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Despite taking place less than a century ago, the Prohibition era feels a bit like ancient history. Maybe it’s because alcohol is so accessible now that it seems hard to believe the government completely outlawed it within the last century. The likelier answer might have to do with the movies.
With the exception of World War II and the Vietnam War, few time periods (especially in American history) have been covered on the big screen as often as Prohibition and the Great Depression. John Hillcoat’s Lawless, starring Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, is the latest. Before checking it out, give one of these other great Prohibition era flicks a watch:
The Public Enemy (1931)
Historians say individuals such as John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Vito Genovese changed our culture in a very profound way. These men made it cool to be “the bad guy.” William Wellman’s 1931 film starring James Cagney (in the role that made him a star) was arguably the first real film interpretation of this phenomenon.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
What’s there to even say about this film that hasn’t already been said? The way it depicts violence was novel for its time, and Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway gave us all-time great anti-heroes to root for.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
This four-hour epic might not be as successful as director Sergio Leone’s equally epic (but much shorter) Once Upon a Time in the West, but it’s still a monumental piece of storytelling. Robert DeNiro’s performance as a man (named Noodles) who’s trying to come to grips with some of the awful things he did as a Prohibition-era gangster in Brooklyn is one of this all-time greats.
The Untouchables (1987)
Sean Connery finally won an Oscar for playing veteran cop Jim Malone in Brian DePalma’s totally badass thriller. DeNiro plays Al Capone (seriously, if that doesn’t hook you nothing will), and Kevin Costner is the idealistic federal agent tasked with taking him down. It’s full of twists and turns, features a killer score, and is easily one of the best movies of the 1980s.
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
This is the third feature film by Joel and Ethan Coen and it bears very little resemblance to the films that came before it (Blood Simple and Raising Arizona). Gabriel Byrne stars as a mid-level mobster with his foot in two warring camps, but Albert Finney steals the show as a Capone-esque top dog. Very stylized, but not your typical Coen fare.
Hey, who said all great films needed to be narrative-driven? Few documentarians are as renowned and respected as Ken Burns, and for good reason. Prior PBS mini-series tackled subjects like professional baseball and the Civil War, but Prohibition might just be his masterpiece, looking at the political climate of the era, the activists working against it, and the many, many people who just didn’t give a damn what the government said.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Tom Hanks has played a wide variety of roles over his lengthy and storied career, but his work in Sam Mendes’ 2002 film was eye-opening to say the least. He plays Michael Sullivan, an enforcer for a Prohibition-era mob boss whose wife and young son are murdered at the hands of his own people. With his surviving son in tow, he goes on a bloody revenge mission. It’s a great and often overlooked film with an impeccable sense of period.
Public Enemies (2009)
A lot of people labeled Michael Mann’s 2009 John Dillinger film a disappointment. Maybe those people would rather watch Johnny Depp in another misguided Tim Burton effort. His work here is very strong, as he and Mann give us a look at a man who had a bigger impact on 20th-Century American culture than perhaps any other.