In the movies, henchmen climb to the top of the crime heap by using bombs, bullets and intimidation. Of course, being a terrifying son of a bitch isn’t just a job security tactic – any mobster who’s not feared will often end up as landfill.
The range of badass criminal types runs the gamut:
There are those who are so twisted, rotten and vicious that they make other tough guys lose control of their bodily functions.
And there are those who at first glance seem like fairly normal human beings. But when someone crosses them it brings out their inner hatchet murderer. Tempers flare, hateful words are exchanged and pretty soon the badass is up to his ankles in someone else’s blood.
Then, there are the ones who get tagged as vicious criminals and are feared by the police and other criminals, too, but they’re not as bad as their reputations would have you believe – or so they claim.
With that in mind, here are some gangsters, thugs and killers who can rightly claim the “badass” moniker:
1. Roy "Mad Dog" Earle (Humphrey Bogart) “High Sierra”
You might admire or fear any gangster who earns the title “Mad Dog.” As a rule, cops and criminals alike approach “Mad Dogs” with great caution, and that’s probably a good idea.
Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, the Indiana bank robber, is released from prison. And after years spent behind bars he wants to get outdoors, out of the darkness and into the sunlight. He even adopts a stray dog, and treats the pooch with kindness.
But Roy is not planning to abandon his life of crime. “High Sierra” is a heist picture, and like any good gangster film, it gives us some insight into the protagonist’s character.
Roy is recruited to take part in a jewel robbery, and while on his way to join the others in the gang, he meets Velma (Joan Leslie), a young woman hobbled with a clubfoot. Roy is smitten with her and pays for her corrective surgery, but she’s got a fiancé and Roy’s hopes of marrying her are dashed. Instead, he takes up with Marie (Ida Lupino).
Roy and the gang rob a swanky Palm Springs resort, but the robbery goes disastrously wrong. Roy escapes, but one of the gang is captured and sings to the police. Roy runs for the mountains with Marie, but they soon split up so she can make a getaway.
An all-points bulletin is posted, calling Roy “Mad Dog Earle.” It’s the news media that hangs that tag on him. Roy is cornered and a standoff with the law ensues. A media circus forms around the mountainous site where he’s is hiding out.
Roy has finally made it to the great outdoors, just as he’d dreamed, but the alpine setting holds him prisoner just as surely as the bars and concrete of the penitentiary once did. For Roy, there is no freedom.
In “The Public Enemy,” young Tom Powers and his pal Matt Doyle commit petty thefts and sell the stuff they steal to adult gangster Putty Nose. In later years, Putty Nose gets them to help burglarize a fur store. Tom and Matt gun down a police officer who is chasing them as they attempt to make a getaway. They go to Putty Nose for help but he leaves them in the lurch.
Years later, they accidentally run across their former Fagin-like mentor. Putty Nose pleads for his life and plays an old favorite tune on the piano to try to get the boys to let him off the hook for old time’s sake. But Tom is not in a forgiving mood, and he shoots Putty Nose in the back.
Like many movie gangsters, Tom starts out with high ambitions. But he finds that his success in the bootlegging business means leading an increasingly violent life. His trigger-happy ways rise to an absurd level when his buddy, Samuel "Nails" Nathan, is killed in a horseback riding accident. Tom hunts down the horse and shoots it.
When his war hero brother Mike (Donald Cook) bitterly criticizes the violent life he leads, Tom sets the record straight. “Your hands ain't so clean,” he says. “You killed and liked it. You didn't get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”
In another famous scene, Tom cements his bad boy image when he grinds a grapefruit half into his complaining girlfriend’s kisser.
When Tom’s bootlegging operation begins to fall apart, rivals see their opportunity to take over, and a gang war begins. This pre-code drama sticks with the standard message of that era’s gangster films: In the end, the bad guy pays for his crimes.
In “Scarface,” Tony Montana starts out as a feisty upstart bent on success and turns into a hardened criminal, his face buried in a pile of cocaine. But consider the company he keeps, including one desperado who gives super-close haircuts with a chain saw. In his first meeting with a Columbian drug cartel leader, Tony narrowly escapes death, but his associate, all-around bad guy Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham), is not so lucky – he’s forced to do some skydiving out of a helicopter without a parachute.
