This paper will explore and define the gangster genre in American film history. Gangster films are centered on the criminal actions of bank robbers, hoodlums, petty theft, and bootlegging alcohol during prohibition and operate outside the law without regard to the safety of human life. Gangster films are about gangsters who seek out power and wealth. The true to life gangsters of the 20’s and 30’s were a big influence in American cinema gangster mythology. The mythical Hollywood gangster is usually driven until they reach the top of the world which is where they ironically meet their doom. These villains are depicted as both criminal and hero and depending on the social views at that time could easily fall into either category. The criminal wars that were waged against society’s legal structure were a result of a failed economic system. The conclusion of most criminal endeavors would almost always end in tragedy. Crime stories from the gangster genre highlight the ultimate self destruction of crime figures from rise to fall. Gangsters of this film genre are often self indulging, psychopathic, street smart, immoral, greedy, womanizing, and power hungry. Competition with other rival gangs and/or dueling families is one of the main components of this genre. Early TV depicted rivalries in shows such as the Hatfield and McCoy feud and in later films these rivalries can bee seen in films like “The Godfather” (1972). These crime films exploit the lawlessness that these gangster characters exhibit and contrast the good against the bad and sometimes the moral struggle between what is right and wrong within them. The main plot characteristic of the gangster genre includes the apprehension of the bad guy and the personal struggles between the two are often shown such as in the film “HEAT” (1995). These crime figures exhibit the strong desire for wealth and power and will do almost anything to gain them.
“Film historian Robert Warshow has argued that gangster films represent an American form of tragedy, pivoting on capitalism’s dark underbelly. Warshow’s formula for all gangster films typically involves a poor immigrant so desperate for the American dream–money, position, flashy clothes and cars–that he falls prey to a life of crime. His rise is feverish and his downfall complete, usually culminating in a spectacularly violent death. This climactic ending was necessitated, in part, by censorship’s demands for compensating moral values. Filmmakers couldn’t glorify crime; they had to make sure that it didn’t pay in the final analysis.” 2
These Hollywood criminals of cinema can often be tough and gritty but also can express a lighter and emotional side when it comes to the opposite sex. Most gangster films are morality tales in which the criminal may have once had good intentions but came to the notion that wealth is not possible through honest means. They ultimately feel that the only way to wealth is through a life of crime leaving behind any reason of societal acceptance without regard to the law and the safety of the public at large. These Hollywood crime figures in film reflect a turbulent and unrealistic world of financial success and happiness with the unknown always lurking in the back of their minds, which is usually, face the law or face death by the hand of another criminal. These criminals usually come from modest to poor families whose struggles are felt as children that fall prey to crime in the pursuit of wealth and success. The main motivations for these criminals are the acquisition of material items such as: fancy cars, clothing, jewelry, high class woman, and money. Many of these gangster films tell the story from the point of view from the criminals mind portraying them as victims of circumstance and these tales almost always end tragically, usually in death or imprisonment.
The impact of early American society
Crime has been a part of American history since the beginning of our society. In American cinema the gangster genre exploded in popularity after the great depression due to the failed economy of the United States. As a result of the failure of the banking system in 1929, people would make “Bank Runs’, the rapid and total withdrawal of savings deposits. A bank run (also known as a run on the bank) is a type of financial crisis. Banks runs are a panic which occurs when a large number of customers of a bank fear it is insolvent and withdraw their deposits. The stock market crash and the subsequent bank runs opened the door to many crime waves across America mostly centered in major cites.
