Conventions of a mob gangster film
By Casey Jefferies
Although codes and conventions change all the time, I am exploring the typical codes
and conventions of the mob gangster genre in order to create a film opening based up
these codes and conventions.
Gangsters are also called mobsters, a term derived from mob and the suffix -ster.
Violence and murder are often seen as a typical gangster genre convention.
This has been a convention of the gangster genre as violence and murder represent a lot
of power and authority and that role is well established by a gangster in a
gangster film, for example in „Reservoir Dogs‟ the scene were Mr Blonde cuts of the
victims ear, this represents the power that the antagonist has over the protagonist and
therefore how violence is a convention of the gangster genre. Furthermore the affect the
spectator feels from scenes of violence would be that of disgust but also know that these
are key scenes in establishing the gangster within the film.
Another convention of the gangster genre would be the use of wealth,
again being wealthy in a gangster movie means that the antagonist
(gangster) has more power and authorities therefore making the antagonist
seem like a more powerful figure within the film. Wealth is also used as a
way of making a gangster lifestyle more appealing to the spectator, as
usually in the films the gangster has a classic, expensive cars which
makes them seem more appealing as a hero rather than someone would
does bad things for a personal gain.
Lastly a convention of the gangster genre would be the rise and fall of the gangster.
This is where by the spectator has seen the gangster throughout the film getting
what he wants through crime, all these crimes lead to success. At the end
of the film the gangster or mob of gangster are often punished for their
crimes, either by being brought to justice by the authorities or being killed by rival
gangs. An example of this is „The Godfather‟ (1972) were Vito Corleone (head
mobster) and his gang are all killed, following this a new boss (Don Corleone) is put in
charge and „The Godfather 2‟ is followed.
In conclusion I believe that the gangster codes and conventions make sure that the spectator knows that the gangster is in a
position of authority and has power upon his control. Although a rise and fall storyline is a convention it‟s to
make sure that good reins over evil and that crime doesn‟t pay, the message of „The Godfather‟ was certainly that and as a
convention is what is expected however codes and conventions are only their as a guide line and can be broken.
Another key point that I have learnt is that to make a successful gangster movie a lot of the codes and conventions have to be
well thought about to be made successful and to come across to the audience in a way that represents the gangster genre.
Mise en scene
Mise en scene is a term used to signify the director‟s control over what appears in the
film frame. Mise en scene includes those aspects of film that overlap with the art of a
theatre: setting, lighting, costume, and the behavior of the figures. Realism is also tied in
to this concept because it allows the viewer to determine if the setting, characters, and
costumes are realistic. In controlling the mise en scene, the director stages the event for
Mise en scene often affects the conventions of the gangster genre. In gangster films the gangsters often wear suits which again show wealth
and power over anyone less superior then they are. Suits may also represent how they think that they look professional and that what they do is
a career and that this lifestyle fits into the norm of everyday society. Suits also represent how they present themselves well and therefore care
for other people‟s opinions, although through violence and murder they show how they‟re not ready to accept other peoples values and
opinions and therefore are people who are often misunderstood through their actions and how they behave themselves.
Mise en scene
Location is a key element in making a gangster movie. Typically big cities are used as
these are the places were more crime is committed and therefore more crime is ready to
commit. Also a big city location means that there are more people to control as a
gangster is all about gaining power within the less powerful of society.
Big cities such a New York and Chicago are typically used, films which are set in New
York or Chicago include:
The Godfather and the Godfather 2 (NYC)
Public Enemy (Chicago)
Gangs of New York (NYC)
By having a large location like New York and Chicago it means that there are many locations to choose from and a typical location for a killing or
crime would be in many of New York‟s alleyways. And in old style gangster movies usually a shoot-out would occur in a bar or club between rival
gang members. Another location for a robbery is usually a bank were by the gangster takes from the hard working and keeps the money for
himself, bank robberies of this sort usually end in a fatality. An example of a gangster bank robbery would be „Public Enemy‟ were by John
Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp and based upon a bank robber/ gang member) robs a bank during the great depression in America (1930s).
One director who is known for his cinematography
and use of mise en scene is Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese‟s film Goodfellas, has multiple examples of the theatrical concept of mise en scene.