Like the drug trade people he’s chosen to deal with, Tony transforms into a cold-blooded killer. But he’s not without his redeeming qualities. Ordered to kill a journalist who is bringing heat down on a drug lord’s cartel, Tony agrees to the assignment to appease the cocaine supplier. But he finds that it won’t be the clean hit he was expecting – innocent people will also be killed. He abandons the plan even though it means facing difficult and dangerous consequences.
Tony’s situation goes from bad to worse, until his private lair is under siege from troops of invaders dispatched by the drug lord he has angered.
When the final showdown between he and his cocaine supplier’s army goes down, Tony is armed with a grenade-launcher-equipped M-16. Predictably, the resulting carnage and destruction marks the end of the Tony Montana drug empire.
In the opening scene of “Little Caesar,” Rico Bandello sticks up a gas station and murders the attendant in cold blood – shocking in 1931, especially when it’s done by the leading man of a Hollywood feature film.
Rico joins forces with gangster Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields) and proceeds to intimidate Vettori and his band of feckless hoodlums. When Rico bullies his longtime pal and reluctant cohort Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to rob the nightclub where Massara works, he gives in, but the heist goes wrong. Rico guns down crime commissioner Alvin McClure, an anti-mob crusader, who happens to be at the scene.
Crime boss Vettori is beside himself when he learns that Rico violated his no-bloodshed rule. Rico tells Sam he’s gotten soft, and he proceeds to take control of Sam’s gang.
Rival gang leader "Little Arnie" Lorch (Maurice Black) aims to get rid of Rico. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Lorch’s men spray the sidewalk with machine gun bullets that only graze Rico and smash crockery in a storefront window. Rico, being the crazed killer that he is, is undaunted by the attack and vows to go after his assailants. Lorch makes a getaway, but Rico eventually must answer for the crimes he has committed.
Cody Jarrett may be everyone’s favorite deranged killer. In “White Heat,” he commits acts of murder and mayhem, and meets a spectacular end.
Jarrett, a career criminal whose only true confidante is his mother, "Ma" Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), suffers from debilitating headaches. Ma comforts him during his attacks. She gives him a shot of booze and a toast. “Top of the world,” she says. That’s a phrase they both repeat more than once in the course of the film, and it has an ironic ring as the picture concludes.
Eventually, Cody is sent to jail for a one to three stretch, and while he’s away a member of his gang, "Big Ed" Somers (Steve Cochran), orders Roy Parker (Paul Guilfoyle), who is in prison with Cody, to kill him, but the plot fails.
Ma visits Cody in jail and tells him she’s going to go after Big Ed, and Cody frantically tries to talk her out of it.
Later, in one of the film’s most famous scenes, Cody learns that his mother is dead. He’s in a packed prison mess hall and he goes berserk.
He breaks out of prison and drags his would-be killer Parker with him. Once in the outside world, he puts Parker in the trunk of a car. Parker tells him it’s hard to breathe in here. Nonchalantly gnawing on a chick leg, Cody shoots “air holes” into the trunk hood, killing Parker.
Later he guns down Big Ed for the death of Ma Jarrett, but Cody’s wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo), actually pulled the trigger on Cody’s beloved mom.
Cody regroups and engineers an armored car robbery, which goes awry.
Cody makes his getaway but is cornered atop a large gas storage tank. In a berserk fury he shouts “Top of the world, Ma,” as the police open fire on him. The tank explodes and consumes Cody in a gigantic ball of flames.
Homicide detective Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) investigates the suicide of a fellow police officer, and that begins his unrelenting probe into the cozy relationship between organized crime and higher ups in the department. A barrage of threats, assaults and murders ensue as Bannion digs into the sleazy operations of mob boss Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby).
Lagana’s number two man, the brutal Vince Stone, is the one who brings menace to the screen. Lee Marvin turns in a first-class performance of the sadistic lackey who has a penchant for brutalizing women.
The suicide victim’s mistress offers Bannion some inside information about the case, and she turns up dead, tortured with cigarette burns all over. In another scene, Stone punishes a woman by burning her hand with a cigar butt – the connection between the two incidents is unavoidable.
