Gangster Films

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Gangster Films


Gangster films are films about gangsters, professional criminals who have banded together to commit crimes. This much is simple, and indeed a great deal of the genre's enduring appeal lies in its bold simplicity. As Robert Warshow noted fifty years ago, gangsters act out movie audiences' most violently untrammeled fantasies of unlimited upward mobility by following the golden rule of prototypical gangster hero Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932): "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it." Commentators from Carlos Clarens to Eugene Rosow have observed how movie gangsters plot, steal, and kill their way to economic and social supremacy until, like Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), they are alone at the "top of the world," though their meteoric rise is unfailingly followed by an even swifter fall. Yet the very name of the gangster film indicates three decisive complications at the heart of the genre: the gangster's status as both villain and hero; the chicken-and-egg relationship between gangsters and their gangs; and the variously reflective relationship between gangs and the societies against which they wage their criminal wars.

These problems are illustrated by the work of two acknowledged masters of the genre, Raoul Walsh (1887–1980) and Howard Hawks (1896–1977). Despite, or because of, the best efforts of the FBI, which rose to prominence by publicizing its pursuit of real-life gangsters in the 1930s, gangsters are perversely heroic figures, larger-than-life lawbreakers who triumph, at least for a time, over the laws of a community less vibrant than they are. Yet they are defined first and foremost as members of a gang more powerful than any one member. Whether Walsh and Hawks are directing westerns, war films, or gangster films (Walsh's High Sierra, 1941, and White Heat; Hawks's Scarface), they repeatedly explore the resulting tension between the heroic individual, almost always a male, and the community from which he derives his potency. In the case of the gangster film, a further complication, as Fran Mason has noted, emerges from the fact that criminal gangs, formed for the express purpose of providing a lawless alternative to the law-abiding social order, invariably cast themselves as imitations of the larger society in all its weaknesses. The resulting contradictions between heroism and heroic villainy, individual and communal identity, and lawless gangs and the laws necessary to their operation are the engine that drives the gangster film.


Film gangsters are as old as film narrative. The Great Train Robbery (1903), with its twelve-minute story of a railroad heist marked by meticulous planning, unexpected violence, and condign punishment, would be acknowledged as the first gangster film if its gangster credentials were not overshadowed, as in similar films to come (Jesse James, 1939; Rancho Notorious, 1952; Man of the West, 1958), by its western mise-en-scène. Silent gangster films, however, were less likely to follow The Great Train Robbery than The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), in which the Snapper Kid, a tough, violent, personable criminal denizen of a New York ghetto, forms a momentary but touching alliance of convenience with the film's law-abiding heroine before returning to his life of crime. The leading gangsters of the American silent screen were noble savages, from the eponymous hero of Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) to the economically successful but romantically doomed Bull Weed inUnderworld (1927), a film whose influence on countless poetic French gangster tragedies of the 1930s (Pépé le Moko, 1936; Le Jour se Lève [Daybreak, 1939]) was almost as pervasive as on its American successor, the virtual remake Thunderbolt (1929), with Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) again directing George Bancroft as the gangster star.

It is hardly surprising that these early films so inveterately romanticize the gangster. Urban lawbreakers living on the edge of polite society had a great deal in common with the working-class, largely immigrant audiences who followed their adventures in movie theaters. This subversive identification with the gangster hero was fostered throughout the 1920s by the Volstead Act, which made the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal from 1920 to 1933. So long as Prohibition was the law of the land in America, law-abiding citizens could get liquor only from underworld contacts. Hollywood's response was to paint the gangster as the disavowed Other of American society, the outsider without whom the social machinery lubricated by alcohol would have ground to a halt.

In the early 1930s, however, the image of the Hollywood gangster was dramatically transformed. The Great Depression, ushered in by the stock market crash of 1929, upended previously stable stratifications in American culture, ruining dozens of paper millionaires and throwing millions of Americans out of work. The Hollywood gangster, often based closely on the career of such real-life criminals as Al Capone (1899–1947) and John Dillinger (1903–1934), emerged as the logical hero for such a desperate moment, a rags-to-riches success story fueled by the dreams of audiences across the country. At the same time, a new complication emerged with the industry's widespread adoption of synchronized sound. Sound, as Jonathan Munby has pointed out, gave gangsters a voice, and that voice in such gangster classics as Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface was not only laconic and brutal but identifiably ethnic. No longer an urban Everyman, the gangster became the object of sociological study, a promethean overachiever whose ambition and greed doomed his aspirations to ethnic assimilation. Although James Cagney (1899–1986) as Tom Powers, the definitive Irish gangster in Public Enemy, and Paul Muni (1895–1967) as Tony Camonte were both given hand-wringing mothers as moral counterweights, their cautionary tales, along with that of Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973) as Rico Bandello in Little Caesar, strongly implied that ethnicity was fate.

