One of the most iconic figures in the entire cinematic world is the gangster. Every year many different films are made that can be put into the genre of a crime movie, and of these, most of them are centered on gangsters. This dark, dangerous, and degenerate character is easily identifiable and one of the American film viewers favorite character types for many different reasons. This sample paper focuses on the roles gangsters have played in American films; although many of these characters appear as villains in their respective films, they do not have some of the same qualities as a typical antagonist. This entertaining essay on the history and evolution of the gangster film genre is one of the many topics covered by Ultius writers.
The evolution of the American gangster in film
The gangster can be an all-encompassing character. Though they are individuals that operate outside of the law, and therefore should be an antagonistic character type, the portrayal of a gangster can lend itself to many qualities and struggles the common viewer has to face and exemplify the extremes of human error. It is not unusual to see a gangster as a tragic hero; they want to do what is right, but ultimately get lost along the way. We also can relate to the gangster because he or she is typically in pursuit of goals that our society holds to be important and many strive to achieve. Many gangster films center on:
- The idea of capitalism (in the achievement of wealth)
- The American dream
- Gaining power and notability
- Being in charge of one’s own life
These are all qualities that society has deemed desirable and are taught as end goals to a successful career and/or life. The gangster can be related to as a manifestation of the most extreme way in achieving these goals that the common viewer would never actually follow with to go about their own life. This makes the gangster one of the best characters for viewers everywhere for their ability to let someone see a physical manifestation of what would happen should he or she follow through on their own wild fantasies.
Early gangster films: Little Caesar and Scarface (1932)
First and foremost, it is important to look at the evolution of the gangster character in cinematic history. Some of the earliest, and most influential gangster films were released right as the silent movie era came to a close. These films were centered on the life of Al Capone; as he was the most famous and influential gangster of that time and the perpetrator of countless violent acts and criminal behaviors. Two films in the early 1930’s, Little Caesar and Scarface (1932), served as the most important films during this time period because they served as foundational pieces for the entire gangster genre. These two films have some of the common elements introduced to film viewers that gangster movies still will use to make the audience feel empathy towards the films characters:
- In these two films, the two main characters, Rico and Tony, are both from Italian immigrant families that struggle to be accepted into American mainstream culture.
- Both films feature the long rise to power that the character goes through followed by a short, usually violent fall from grace that is mostly motivated by the own character’s mistake or overstep of his or her power.
- As with many gangster films to come, these two films portray the police force as an antagonist, which shows the ineffectual officers not being able to contend with the intellectual gangster until he or she makes their own mistake that leads to their ultimate downfall.
- Finally, these films introduce the idea of a gangster being totally egomaniacal. The characters are emotionless, calculating individuals that remove themselves from situations before making actions. This trait initially leads to their success and rise to power, however at some point the gangster will let his or her emotion get in the way and become vulnerable, lose their edge, and are eventually destroyed by it.
Movies like Little Caesar and Scarface helped to lay the foundation of how gangster films would be constructed for decades to come.
Though early gangster films helped to set the stage for character identification of the gangster, there was also the introduction of the film that centered on stopping a gangster. The G-Man Phase saw a shift from telling the story of the gangster’s rise to power and portraying the gangster as some sort of tragic, misunderstood hero to telling the story of the lawful crime fighter that stops at nothing to bring the gangster to justice. This phase in cinematic history lasted quite briefly, 1935-1938, but it too left its mark on films to come. An iconic film of its time, G-Men serves as a perfect example of a film in this era of cinematic history. In this film, an FBI agent portrayed by James Cagney goes on a revenge type mission against organized crime for killing his friend, and fellow agent, in the line of duty. The movie has just as much violence as a gangster film and even violates the time’s production code, however was accepted. Movies of this time have the important distinction of being labeled acceptable because they follow not a lawless gangster, but a member of the government that is trying to stop a dangerous criminal (G-Men).
Another developed subgenre from gangster movies are detective films. The detective genre had long been popular in literature with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s tales like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Detective films, like those of the G-Men phase, center around the notion of gangsters being mysterious and evil characters. Movies of this time featured a brooding, intellectual detective as the film’s protagonist who must solve a crime like a puzzle and figure out who committed that crime. In these films, we can see many features that are similar to the typical gangster film. Some of the common elements include:
- Urban settings
- Dark streets
- Seedy nightclubs
- Rundown hotel rooms
- Abandoned warehouses
They are populated with generally gritty characters. These films had direct ties to the gangster genre as they were, in a sense, a spinoff of what had already been made, however as the protagonist was not a gangster, and many times was trying to stop gangsters or pin crimes on them, these films helped to portray the idea that a gangster was not someone that any reasonable person would try to become with his or her life.
