. McCauley (De Niro) is the criminal, living only for the next big score and Hanna (Pacino) is the cop, living only for the next big takedown; both needing the other to remain sharp.
Al Pacino makes all the noise in this flick - banging on doors and shaking down lowlifes but the flip side to Pacino’s bluster is a more measured approach by De Niro. He internalises his emotions, giving nothing away. McCauley keeps nothing in his life he can’t walk away from. This reasoning may make him a great thief, but it leaves him lonely, devoid of any meaningful relationships. De Niro shows McCauley torn between a code that keeps him alive and a desire to be with someone who can make him feel alive. Because of this inner struggle we sympathise more with De Niro the criminal than we do with the cop.
6. Neil McCauley – Heat (1995)
De Niro’s character David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson rapes two women in this movie and yet we still have sympathy for him. There’s got to be some seriously good acting going on here along with some extraordinary storytelling to pull this off.
Luckily for us that’s exactly the case. The movie spans a lifetime following a bunch of young Jewish boys getting up to no good on the streets of New York; sprouting into bootleggers during prohibition and blossoming into fully fledged gangsters.
Noodles is not likable, he does some unspeakable acts, yet we don’t hate him. He is sad and vulnerable; he destroys the only form of purity and innocence in his life with the rape of a childhood friend and he carries around the guilt of having caused the death of all his friends. Who can blame this sad-sack gangster of dreaming of an alternative ending to his life in an opium den – (if that’s how this intentionally enigmatic film really ends?) De Niro turns down the volume and portrays the sombre and lamented Noodles with his trademark acute characterisation and wonderful subtlety.
This is a performance and a film that was impossible to fully appreciate at the time due to the movie studio handing Sergio Leone’s work over to Zach Staenberg, editor of Police Academy, to butcher, hacking it down from four hours to just two. Go figure!
5. David 'Noodle' Aaronson – Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
In 1973 a mook walked into scarlet lit nightclub with a girl on each arm and a cockeyed grin across his face. As the entrance music of Jumpin’ Jack Flash by the Rolling Stones reverberated, Martin Scorsese, in slow motion, announced to the World that Robert De Niro had arrived.
He unexpectedly stole the show as Johnny Boy, a volatile schmuck with no respect for anyone, not even the established wiseguys. His cocky swagger and street-punk charm and more importantly the loyalty of his friends, with bonds forged from growing up together, protect him from any serious harm. His reckless antics and couldn’t-give-a-shit attitude put himself and those around him in danger, but his friends stick by him out of a sense of honour. De Niro gives Johnny Boy a presence on screen he perhaps doesn’t deserve and provides the movie with a dangerous edge.
This was the first of eight movies (to date) that Martin Scorsese would cast De Niro in and the pair would go on to build formidable careers supporting each other all the way.
4. Johnny Boy – Mean Streets (1973)
Under appreciated at the time by many, not by me I hasten to add, De Niro plays Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein - Jewish sports handicapper extraordinaire and golden goose for the Chicago mob. The Outfit gives him the opportunity to run its casino in Las Vegas and ensure it continues to skim as much money as possible from it.
De Niro is not an out-and-out gangster here, he leaves that to Joe Pesci’s character Nicky Santoro, Rothstein has to keep a low profile to ensure the Tangiers casino remains looking as legit as possible. He transforms gambling in Las Vegas, but his own hubris and self-importance winds up being his undoing. De Niro perfectly conveys the self-confidence and the false humility of the formidable casino manager and then shows only restrained fear when he thinks that Nicky is going to whack him out in the middle of the desert.
As is so often the case with De Niro, it’s the subtleties that create wonderful characters. He uses control and micromanagement in this movie in the same way as Jimmy Conway uses his fists and guns in Goodfellas to intimidate and exert his dominance. Given the runtime of the film of just shy of three hours and the voice over narration, Rothstein is one of the most fleshed out characters (and fleshed out wardrobes) of De Niro’s career. He finds just the right blend of businessman and gangster mixed with appropriate levels of cynicism and humanity to make Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein utterly compelling.
3. Sam 'Ace' Rothstein – Casino (1994)
2. James 'Jimmy the Gent' Conway - Goodfellas (1990)
“Murderers come with smiles” was the tagline of the gangster flick and yes indeed they do. Jimmy Conway is a gangster who is considered to be a rock star to the young aspiring wiseguys. He becomes the mentor to the rising stars in the family, Henry Hill and Tommy DeVito and the three of them form a pretty tight unit. De Niro goes on to show us two very different faces of the Irish mobster.
They called him ‘The Gent’ because he took care of everyone. He would slip the guy who opened the door for him a C-note and he world generously tip the barmen just for pouring him a drink. And when he was hijacking trucks, he looked after the drivers, making it worth-their-while to tip him off about valuable loads. De Niro made it very easy for us to like Jimmy the Gent, but then it all changed.
He masterminded the Lufthansa heist, getting away with about $5million, but when the cops turned up the heat, his rampant paranoia and greed came to the fore. He whacked everyone connected to the heist to distance him from the theft and of course to keep all of the money.
Conway was based on real life gangster Jimmy Burke and to a method actor like De Niro there was a rich seam to be mined in terms of his pursuit of perfection. He constantly called the real life Henry Hill to pick his brains on Jimmy Burke. He was even known to have asked how the real Jimmy would have held a ketchup bottle. Would he slap the bottom or would he shake it?
1. Vito Corleone - The Godfather Part II (1974)
This was the role that made everyone stand up and take notice; De Niro even won his first Academy Award for it. So where do you begin to start describing how good Robert De Niro was as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II?
Well let’s define the difficulties of the role. De Niro had to take on a character that only two years previous had been owned by one of the greatest actors of all time, Marlon Brando and furthermore he had to do it in a foreign language.
Brando was so quintessentially associated with Don Corleone that De Niro not only had to portray the established character as a young man, but he had to play it as Marlon Brando playing a young Don Corleone.
And when it came to the language, De Niro being De Niro did not just learn Italian for the role; no, he moved to Sicily for four months and learned 3 different Sicilian dialects. It’s testimony to his commitment that this Academy Award was the first to go to a non-English speaking role.
Everything we knew about Don Vito Corleone from the first Godfather movie is slowly created and crafted by De Niro’s character and a lot of it is in the subtleties; the carefulness and thoughtfulness of every action; gentle in execution but ruthless in result. It was a masterclass in acting and let’s not forget the classic scenes such as the gunning down of Don Fanucci; or the glorious return to Sicily to avenge his father’s death - plunging the dagger into Don Ciccio “My father’s name was Antonio Andolini... and this is for you!”
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A Bronx Tale (1994) – Robert De Niro directed this gangster flick, but while also starring in it, he didn’t play a gangster. Instead he played the anti-gangster; a hard working family guy who turns down the opportunity of easy money offered by the local mob as he attempts to steer his son away from the rackets and a charismatic gangster.
Bloody Mama (1970) – His first ever gangster role was as drug addicted bank robber Lloyd Barker in this low budget exploitation flick tentatively based on the life of Ma Barker and her band of criminal sons.