10 Underrated ’70s Gangster Movies


Some movies are so good that they eclipse others in their genre. Such was the case with The Godfather. Whenever gangster movies of the ‘70s are being discussed, this title takes up the biggest chunk of the debate, and for a good reason. The Francis Ford Coppola project is regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made, thanks to great performances, great cinematography, and a flawless screenplay.

Its follow-up, The Godfather Part II is widely celebrated too, so much so that it became the first sequel to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

As deserving as The Godfather is of all the glory, several other ‘70s gangster films also deserve recognition. These productions are arguably just as good as the Oscar-winning adaptation and were received well by the few fans and critics who saw them. Most of them are still available on streaming services too. It’s, therefore, not too late to discover these treasures that have remained buried for so long and revel in their shiny awesomeness.

10 Lepke (1975)

In the 1930s, the Jewish-American organized crime figure, Louis Lepke, saw a perfect business opportunity. He realized that as much as Cosa Nostra bosses were itching to whack traitors and foes, they were eager to insulate themselves from these homicides to avoid convictions. He thus formed a contract killer organization known as Murder Inc.

For a fee, he and his men would spray bullets whenever and wherever. Over the years, the gangster’s story has been told in multiple documentaries, but no production handles the subject better than the biopic, Lepke.

A Different Brand of Violence

How creative was Murder Inc. in carrying out killings? The details are sketchy, but according to Lepke, the organization preferred over-the-top methods. Here, a character gets blown up using an explosive hidden in a plate of spaghetti. Another gets an ice prick to the neck while having sex. It’s all brutal, but very refreshing, considering that other mob movies tend to limit themselves to shootings and stranglings.

Prolific actor, Tony Curtis, who appeared in over 100 movies in his career, also gave a marvelous performance. And there’s plenty of fan service for the mob history buffs, with crime hall-of-fame members like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Albert Anstacia all making appearances.

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9 The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Most mafia movies make it seem like mobsters don’t fear jail time. They do the time gladly, before getting released and bragging about how they never ‘sang.’ Well, Boston Irish Mob gunrunner, Eddie (Robert Mitchum), from The Friends of Eddie Coyle doesn’t fancy his life taking such a trajectory. Upon learning that the ATF is about to put him behind bars for numerous gun-related offenses, he starts cooperating. Unfortunately for him, the higher-ups get a hint of what is going on.

Unglorfied Crime

Tucked inside this Peter Yates movie is a clear moral tale. While most gangster movies suggest that crime pays, at least for a while, the message here is that lawbreaking is a pointless exercise. Despite having been a gangster for over 30 years, Eddie is still in the lower middle-class category.

Because of nepotism and all other kinds of favoritism, he has never been promoted. If he is to be jailed, his kids will be welfare candidates. There is thus every reason to root for him, even though he is being dishonorable.

Rent it on Apple TV+

8 Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Boxcar Bertha was released when Martin Scorsese hadn’t yet made a name for himself. Worse still, it came out in the same year as The Godfather. Understandably, it’s one of his lowest-grossing movies. Still, the film is worth investing time on. The story is about Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey), a woman who opts to become a train robber after suffering several challenges stemming from the Depression Era.

Sex and Violence

Martin Scorsese has always managed to stuff his movies with sex and violence without them losing any artistic appeal. He does so here too, to great effect. The murder figures are so high that anyone counting dead bodies might have to approximate them.

The intimacy scenes are also very realistic. In Barbara Hershey’s interview with People, she enthusiastically claimed that they did it all “without having to fake anything.” Hopefully, a journalist will pop this question to the director soon.

Stream it on Prime Video

7 Young and Healthy as a Rose (1971)

An essential film of the Yugoslav Black Wave movement, Young and Healthyas a Rose shows what career growth in the underworld looks like. In just under 80 minutes, it traces the journey of Stiv (Dragan Nikolić) from a car thief to the biggest crime boss in the city. Stiv becomes a Gotti-like figure, with teens around the city committing crimes for him and aspiring to reach his level.

Stiv’s rise to the top of the underworld isn’t merely presented as a consequence of criminal ambition but as a direct outcome of systematic failures. Corruption is a recurring theme and one of the character’s key allies is shown to be a police inspector.

Besides that, Young and Healthy as a Rose has a very realistic, documentary-like feel since it was shot using a hand-held camera. Interestingly, its plot is prophetic. In Stiv’s final inner monologue, he tells audiences that criminals like him rarely get punished and ends with the line “I am your future”. After the film’s release, several notorious criminals, such as the infamous Željko Ražnatović would pop up.

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6 Switchblade Sisters (1975)

Switchblade Sisters is a breath of fresh air for audiences who are tired of seeing evil men in suits and cars. The film revolves around a teenage girl named Mercy (Joanne Nail), who transfers to a new high school only to learn that it’s controlled by a powerful female gang. She initially tries to keep off, but after getting caught up in a mass arrest and beating an abusive warden, she triggers the interest of the gang leader and is recruited. Within no time, she rises to the position of Boss.

A Tarantino Favorite

Quentin Tarantino has confessed that he is a huge fan of the film, which isn’t surprising considering that a good chunk of his films involve badass women who tend to leave bloody messes. These include Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, and Death Proof. The director loved it so much that he re-released it in 1996 under his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company.

