A chronological tour through the history of one of the great genres of film featuring Irish-American heroes and antiheroes: Irish-American crime films.
THE SILENT ERA
Perhaps the very first organized crime film, directed by D.W. Griffith and telling of a small group of directionless thugs in an Irish immigrant ghetto.
Probably the first feature-length gangster film, shot on location in the Bowery and telling the true story of a Bowery bruiser and the school teacher who saves him.
One of the early silent films about organized crime, and one that set the template for later films, where a brutish Irish mob boss and his brilliant adviser come to blows over a woman and a double-cross.
A fictionalized version of Al Capone’s Chicago, ruled by gangsters but run by corrupt politicians, where there is little a good Irish cop can do.
The film that made Jimmy Cagney a star, telling the short, violent life of an Irish-American bootlegger.
A strange, wild, disconcerting film set in the pubs of New York’s Bowery during the Gas Light era, and loosely based on true stories of the bruisers, hustlers, and riff raff of the era.
James Cagney plays a ward heeler who takes charge of a corrupt reform school in this pre-code shocker.
Douglas Fairbanks plays a cynical boxer on the lam for murder. Remade as “They Made Me a Killer.”
The film John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down is an overwrought but entertaining tale of two boyhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law, and features Clark Gable as an Irish gambler who really seems like he wants to be executed.
James Cagney is a two-fisted inspector for the Department of Weights and Measures battling organized corruption.
The first Dead End Kids (eventually Bowery Boys) movie is a superb look at poverty and crime in an Irish slum in New York.
Universal borrowed several of the Dead End Kids to make this grim and sometimes very weird story about Billy Halop turning into a very young Jimmy Cagney.
A stilted but nonetheless odd and fascinating story of young friends in Hell’s Kitchen who grow up on opposite sides of the law.
A remake of “The Life of Jimmy Dolan” with John Garfield and the Dead End Kids.
Frankie Darro plays a crime-busting bellhop in the first film to pair him with African-American comic Mantan Moreland.
A Poverty Row knockoff of “Dead End,” but trading the earlier film’s pessimism for a sort of accidental nihilism.
“Boys Town’s” mostly-forgotten sequel includes a short, effective look into the brutality of the reform school.
The East Side Kids get caught up with crooks in a Lower East Side that seems entirely populated by sailors.
A sumptuously filmed, preposterously scripted tale of an Irish hood making a break from prison with two women who love him in tow and a pyromaniacal mob boss at his tail.
An independently lensed movie about the maddest and most Irish of American gangster, featuring a young Jerry Orbach, the first film appearance of Gene Hackman, and a group of gangland assassins who accidentally seem like 1950s juvenile delinquents.
The story of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein and his many Irish associates. The film feels uncertain and contemptuous, but for an unexpectedly subtle and affecting performance from Mickey Rooney.
Lee Marvin is an enforcer for the Irish mob in Chicago sent to collect a debt owed by Gene Hackman, a rancher and white slaver in Kansas City whose entire worldview seems to be based on protracted metaphors for meat.
Paul Newman and Robert Redford play two con artists looking to bilk an Irish mobster in Depression-era Chicago.
A brutal, dour, entirely credible story of the last days of a small time Irish-American hood, played by Robert Mitchum.
A made-for-television retelling of the arrest of George “Machine Gun” Kelly. As history, it is terrible, as an Irish gangster film, it is negligible, and as an example of writer/director John Milius’ overheated right-wing storytelling, it is middling.
Alan Parker’s unusual debut, featuring children playing gangsters, offers one of the more optimistic gangster movies put onscreen.
Sean Penn plays the first of many Irish-American hoodlums in this grim, relentlessly brutal, but strangely hopeful film set in a juvenile detention center.
Michael Keaton plays a 1930s Irish gangster in an anarchic but unexpectedly genial sendup of old crime films.
Brian De Palma and David Mamet retell the story of the fall of Al Capone as a frantic cartoon, featuring Sean Connery as an Irish cop without an Irish accent.
The Coen Brothers tell of a war between Irish and Italian gangsters, featuring an exquisitely choreographed Tommy gunning set to the tune of “Danny Boy.”
Martin Scorsese’s profane, violent, celebrated look at the career of mobster Henry Hill.
A looked at a ragtag group of doomed Irish gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen, starring Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, and Ed Harris.
A stylish, odd, and extremely bleak version of the Jim Thompson novel; for some reason, Thompson’s career criminals always seemed to have Irish names.
An unnecessary remake of a classic noir film, featuring a glowering David Caruso and a weird Nicolas Cage as an ex-con spying on a crime boss.
Bruce Willis stars in a genre mashup that retells “Yojimbo” but with gangsters in a wild west border town. It should have been more entertaining than it turned out to be.
A moderately well-done film about con artists sabotaged by its insistence that Irish Travellers are a criminal conspiracy.
Denis Leary is at the center of a gang of miserable petty criminals in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood.
A frantic, occasionally imaginative, more often mean-spirited film about Irish twins in Boston committing vigilante murders of local mobsters.
Donnie Wahlberg plays a South Boston resident caught between two gangsters in this unexpectedly well-detailed movie.
Martin Scorsese’s delirious film tells a baroque, excessive, carnival-colored version of early New York gangs.
Tom Hanks is a sullen mob enforcer on a road trip with his son in a stately, gorgeous, and nonetheless unsatisfying movie.
Not a mobster film, but a documentary about the making of a mobster film: The story of the short rise and long fall of Troy Duffy, the belligerent former bartender who wrote and directed “The Boondock Saints.”
David Croneberg tells of a sudden act of small-town brutality that brings in the Irish mob, who believe the violence has revealed one of their own.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a rat for the police, Matt Damon is a rat for the mob, and both are at the mercy of a deranged Irish mob boss, played by Jack Nicholson.
2010 AND ON
Ben Affleck writes, directs, and stars in a heist film about Irish-American bank robbers in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood.
The true story of mobster Danny Green should be the maddest gangster film ever made; it isn’t.
Brad Pitt plays a mob enforcer hampered by chronic incompetence in this secret sequel to “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
A downbeat film about a shaggy, seemingly slow-witted bartender, played by Tom Hardy, who was once part of an Irish crime crew, and who still seems trailed by violence.
Nicholas Cage plays a former Irish mobster turned into avenging father who is never quite as angry as we expect him to be.
Liam Neeson plays an alcoholic former enforcer for the Irish mob forced to go against his boss when his son is targeted for a hit.