The Top 10 Matinee Mob Men in Movie History

by Bill Gibron

26 March 2013

They're supposed to be suave, or sexy, or silly. Instead, they wanted to be married to the mob. Here's ten examples of actors going against type, and for the most part, succeeding.

They say that funny men always want to play dramatic. They also argue that the serious actor always longs to be the buffoon. Stretching the sentiment out even further, leading men always long to break free of the handsome hunk mode and play down and dirty. Similarly, the heavy hopes for the day when they can look at a script and not see their name associated with the diabolical, the destructive, and the dead. So in the professional pecking order of Hollywood, anyone with solid commercial clout confirms these feelings by fiddling with their well established big screen personas. A laugh getter turns tender, or terrifying while the strong silent type struggles to make an ass out of himself. It’s called avoiding the typecast. It also means some interesting names have translated their talent into a turn at being the bad guy.
So today, in honor of the eighth choice on this list, we give you the 10 Best Matinee Movie Mobsters of all time, in which we hope to highlight those otherwise ordinary stars who sought creative refuge in the shady underworld of crime and honor. A couple of these are obvious. Many are a few steps outside the mainstream. Oh, and here are some of the names you won’t be seeing on this list: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, James Gandolfini, Robert Loggia, Marlon Brando, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, etc., etc., etc. These are actors who were born to be gangster, whose performances indicate an innate, DNA-like ability to play cruel and cutthroat. No, our focus here is on those otherwise leading men types (depending on the era) who found their niche portraying the criminal and do a damn fine job of it… well, most of the time.

So, without further ado, we present our against type villains, beginning with a seminal example of our opening sentiment:

#10 - Bill Murray in Mad Dog and Glory

Remember what we said before about the comedian wanting to play the bad guy? Well, when Bill Murray was trying to break free of the blockbuster aura of such hits as Ghostbusters, he tried to find solace in more serious roles. He finally succeeded in 1993 with the one-two punch of Groundhog Day, and this effort from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s John McNaughton. With Robert DeNiro (!) as the meek Chicago cop in the line of Murray’s mobster fire, this was a film built on defying expectations. While the end result might not be that memorable, Murray’s work sure is.

#9 - William Hurt in A History of Violence

He is considered by many to be the “thinking man’s Method actor,” whatever that means. He earned an Oscar from playing a persecuted homosexual in Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Throughout the ‘80s, he was the go-to guy for white, suburban milquetoast angst. But with his work here, as the angry, vendetta driven brother of Viggo Mortensen’s mobster in exile, Hurt was riveting. He earned another Academy Award nomination, this time losing out to another name on this list, George Clooney (for Syriana). Though seemingly slight, Hurt as a heavy is just that.

#8 - Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly

There is no doubt that Pitt can play bad. Ever seen Kalifornia? Fight Club? The Devil’s Own? The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Reteaming with that last film’s director, he is an excellent hitman trying to make sense of a silly mafia card game theft. When he finally gets permission to handle the mess, the blood and bullets fly. Pitt may be better off using his amazing good looks to his advantage, but he’s no slouch here. The movie, on the other hand…

#7 - Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs

Here’s an odd one. Who’d ever think of Buscemi, a nebbish nerd type with classic character actor looks, as a determined criminal with money and mayhem on his mind. Yet Quentin Tarantino cast the indie icon in his first feature film, playing the rationale Mr. Pink to the rest of the gang’s gun-happy goons. Though his attitude towards tipping (against) and nicknames (definitely against) are well known, the rest of the character is a mystery. It’s the perfect part for an actor who seems to define enigmatic and engaging with every new performance.

#6 - George Clooney in The American

At this point in his superstardom, Clooney could play a psycho clown with a blood lust for little girls and audiences would still swoon at his chiseled, Golden Era Hollywood handsomeness. Hoping to trade on that acceptance, he branched out a bit, essaying the role of a hitman struggling to come to terms with his murderous job. He even falls for a hot Italian hooker. As with many such acting attempts, our matinee idol is good. Unfortunately, the film built around him is slow and somber.

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