The rapid growth and financial excesses of the 1920’s, dubbed “The Roaring Twenties”, led to the economic decline in world trade. Unknown by many, the number one crime in America at this time was kidnapping for ransom but bank robberies still took the main headlines due to its dramatic impact and news coverage. Many of these real life criminals would become the focal point for the main character development for gangster films. Real Life criminals such as: John Dillinger, Al Capone, Machine Gun Jelly, Baby Face Nelson, and Bird Man, would help lead to the creation of and also the increase in popularity of the gangster genre in cinema. Prohibition opened the door to many criminals helping expand their illegal business operations. Many gangsters focused on bootlegging liquor due to its vast popularity because people were drinking away their problems due to the great depression. Al Capone is the most infamous for doing this mainly because of his violent rise to power and his absolute and ultimate control of the entire Chicago bootlegging market. Al Capone was most notably targeted by the FBI for tax fraud and evasion among other things. Al Capone proved to be so evasive that the FBI and the Untouchables had their work cut out for them. Al Capone was an extremely feared man by his subordinates because he would not hesitate to murder anyone who failed to adhere to his desire and in the underworld of criminal activities, fear meant respect. John Dillinger chose a different path as a young man. John
Dillinger graduated from petty theft to bank robberies during the early years of the great depression. John Dillinger shared the spotlight among other star criminals at the time as “Public Enemy #1” on the FBI’s most wanted list. There were a small group of secret FBI agents enlisted by the Hoover administration to help reduce the amount of crime that was running rampant on the streets at the time. These agents would be entrusted with the public safety and security and the public would soon call these agents that were immune to bribery and corruption “The Untouchables”. These FBI agents would be the inspiration of a film of the same to be made. These untouchables could not be touched by crime in any way. Many criminals were prosecuted as result of the efforts of the untouchables due to their diligence in the disruption of major criminal operations. They focused mainly on the most notorious criminals of that time and ushered in a new era for the FBI.
The earliest gangster films date back to the silent film era. One of the first films to introduce this genre was D.W. Griffith’s “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912). This film is about organized crime and was Raoul Walsh’s first feature film. “The Regeneration” (1915) visualized lawlessness on the streets of New York City which was shot on location in the Bowery district and depicted a young Irish-American boy’s rise to power living the life of crime as a result of the repressiveness he felt from the social conditions that existed at the time. Another example of early crime films is Even Edwin S. Porter’s silent short western “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) which is a classic hold up movie.
1930’s Gangster films
The Great Depression was a big influence on the Gangster Film genre. The mythical gangster can be understood in a broader societal perspective. The early gangster either ratified the need for law enforcement or was a person to be admired, as seen by the public, due to his position of wealth during such dire economic times. Beginning in the late twenties, Hollywood gangsters were starting to be put in a brighter light, no longer being the dark and evil villains who were the dregs of humanity that they had been portrayed previously, (for example, in the films of Lon Chaney or in early 1920s cartoons of grotesque, diminutive criminals skulking like creatures apart). They are also no longer depicted as the kind of psychopathic gangster later epitomized by Ralph Cotter in Horace McCoy’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948), played by James Cagney as an unbalanced sadist in the 1950 film adaptation. In the early 1930’s, Gangsters were characterized by their normality, which Hollywood would use to reflect upon the essentials of the Gangster’s career choice as an alternative to the normalcy that the average American democratic citizen has chosen to lead but failed in their attempts to achieve the American dream through honest means of living under a failed system. Gangsters who are high profile and well known are trying to live out their lives under a cloak of lawlessness who seem to have the sympathy of audiences who have seen their wealth squandered away under the banking systems and their houses foreclosed upon. Sharing so much common ground with respectable, law-abiding citizens but at the same time functioning outside the law, the gangster serves both as a figure admirable for his toughness and energy, defying an unjust system, and, looked at from another angle, as a parallel in his activities to the criminality of supposedly honest society.
