America's three most popular screen heroes are the cowboy, the cop, and the gangster - guys with guns in a world without women. The gangster is the most essential of these archetypes. For without him, the cop has no adversary. Consider also that the gangster operates much like a cowboy, one whose frontier is the city.

Are gangster movies different in other countries? Which actor is the most prolific mobster? Is a "gangster comedy" a contradiction in terms?

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Yes. Robert De Niro. No.

That's what George Anastasia and Glen Macnow say in The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies, a lucid, opinionated, and engaging book that ranks the Top 100 and tells the inside stories behind these great gangster stories.

While The Usual Suspects makes their list, the crime reporter for The Inquirer and the sports radio talk-show host don't just round up the usual suspects in the book that brings new meaning to the expression "mob hit." (To make it user-friendly, they rate violence levels and body counts.)

Crack historians of this genre as well as appreciative aficionados, the authors begin and end their list with movies starring Marlon Brando. Almost surely you can guess their No. 1 title. Almost surely you can't guess No. 100.

They hotly debated every title.

"Our biggest difference of opinion was over Al Pacino's Scarface," Macnow says. "George, as a guy who really understands the mob, considered it over-the-top and ridiculous."

Still, Anastasia notes that the drug lords he meets as a journalist "don't relate to Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, they relate to Pacino as Tony Montana in Brian DePalma's Scarface." References to Tony Montana pepper their conversations. "These underworld wiseguys watch that movie over and over. For them, it's like a training film."

While Scarface is full of endlessly quotable dialogue like "Don't get high on your own supply," Anastasia thinks a line from The Godfather better distills wiseguy wisdom: "In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns."

In a book that celebrates performances by Brando, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Denzel Washington, and Pacino, De Niro is the most-represented actor, with eight movies: The Godfather Part II, A Bronx Tale, Casino, Goodfellas, Jackie Brown, The Untouchables, Analyze This, and Heat. Pacino is cited for seven.

While doing their research, Macnow and Anastasia found substantive differences between American gangster movies and their Asian and European counterparts.

"The biggest difference between contemporary American and Asian films is [the latter's] level of brutality," Macnow observes of Infernal Affairs, Sonatine, and many of the Yakuza movies he watched.

"The British movies are much grittier and more individualistic," says Anastasia, considering titles such as Layer Cake, The Long Good Friday, and Sexy Beast. "Those are movies about disorganized crime."

"The great American gangster films are about family, honor, and loyalty," Macnow says. "There's little of that in English films."

"The French gangster is introspective and broods," says Anastasia of Mesrine and Pepe Le Moko.

The authors include a handful of comedies. Macnow laughs the hardest at Get Shorty. Anastasia, who is fond of Things Change, also contributed a sidebar on "Singing Gangsters." Singing as in musical, not as in stool pigeon, he adds.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/