GangsterGangster films are those which focus on the lives ofcriminals or gangsters. It can also be based around theMafia, which has its own sub-genre of Mob Films. Filmgangsters are usually materialistic, street-smart, immoral, and self-destructive. A significantplotline is usually a rivalry with other gangsters. Crimeplots also include questions such as how the criminal willbe apprehended by police, or lawful authorities. There arealso often mysteries as to who stole a certain item. Theyrise to power with a tough cruel exterior while showing andesire for success and recognition, but underneath theycan show sensitivity and gentleness.
Early Gangster Films – The Silent EraOne of the first to mark the start of gangster/crime genrewas D. W. Griffiths The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1912about organized crime. It wasn’t the first gangsterfilm, however it is the first significant gangster film tohave survived. Films that were before this includedBiograph’s The Moonshiners in 1904.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)The Musketeers of Pig Alley is credited with being the firstgangster movie. It is also credited with being one of thefirst films to use “follow focus”, later to become a majortool in cinematography.
Underworld (1927)Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld in 1927 is oftenconsidered the first modern gangster film. It starredGeorge Bancroft and Clive Brook. It was also one of thefirst to be shot from the gangster’s point of view.Underworld won the very first Oscar for originalscreenplay.
The Sound Era – 1930sIt wasn’t until the sound era that gangster movies becamea popular source of entertainment for viewers, who wereinterested in breaking law and violence on screen. TheProhibition Era (when the USA banned alcohol between1920 and 1933), the St Valentines Day Massacre, real-lifegangsters such as Al Capone, and the rise of organisedcrime and urban violence encouraged this genre.The introduction of sound to films helped gangster filmsmassively, as the audience can really engage with the filmnow they can hear machine gun fire and car brakesscreeching.
The St. Valentines Day MassacreThe St. Valentines Day Massacre was an importantmoment for gangster films. It was the first real gangsterincident that was in the public eye, and got the publicinterested in gang warfare. The St. Valentines DayMassacre was the name given to the 1929 murder of 7mob associates, during a fight between Al Capone’sSouthside Italian gang, and Bugs Moran’s Northside Irish.
The Lights of New York (1928)The Lights of New York was reportedly the first “all-talking” motion picture, and therefore the first soundgangster film. It enhanced the urban crime dramas of thetime, crackling dialogue and sound effects of squealinggetaway car tires and gunshots. It was directed by BryanFoy and produced by Warner Bros. It cost $23,000 to makeand grossed over $1,000,000. It was also the first film todefine the crime genre.
Warner BrosWarner Bros was considered the best gangster filmstudio. They had three of the most established gangsteractors, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney andHumphrey Bogart. They also used Scarface star PaulMuni. All of these actors established and defined theircareers in this genre.
Scarface (1932)Directed by Howard Hawks and produced by HowardHughes, the film centres on gang warfare and policeintervention when rival gangs fight over control of a city.The extremely violent, landmark film in the portrayal ofItalian-American immigrant gangsters, included twenty-eight deaths, and the first use of a machine gun by agangster. This film was the basis for the hugely popularBrian De Palma 1983 remake featuring Al Pacino.
Hays Production CodeThe Hays Production Code was the first form ofcensorship placed on films. This spelled the end forgangster films glorifying the criminal and approving theirruthless methods. Film studios were forced to show theaudience that crime didn’t pay, and to present thecriminals as almost psychopaths.
G-Men (1935)In William Keighley’s G-Men, screen tough guy JamesCagney starred as a ruthless, revenge-seeking, impulsive, violent FBI agent to infiltrate criminalgangs on a crime spree in the Midwest. Although he wason the side of the law working undercover, he was just ascynical, brutal, and arrogant as he had been in his earliestgangster films.G-Men was the best example of the new ‘gangster-as-cop’sub-genre, as film studios tried to get round the HaysProduction Code.
The Roaring Twenties (1939)The Roaring Twenties is the first film made by WarnerBros three prized employees, director Raoul Walsh, andactors Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. It was arealistic, documentary-style, historical saga andchronicling of the Prohibition Era. It ended with Cagney’smemorable death scene on the snowy steps of a church.
High Sierra (1941)High Sierra was directed by Raoul Walsh and also starredHumphrey Bogart. The screenplay was adapted from aWilliam R. Burnett (also the author of Little Caeser andScarface). The film is also notable as the breakthrough inBogarts career, transforming him from supporting playerto leading man, and his success in High Sierra would leadto his being cast in many of his iconic roles.The film was noted for its extensive locationshooting, especially in the climactic final scenes, as theauthorities pursue Bogarts character, gangster "MadDog" Roy Earle, from Lone Pine up to the foot of themountain.
Film-NoirDuring the 1940s, gangster films take on a very “film-noir-ish” theme. This is partly down to the popularity of film-noir in the 1940s, and also down the Hays ProductionCode.Film-noir is French for ‘Black film’, and in gangster films ittends to involve a private detective fighting crime, forexample The Big Sleep.