These fictionalized American gangster both live under this economic system and also twist it to their advantage by any illegal means. Many types of criminals, from the urban ethnic gangster to the poor farm boy who has drifted into crime, acquire, in the Depression, cross-class and cross ethnic appeal. Both types become symbols of a rebellion impossible for ordinary law-abiding citizens to enact. The heroic rebel image was reinforced by the Hollywood versions of the myth, featuring performances of great verve and energy. Movie gangsters such as Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were heroes of dynamic gesture, strutting, snarling and posturing, possessing a blatant, anarchic appeal. Operating outside the law, these criminal figures were admired for their rebellion against this failed economic system of democracy. They were admired for their rebellious and independent views of business in America and all the while being viewed as a reflection of a legitimate society. The glorification of these rebels lead the American people to have a misguided belief in their reasoning behind their motives and the criminal big-shot, as viewed in the polarizing mirror of the satirist, is a parody of the American dream of success and wealth. In the end, the irony of these criminalist endeavors led to the criminal’s ultimate defeat and the inevitable fall of the big-time gangster generates feelings of being trapped in a reality of economic turmoil. The criminal as the product of the environment, becomes the victim and exemplifies the failures of our economic system. For these reasons, film critics have found it easy to distinguish the classic gangster films of the 1930’s from the gangster film noirs of the 1940’ and 1950’s. For as Paul Schrader said in his influential “Notes on Film Noir” essay, “No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is continually being cut into ribbons of light.” Other recent critics have argued persuasively against seeing any sharp disjuncture. Most notably, Munby (Public Enemies, Public Heroes) presents a strong case for viewing film noir as a development of a ‘repressed but established formula’. Noir, in this interpretation, is an infusion of modernist stylistic attributes which enabled the earlier, ‘potentially seditious’ crime cycle to negotiate the censors. The gangster films and novels of the 30s are in part about the self-publicizing and the public interpretation of the gangster and about the nature of the myth-making. As a result, the desire for recognizing and legitimizing the gangster’s actions are explored. With these desires, the gangster becomes vulnerable to the destabilization of identity that afflicts the insecure, self-divided protagonist of canonical film noir, with gangsters like Little Caesar and Scarface often suffering from a splitting of identity that is evident, for example, in their doomed efforts to acquire the trappings of social success (flashy cars, stylish suits) and to achieve upward mobility. Never had been done before, and is more common in modern cinema, the criminal was just someone who committed a crime, and then the law would go after and catch them. Little Caesar culminated the fascination with the criminal mind and perspective, both in fiction and film. Little Caesar was written in 1929 then subsequently filmed in 1930 and was the most influential of the gangster films which lead to the imitation of many films that followed.
By the late 1920’s, Al Capone had become the historical figure that lead to the example of these fictionalized Hollywood characters and the symbol of the American gangster. Al Capone’s rapid rise to power in the Chicago underbelly had been accepted as a force of in American life and the government had little control nor evidence to support his criminalist endeavors. This not only made him feared by other mob bosses but also nearly untouchable by the fed’s. He was also a hugely wealthy political figure who made contributions for social public benefit and in by doing so, gained further acceptance by the local citizens who had sympathy for his actions. These criminals were well spoken and well dressed men who would control and operate the underground criminal organizations and under a violent tyranny of cause and effect. Marvin Leroy’s Little Caesar (1930) starred Edward G. Robinson as the gritty and ruthless killer from Chicago named Caesar Enrico (“Rico”) Bandello who epitomized the rise and fall of the gangster. Edward G. Robinson was the first Gangster star in this genre. These career criminals live double lives as respectable business men, who defy the law, and are tough who also operate under a cloak of fear portrayed as respect. The popularity and appeal of these films during the 30’s was divided among the public. Some would see these films as a sort of participation in the rebellion against a failed government and others would see them as revenge against the bad guys. Hollywood would put the gangster in a mostly retributive frame with the negativity of the gangster myth ratifying the belief in the public enemy system. This would be seen as the result of the collapse of law enforcement in a society or loss of morality, and ultimately social disorder. William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931) starred James Cagney as the fast talking and cocky Tom Powers and his most famous line, “I’m on top of the world Ma!” This is an example of a well dressed man with street smarts who is a criminal bootlegger and womanizer. One of the films most controversial and pivotal scenes is when Tom Powers assaults his floozy girlfriend with a grapefruit by slamming it into her face at the breakfast table. Howard Hawkins “Scarface: The Shame of a Nation” (1932) starred Paul Muni as a Immature, power hungry, monstrous and beastly hood in prohibition era Chicago, whose character was loosely based on Al Capone. This is the first movie to use the machine gun by a gangster, depicted by Italian-American immigrants, who goes on a murderess spree killing 28 people in all.