Since 1930, Hollywood studios had subscribed to a Production Code designed to prevent government censorship. It was not until 1934, however, that the Code was widely enforced under public pressure organized in large part by the Catholic Legion of Decency. The effect on gangster films was immediate. The Code forbade many of the visual trappings on which gangster films had relied: drug use, automatic weapons, protracted scenes of violent death. More fundamentally, the Code ruled that crime was always to be punished, never presented as appealing. Overnight, gangster films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933) were pulled from release; post-Code gangsters like Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936) were less sympathetic and more vicious than their predecessors of a year or two earlier; and much of the energy that had once gone into gangster films was poured into police films like "G" Men (1935), whose fast-talking hero, Brick Davis (James Cagney), is given all the trappings of a gangster: fast cars, lethal firepower, and suspicious ties to organized crime. By the end of the decade, films like Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) were treating the gangster as a deviant social problem to be explained rather than a mirror image of official American culture.


The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 made the bootlegging gangster an instant anachronism, and the FBI's assault on organized crime throughout the decade drove the gangster underground. But he remained as a powerfully metaphoric figure that could be adapted to many uses. High Sierra squeezed weary but honorable ex-con Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) between the faithless gang that has sprung him from jail for one last job and the all-American girl who rebuffs his fatherly romantic advances. The Phenix City Story (1955) buried a plea for good government in the semi-documentary story of an Alabama town run by a criminal syndicate. The Killers (1946), taking its cue from Ernest Hemingway's short story about a man who refuses to run from the two hit men looking for him, supplied a backstory for the doomed hero that used the expressionistic techniques of film noir to intensify its tale of an innocent hero caught in the toils of a gangster and his sultry girlfriend. Don Siegel's (1912–1991) 1964 remake of the film reimagined the hit men themselves as detectives defying their anonymous criminal client to figure out why their target failed to run. Most influentially of all, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) charted an urban landscape whose most respectable citizens were double-dealing hypocrites dependent on the honor of the petty criminals they used as pawns. The Asphalt Jungle inaugurated a new kind of gangster film: the heist or caper film in which the gang is assembled only for the purpose of pulling off a single job—an organization far more unstable than the gangs dominated by Tom Powers and Tony Camonte. Across the Atlantic, such pickup gangs became the subject of comedies in England (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951; The Ladykillers, 1955) and Italy (I Soliti ignoti [Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958]) as well as the existential melodrama Rififi (France, 1955).

The gangster might have continued indefinitely as an all-purpose metaphor for social deviance if not for three developments in the movie industry. First, the gradual decline of the studios after the Paramount decrees of 1948, requiring them to disband their vertically integrated monopolies, left movie stars, once treated as chattel, with ever more power over their projects. Second, the emerging medium of broadcast television pushed film studios to provide experiences television could not match. And third, a series of challenges to the Production Code during the 1950s and 1960s led to a new ratings system in 1969 that broke with the longstanding Hollywood practice of releasing only films every possible audience could watch to mark different films as appropriate for different audiences. The result throughout the industry was a series of star-driven vehicles with rapidly escalating budgets and increasingly liberal doses of sex, violence, and harsh language. It was a climate ripe for the reemergence of the gangster as a major figure.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), the two films that most decisively marked the return of the gangster, both treated their heroes frankly as anachronisms in order to reveal the mythopoetic power beneath the genre's realism. For all the seedy glamour of their 1930s outfits and stolen cars, Bonnie and Clyde are children of the 1960s, counterculture heroes for a generation that no longer trusted the social institutions of the democratic state; the capitalistic economy; and their servants, the police. Michael Corleone, the dark hero of The Godfather and its two sequels (1974, 1990), was presented even more forthrightly as a microcosm of the American dream, its promise to newly arrived immigrants, and its betrayal by the drive to assimilation and respectability. Both films weigh the gangster against the gang, a family ultimately destroyed by the very loyalties the gangster struggles to honor.

b. James Francis Cagney, Yonkers, New York, 17 July 1899, d. 30 March 1986

The toughest, most likable, and most endlessly imitated of all American film gangsters, Cagney was a paradoxical figure. His screen persona was a diamond in the rough, but he was also gifted at farce (Boy Meets Girl, 1938), physical comedy (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935), and song and dance, winning an Academy Award® for his role as George M. Cohanin Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Cagney's ruthless gangsters—Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931), Eddie Bartlett in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and Ralph Cotter in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), among others—seem driven at once by their harsh environment and by a psychopathology that was purely amoral, a force truly beyond their power to control. Yet from the beginning, audiences found Cagney's insouciance irresistible. Even when he led the Dead End Kids astray in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) or shoved half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face in The Public Enemy, he came across as somehow fundamentally decent.