The Big Sleep (1946)Directed and produced by Howard Hanks, the movie starsHumphrey Bogart as a male detective, and Lauren Bacallas the female lead in a film about the "process of acriminal investigation, not its results.”In 1997, the U.S. Library of Congress deemed this film"culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,"
Post-War FilmsAs stated earlier, as the decade of the 40s and the post-war period emerged, crime films became darker, morebrutal, violent, and cynical. Many crime/gangster filmswere actually film noirs. After World War II, gangsterswere often businessmen who represented large andcorrupt corporations (often anonymous). The first film toillustrate changes in the character of gangsters after WWIIwas Byron Haskins I Walk Alone (1948). Burt Lancastertook the role of Frankie Madison, an ex-con who faced achanged world and a double-cross by his partner after hisrelease from 14 years in prison.
Gun Crazy (1949)Also known as Deadly Is the Female, Gun Crazy wasselected for the National Film Registry. It is a film noirfeature film starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall in astory about the crime-spree of a gun-toting husband andwife. It was directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
Changing StylesCrime dramas of gun-crazed killers, daring or troubledprotagonists, or real-life criminals were commonplace,often with charismatic characters that evoked the earlier,30s style gangster films. There was an increased linkbetween original gangster films and the more modernfilm-noirs.
Machine-Gun Kelly (1958)Machine-Gun Kelly is a film directed by RogerCorman, chronicling the criminal activities of the real-lifeGeorge "Machine Gun" Kelly. The film was considered lowbudget, but received good critical reviews. The film wasthe first lead role for actor Charles Bronson.
The St. Valentines Day Massacre (1966)The St. Valentines Day Massacre is film based on the1929 Chicago mass murder of seven members of theNorthside gang that I mentioned earlier. It was directedby Roger Corman and written by Howard Browne. It had abudget of $2 175 000, making it one of the largest films ofits time.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)Arthur Penns landmark film set new screen standards forviolence, although it was joined by blue-grass music (amixture between African-American music and jazz) andslapstick-style robberies. It has a budget of $2 000 000and grossed over $70m at the box office. Like GunCrazy, Bonnie and Clyde portrays crime as attractive andintertwined with sex. It is regarded as one of the first filmsof the New Hollywood Era, and its success made moredirectors be more forward about presenting sex andviolence. The film’s ending also became iconic as one ofthe “bloodiest death scenes in cinematic history”
The Godfather TrilogyThe Godfather Trilogy are three of the most successfulgangland Mafia films ever made. They define theOrganised-Crime subgenre.The Godfather is an American epic crime film directed byFrancis Ford Coppola, based on the 1969 novel by MarioPuzo. It stars Marlon Brando, and is Al Pacino’s first majorfilm. It received Academy Awards for Best Picture, BestActor and Best Adapted Screenplay, and has beenselected for preservation in the United States NationalFilm Registry. It had a budget of $6.5m, and grossed over$245m. It is arguably known as the best gangster film ofall time.
Continued…The Godfather, Part II was released in 1974 under thedirection of Francis Ford Coppola, from a script co-writtenby Mario Puzo. The film is both a prequel and sequel toThe Godfather, with two parallel storylines. It wasnominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 6, includingBest Director, Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actor. Itwas also selected for preservation in the U.S. NationalFilm Registry.The Godfather, Part III was released in 1990. It completesthe story of Michael Corleone, a Mafia kingpin who triesto legitimize his criminal empire.
Continued…It had a budget of $54m, and grossed over $136m. It wasnominated for 7 Academy Awards.Director Francis Ford Coppola states that the Godfatherseries was in fact two films, and the third film is anepilogue.
Scarface (1983)Scarface is directed by Brian De Palma, written by OliverStone, produced by Martin Bregman and starring AlPacino as Tony Montana. A contemporary remake of theoriginal 1932 film of the same name, the film tells thestory of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who comes toMiami in 1980 as a result of the Mariel Boatlift, andbecomes a drug cartel kingpin during the cocaine boom ofthe 1980s. The movie chronicles his rise to the top ofMiamis cocaine empire. It had a budget of $25m andgrossed over $65m.
Recent Gangster FilmsRecent gangster films have shied away from the Mafiaobsession of the 70s and 80s and more towards aviolent, yet very clever criminal. For example, Bumpy inAmerican Gangster.
American Gangster (2007)American Gangster is an American biographical crime filmdirected by Ridley Scott and written by Steve Zaillian. Thefilm is based on the criminal career of Frank Lucas, agangster from La Grange, North Carolina who smuggledheroin into the United States on American service planesreturning from the Vietnam War. It stars DenzelWashington and Russell Crowe. It’s budget was $100mand it returned over $266m. It is the second biggestgrossing gangster film of all time.
The Departed (2009)The Departed is a 2006 American crime thrillerfilm, fashioned as a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong filmInfernal Affairs. The film was directed by Martin Scorseseand written by William Monahan. Like Infernal Affairsbefore, The Departed is noted for its star-studdedcast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, JackNicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, RayWinstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson and AlecBaldwin. It had a budget of $90m, and grossed a record-breaking $289m, making it the highest grossing gangsterfilm of all time.
ConclusionIn conclusion, the development of gangster films hascome a long way since the ultra-violent days of the 20sand 30s. Some of that change has been forced due to theimplementation of Hays Production Code, but taste haschanged as well. There was an almost obsession with theMafia and mob films in the 80s, which followed the dipinto film-noirs in the 50s. More recent gangster films havebeen heist films, about intelligent gangsters who defytechnology and high security measures to get what theywant.