“Adopting an atypical rhetorical strategy for Hollywood features, Little Caesar, The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), and ‘Scarface, Shame of the Nation (Howard Hawks and Richard Rossen, 1932), three of the most widely watched and critically discussed of the early gangster films, attempted to frame the experience of viewers with a text message that preceded each of the narratives.8 Claiming that “[The Public Enemy's,] Tom Powers and [Little Caesar's] Rico Bandello are problems that we-the public-must solve” and that Scat-face is a series of “reproductions of actual occurrences,” the films attempted to shift attention from the challenges the narratives posed to American ideals to a less subversive fascination with crime. It would seem that these efforts were not entirely successful as scholars and critics, from Robert Warshow (240-44) to Andrew Bergman (6-13), have commented on the challenges the gangster has posed to conventional success.9 Little Caesar’s Cesare Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson), The Public Enemy’s Tom Powers (James Cagney), and Scarface’s Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) stage a full-scale corruption of the Protestant Success Ethic and the American Dream. They work hard and outmaneuver their competition, but they revert to the most sinful of means to achieve the most revolting of ends.
Certainly, the ethnic identity of these characters (Powers is Irish, and Bandello and Camonte are Italian) plays an important role in the narratives.10 By depicting Bandello, Powers, and Camonte as different, as not quite American, the challenges that the films pose to American ideals are made less threatening to “average Americans.” That is to say, because ethnic characters instigate a corruption of American ideals, non-ethnic Americans are afforded the opportunity to blame the failure of American myths during the Great Depression on the individual ethnic characters and their respective ethnic groups rather than on the failure of the myths themselves. In this regard, the films’ assertions of realism are once again important to consider, as such claims would seem to validate the ethnocentric and subversive depictions of ethnic others. The marketing strategies of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, for instance, included lauding the films’ “Snatched from Today’s Headlines” authenticity (Clarens 53). Similar claims were made about Scarface, and the introduction that was added to the Hawks and Rossen-directed film at the behest of the Production Code Administration had a similar effect. Scarface is said to be “an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this increasing menace to our safety and liberty.” One wonders whose “safety and liberty” are being threatened in Scarface, as the narrative seems to offer the possibility that the “our” of “our safety and liberty” does not include all Americans.
Although ethnicity in general played a central role in the rhetorical strategies of each of these works, the three gangster films, as well as their respective protagonists, are not interchangeable. Instead, The Public Enemy tends to treat Irish gangster Tom Powers in a much more benevolent fashion than either Little Caesar or Scarface treats its Italian gangsters. As the films open, this becomes abundantly clear. The first several minutes of The Public Enemy follow the young Tom Powers as he eases into a life of crime. Powers is clearly developed as the product of an economically disadvantaged upbringing and an abusive father. Adults around him smuggle beer in paint cans during the Prohibition era, and his father beats him mercilessly for the most trivial of deviances. As a result, The Public Enemy attempts to explain the existence of its Irish gangster by blaming the social ills that poverty has caused. Viewers are encouraged to criticize the environment for the creation of Powers, opening up the possibility that changing the environment would alleviate the problem.” 6
The impact of censorship under the “Production Code”
The Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was a set of guidelines governing the production of motion pictures. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, originally called the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association) adopted the code in 1930, began effectively enforcing it in 1934, and abandoned it in 1967. The Production Code spelled out what was and was not considered morally acceptable in the production of American motion pictures. The Hays Code was designed to end the glorifying of the criminal in the early 1930’s. In 1934, the Hays Code strictly required that movie studios emphasize that the theme in all gangster movies that crime does not pay and to de-glorify the role of the gangster as a victim of circumstance and to portray these criminals as psychopaths. The studios decided to move away from earlier Gangster themes to the good guy theme of fighting crime. These new films would feature the views from the other side of the law and how crime fighters take down criminals. William Keighley’s G-Men (1935), starring James Cagney as a tough and ruthless cop, would exemplify this new sub genre of filmmaking. This film is about a bad guy who sees his friend short down in cold blood then joins the police to fight crime. 8
Film Noir and the Gangster movie
