The best series and movies about the Mafia on Netflix and Showmax
Gangsters, hitmen, loan sharks, burglars, bookies, con artists – all these and more huddle together under the umbrella of the Mafia. Originating in Sicily, the criminal organisation made its appearance in the US in the second half of the 19th Century, and as a loose definition, spread to other countries including Japan and Russia.
In the 1920s and 30s, the names of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Frankie Yale became famous in America; moving into the 1970s it was Henry Hill. Their stories and exploits hold endless fascination for film and television makers, and for audiences. Several of the titles on this list are based on real-life characters and situations.
A common Google user question, “is The Sopranos the best show ever?”, is answered by Lad Bible: the HBO series is indeed “widely regarded as one of the best TV shows to ever grace screens”. And that goes all the way back to January 1999; it ran for six seasons until concluding in 2007 after 86 episodes. (All episodes are on Showmax.)
Created by David Chase, made by HBO, with the opening credits and theme song that would set the tone for future shows, The Sopranos centred on mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, sadly no longer of this earth). He was having some mental health concerns related to his business, so he went to see a psychiatrist, but no one could know – least of all his familia and his enemies because this could be perceived as a weakness to be exploited. (Trivia: the shrink is played by Lorraine Bracco, who played the wife of Henry Hill in Goodfellas.)
It was revolutionary television, and definitely remains one of the unmatched highlights of the Golden Age, a true classic. I could write about it for days, but instead let’s look at similar shows to stream.
American Gangster (Netflix)
Directed and produced by Ridley Scott, this 2007 fictionalised movie stars Denzel Washington as real-life drug trafficker Frank Lucas; Russell Crowe plays the cop on his tail. Look out for a superstar cast including Idris Elba, and Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated (later in his career) Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Washington is in “another one of those performances where he is affable and smooth on the outside, yet ruthless enough to set an enemy on fire,” says Roger Ebert.
Look out for a “fun fact” further down the list.
Bad Blood (Netflix)
This series follows the true story of the Rizzuto family and its associates, who presided over organised crime in Montreal for decades. However, The Express tells us “the events that take place in the programme are dramatised and loosely based on facts mixed with large amounts of fiction. Bad Blood is based on the book Business or Blood: Mafia Boss Vito Rizzuto’s Last War, by Antonio Nicaso and Peter Edwards.”
Anthony La Paglia plays Vito Rizzuto. Also in the cast are Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas; playing mobsters is a career path in itself) and Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy). The Review Geek’s balanced opinion is “With such a saturated market, it was always going to be difficult for Bad Blood to stack up next to such lucrative titles but given the smaller budget, the series does a pretty good job.”
Carlito’s Way (Netflix)
Al Pacino. One of the greatest actors of our time, and no stranger to the Mafia/mobster genre, from The Godfather in 1972 to The Irishman in 2019. His filmography is astonishing, and he turns 81 this year.
Here he plays the Carlito of the title, a criminal fresh out of jail who vows to go straight and retire in paradise. But as we all know by now, this rarely turns out to be the case. There are always other criminals tempting you into one last job, or somehow wrangling you into their shenanigans. The movie had a lukewarm critics’ reception on its release but has since found its place in the ranks of cult classics. Empire Online’s verdict is “A gangster biggie, this one is there with a bullet.”
Fun fact: Pacino and director Brian De Palma worked together 10 years previously on Scarface.
Pacino stars here again, alongside Johnny Depp as an undercover FBI agent, based loosely on real-life events. It’s based on the book by Joseph P Pistone, which documents how he infiltrated the Bonanno family in 1970s New York City. Ageing hitman Lefty (Pacino) is Brasco’s way in, and as the lines between cop and criminal blur, there’s also danger for Lefty. Which is a pity, because they become quite close.
“In a series of riveting scenes, strikingly shot by cinematographer Peter Sova, Lefty schools Donnie in the rules of the wise guy game; how to dress (polyester), how to carry money (in a roll, never a wallet) and how to tell the difference when Lefty says ‘a friend of mine’ (a connected guy) and ‘a friend of ours’ (a made guy, the highest honor),” recounts Rolling Stone.
The movie won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Season 4 of Fargo opens with a history lesson on the families that run the underground of Kansas City. In the 1950s, these are Faddas of Italian origin, and the Cannon Limited, run by Loy Cannon (Chris Rock).
