Though Martin Scorsese is an acclaimed filmmaker who’s made great historical dramas, a family film, and even numerous fantastic documentaries, he’ll likely always be most well-known for his crime/gangster movies. Doing interesting things within the crime genre is what gave him breakout success in the early 1970s and eventually a film that won him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. He’s still telling crime stories, with 2023’s Killers of the Flower Moon having a premise concerning a series of murders during the 1920s in the Osage Nation.
In anticipation of that high-profile release, it’s worth looking back on the numerous classic movies Scorsese’s made within the crime genre. Most of these are very good, at the very least, and some of his best crime movies are among the greatest ever made. Those films of his that either entirely or partly fit within the crime genre are ranked below, starting with the less-than-great and ending with numerous movies that are legendary for their high quality.
Updated October 19, 2023, by Jeremy Urquhart:
2023 marks another year when a Martin Scorsese crime film is gifted to the world of cinema: Killers of the Flower Moon. This one stands out from the others, exploring a different time in history while looking at things from the sort of perspective Scorsese hasn’t utilized before. A new film from the master director means it’s as good a time as any to look over his various contributions to the crime/gangster genres, and rank them below from worst to best.
11 ‘Boxcar Bertha’ (1972)
After directing a handful of short films and one feature-length movie (1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door) during the 1960s, Martin Scorsese made his second feature film in 1972: Boxcar Bertha. It’s notable for also being the first Scorsese movie that can be classified as a crime film. It follows a rebellious woman who combats a corrupt railroad establishment during the height of The Great Depression.
Truth be told, it’s not very good. It’s extremely rough around the edges, though as a low-budget film, perhaps that can be somewhat forgivable. Further, it feels a little lifeless narratively and isn’t particularly exciting for the most part, feeling like Scorsese was still finding his voice to some extent. Thankfully, he found that voice shortly after Boxcar Bertha’s release, and all his future crime movies proved to be compelling.
10 ‘Cape Fear’ (1991)
Cape Fear is more of a thriller than it is a crime movie, but however you want to define it, it’s very good. It says something about the quality of Scorsese’s crime-related movies that something as solidly made as Cape Fear is ultimately one of his “weaker” efforts, albeit only comparatively.
Its premise revolves around a dangerous criminal getting released from prison and immediately setting out on a mission to torment the family of a lawyer whom he blames for his imprisonment. Robert De Niro plays this criminal while devouring scenery and being genuinely terrifying, with the film leaving an impact because of this central performance and Scorsese’s typically strong filmmaking and distinct style shining through.
9 ‘Gangs of New York’ (2002)
As a crime epic, Gangs of New York is a little messier than the other Martin Scorsese movies that could be described as such, but it still largely works. Its flaws are fairly easy to forgive when there’s an iconic character played by Daniel Day-Lewis at its center, with him giving a towering performance as the villainous Bill the Butcher, who Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to kill for the murder of his father.
As a revenge movie, it satisfies, and there’s also a certain novelty to seeing Scorsese tackle a story about crime in the 19th century rather than the 20th or 21st. Its epic scope, memorably gritty violence, and larger-than-life characters make up for some of the narrative shortcomings, ensuring Gangs of New York is an imperfect yet generally very good film.
8 ‘Casino’ (1995)
At the time of its release, Casino stood as Martin Scorsese’s longest film, with its runtime of 179 minutes making it one of the lengthiest crime movies of all time. It uses all that time to tackle a huge story that takes place throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, showing how the Mafia more or less ran Las Vegas, thanks to them owning many of the city’s casinos.
Even by the filmmaker’s usual standards, Casino is exceptionally bleak and horrifyingly violent, with the gangster characters here being especially brutal and uncompromising. Those aspects, plus the long runtime, can make Casino an exhausting watch, but it has plenty to offer for those who feel mentally and physically up for the challenge of watching a three-hour-long feel-bad crime epic.
7 ‘Mean Streets’ (1973)
One year after the less-than-great Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese bounced back with a vengeance by making Mean Streets. This was the crime film that really put him on the map, as it offered a certain style and feel that hadn’t necessarily been seen in a crime/drama movie before, with its loose narrative and authenticity ensuring it holds up to this day as a classic.
