Nearly every memorable mob film, as well as HBO series like "The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire," can be seen as one of the ancestors or heirs to "The Godfather." That includes Sergio Leone's eccentric masterpiece, "Once Upon a Time in America," which gets released today on Blu-ray and re-released on DVD.
Before "The Godfather," mob movies portrayed the big city as melting pot and witches' cauldron, with ruthless immigrants taking charge of the rackets, then buying their way into "legitimacy." Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola had the genius to erase the gap between mainstream audiences and these desperate characters. The Corleones made dire choices, but they were regular, upwardly mobile Americans. Their land was our land.
Take this chronological list as an unconventional guide and family tree. There's no "Goodfellas" or "Casino" on it (though I love many Scorsese films, I always thought these titles were triumphs of technique, not story or character). In their place I hope you'll find some recently neglected films (like "Prizzi's Honor") and some unexpected -- and galvanizing -- performances from the likes of Peter Falk and Gian-Maria Volonte.
1. *Scarface* (1932). The comic and terrifying original is the best pre-*Godfather* mob movie. Directed by Howard Hawks, it features a still-charged family triangle: Paul Muni as the Al Capone-like Scarface, George Raft as his coin-flipping henchman, and Ann Dvorak as Tony's, ah, *close* sister.
2. *The Big Combo* (1955). Amusingly rabid. "Combination" boss Richard Conte (later Barzini in *The Godfather*) employs every mobster's initial line of defense: the writ of habeas corpus. The director, Joseph H. Lewis, makes deft sadistic use of a thug's hearing aid.
3.*Murder By Contract* (1958). A focused hit-man (Vince Edwards) treats murder as something that's strictly business, not personal, but fails to figure out why he balks at knocking off a woman. Director Irving Lerner shot it in eight days, conjuring claustrophobic thrills that look ahead to *Taxi Driver*.
4. *Murder, Inc.* (1960). A klunker, but Peter Falk's casually scary Abe Reles, the real-life linchpin of the national crime syndicate's murder arm in the '30s, earns a place in movie-land's Murderer's Row next to Cagney's Public Enemy.
5. *The Godfather* (1972) and 6.*The Godfather Part II* (1974). Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro (as the old and young Vito Corleone) and Al Pacino, James Caan, John Cazale, and Robert Duvall help Coppola and Puzo turn the first two parts of the Corleone family trilogy into American film's great urban epic.
7. *Lucky Luciano* (1973). Francesco Rosi's biopic bridges *Godfather* Parts I and II, with Gian-Maria Volonte exuding a subtle charisma as the modern syndicate's mastermind. Norman Mailer said the film had "the breath of art in every sordid detail."
8. *The Long Good Friday* (1981). The IRA undercuts London's biggest mob and reduces its bedeviled boss, Bob Hoskins, to a hairy ape. Hoskins, as a mixture of born leader and behemoth, is mesmerizing. Helen Mirren makes the savviest of molls.
9. *Once Upon a Time in America* (uncut version, 1984). Abetted by bang-up makeup, Robert De Niro delivers a moving performance as a melancholy Jewish kingpin from the Lower East Side; the director, Sergio Leone, does an amazing job of juxtaposing shoot-'em-up and memory play.
10. *Prizzi's Honor* (1985). John Huston's enchanting satire of Mafia cliches. Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as married hit-people and Anjelica Huston as a black-sheep mob princess bring new meaning to the phrase "kiss of death." The film is filled with a baroque, sensuous irony.