Gangster films as biopics
The late 1940’s saw a decline in the popularity of gangster films as the United States was struggling with economic recovery and engaged in World War II, leaving people to have to deal with more pressing issues than watching movies about fictional characters. However, the end of the war saw the reemergence of the gangster movie. In the 1950’s, the subgenre of gangster biographies became somewhat notable. These movies portrayed the retelling of the life of a famous gangster but took some creative liberties about their actual nature. By stretching the truth about the gangster portrayed, the movie was able to put them into a more interesting story arc. Films would take such notable gangsters as Babyface Nelson or Legs Diamond and then amplify their own character personalities to make for more interesting stories. Babyface Nelson is portrayed as a classic psychopath and Legs Diamond is given a God complex where he believes he cannot be killed. Though this genre would exaggerate the gangster’s psychological profile, the stories and films could take more interesting turns because of these overhyped character flaws, which lead to the gangster biography having some successful early films such as The Untouchables or Machine Gun Kelly and would later have a resurgence in films such as Bonnie and Clyde.
The rogue cop
The 1950’s also set up one of the other sub-genres of gangster films that have become quite popular since its creation, the rouge cop. This film style shows a law-enforcement agent that goes to the edge of what is morally correct to stop a criminal. The film Big Heat is iconic for this genre. The film features Glen Ford, Gloria Graham and Lee Marvin portraying the characters of this violent, shocking film. The film introduces a plot point that would be used for many films to come: the eventual destruction of an entire crime sydicate as the result of the influence of a woman. In Big Heat, the protagonist avenges the murder of his wife leading to the downfall of the syndicate. Further, women in this movie are portrayed as giving helpful information to the main character and antagonists that insult and provide serious obstacles for the protagonist to overcome (Big Heat).
The popularity of the gangster genre created in the United States has spread over the world. Unlike many American genres that have been popular at one time and since faded in worldwide prominence, such as musicals or westerns, the gangster genre has the worldwide audience captivated. Many foreign directors have made their own gangster films, and modern cinema in foreign countries will still produce multiple films that deal with crime and the underworld every year. Some of the notable countries that have really been fascinated with the gangster genre include:
The motivating factors and time periods that each of these nations gained interest in the gangster genre varies, but their overall fascination with creating films in the genre has not changed since their initial involvement with it.
Italy’s initial gangster films were very politically motivated because Mussolini’s regime denied that organized crime existed within Italy. This lead to the creation of films that took critical looks at the internal failings of the government that allowed for people such as Mussolini to come to power to start with. Eventually, the genre would shift and take new form as the times changed in Italy. The focus on the creation and evolution of the Sicilian mafia, however, was not a prevalent genre in Italian gangster films and was nearly exclusively an American focus.
The evolution of the gangster genre in Japan was different, centering upon domestic issues central to Japan. The 1960’s were the most influential film period for Japanese gangster films, and they even became the most dominant genre within the country of that decade. The films that were the most successful portrayed juvenile delinquency. Films such as The Son’s Burial were created to attempt to accurately display the reality of the criminal world without romanticizing the genre as other nation’s gangster films had done. There was then a shift in the archetypical gangster movies within Japan as the many films started to look at the clash of power from old style gangsters to the new generation. These films would look at the Yakuza who placed honor and loyalty as their most important traits against the young criminals that did not care about code. The Yakuza essentially gamblers who lived by this unspoken criminal code whereas the youth were basically robbers and murders that lived by no rules. These latter films romanticized and encapsulated the struggle for feudal values that held in Japan for many years.
The evolution of the American gangster in film
The gangster genre has been one of the most influential film genres that the world has even known. Tracing back to the early 20th century, gangster films have seen many changes in both their creation and production. There are common elements that were introduced in the earliest films that have lasted to modern times, however. The idea of living the American dream, gaining power and authority, having a sense of control over one’s fate, and manipulating the capitalist system have all been important aspects of gangster films both in the earliest gangster movies to Hollywood’s productions today. The gangster character can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the viewers’ desires to gain these traits upon which our society places so much emphasis.
The gangster film reaches modernity
The decades of the 1970’s and 1980’s did not see any significant changes to the gangster film genre. The United States, Britain, France, and other countries continued to create gangster movies, but there were no real changes to the genre. The 1990’s were the time of the greatest change of the genre in recent history. Countries such as the United States and Japan continued with the usual portrayal of gangsters in film and took no real strides to makes changes to what had been made or done before, but the movies of England took a new approach to the gangster genre. Films such as The Krays, Kiss Me Deadly, and Shallow Grave changed the way that gangster movies had to be portrayed and set the foundation for new ways of portraying these films. These movies all made use of witty dialogue, character development, and unfolding situations to put a new spin on the genre of gangster films.