Cagney's best movies show him driven by uncontrollable forces. In White Heat (1949), Cody Jarrett's snarling violence is consistently linked to both headaches that periodically incapacitate him and catastrophic disturbances in the physical world, like the climactic explosion at a gas refinery that finally sends Cody to a memorably suicidal apotheosis at the "top of the world."

Cagney was the most energetic, unreflective, and physically straightforward of all the great Hollywood studio stars. His proletarian heroes seem impatient with any thought that cannot immediately be translated into physical action. Unlike his contemporary Edward G. Robinson, another bantamweight who could play a hero of almost any ethnic background, Cagney was invincibly Irish. Indeed, many of Cagney's fans were convinced that he was always playing himself, an unpolished mick from New York who had been in plenty of scrapes on the way to the top. Yet interviewers invariably found Cagney courteous, withdrawn, and essentially private. Like Cody Jarrett, who weeps on his mother's lap and then goes into the next room to resume the role of psychotic gang leader, Cagney perfected a style of acting that concealed artifice under the guise of self-expression. Although he never parodied his screen image as actors from Robinson to Marlon Brando did, his signature gangster persona brought a hard edge to heroes as different as FBI agent Brick Davis in "G" Men (1935) and C. R. MacNamarain One, Two, Three (1961), where he ran the Berlin operation of Coca-Cola exactly as if it were a gang and he were the last gangster in the world.


The Public Enemy (1931), "G" Men (1935), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Each Dawn I Die (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Blood on the Sun (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), White Heat (1949), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), One, Two, Three (1961), Ragtime (1981)


McCabe, John. Cagney. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Schickel, Richard. James Cagney: A Celebration. New York: Applause, 1999.

Warren, Doug. James Cagney, The Authorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.

Thomas Leitch

The cycle of nostalgic gangster films, including the French films Borsalino (1970) and Stavisky (1974) and culminating in Sergio Leone's epic C'era una volta in America (Once Upon a Time in America, 1984), yielded in turn to a return of realism fueled by widespread public fear of urban crime in a civic culture apparently as intent on eradicating drug use as an earlier generation had been on criminalizing alcohol. Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), who had already anatomized criminal life in New York's Little Italy in Mean Streets (1973), attacked Francis Ford

Coppola's (b. 1939) idealized portrayal of a mob family in the Godfather films in his sharply revisionist GoodFellas (1990), which ended with its coked-up hero ratting out the friends who planned to kill him. Both films, along with The Godfather, Part II, helped establish Robert De Niro (b. 1943) as successor to Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957), the definitive gangster hero of his time: moody, barely controlled, and often psychotic.

But De Niro's Italian American gangster found a highly influential African American counterpart in the gangstas of New Jack City (1991), Boyz N the Hood (1991), Menace II Society (1993), Sugar Hill (1994), Clockers (1995), and Dead Presidents (1995). Still another international influence was supplied by the Hong Kong action films of John Woo (b. 1946), beginning with Ying hung boon sik (A Better Tomorrow, 1986), whose geometric opposition of cops to killers suggested a super-charged remake of such genre classics as "G" Men. Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963) combined the Hong Kong aesthetic of Woo and Johnny To (b. 1953) (Dung fong saam hap [The Heroic Trio, 1993] and other films) with an interracial gang and his own fashionable nihilism, choreographing Raoul Walsh to a laugh track in presenting the criminal heroes of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and the two "volumes" of Kill Bill (2003, 2004) as just one more group of people going about a difficult job. The release of gangster films from all over the map, from recycled capers like Heist (2001) and The Score (2001) to Scorsese's opulently violent period piece Gangs of New York (2002) to the searing portrait of bored, overachieving Asian American high-school criminals in Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), show the gangster film flourishing in the new century even as American paranoia turned outward from domestic crime to international terrorism.


Gangster films have been categorized and theorized in many ways. Perhaps the most illuminating categories concern the different relations between gangster heroes and their organizations and between gangs and the larger society.

The earliest films to emphasize the fearsome power of gangsters came from abroad. In Fant̂mas and its four sequels (France, 1913–1914), Louis Feuillade (1873–1925) presented the gangster as a master of disguise capable of thwarting the police at every turn, a pattern expanded to epic length and complexity in Fritz Lang's (1890–1976) German film, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922). These films present the gangster as an octopus and his organization as a vast, omnipotent conspiracy seen as if from a great distance. This paranoid pattern, common in American political thrillers, is rarely found in American gangster films; the closest American analogue is The Phenix City Story.