“It is well-known that the term film noir originated with French critics who used it to describe certain Hollywood films of the 1940s and early 1950s – films that are characterized stylistically by dark tones and night scenes and thematically by ambivalent protagonists and a sense of fatalism. The socalled film noir bible, Alain Silver’s and Elizabeth Ward’s EiIm Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Overlook, 1979) claims that film noir is “an indigenous American form” and that it is a “unique example of a wholly American film style” (1). Since that book’s publication in 1979, other critics have argued for a more expansive noir canon that includes many European influences (in particular, gothic horror and German Expressionism) that are important precursors to the “classic” film noir style. Michael Keaney, author of EiIm Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (McFarland, 2003), agrees that film noir is not exclusively a product of the U.S. film industry and his work adds to the growing literature in support of this claim. Audiences familiar with the quintessential noir films such as Out of the Past or The Maltese Falcon might be surprised at Keaney’s inclusion of such a film as the lush Technicolor production of Black Narcissus (which was given a rating of 4% stars out of 5), but if two of the primary characteristics of the film noir genre are the cynical, pessimistic hero and the femme fatale, then the entry is certainly justified.” 4
In 1933 the government finally took the steps necessary to end the great depression by the creating the Federal Housing Administration known as the FHA. The FHA’s responsibility would be to stabilize the housing markets thus leading to more stable economic markets. Although the Great Depression lasted 10 years and the FHA was not created until 4 years after the stock market crash of 1929, the US economy was gaining a foothold and stabilizing. After the banking system established itself and gained the confidence of the American people, the lawlessness that had once made since did not any more. People’s views of criminal behaviors and intent started to change with the times with the help of the production code which had been around for several years at this point. With the increase of law enforcement as seen in the FBI, criminals saw their business dwindle away and the loss of sentiment from average citizens began to dwindle. The Untouchables were at the forefront of fighting crime waves and saw their efforts start to yield results and as so, film would follow. Many of the new films shot over the next couple of decade mainly revolved around tales crime fighting. One of the first hugely popular movies in the 40’s to accomplish this was The Maltese Falcon (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart. This movie was directed by John Huston and was closely based Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel “The Maltese Falcon.” The Maltese Falcon was a low budget thriller that was considered by many historians as the first dark film noir genre in Hollywood. Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1946) was another film noir detective mystery classic film. This also starred Humphrey Bogart opposite Lauren Bacall. This film is the best example of a classic Warner Bros. mystery.
1960’s and 70’s gangster films
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was produced Warren Beatty and directed Arthur Penn chronicles the criminal rampage that these two characters embarked upon. This movie is based on the true life characters that the movie depicts a male and female bank robbing duo that shoot it out with the police. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is one of the sixties’ most talked-about, volatile, controversial crime/gangster films combining comedy, terror, love, and ferocious violence. It was produced by Warner Bros. – the studio responsible for the gangster films of the 1930s, and it seems appropriate that this innovative, revisionist film redefined and romanticized the crime/gangster genre and the depiction of screen violence forever. Its producer, 28 year-old Warren Beatty, was also its title-role star Clyde Barrow, and his co-star Bonnie Parker, newcomer at that time Faye Dunaway, became a major screen actress as a result of her breakthrough in this influential film.
This story depicts Bonnie and Clyde’s rise to power through his lawlessness and use of force through armed robbery. These two criminals epitomize innocence on the run from the law who cling to each other trying to function as a family unit. There are many opposing moods throughout the film with ranging from very serious to comical which often crosses the boundaries between a tragic romantic comedy to gangster film. This movie exhibits many characteristics of experimental film-making from the French New Wave movement. During the late 1960s, the film achieved sympathy from the use of revolutionary characters and its social criticism appealed to American youth who were part of the counter-cultural. The tireless couple’s armed robberies of banks was viewed somewhat sympathetically by the rural dispossessed and occurred at a time when the institutions were ‘robbing’ and ruining indebted, Dust Bowl farmers. The bank robberies of this young and flamboyant, thrill-seeking couple, which was for the most part, innocent and minor in the beginning of their crime spree, made an unfortunate turn and escalated into more violent and murderous escapades.