One aspect of mise en scene is the setting. Goodfellas takes place in Queens in New York City. It beings during the 1950s and ends in the
1980s. Historically, New York City is a known place for the Italian mob. By having the setting in this area, the viewer would believe that mob related
activities take place there. Two other aspects are costumes and the behavior of the characters. In many gangster films, the Italian mobster is usually
well dressed. They typically wear nice clothes such as a shirt and tie. Scorsese went along with this notion in Goodfellas. All of the characters
wear fancy clothes and look like they are Italian so they could be depicted as Italian mobsters. They have an Italian accent and many of their
conversations are about illegal activities that they would partake in. They give off a hard and fierce attitude to those who do not know them. Lighting is
also an aspect of mise en scene. In the beginning scene of the movie, the three main characters are shown murdering a high-ranking Italian mobster.
There is a red light in the scene, which has an underlying significance. The red light appears to almost look like a flashlight. The lighting resembles a
blood like color and it does not allow the viewer to see the blood that is covering the characters. The red light gives off a notion of death. The beginning
scene is the movie is a flash-forward to a later part of the movie. Scorsese uses a strong narrative form to tie in the significance of that scene to what
happens to the characters after it. After the beginning scene in the film, it tells the story that builds up to that particular part of the movie. It is significant
because after the murder, it turns series of events that leads to the demise of the three main characters
Analysing film openings
In the first few seconds of the opening, we see credits
wipe and fly across the screen in a white/grey text and
black background. These include the director and
institution of the film. There are sounds of passing cars
in the background acting as a synchronous sound with
the credit‟s movement.
There‟s then a jump cut to a mid shot of the characters
inside the car, where it is silent. This leaves the audience
in a state of confusion and interest in what has happened
and what will happen. They are all wearing suits which
implies formality, however the man on the left has his shirt
unbuttoned and appears slobby.
The man in the boot is revealed and a zoom movement
into him is used to draw the audience in further. Fake
blood has been used on contrasting white sheets and on
the man‟s skin to make it obvious that he has been
It then cross cuts to a mid shot of the rear of a car and
then slowly tracks alongside the car to appear as it we
are overtaking it to the left. The dark lighting suggests
that this is during the night-time, adding to the mystery
of the scene.
We then hear diegetic rumbling in the back of the car
which the characters show confusion about . They
exchange heated, confused dialogue for the first time
in the scene.
As the men surround the boot, fear and tension is
created for the audience as they are left unsure of
what is in the boot. There is a subtle zoom movement
into the boot which creates anticipation as we are
drawn into the scene.
The rear lights of the car create a red lighting over the
three men‟s mid shot. Red had connotations of danger
which mixed with the dark lighting creates a
mysterious feel. The man of the left is wielding a
spade as a feeble attempt at self defence to whatever
is in the boot. This foreshadows danger ahead.
Analysing film openings
There is nothing out of the
ordinary about the couple, as both
seem to be dressed as you would
expect to see. This goes against
the conventions of a gangster film
and it is only when you listen to
the content of their discussion that
you realise they are in fact,
The first (opening) frame is a still shot of a dictionary
definition in the dictionary style format of the word „pulp‟.
It is clear that the secondary meaning is the key
definition as it immediately sets the tone for the film
whereas the first holds no significance. It fades in and
out softly which I feel indicates that Tarantino (director)
intended it to be kept in mind while watching the film.
The silence during this frame supports that idea.
The next shot is a close up of a waitress who has come
over to offer more coffee to the couple. She seems
reasonably happy to serve them, is well lighted by the
window and has minimal makeup on.
This then cross cuts to a mid two shot of the two main
characters in the opening scene having a conversation over
food. This establishes the relationship between the pair. The
man is smoking and lying back, implying non-conformity as well
as his liberal use of swear words. The woman sits up straight
and seems polite, which is a vast contrast to the man. The shot
uses high level lighting from the large window behind them.
There is only diegetic sound in the form of background
conversation and activity and quiet music being played which
we would expect to hear in a diner. The soft sound of traffic tells
the audience that they are in a busy environment.
The woman gratefully accepts the coffee, leading to
a match on action shot of the waitresses arm
pouring the coffee. The woman begins to act a lot
more friendly towards the waitress. There is diegetic,
synchronous sound of the coffee pouring as she tips
the coffee jug.