But the most savage scene in the film involves Stone punishing his girlfriend for being too mouthy by throwing a pot of boiling coffee in her face. The police commissioner, who happens to be one of Stones poker buddies, is on hand to drive the scalded girl to the hospital. Badly disfigured, she gives Bannion more information that will help bring the mobsters to justice, but in doing so she seals her own fate.
This Raymond Chandler story adapted to the screen 20 years after his 1953 novel was published brings private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) into a world that’s alien to him. It’s the 1970s and Marlowe’s crime beat, Los Angeles, is no longer the place it once was. Protest marches, hippies and head shops have found their way into the gritty mean streets that are more familiar to the detective.
Even the criminals are different. At first, mobster Marty Augustine does not come across like the roughnecks in Chandler’s novels. When Marlowe first meets him, the detective takes the criminal kingpin even less seriously than he does the L.A. cops who pop in occasionally rattle his cage. Augustine travels with a gaggle of inept henchmen and as leader of the pack he’s witty and charismatic. He rambles on about managing his financial responsibilities, paying for his mansions, supporting his family … and his mistress. He could be just another harried fat-cat Hollywood producer.
But then the gloves come off. The mob leader uses a glass Coke bottle and his own girlfriend’s face to demonstrate to Marlowe what will happen if the detective doesn’t fall into line. “This is what I do to someone I love,” Augustine tells Marlowe, “And I don’t even like you, cheapie.”
If each time you hear the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” you immediately think of straight razors and gasoline, you just might be a Vic Vega fan. Vic is part of a motley group of hoods brought together for a heist by gang leader Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). The crew aims to hold up a jewelry store and make off with a cache of uncut diamonds.
We never see the robbery take place, but in the aftermath we learn that things did not go as planned. Unbeknownst to the crooks, one of them is an undercover cop, and the police have been in on the robbery plot all along. Another fact the band of thieves in unaware of is that Vic is a no-holds-barred psycho.
The gang makes its getaway from the crime scene and scatters in different directions. The plan is to meet up at their warehouse hideout. In retelling the sequence of events in the aftermath of the botched holdup, we learn just how badly things went. Larry Dimmick (Harvey Keitel) is shocked and disgusted that Vic took it upon himself to murder the jewelry store staff in cold blood.
But the worst has yet to come. Vic, also known as Mr. Blonde – each of the henchmen is tagged with an alias – shows up with a uniformed police officer he’s kidnapped.
The other robbers leave, and Vic and the cop are alone, so Vic uses the opportunity to torture the cop as the song “Stuck in the Middle” plays in the background. What follows is a sadistic sequence of events that abruptly end with a twist. Fortunately, the worst carnage takes place off camera. Suffice it to say that Vic Vega stands tall among the legion of mentally disturbed, animalistic screen criminals.
Small-time gangster Tommy DeVitto is one of a trio of friends that includes hijacker and killer Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Like Tommy, Henry is a kid from the neighborhood who started working for the local mob at an early age. The three are bosom buddies who rob, beat up people and party together. When we first meet Jimmy, Henry tells us in voiceover that “Jimmy the Gent” as some know him, was doing hits for the mob when he was just a teenager. However, we don’t get a sense of how vicious and unpredictable Tommy is until we see him in a Chinese restaurant with Henry and other hoods they roll with. Henry’s offhand comment to Tommy, “You’re really funny,” launches the hotheaded Tommy into a rant that leaves Henry and everyone else at the table in a panicked hush. “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”
Instead of zooming in tight on the action the camera stays wide on the whole table, and we see the expressions on everyone’s faces as they watch in muted dread. One wiseguy tries to talk Tommy down to no avail. But then Henry calls Tommy’s bluff and we find out it was all Tommy’s dark prank played on his rattled dining companions. There’s relieved laughter all around the table, but then we realize that Tommy is a truly dangerous loose canon – even his close friends think it’s possible that he’d use lethal force on his longtime buddy over a perceived insult.
The scene tells us a lot about Tommy: He’s extremely thin-skinned, has a bad temper and could lash out in violence at anyone without notice.