The classical narrative structure of the gangster film focuses on the rise and fall of the criminal usually consisting of the humble beginnings from early youth to adulthood at the pinnacle of their criminal careers ultimately and seemingly ending tragically. Three early gangster films – Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface would set the standard for the next few decades that followed. These gangsters are usually immigrants that are victims of circumstance and are often portrayed as egotistical maniacs. Later films such as Francis Ford Copolla’s The Godfather (1972) depicted a family heritage that was entrenched in corruption and transcends generations which stood to solidify that sometimes blood isn’t always thicker than water. The Godfather is a discerning sociological study of violence, power, honor and obligation, corruption, justice and crime in America. The Godfather is a story that centers around the Corleone crime “family” who do business in the boroughs of New York City in the mid 1940s. The story is dominated at first by aging godfather “Don” Vito Corleone who is a turn-of-the-century Sicilian immigrant that is the head of one of the five Italian-American “families” that operates a crime consortium. The crime family is cloaked in honor working outside the system due to barring by social prejudice, serves as an allegory for the way business (the pursuit of the American dream) is conducted in capitalistic, profit-making corporations and governmental circles.
Once upon a time in America Sergio Leone (1984) is an epic story that revolves around the lives of four young men who spend the greater part of their lives together. This movie takes place in the 1920’s to the last years of Prohibition in the early 1930s, and then to the late 1960s in New York’s lower east side in a Jewish neighborhood. This film is told in flashbacks and flash forwards from the point of view of a small-time hood. The main character, Noodles, played by Robert DeNiro, sets the stage for turbulent times as a young disturbed child growing up in the big city who is tempted with corruption.
Race and its impact on the Gangster genre
The Gangster genre also crosses racial borders as proven in most modern day gangster films. Due to the racial discrimination and prejudices of the early cinema years, popular ethnic gangster films did not appear until the early 90’s which positions had been previously predominately held by men of Italian or Jewish decent. Dennis Hopper’s Colors (1988) reflects the
social divide between black youths, a movie inspired by actual stories and events and centered in the major metropolitan city of South Central Los Angeles. These modern black gangster films revolve mostly around troubled youths who live in poor neighborhoods and feel that they have to resort to a life of violence by joining gangs as in Dennis Hopper’s Colors, which depicts troubled youths in the inner city that had chosen a life of crime as the only alternative to the streets. These black gangs in Los Angeles were viewed as a sort of family unit that was missing from their homes. Most of these youths came from single parents households, usually the mother was the single parent, and the fathers were irresponsible which were either locked up or just decided to move on leaving their children behind to fall prey to these gangs. These virtual families were created by these youths and were differentiated by two distinct colors, red and blue. Red is the color that represents “The Bloods” and blue represents “The Crips”. Modern day Los Angeles is now home to the largest concentration of criminal gangs in the nation which is currently over 600. The largest concentrations of these gangs are located in South Central Los Angels and consist of mainly Black and Hispanic youths. John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991) follows the lives of three young black men, two of which are brothers, who have different paths set out before them. One brother is seeking a scholarship to play football at a national university while the other brother has a pregnant girlfriend and is rushed into parenthood. The third is a close friend who has chosen a life of crime. The three youth share a close relationship since early childhood but in the end, they all meet with tragedy. The Hughes Brothers Menace II Society (1993) Directed by twin brothers, Allen and Albert Hughes, is a critically acclaimed cinematic masterpiece brilliantly details real life in today’s tough inner city. Gangster movies have become more diverse and have crossed genres as seen in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights (1989) is a modern day gangster movie with a comedic twist. This movie pays homage to the early years of the gangster genre but this fallacy told from the afro-American perspective.
Drugs and the American Gangster
Ridley Scott’s “An American Gangster” (2007) Stars Denzel Washington and has a whopping overdose of the 70’s and is based on the true life story of a man named Frank Lucas, a drug smuggler who uses military aircraft to transport dope into New York neighborhoods. This genre of gangster film illustrates how deep corruption goes and who easily one can be persuaded to make the easy money and all the while risking it all against the odds. This film also solidifies the idea of the street savvy modo, “Don’t get high on your own supply” because if you do, you will ultimately fail and risk getting caught. Frank Lucas had this concept that if he could produce a better product than his competition, he would make more money and have loyal customers who keep coming back for more, but there was a problem with that idea. Frank had to deal with the mob as well as the DEA. The mob had their hands in everything and dope could not be moved unless they had a part of it. After running his business for while, Frank came to the conclusion that the only people hw could trust was his family and so he moved them all up to New York to help him run he elaborate drug trafficking business.