Far more common is the view of the gangster as a once-normal citizen corrupted by greed, lust, or a masculine drive to power. Films that begin their stories before the gangster's rise usually offer sociological explanations for the hero's moral deviance. The Public Enemy sets the pattern for gangster films that root organized crime in economic deprivation among urban immigrants. Despite its gangster trappings, most of the seven murders in The Big Sleep (1946) are committed to protect or avenge a lover or a spurned offer of love. The four heroines of Set It Off (1996) are driven to bank robbery by racism and the oppression of the white men who control their financial destiny. Criminal gangs in these films, as in Once Upon a Time in America and Gangs of New York, are often fatal extensions of generational rivalries or childhood friendships—a particularly prevalent motif in gangsta films like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society.

Against this view of criminal gangs as a deformed version of childhood gangs may be set the strictly professional view of gangsters in The Asphalt Jungle, in which each member of the gang is recruited for a particular skill and paid a set wage, "like plumbers." American heist films, less brutal and romantic than French prototypes like Rififi, adopt a view of society at once technologically advanced and socially atavistic and ultimately ascribe the gang's failure to the unstable nature of the capitalistic ties that hold its members together. Frankly comic capers like Ocean's Eleven (1960, 2001), The Hot Rock (1972), Bank Shot (1974), and Ocean's Twelve (2004) get laughs by emphasizing the impossibility of the gang's task and the ingenuity of means taken to succeed. When the job looks easy, Hollywood caper films allow the gang to disintegrate under its own pressure, as in the obligatory double crosses of The Killing (1956), Heist, and The Score.

More broadly, criminal gangs can be framed explicitly as images of the societies they oppose. In comic versions like The Ladykillers (1955, 2004) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988), the gang's organization reflects the social order as it might be distorted by a funhouse mirror. But parody also informs less obviously comic versions like The League of Gentlemen (England, 1960), Fargo (1996), and Brian De Palma's (b. 1940) Scarface (1983), whose criminals, like the childlike, simian Tony Camonte in Hawks's Scarface, provoke laughter by their ill-informed attempts to mimic the behavior of the society whose most basic rules they are flouting. Still less comic versions like The Godfather films and GoodFellas exemplify John Baxter's premise that criminals are created by the society against which they think they are rebelling. Eugene Rosow has traced the closeness with which pre-Code gangsters reflected their audiences' fears and desires. More recently, the iconic gangster played by Godfather alumnus Al Pacino (b. 1940) in Donnie Brasco (1997) is destroyed by the undercover cop he adopts as his protégé as surely as the iconic gangster played by Robert De Niro in Heat (1995) faces off against the iconic cop played by Pacino as fully his equal, a potentially tragic figure destroyed by his mirror image. Like "G" Men, Heat reminds viewers that Hollywood cops are created in the image of Hollywood gangsters, not the other way around. The gangs and gangsters in these films, like Tom Hanks's doomed hit man in Road to Perdition (2002), are marked by the incompatible drives toward loyalty, equality, assimilation, and unlimited upward mobility characteristic of all American culture. Indeed Jack Shadoian, taking his cue from Robert Warshow, has called the gangster the archetypal American dreamer whose doomed trajectory reveals the futility of the American Dream.

Finally, gangsters can be portrayed as frankly heroic rebels against a corrupt or bankrupt society, more sympathetic, like Frankenstein's monster, than the society that has spawned and rejected them. The doomed robbers in The Asphalt Jungle, Bonnie and Clyde, They Live by Night (1949), and its remake, Thieves Like Us (1974), approach the frontier of the gangster film, a frontier crossed by outlaw films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Thelma and Louise (1991). Tarantino's ironic spin on this pattern is to create a world in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill from which the law and its representatives have vanished, leaving criminal culture, for better or worse, as the only game in town. Whether these films can truly be called gangster films is open to question. A world whose criminals provide the last best hope for the social order is a world in which gangsters like Robin Hood no longer seem like gangsters, no matter how many laws they break.

SEE ALSO Crime Films;Genre


Baxter, John. The Gangster Film. New York: Barnes and London: Zwemmer, 1970.

Brode, Douglas. Money, Women, and Guns: Crime Movies from Bonnie and Clyde to the Present. Secaucus, NJ: Carol, 1995.

Clarens, Carlos. Crime Movies: From Griffith to the Godfather and Beyond. Revised ed. New York: Da Capo, 1997.

Langman, Larry, and Daniel Finn. A Guide to American Crime Films of the Thirties. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

Leff, Leonard J., and Jerold L. Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

Leitch, Thomas M. Crime Films. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Mason, Fran. American Gangster Cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

McArthur, Colin. Underworld U.S.A. London: Secker and Warburg, 1972.

McCarty, John. Bullets over Hollywood: The American Gangster Picture from the Silents to The Sopranos. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2004.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster Film from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977.

Warshow, Robert. "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." In The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.

Yaquinto, Marilyn. Pump 'Em Full of Lead: A Look at Gangsters on Film. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Thomas Leitch