Later in the film we see Tommy liquidate a number of individuals, a couple of whom made the mistake of insulting him in front of other wiseguys, which is a very big mistake.
If you had to choose a fictional character whose name perfectly describes who he is, you might pick Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) in “Born to Kill.” Like a steaming locomotive that has run off the track and continues to chug forward, Sam puffs on his ever-present cigarette, leaving a plume of smoke and utter destruction in his path.
He’s a jealous guy who doesn’t like anyone cutting in on him. That’s why he murders his girlfriend and her gentleman visitor.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor), the murdered woman’s neighbor, discovers the bodies but doesn’t bother to tell the police. She’s just gotten a Reno divorce and wants to get out of town so that she can marry her rich fiancé. She runs into Sam, and is attracted to him, despite the complication that she’s already set to get hitched.
Sam comes calling on Helen in San Francisco, and upon meeting Helen’s younger foster sister, who happens to have more than a few bucks in the bank, decides to take up with her. He marries her for her money, and carries on an affair with Helen.
The story’s multiple deceptions begin to fall apart when a private detective who has been looking into the Reno murders blackmails Helen. In the resulting confusion, Sam kills his friend Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.), who he thinks is plotting against him, and finally he shoots and kills Helen just before the police kill him.
What can you say about a hitman who kills people with a pneumatic gun used on cattle in the slaughterhouse? Anton Chigurh, a cold-blooded and utterly insane hit man hired by the drug cartel, has a number of other tricks up his sleeve.
A deputy sheriff who thinks he has Chigurh safely secured in handcuffs finds out the hard way that this crazed murderer is not to be underestimated.
The story revolves around a bagful of cash that a hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), stumbles upon while shooting elk. A drug deal gone bad left a pile of bodies, heroin and around $2 million in cash there for the taking. Llewelyn grabs the money, and the rest of the movie centers on the chase to find the hunter and the loot.
Chigurh is hired to recover the money that Llewelyn made off with.
A creature of habit, Chigurh has a ritual whenever he’s preparing to snuff someone. He flips a coin and has the would-be victim call heads or tails. If they win the flip, they live. If not, he makes short work of them on the spot.
Llewellyn’s wife, Carla Jean, is hiding at her mother’s house and Chigurh, speaking to Llewellyn on the phone, tells him he’ll kill Carla Jean if he doesn’t get the money back, but Llewellyn refuses. Meanwhile, Llewellyn is killed by another party hunting down the money who got to him before Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) could.
Chigurh tracks down Carla Jean, and although she doesn’t have the money, Chigurh, in his twisted sense of justice, feels that it’s his duty to kill her anyway. She refuses to call heads or tails in Chigurh’s coin flip, but that, of course cannot make Chigurh abandon his twisted quest.
Before Jules Winnfield, no one could recite Bible passages with the strident menace that he gives them. Jules and his gangster pal Vincent Vega (John Travolta) are sent to perform a hit and retrieve some valuables from a gang of young would-be hoodlums, who go weak in the knees when Jules and Vic come through the door.
Jules begins an extended game of intimidation with the young hoods, which includes eating one of the kid’s cheeseburgers and drinking all of his soda. At first, it seems he’s being the school lunchroom bully, until the intensity gets turned up a few notches.
After reducing the ringleader of the group Brett (Frank Whaley) to a state of utter panic, and shooting one of his cohorts and wounding Brett, Jules feels that he’s toyed with them long enough and goes in for the kill.
He begins reciting a Bible passage attributed to Ezekiel 25:17. It’s a passage also used in a 1976 film, “The Bodyguard,” with Japanese martial arts star Sonny Chiba. This is part of Jules’s sadistic routine to further terrorize victims he is about to deep six.
The Bible passage recitation is part of an important turn in the story, however. Jules admits he started reciting Ezekiel to the doomed to be more of a cold and cruel badass. But in this scene, he and Vincent experience a miracle of sorts, and because of this Jules has an epiphany – the words of Ezekiel take on a new meaning for him. He decides to leave gang life behind. "I'm going to walk the earth ... like Caine from Kung Fu," he says. Vincent stays on with the gang, and soon afterwards meets a dark fate.
