From the cockney accents to the sleazily inventive insults, and of course using cunt to describe just about everyone and every thing, British Gangster Movies stand in a class all of their own. As a passionate devotee I've put together my Top 10 plus a few bonus ones. To be considered for the list, a movie's plot had to deal with the British underworld and fulfill one of the following two requirements: it must have been at least a partly British production or be directed by a British director. Let me know what you think.
10. Performance (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg), 1970
An experimental and provocative film that really is more nonsensical than it would like to admit, this psychedelic foray is notable for starring Mick Jagger at his self-indulgent, libertine best. The Memo From Turner sequence is a memorable example of an early music video.
9. London Boulevard (William Monahan), 2010
Colin Farrell can play the hell out of a gangster role, so it's not surprising that films he's starred in appear twice on this list. With a rock soundtrack full of urgency and surprisingly edgy, by the end you'll find yourself more invested in the story than you probably ought to be. Credit that to great direction by American William Monahan.
8. Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn), 2004
Daniel Craig's audition tape for Casino Royale. The movie that put him on the proverbial map and launched a renewed James Bond franchise. Dark supporting roles from Michael Gambon and Jamie Foreman (son of real-life London gangster, Freddie Foreman) give this movie a harshness that is crucial to a great British gangster flick.
7. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie), 1998
This uproariously funny late '90s flick is probably the British gangster movie with the most mainstream success and exposure, particularly in the US. Clever wordplay, cheeky cinematography, and, again, a soundtrack grounded in heavy classic/punk rock, make this undoubtedly the most accessible of all the British gangster movies.
6. Gangster No. 1 (Paul McGuigan), 2000
Although I have it at six, this could easily be number one for a very simple reason. This features by far the most psychotic and outrageously dark anti-hero, played throughout the decades by Paul Bettany and the legendary Malcolm McDowell. Director Paul McGuigan took the gangster ethos to the extreme and the result is a British gangster movie purist's nightmarish dream. This should probably be ranked higher.
5. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh), 2008
Full of twists and turns and the kind of macabre laughs that McDonagh has become known for, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason play two hitmen who flee to the quaint Belgian town after a bungled job. Ralph Fiennes as their unhinged boss is pure cinema magic.
4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg), 2007
EP slips in on this list as a case can be made that this is more a Russian gangster movie, but it takes place exclusively in London, which by default makes it part of the London/British underworld. It's a co-British production and if that weren't enough, Director David Cronenberg is Canadian, which is part of the British Commonwealth. Finally, the disturbing nature of the material clearly puts it squarely in the British gangster movie lineage. Viggo Mortensen probably should have won an Oscar for this part.
3. Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie), 1980
Bob Hoskins stars as the head of the London underworld who is about embark on the deal of his life with his American mafia counterparts, when his entire world starts going sideways. Viciousness ensues. Notable for making the IRA and Britain's potential joining of the EEC a major part of the plot.
2. Get Carter (Mike Hodges), 1971
The Citizen Kane of British Gangster movies. The only reason this isn't number one is because the titleholder is a personal favourite of mine. The best opening credit sequence of any picture on this list. Michael Caine is a force to be reckoned with as Jack Carter, who sniffs out something's awry when his clean-cut brother turns up dead and there's something wrong with his niece. Seedy, sooty, tawdry, you'll need a delousing after. She was only fifteen years old!
1. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer), 2000
Ben Kingsley plays the unhappiest and meanest gangster in the world as he collides with Ray Winstone, a blissfully retired ex-gangster sunbathing his days away in the Spanish desert. The verbal assault Kingsley unleashes has made this movie illegal to show publicly within a mile of schools and hospitals. Ian McShane plays Teddy Fucking Bass, Mr. Black Magic himself. Sexy Beast takes British gangster filmmaking to high art. The perfect British gangster movie. Gentlemen, you're all cunts.
* The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), 1999
Not eligible to be part of this list but notable due to Terence Stamp playing a fish out of water British gangster in '90s LA. Quite funny and touching.
** The Third Man (Carol Reed), 1949
One of the greatest films of all time but technically a film noir, not a gangster movie. Plus, the two main characters are American. Still, a true classic.
***A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick), 1971
The film speaks for itself but isn't really a gangster movie. Alex and his friends aren't gangsters, they're hooligans. It's more a satire.