As rudimentary as Switchblade Sisters is, it is thematically deep. There is talk about the necessity of abortion, and a character has a miscarriage later on. Additionally, the ‘black gangs are evil’ trope is avoided. Instead, Mercy and her cronies cut ties with one of their allies, a chauvinist male teen gang, in favor of an all-black female gang. The team-up yields great results.

Rent it on Apple TV+

RELATED: 9 Scariest Movie Gangsters of All Time

5 Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Every mobster needs a friend like Mikey (Peter Falk) from Mikey and Nicky. When his buddy Nicky (John Cassavetes) calls him for the hundredth time to inform him that he is hiding in a hotel because a mob boss has ordered a hit on his life, Mickey shows up. Nicky is extremely paranoid, but Mickey calms him down and starts helping him plan how to skip town. Unfortunately, Nicky keeps showing reluctance, causing them to waste time, and resulting in the hitman getting closer to them.

A Test of Friendship

Ordinarily, identifying and eliminating a target is only a minor plot in gangster movies. Director Elaine May thus deserves credit for mining 106 minutes worth of a plot from such a simple premise. This is achieved by amplifying the feeling of suspicion and maintaining an air of uncertainty.

As much as Nicky trusts Mickey, he considers the possibility that his friend might have been compromised. Every call Mickey makes, and every new plan he makes, drives him deeper into paranoia.

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4 Paño Verde (1973)

Paño Verde takes audiences to 1940s Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the fashion-savvy Miguel Acuña, or “El Púa” (Carlos Estrada) runs a bar. To his customers, he is as clean as Samuel “Mayday” Malone from Cheers. He maintains a facade of debonair gentility, but in secret, he is a violent robber. One day, he murders the local Don, allowing him to take over the city’s biggest criminal outfit.

Unfortunately for him, great power comes with great problems, and it doesn’t take long for the police to start hunting him down.

Echoes of Pablo Escobar

Interestingly, the character, El Púa, was created way before Pablo Escobar’s rise, yet he feels very similar to the narcotrafficker. Like Escobar, El Púa and his gang commits several violent criminal acts with impunity, resulting in the deaths of several people. He also gets shot dead on top of a roof, just like the Colombian cartel leader.

Apart from the similarities to a real-world figure, the film is boosted by great cinematography that captures both the beauty and decay of Buenos Aires. For anyone looking for great gangster movies made outside America, this is an ideal film to start with.

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3 The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) isn’t the most upstanding citizen, but he is in no way malicious. As the proprietor of a dingy Hollywood cabaret, all he cares about is interacting with his dancers and staff. Unfortunately, his gambling problem puts him in trouble. When he loses plenty of money while playing in a mobster-owned casino and struggles to pay, he is ordered to whack a Chinese bookie or else he will pay with his life.

A Well-Planned Murder

Cosmo’s fate mirrors that of Antonio in the Italian gangster movie, Mafioso, but he is a better character because he doesn’t come out of the mission in one piece. He has the PTSD, the injury, and the fear that he might have just turned into an evil person.

Furthermore, the kill itself is well-executed (no pun intended). Cosmo distracts his dogs by feeding them hamburgers before walking into the house where he realizes the hard part isn’t over. He is still forced into a Tony Montana-like shootout with the bodyguards, resulting in a ruptured spleen on his part but a dead target as instructed.

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2 Blue Collar (1978)

In Blue Collar, Detroit autoworkers Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel), Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), and Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) make the uninformed decision to steal from their own union. They are initially disappointed, thinking they have only made off with little money, but they soon realize that they have taken a ledger containing information about mafia members. Conflicted, they wonder whether they should go to the authorities or blackmail the union for more cash.

A Perfect Directorial Debut

Spike Lee included Blue Collar in his list of “Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See.” Interestingly, the person who made it (Paul Schrader) had never made a movie before. Even so, he had learned from the best. Schrader had previously served as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver, so he knew what was required.

Technically, there are hardly any noticeable flaws. The film is shot using basic camera angles, yet all the emotions are captured perfectly. Each of the actors plays to their strengths too, with Pryor providing the comic relief and Keitel adding the macho flavor.

Rent it on Apple TV+

RELATED: 15 Gangster Movies Recommended by Martin Scorsese

1 The Outfit (1973)

In between playing the Corleone crime family consigliere, Tom Hagen, in the first two Godfather movies, Robert Duvall starred as the petty gangster Earl Macklin in The Outfit. The movie begins with Earl getting paroled and learning that his brother has been murdered by the mob. Angry, he teams up with an old partner to cripple some of The Outfit’s businesses. However, his mission turns out to be harder than he expected because the mob has also put out a hit on him.

Guerilla Tactics

What genre fans will find fascinating about The Outfit is that the two principal characters don’t behave like know-it-alls. Driven by the desire for vengeance, they rely on guerilla tactics in their war against the mob. The movie plays out like a video game, with the two hitting all the usual mob hangouts like businesses before ending up in the Don’s house. From disrupting card games to infiltrating horse auctions, they do it all.

Rent it on Apple TV+



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