But every one of those films ends in the early Eighties because from that point on the Mob was ripped apart. Undercover cops like the real- life Brasco were one reason. The Mafia, on top for too long, tore itself apart, too. Its fabled code of silence cracked, and mobsters fought among themselves. Donnie Brasco's opening images are of men walking around not knowing they're dead - men marked by history, before their world changed for good. The Mafia still has power in American life, from its drugs to its boardrooms, but its aura of menace has gone - in the movies most of all. These days, the Mob inspires not fear, but nostalgia.
It's a trend with roots that go all the way back to the original Mafia epic, The Godfather (1971). The real mobsters of the day hardly deserved nostalgia. But it suited them to make people think they did. "I feel that the Mafia just decided one day that it was better for them to be treated as a joke than as a real menace," wrote Martin Short, a Mob expert. The Godfather bears him out. When we first see Marlon Brando's Don Vito, he's already old. Within half an hour, he's been shot. For the rest of the film, he's portrayed as a fading figure of honour and virtue. Pacino may have taken over as Don, and given the film and its sequel real menace, but it was Brando whom everyone remembered - the most powerful criminal in America as a bumbling old man.
The Seventies and early Eighties were perhaps the period of the Mafia's most extravagant, unchallenged power. But other films made in the period echoed The Godfather's elegiac refrain, from The Valachi Papers (1972) to The Cotton Club (1983). "Most gangsters don't have a smidgen of honour," Short protested. "Dressing them up in elegance may look good, but it's far removed from the truth." But the lie was believed. You were safe with the Mafia, these films seemed to say. They were murderers you could trust.
It was in the mid-Eighties that reality started to catch up with this strange sympathy for the Mob. As the real Mafia vanished into boardrooms and jails, or shotgunned each other into the cemetery, rival gangs, blacks and Latinos gained in strength. They brought with them a more chaotic drug culture, more random violence, and threatened to destroy the unorganised crime that the Mafia had helped spawn. Scarface (1983) caught the shift. Its anti-hero Tony Montana (Pacino) isn't part of any criminal establishment. He's one of the thousands of Castro-expelled Cuban crooks who landed in Miami in 1981. Within a year, he's in charge of a cocaine trade not debated in The Godfather's hushed chambers, but disappearing up his nose.
Six years later, Abel Ferrara's The King of New York showed how much times had changed in a resonant scene in which Christopher Walken strolls into the back room of a Little Italy pizzeria with his black-Latino gang. New York's aria-loving, middle-aged Don is playing cards with his cronies. Walken machine-guns him in his seat.
The Mafia's decline was explored most effectively in the work of Martin Scorsese. In Mean Streets (1973), he showed the Mob as part of ordinary street-life. But by the time he returned to the theme in GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1996), the Mob had become historical. GoodFellas is narrated as an elegy. "It was a glorious time," Ray Liotta sighs. "There were wise- guys everywhere." With its classic-rock soundtrack, the film is a gangsters' American Grafitti. But GoodFellas also shows the Mafia's decline. By the early Eighties, too powerful, too paranoid, too strung out on the sniff of coke and blood, Liotta's gang has smashed itself apart. Casino tells the same story in the dizzy upper reaches of the Mob's America, their desert kingdom of Las Vegas. "If they handled it right, they would still be here," Scorsese said, clearly wishing they were. In movies and in life (GoodFellas and Casino, like Donnie Brasco, are based on true stories), the Mob blew up. Ray Liotta's character, having ratted on his friends to save his skin, is left in Nowheresville USA, hiding out as "an average nobody", missing the days when he was a "movie star with muscle".
'Donnie Brasco' opens 2 May