It follows several young men who all want to move up within the mob lifestyle they find themselves in, though its loose feel and scenes featuring improvisation mean it’s more about characters than it is about plot. Still, it remains fresh and is notable for being the first of many collaborations between Scorsese and Robert De Niro.
6 ‘The Departed’ (2006)
Though most wouldn’t call it Martin Scorsese’s very best film (even if it’s still excellent), The Departed remains his most successful at the Academy Awards. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and had a complex narrative centering around a cop going undercover to infiltrate a criminal gang and a criminal from that gang simultaneously infiltrating the police force.
It’s probably the most plot-heavy out of all Scorsese’s crime films and certainly has the highest number of narrative twists and turns. It ends up being an extremely entertaining and intense crime/thriller movie. It benefits from a strong cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and a scenery-chewing/scene-stealing Jack Nicholson.
5 ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ (2023)
With a lengthy runtime and some particularly heavy themes, Killers of the Flower Moon certainly isn’t an easy watch by any means, but it is riveting and rewarding. The film is unbelievably well put together and acted, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, and Robert De Niro all turning in phenomenal performances (and there are plenty of great performances given by those in smaller/supporting roles, too).
Killers of the Flower Moon follows a murder spree against the Osage people in Oklahoma during the 1920s, with the knowledge that these events truly happened ensuring the film is even more difficult to watch at its heaviest moments. It’s undeniably gripping and just phenomenal from a filmmaking perspective, with little by way of flaws, making this likely to be considered another Scorsese masterwork (maybe once a little time has passed, first).
4 ‘The Irishman’ (2019)
Released when Scorsese was 77 years old and featuring a main cast of actors who were also in their 70s (including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci), The Irishman is an appropriately contemplative and mature crime film from Scorsese. It’s about an elderly hitman named Frank Sheeran reckoning with the guilt he feels in the final stages of his life stemming from the terrible things he did when he was younger.
It has a runtime of nearly three-and-a-half hours and was hugely ambitious for its use of digital de-aging, which was used so that same actors could portray their characters at different stages of their lives. Not everything is executed flawlessly, but everything is still impressive from a technical perspective, and the film’s final act is one of the best in Scorsese’s entire filmography.
3 ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013)
A relentlessly excessive movie that runs for three hours and features numerous scenes of partying, debauchery, and pitch-black comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street is a powerful exploration of white-collar crime and unchecked greed. Its central character is Jordan Belfort, and the film depicts how he became obscenely wealthy by scamming various people on Wall Street.
It balances its comedy with the more serious aspects of the story effectively and is particularly well assembled by editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who’s a regular Scorsese collaborator. It brings something new and biting to the genre and shows that Scorsese can make a compelling crime epic about criminals outside the more traditional mob.
2 ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976)
A tense and haunting psychological drama/thriller movie that also fits within the crime genre, Taxi Driver ranks both as one of Scorsese’s best films and one of the best movie releases of the entire 1970s. It’s about a veteran of the Vietnam War who is dealing with insomnia by becoming a taxi driver in New York City, only for his disillusionment with society causing him to last out against it with violence.
It’s a film that remains dark and confronting to this day, despite being released almost half a century ago at this point. It contains one of Robert De Niro’s best-ever performances, with the exploration of his character, Travis Bickle, and the setting’s grittiness proving hard to shake, even long after the film’s over.
1 ‘Goodfellas’ (1990)
One of many great crime movies released in 1990, Goodfellas could arguably be called the definitive movie about life in the Mafia. It paints an unromanticized view of such a criminal lifestyle, centering on Henry Hill, exploring the reasons he was attracted to becoming a gangster and the ways having a life of crime ultimately led to immense personal struggles.
It moves blisteringly fast over nearly two-and-a-half hours and is perhaps Scorsese’s most stylish and visually dazzling film. With a strong cast, great music, and an unforgettable story, it’s perhaps the highlight of the legendary director’s body of work. It undeniably stands as his very best crime film to date.