(Over the shoulder shot) As the man mentions the possibility of having the kill someone, the woman
smiles sweetly and places her head on her arm and responds happily with “I‟m not gonna kill
anybody”. This is strongly against the typical conventions of a gangster film as we would expect a
much darker discussion surrounding killing.
The stereotypical view of a
gangster/criminal would be that of
wearing dark suits, discussing
criminal plans in a dark area,
perhaps at night. This goes
against the brightly lit and busy
daytime scene in Pulp Fiction.
Next comes an over the shoulder shot which leads to a reverse shot of the woman‟s reaction to what the man is
saying. The woman becomes increasingly interested in what the man has to say. There is hard lighting on the
window side of their faces due to the positioning of the window. This scene is not following conventions, as at
this point the couple are acting like a couple towards each other, whilst talking about the strong and violent
subject of robbery or perhaps armed robbery.
Analysing film openings
The opening begins with a very slow jazz soundtrack. A plain
black background, which connotes wealth, death, mystery, and
evil, is contrasted with white writing, which has connotations of
coldness, fear and again, death. The writing simply says 'The
Godfather' with puppet strings attached to the word 'father'. This
symbolises the control that the godfather in the film has, and, as
the audience will discover, how he controls people below him like
a puppeteer controls his puppets.
The title disapears and the audience is left with
a black screen, emphasising the connotations of
the colour black, and also adding mystery and
suspense - we don't know what will follow.
A male voice-over begins in an
italian accent with the line "I
believe in America", suggesting
where the film is set, and we
fade in to see the man (Pacino)
who is speaking. The camera
begins with a close up as he
talks to the camera and the
camera zooms out very slowly
whilst he tells us about his
daughter's rape. The mise en
scene at this point is all dark,
with only the man's collar being
the only colour of white,
reflecting the title screen with
white contrasting with black.
Throughout the sequence, a range of shot types are used.
These vary from slow zooms outwards, which draw the viewer
in, to over the shoulder shots which are an innovative way of
depicting a conversation. They add variety for the audience, as
well as being very effective.
As we zoom out, however, we discover with the technique of an over
the shoulder shot, that the man is infact talking to someone else. The
shot now reveals brown mise en scene - a wooden table, with a
couple of papers on, making it seem to the audience like some kind
of office. The camera stops zooming out, and Pacino begins to cry,
and is given a drink by another man (presumably alcoholic) which
shows the audience the flaws of the protagonist - his emotion for his
daughter, and his drinking habit. This sequence also reveals that our
first thought that there was only one person present was incorrect there are at least three men present, but it is still unknown where this
is set and who the men are. The camera then tracks to focus on a
close up of the two men whispering to each other, but we are unable
to hear what they say.
After this sequence, the camera's position changes
to show, using a close-up, the second man that was
introduced (Brando). We see that he too is dressed
in a black suit, and also can see typical thriller mise
en scene, consisting of slatted blinds. The camera
moves location again to show the entire scene revealing four male characters, all dressed in suits,
all brown mise en scene, and the only light coming
from the slats in the blinds. Another over -the shoulder shot is used to focus upon Brando, this time
as a mid shot, and a red flower can be noticed
clipped to his suit, giving connotations of disguised
danger. We also see him playing with a grey cat,
making him appear powerful as he doesn't give his
full attention. The cat connotes cunningness,
independance and suspicion, whilst the grey colour
has connotations of respect, strength and wisdom.
The previous shot finishes with the dialogue “that I
cannot do” and fades to a black screen alongside non
diegetic high intensity music. White credits fade onto
the black screen.
The mise en scene is made up primarily of a brown palette,
which represents wealth, fascism, and boldness. The brown
palette is very typical of American Gangster thrillers, which hints
to the audience the genre of the film. The lighting use is
simplistic - only coming from the slatted blinds, and a small light
to the right of the frame. The clothes the characters wear are
suits, indication wealth, superiority and a kind of
professionalism within them. It can be noted that the character
played by Brando is the only one to wear a red flower, and also
can be noted wearing a wedding ring, suggesting that he is a
trustworthy man, even though he seems to be the leader of this
group of men, who appear to believe they are above the law, as
Brando asks Pacino why he went to the police first to sort out
his daughter's rape, rather than him. This, teamed with their
accents, make it seem to the audience like some kind of mafia.