“In the new season, Fargo gets a conscience, or at least a frame of reference. Noah Hawley has embraced two opportunities the move to the city gave him: He’s made the season a full-scale gangster saga, a switch from his past scenarios of small-town menace; and he’s entwined that with a more elaborate than usual cultural and racial allegory,” says the New York Times.
New episodes arrive every Tuesday.
Fear City: New York V The Mafia (Netflix)
A documentary series, Fear City explores the heyday of New York mobsters in the 1970s, when they owned the city. These are the stories of the most powerful Mafia families at the time, and how the FBI took them on with an army of undercover agents, and the era-defining conclusion of the historic Mafia Commission Trial in the mid-1980s that changed everything.
“Fear City is well done. Its producers deserve a ton of credit for tracking down many of the key players in the Commission case and convincing them to open up on camera,” says Mob Museum (a brilliant resource if this topic interests you as much as it does me).
Forest Whitaker stars as real-life crime boss Bumpy Johnson – the man whom Frank Lucas (American Gangster, see above) credits for mentoring him.
“Created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, Godfather of Harlem tells a story inspired by infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Whitaker), who in the early 1960s returned from eleven years in prison to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles. With the streets controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family to regain control,” says Deadline, which also has the good news for fans is that Season 2 is coming.
If The Sopranos is the pinnacle of Mafia series, then Goodfellas has to be the movie equivalent. There is The Godfather to contend with, sure, but this one is my all-time favourite, closely followed by Casino.
Martin Scorsese directs Ray Liotta as the real life Henry Hill, an insane Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, and Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) in the story of Henry Hill’s life.
It’s without a doubt a classic, and has spawned quotes and memes for eternity. Hill may have always wanted to be a gangster, but he committed the ultimate sin by turning FBI informant. Apparently he’s in witness protection.
“The rerelease of Martin Scorsese’s brash and brilliant mob masterpiece from 1990 – about the rise and fall of Irish-Italian criminal Henry Hill, from the ‘60s to the ‘80s – is a reminder of what his very best work looks like, and you can feel again the stunning impact of his A-team: Robert De Niro as Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Conway and the Oscar-winning Joe Pesci as his psychopathic buddy Tommy DeVito (“Am I funny to you?”), with Paul Sorvino as the malevolent and slow-moving capo Paulie Cicero and the director’s mother Catherine Scorsese superb in her cameo as Tommy’s artistically inclined mom,” writes The Guardian.
Peaky Blinders (Netflix)
We move to the UK for this one, specifically Birmingham, where after the Great War (1914-1918), the city is run by the Shelbys. Cillian Murphy – the eyes! The cheekbones! – plays Tommy Shelby, the leader of this deeply dysfunctional and violent family in a dark and moody and infinitely stylish series that makes use of Nick Cave’s song Red Right Hand as a title theme. The late Leonard Cohen and David Bowie were fans.
It was only when writing this article that I discovered the extremely exciting news that a sixth season has just been announced. And a movie. Can this day get any better? On Monday, 18 January 2021, showrunner Steven Knight described the show as being “back with a bang” and warned fans that the mobsters would face “extreme jeopardy” in the sixth season. This is from BBC News, so it’s not fake news.
The Irishman (Netflix)
In 2019, director Martin Scorsese – who has a life-long passion for gangster and mob movies, along with an enduring love affair with New York City – gathered together three of his favourite actors and put them in a new film. It is technologically brilliant, using techniques to portray Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci as younger men. Again, it’s based on a true story, that of mob hitman and World War II veteran Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) from Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses.
It’s epic, as in its running time is a hefty three hours and 30 minutes (an hour and two minutes longer than Goodfellas, for reference). It’s a lot, but you can break it up into more manageable portions: here’s how.
“Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a coldly enthralling, long-form knockout – a majestic mob epic with ice in its veins. It’s the film that, I think, a lot us wanted to see from Scorsese: a stately, ominous, suck-in-your-breath summing up, not just a drama but a reckoning, a vision of the criminal underworld that’s rippling with echoes of the director’s previous mob films, but that also takes us someplace bold and new,” reports Variety.
(As a companion piece, watch The Irishman In Conversation, also on Netflix, with Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci having a chat.)