There was a time when a casting director’s search for the perfect mobster didn’t merit a discussion longer than a single three-part name: Robert De Niro. The legendary actor has played six different mobsters (and a bunch of other criminals), and while, currently, De Niro seems to have left his onscreen Cosa Nostra days behind he’s still the first name that pops into your head when someone says “mob movie.” Take a look back at the roles that have come to define Mafia (there’s more than just The Godfather: Part II and GoodFellas), then cast your vote for whichever movie you think is best.
Paul Vitti, Analyze This (1999)
At this later point in his career, De Niro must have been looking to lighten the mood though he didn’t have to completely depart from his favorite genre to do it. Teaming up with Billy Crystal, De Niro updates the Mafia genre for the psychiatry-obsessed nineties with hilarious results: Vitti shoots a pillow, complains of daddy issues, and rails against Viagra. (A gangster, no matter how stressed out, has to draw the line somewhere.)
Sam “Ace” Rothstein, Casino (1995)
De Niro’s brilliant portrayal of Rothstein — a man whose mob role is marginal until, well, it’s not — offers a bird’s-eye view of organized crime in Las Vegas. Ushered along by De Niro’s calm, matter-of-fact narration, we see major players like Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) for what they really are: brutal, cold-blooded killers. Of course, Rothstein is one of them, but one thing keeps him likeable: Sharon Stone’s Ginger, who inspires a look of such honest, powerless lust in De Niro’s eyes that you’re pretty sure you’re about to see America’s Favorite Gangster turn to mush.
James Conway, GoodFellas (1990)
In this Scorsese epic, De Niro masters the role of mob-associate-curmudgeon. Here, at what could be considered the height of his gangster career, there’s not a trace of the humor we now know he’s capable of. Instead, De Niro’s complete embodiment of Conway (and of mob-ruled life) is almost tangible in his reassurances after Tommy (Joe Pesci) kills a made man, in his resolve when he decides to kill partners who went against his wishes, and in his believably furrowed brow as he tries to feel out the loyalty of Henry (Ray Liotta).
Al Capone, The Untouchables (1987)
How to fill those shoes? De Niro’s feet do just fine. Brian De Palma’s dramatic history of twenties Chicago practically begged for De Niro’s trademark combination of deadpan and beguiling charm. Who else could, believably, get a whole city under one thumb? When De Niro’s Capone lies (“I’m not violent”), you believe him; when he smiles, you’ll follow him. In a movie that’s perhaps too light in tone for the topic, De Niro’s learned gangster clout brings appropriate weight to his scenes.
David “Noodles” Aaronson, Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
With De Niro’s help, Sergio Leone’s period drama has all the markings of a gangster classic and all the speed and bullets of an action film. As David “Noodles” Aaronson, De Niro and the rest of his up-and-comer crew haunt the base of the Manhattan Bridge in search of fame and fortune in the mob world. We see De Niro dig in his heels as a man of the streets by his words (“I like the stink of the streets”) or simply by stirring his coffee and saying nothing at all.
Vito Corleone, The Godfather: Part II (1974)
As a young Italian-speaking Vito Corleone, De Niro now looks so fresh faced that you can’t believe him capable of dirty work. But, alas, every boss starts somewhere, and this is the movie in which De Niro puts down his Mafia roots as the scrappy just-trying-to-make-it-in-America young don. But he’s not above killing — for gain, for revenge. This role clearly set the tone for the gangster star De Niro would go on to become.