Even if the The Godfather and Goodfellas had never been made and we’d never heard of Tony Soprano, we’d likely still have a perverse fascination with the mob. The criminal empire and its most colorful players have played an indelible part in the history of America and Italy. These five documentaries focus on some of the Italian and Irish gangsters who blazed their way into the history books—and the lengths their rivals and the law went to take them down.
Richard Kuklinski, nicknamed “The Iceman” for his habit of freezing his victims to confuse time of death, was a contract killer for the New York and New Jersey crime families for 30 years. In this chilling interview, Kuklinski talks at length about his abusive childhood and his many killings. He claims to have murdered between 100 and 250 men—but never any women—before he was arrested in 1986. Not all of those were mob hits: The quick-tempered Kuklinski would kill anyone who rubbed him the wrong way. He was difficult to catch because he used so many methods to kill, sometimes using his bare hands “just for the exercise.” He also talks about one kill done with a crossbow so he could “test out his weapon.” He also calmly shares a story about killing a man who owed him money on Christmas Eve, then coolly returning to assemble his kids’ presents for Christmas morning.” Did he feel remorse about the killing? No, he was “annoyed I couldn’t get the damn wagon together.” The 2012 feature film The Iceman starred Michael Shannon as Kuklinski. (Amazon, HBO Go)
This in-depth look at the brutality of the Sicilian mafia is based on the 1995 nonfiction book by Alexander Stille about two bold Palermo prosecutors, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who waged an all-out legal assault on the mob in the ’80s. They managed to secure the convictions of hundreds of mafioso in the first of its kind “maxi-trial,” but paid for their zeal with their lives. They were killed in separate bombings in 1992. The title comes from the Italian phrase “cadaveri eccellenti,” which is used to refer to high-profile victims of the Mafia, such as politicians and judges. Stille, who also wrote the script, narrates and leads viewers on a tour of many of the key sites, interspersed with gory crime scene photos and archival footage. It’s in Italian, with subtitles. A 1999 TV movie starred Chazz Palminteri as Falcone. (Amazon, YouTube)
Acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) turns his focus on the trial of the infamous Boston mobster. Bulger was a fugitive for 16 years, with 12 of those years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List before finally being nabbed in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011. We hear directly from the former crime boss of the Winter Hill gang, who contends he was never an FBI informant, contradicting the official record. Boston critics weighed in that, pleased to have such access to his subject, Berlinger never really challenges Bulger on his claims. But it’s still a fascinating portrait of one of the most colorful and memorable criminals in American history. The Hollywood counterpart, Black Mass, starred a nearly unrecognizable Johnny Depp as the ruthless mobster. (Netflix, Amazon)
Like the more famous Whitey Bulger, Greene was an FBI informant and enjoyed the protection of the bureau while he enlarged his criminal empire. He reigned as s Cleveland’s “Celtic Warrior” of the ’70s when the town was known as Bomb City, USA. Starting off as a longshoreman in the Cleveland docks, he became interim president of the union in 1961—until he was convicted of embezzling more than $10,000. He rose to become a major player in Cleveland’s underworld and fought the Italian mob for control of the city. They finally succeeded in killing him in 1977. One of the more interesting interviewees is Ed Kovacic, the former chief of police who formed a friendship of sorts with his criminal adversary. His story inspired the film Kill the Irishman, starring Ray Stevenson (Rome, Black Sails) as Greene. (YouTube)
If you can get past a genteel older British gentleman (host Trevor McDonald) constantly saying “MAFF-ia” instead of “Mafia,” this two-part ITV documentary is a riveting look as real-life tough guys talk about “the life.” And yes, at one point, the immortal phrase, “This is the life we chose” is uttered. McDonald begins in Queens, New York, where he meets John Alite, a.k.a. “The Sheriff,” who worked for John Gotti Sr. in a neighborhood nicknamed “Death Haven.” He casually recounts the “constant murders” and his involvement. “We would kill almost at will, as someone given a beating,” he says. Not everyone talks quite so freely. One street enforcer for Miami’s Bonnaro crime family has his identity concealed. He tells McDonald that the famous mafia code of silence is a thing of the past. “You can trust a dead man. It’s the only person you can trust. That’s my motto. I don’t trust nobody except my mother. You can’t even trust the boss no more, because they turn around and rat on you.” (YouTube)