Sometimes, a character who seems like the devil incarnate is outdone by someone tremendously more evil than he. Gang boss Whit Sterling’s crisp, authoritative manor befits the successful businessman thug that he is. And while there’s a lot of bloodshed in “Out of the Past,” Sterling is just the overseer who stands on the sidelines while others pull the triggers.
The dangerous one is his girlfriend, the two-timing Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who looks innocent but turns out to be a cold-blooded killer and master manipulator.
The story begins when one of Sterling’s men hunts down Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), who has been hiding out in a small town ever since he double-crossed Sterling. Several years before, Sterling hired Jeff, who was then a private investigator, to find Kathie, whom he said shot him and ran off with $40,000 of his money.
When Jeff finds her in Mexico she convinces Jeff that she didn’t take money from Sterling. A love affair develops between them, and instead of bringing her back to Sterling he takes her away to San Francisco to hide out. But Jeff’s old partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), spots them and demands blackmail money. Kathie shoots Fisher dead and tries to pin the murders of Fisher and Sterling’s blackmailer accountant on Jeff. She later kills Sterling, and offers Jeff the opportunity to run away with her and the money she took from Sterling, or take the rap for all three murders. Jeff tells her that he will go away with her, but he secretly tips off the police. When they unexpectedly encounter a roadblock, Kathie realizes she’s been double-crossed and she shoots and kills Jeff, them fires at the police, who kill her.
Dix Handley isn’t the kind of gangster that goes straight for the gun whenever someone crosses him. Instead, he stares down his opponents, who always seem to realize that they’d be better off backing down than pressing their point. Other gangsters call him a “hooligan,” but only behind his back.
There’s been a holdup, and Dix is the chief suspect. The cops bring Dix in for a lineup, and corrupt police lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) tries to steer the witness, the night clerk (Frank Cady), toward identifying Dix as the culprit. But Dix gives the clerk the 1,000-yard deadeye stare, and the meek eyewitness’s liver turns to jelly. He tells the cops that Dix isn’t the stickup man.
When Dix goes to sleazy bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to bet on the ponies, but Cobby balks at giving him credit. “Don’t bone me,” he shouts at the bookie, who is genuinely petrified of Dix. Later, after Dix leaves the bookie’s lair, Cobby calls Dix a “hooligan,” and remarks that, “They’re all like left-handed pitchers. They’ve all got a screw loose.”
Dix gets involved in a jewel heist masterminded by Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe). The heist goes off, but not as planned, and Doc and Dix go to the man who financed the caper and agreed to pay them for the hot gems, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern ). They arrive at Emmerich’s home and Dix has a stare-down with Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter), a private detective in Emmerich’s employ. Once again, Dix’s withering glare makes the hired gumshoes back down. Gunplay ensues, and Dix kills the Brannon but he is wounded.
The driven Dix flees and although seriously wounded, makes the 10-hour car ride to his boyhood home in Kentucky. He arrives at his beloved horse ranch, but it’s too late to realize his dream of buying back the property his family once owned.
In Stanley Kubrick’s, “The Killing,” Johnny Clay, (Sterling Hayden) rounds up a carefully selected gang to rob a racetrack, noting that most of the men he’s chosen aren’t criminals in the usual sense. They’ve all got families and jobs and are living respectable lives. “They’ve all got a little larceny in them,” he says.
His handpicked partners in crime are all flawed in different ways, and those problems play a role in the story as it unfolds.
George’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) two-timing wife, Sherry (Marie Windsor), constantly browbeats him for not keeping her in riches. He tells her about the top-secret robbery scheme in the naive hope that she will finally respect and love him.
But Johnny has her number, and when the snooping Sherry shows up on his doorstep.
Crime novelist Jim Thompson wrote the film’s dialogue, and it crackles with his usual knack for earthy thug-speak. “I don’t think I’ll have to kill her,” Johnny tells one of his cohorts. “Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat, that’s all.”
Johnny sizes up Sherry immediately, and cuts through her naive seductress act. “You like money,” he tells her. “You've got a great big dollar sign there where most women have a heart.”
His observation is right on the mark, and that proves to be Johnny and the gang’s downfall.