“His idea is to get heroin from the source in Vietnam and use military transports to smuggle the narcotics into the U.S. He successfully brands his product, which is both purer and cheaper than the competition’s. He rides his success to great wealth and power, bringing up his family from the rural South to enjoy his success and to enter the new family business.” 14
Gangster films of the 30’s were influenced by the illegal acts of their time which mainly consisted of bootlegging and bank robberies. Bank robberies were due mainly to the economic crises at the time reflected in the fall of the banking system and as a result criminals sought new ways to generate profits from illegal activities that involved bootlegging liquor in addition to bank robberies. Although kidnapping was the number one crime in America at the time, as I touched on earlier, bank robberies were more cinematic and therefore would make the transition to film more easily. It wouldn’t be much later in cinema history when drugs and kidnapping would become more prevalent in gangster cinema.
While most gangsters films of the 30’s focused mainly on banks robberies and bootlegging, it wasn’t until the 90’s when the popularity of drugs started to show up in films such as, Alba Ferrara’s “King of New York” (1990), Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). With the popularity of cocaine making and emergence in the 80’s, it is only a matter of time before it made it into cinema and on film. Films such as Ted Demme’s “Blow” (2001) starring Johnny Depp illustrated how Marijuana made an impact on American culture. This is another film based on a true story of a man named George Jung, the so called godfather of cocaine. This movie is based on true life events as recanted by George Jung who participated in the film as a script supervisor adding more of a reality based aesthetic to this feature. George Jung is a man who grew up in suburban Long Island in a middle income family who would smoke marijuana occasionally with is friend.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) starring Al Pacino is films about exiled Cuban immigrant that unconditionally reflects the treacheries behind the drug empire in a raw and unrelenting fashion. Drugs are the product of choice in this film and as with the earlier films of the 30’s that same ultimate ending seems to keep playing itself out in extreme tragedy leading to the loss of life and the fall of the drug empire. The gangster genre of motion picture is not only limited to the silver screen but it can also be found on modern day television. With violence, sexual and adult content, these shows can be found only on satellite, cable or pay per view television. David Chase’s crime drama, The Soprano’s, is a good example gangster shows of this medium. Shows like the Soprano’s fall in line with the Italian American gangster films such as the Godfather and Goodfella’s. Set in modern day New Jersey, this story revolves around the mafia or mob that exists. The main character Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, is an Italian father who is a made boss and racketeer.
Casino’s are not to be forgotten when it comes to crime syndicates and their operations. Gambling is another venue for gangsters to generate capital illegally as well and this can been seen in film. Movies
like Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” (1995) Starring Robert De Niro takes place in Las Vegas and the casinos are the major form of capitalism and drugs are used mainly for pleasure and not business. This film shows the inner workings of the corrupt Las Vegas casinos and Martin Scorsese exposes these stories of crime and punishment. These mob bosses would skim millions of dollars from the very casinos that they owned while competing with rival casinos. Martin Scorsese continues his study of the American Nightmare with a fascinating, but somewhat overlong, tale of the passionate relationship between Las Vegas and the Mob. Concentrating on the Tangiers, a casino run by Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) but funded by the Mafia, we are without delay thrust into the action when Ace is blown-up in a car bombing. Instantly identifiable as a Scorsese film, Casino contains all of the technical accompaniments and trademarks for which he is famous plus a few more. The ambiance of Vegas has been captured with all its flashy suits, astounding behind-the-scenes violence and a notable (as always) soundtrack. There aren’t any redemptive qualities in any of the characters of this film which has a tendency to distance us from them from time to time. The story itself is fragile and over-extended, stretching (as it does) a 2-hour story into a 3-hour epic. The symphony of hostility that builds up towards the end of the film merely seems to camouflage the fact that we don’t care about the characters and, therefore, they’re getting what they deserve. As it would seem, any film which tortures a criminal by putting his head in a vice has to have something going for it! After all, it is Hollywood.
