The gangster movie is a long and storied tradition stretching back to the earliest days of the cinema. You could even make the argument that back in the 1920's and 30's, real-life gangsters were movie stars of a sort, thrilling audiences who kept track of their exploits via newsreels. But let's not concern ourselves with those pedestrian real-life gangsters – we're here to celebrate the seven most ruthless movie gangsters of all time. Grab your shine box and take a seat!
Duke Mantee, "The Petrified Forest"
Introduced in the film as a "real killer," Humphrey Bogart's Duke Mantee is one of the best of the classic movie gangsters. The story has him breaking in on a tranquil rural diner and shaking things up for the inhabitants of that small, insular world. And it justifiably made him a star – Bogart went on to play all sorts of slightly sympathetic gangsters and psychotics before moving on to anti-heroes like the ones in Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.
Cody Jarrett, "White Heat"
James Cagney was already world-famous for paying brutal and ruthless gangsters by the time "White Heat" was released in 1949. But his gangster in this movie topped them all in terms of pure viciousness. He carries on a crime spree that leaves many innocent bystanders dead or disfigured, and Jarrett doesn't appear to give a wink about them. The only person whom he really does seem to care about is his malicious mother – and when she dies he goes into one of the screen's all-time great freak-outs.
Doyle Lonnegan, "The Sting"
Robert Shaw's evil gangster in "The Sting" ranks as one of the best screen villains of all time. And he certainly holds his own in the ruthlessness department as well. His quiet nature gives a real sense of a "calm before the storm," as he makes no bones about putting away anyone who gets in his way, even a small-time con man who didn't know who he was stealing from.
Tony Montana, "
Both Brian De Palma's "Scarface" and the 1932 gangster classic it's based on are about what can happen if a person lets greed and ambition poison his soul. Montana is a basically decent guy on the fringes of society at the beginning of the movie – "decent" compared to the monster he would become, at least. But by the end of the movie he's shot his best friend in the stomach for no reason at all – and that's only one of his ruthless crimes against humanity. Say this for him, though: He doesn't kill kids.
Frank Booth, "Blue Velvet"
Gangsters don't come much more ruthless than Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth. And unlike most gangsters, he doesn't do the terrible things he does for money or power – he does it because he feels like it. Kidnapping, assault, intimidation, and murder are all tactics he uses simply to get his rocks off. We'd quote some of his choice lines for you, but this is a family publication. Suffice it to say he is one scary dude.
Ordell Robie, "Jackie Brown"
Samuel L. Jackson's character may look like a west-coast Crypt Keeper, but don't let that fool you – he's actually much worse. His philosophy in life appears to be "kill or be killed," best seen in his ruthless disposal of a man who was dumb enough to violate his parole while he had some dirt on Robie. The best way to keep him from testifying was to shoot him and leave him in the trunk of a car, so that's exactly what he did.
Bernie Rose, "Drive"
Although Albert Brooks has never been known for playing likeable screen characters, he'd never played an outright villain before his turn as gangster Bernie Rose in "Drive." You'd never know it, though – his role is a master class in menace, so the audience is justifiably afraid of him even before he coldly dispatches a poor underling just because he'd caused an inconvenience. "That's it, it's over, there's no pain" he says, right after opening the guy's vein with a straight razor.