5 most formidable movie mobsters

LOS ANGELES (AP) — There’s been no shortage of movies made about mobsters over the years; their power and brazenness understandably hold a fascination for Hollywood and filmgoers.

But some gangsters are more fearsome than others. One of the most infamous of all is James “Whitey” Bulger, the New England mob boss who was captured last week after 16 years as a fugitive, and who helped inspire Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar-winner “The Departed.”

He’s our inspiration this week to take a look at five of the most formidable movie mobsters of all time:

— Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972): Of course, we have to start here, but what more can we say that hasn’t been said a million times before? Brando’s quietly intimidating performance as the aging patriarch of an organized crime family set the standard for portrayals of Mafia leaders — at least in the first part of Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious, ground-breaking trilogy. Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone is truly frightening, but Brando’s shadow looms large over everything. He’s been endlessly worshipped, quoted and parodied, and deservedly so. Brando’s work is nothing short of iconic, and it earned him an Academy Award for best actor, which he famously wouldn’t accept in protest. See, the Academy made him an offer he COULD refuse. Ba-dum-bum.

— Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” (1990): Scorsese was robbed, of course. On no planet should “Dances With Wolves” ever win the best-picture Oscar over “Goodfellas,” which remains one of the director’s masterpieces. All his stylistic signatures are there: the fluid movement and the rock soundtrack; the colorful characters and the visceral violence. But at the center of it all is Liotta, doing the best work of his career as a resourceful up-and-comer who rises to the top of the mob heap, only to find he’s in over his head. He’s just as dangerous as he is boyishly handsome and charming — resourceful and clever but capable of volatility. He’s snorting lines, he’s stirring the sauce, he can do it all.

— James Cagney in multiple roles: Playing a tough guy was one of Cagney’s strong suits, and that persona was indelibly on display in several classic gangster movies. In 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” he plays Tom Powers, a volatile Chicago gangster on the rise who has some creative uses for grapefruit. In 1938’s “Angels With Dirty Faces,” he plays Rocky Sullivan, who grew up in a tough part of New York and returns as a career criminal, only to cross paths with the priest who was his childhood best friend. Michael Curtiz’s film features plenty of stereotypes and a moral undercurrent, but Cagney is at his brash best, and the performance earned him the first of his three Academy Award nominations for best actor.

— Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast” (2001): Part of the allure of this performance is that it’s so vastly different from the kind of quiet, dignified work we ordinarily associate with Kingsley: He’s the anti-Gandhi. He’s just tremendous here, and the role earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. As a foul-mouthed, gun-toting, butt-kicking British thug, Kingsley is unpredictable, impossible to stop watching. His performance alone would make “Sexy Beast” worth seeing, but it punctuates a stylish noir thriller that’s totally addictive.

— William Hurt as Richie Cusack in “A History of Violence” (2005): Hurt also earned a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for his performance as a passively threatening Philadelphia mob boss. He shows up toward the end of the movie and has only a single scene, one that’s unlike any other in the film with its dark sense of humor. Parading around an ostentatious castle of a home, he plays the role with a mix of affection, menace, paranoia and regret, laying on the most charming guilt trip with just a touch of insanity. Even though he barely appears in director David Cronenberg’s twisty thriller, he nearly steals the whole movie.

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Think of any other examples? Share them with AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire through Twitter: http://twitter.com/christylemire.

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