Delving into the testicular but rarely filmed hierarchy of the Mafia militia, Donnie Brasco teases the veils apart in exacting detail. The FBI wishes to bring down the Mob by subtle infiltration at a time during the mid 1970s. As this film manages to turn everything on its head, Donnie Brasco seems to be skimming the drastically familiar ground of the “Mob movie”. This movie does not focus on the bright lights of the Vegas strip but instead we get to see the dim bulbs of the Mafia and their run-of-the-mill lives. Following the audacious Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino scales new heights with a stunning, exhilarating look at the low-life scum populating a fantasy of Los Angeles. The movie has long scenes that take up a lot of time and space which at times tend to give a sense of drawing us into the climatic conclusions. For instance, at the beginning of the movie Pulp Fiction, the audience is immediately thrown into action with the couple arguing in the restaurant over breakfast about taking the restaurant while discussing their future and all this before the credits roll. Pulp Fiction is not your average gangster movie in that it has multiple intersecting stories.
Music and its influence on gangster movies
Old gangster films of the 1930’ and 1940’s used orchestrated music with horns and strings to relay emotion to their audiences. In modern cinema, music plays a more crucial role in gangster film. In the move “Hustle and Flow” the musical score actually won an Oscar award for best movie soundtrack. This was a historic move for the Gangster Genre being that in the past music never thought of being critical in the genre. Yet another venue for the Gangster is Pimping. Pimping first became popular and made it’s emergence in gangster films back in the 70’s usually trough blacksploitation films such as, Superfly, Shaft, The Mack and Cleopatra Jones just to name a few. The most popular gangster music of today is rap and it has found its home in gangster cinema as well. Gangster music has the same characteristics that gangster films have and that violence, womanizing and vulgar language. In the film “Hustle and Flow” the main premise of the film is about a pimp who hustles woman for a living and dreams of becoming a gangster rap star. This movie depicts a conflicted man who struggles with moral conflict inside wanting to stop being a womanizer but finds no other alternatives to the contrary.
Can it be said that a society is defined by what it finds entertaining? Definitely so! The fact is that Hollywood makes gangster films because they sell and make the studios millions of dollars because of their mass appeal and we are not even in a depression. Gangster cinema plays a critical role in American culture and defines who we are as a nation. From the roaring twenties to the great depression and beyond, gangster cinema has taught us that we as a nation have a tendency to lean toward criminal endeavors in time of financial hardship, Perhaps this due in part to the lack of law enforcement. What we can be sure of is that we find violence entertaining as long as it not happening to us directly. We see cinema as fiction therefore it can be harmful to anyone. During the release of the 1988 film “Colors”, people actually died in theatres because they had the wrong color on at the time. The separation of fact and fiction was at a loss. Do we as a society separate fiction from reality or do we see them as the same.
- Stephen Prince. ”Movies and Meaning”, 4th Edition, pgs 263-267
- American Film Institute. Taken, November 1st, 2008. http://www.fathom.com/course/10701053/session3.html
- Robin Imhof (2008). British Film Noir Guide. Review of medium_being_reviewed title_of_work_reviewed_in_italics. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 48(1), 87-88. Retrieved November 2, 2008, from Social Science Module database. (Document ID: 1578455741).
- Jonathan J Cavallero (2004). Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, AND Sopranos: The Historical Roots of Italian American Stereotype Anxiety. Journal of Popular Film & Television, 32(2), 50-63. Retrieved November 2, 2008, from Research Library Core database. (Document ID: 660962001).
- Tricia Welsch (1997). At work in the Genre Laboratory: Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Journal of Film and Video, 49(1/2), 39-51. Retrieved November 2, 2008, from Arts Module database. (Document ID: 23916952).
- Nich Harway. The Immediate Experience Robert Warshow
- Independent, The London, June 6, 2008
- Daniel M. Kimmel (2007, November 2). `Gangster’ a riveting tale of ’70s drug wars :[ALL Edition]. Telegram & Gazette,p. E3. Retrieved November 2, 2008, from ABI/INFORM Trade & Industry database. (Document ID: 1377331321).
- A Pinewood Dialogue with Paul Schrader. Moderated by Chief Curator, David Schwartz (Jan 10th, 1999), http://www.movingimage.us/pinewood/files/pinewood/2/51139_programs_transcript_html_224.htm