The contemporary gangster
The 1990’s also saw the intersection of humor into the genre. Movies such as Pulp Fiction or Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels featured the use of offbeat portrayals to create two of the more popular crime movies of modern time. The characters in these sort of films are quite strange and outlandish bordering on outrageous spouting diatribes about the international nomenclature of hamburgers or emblazoning personal accessories with profanity laden names. The quirky humor of otherwise tense situations adds a new element to the gangster film genre. Additionally, these sorts of films are known to have disjointed story lines that follow multiple characters while still giving limited information about motives and actions that leaves the viewer in a state of confused interest about the film’s plot as a whole. By creating an environment such as this, films of this nature can take dramatic plot twists at the end of the film that ties all of the characters’ subplots together to really confuse the viewer but still make for a film that is quite enjoyable.
Homage to the classics
Modern filmmakers take elements from all the above-mentioned films and sub-genres when creating gangster films today. These films build upon themes and motifs of movies made decades ago to tell new stories about the criminal world. Modern gangster films can be both dark and serious while having humorous, lighthearted moments that tell a rich story about the criminal world. The elements that these movies portray still fall to some of the original themes that were prevalent in the gangster movies of the 1930’s. The ideas of capitalism, living the American dream, gaining power and authority, and generally being in charge of one’s own life are still some of the most important themes in any gangster movie presented to today’s audience.
Money is the motivation
There is no doubt that capitalism is a motivating factor for many gangster films produced. The idea of using the system to gain financial security and wealth is an embedded idea into modern culture. We, as a society, have placed much emphasis on gaining financial security through our free market economy. Gangster films play off this idea for many motivations of their characters. A film’s lead role is many times motivated by getting rich because he or she came from nothing and saw how big money ran the world. Their actions throughout the film are to get to a higher status in society by acquiring the most money in the shortest time possible.
This is usually done by unconventional means that delve into illegal activities. Viewers can use the actions of the gangster to relate to their own life in a sense through this. Most viewers of a gangster film would never actually perform the activities that the movie’s characters perform such as murder, contributing to the drug culture of America through drug trafficking, or prostitution, however the viewer can see the consequences that getting involved in these trades have. By manipulating vices that attract an addictive crowd, the gangster is able to accumulate a large amount of money very quickly through his or her own cunning and careful planning. Most viewers will see themselves in the character as they will feel they too could rise to such power with their own cunning and planning if they truly wanted to go into such business. This idea of manipulating the capitalist system is also tied to another important element of the gangster genre: living the American dream.
The American Dream
One of the most important aspects of most gangster films comes in the idea of living the American dream. By the American dream, the real idea is that if an individual works hard, then they can achieve greatness. That being said, the idea of the American dream can be applied to films that are not taking place in America necessarily so long as the character is a hard-working individual that comes from nothing to try to reach the top of their industry of business. Many gangster films take this approach to the motivation of its characters. The gangster is shown to be a person that comes from a lower socioeconomic status and turns to crime to avoid being in that same financial and social situation for the rest of their life. As a young, aspiring individual, the character tries to make a living from a lawful, conventional source but quickly is exposed to the frustrations of working in the system. As Michael L. Stephens, author of Gangster Films notes,
“those films reflected the sentiment of the time, which still exists today, and we still identify with that anti-Wall Street, anti-establishment feeling,” (Beale).
The viewers can relate to the frustration of the character because they have also had to deal with the sometimes-unfair nature of the real world.
Playing by the rules is for suckers
In gangster films, often the character will be introduced to a criminal figure that shows him or her just what can be achieved in working outside the law. The character will quickly begin to make much more money and rise through the ranks of the criminal world. Basically, the character gets all of the benefits the American dream promised, but they are achieving them by working in illicit activities. This allows the viewers to almost live out a sort of fantasy for themselves. Most people would never actually undertake the actions that a gangster film’s characters do, however many people have dreamt about being in the position of the character at some point of their life. The films, therefore, provide a means for seeing a physical manifestation of their wild fantasy.
Varied perception of gangsters
Tied to this idea is one of the other root causes for actions within gangster films. Gaining power and authority are usually outcomes that gangster film characters work toward. The films tend to show the corruption that the system has in it. Those that have power through legitimate means are not ones that usually give up what they have achieved. It makes for an incredibly difficult means for a person that starts from nothing to get power or authority if those in power do not want them to succeed. The gangsters are portrayed as sort of modern Robin Hoods in this sense. A prime example of this is the portrayal of John Dillinger in films. Many considered him to be a dangerous criminal for his actions but others saw him as a modern-day Robin Hood in a way. His robberies of banks were seen positively by society because he was:
“stealing from the banks which had been foreclosing on hapless debtors” (John Dillinger).
Films portray this idea of the gangster in other aspects as well. The basic idea is to show that the individual is a good person in general and they are simply working against a flawed system. We are therefore more likely to feel empathy towards the gangster though their actions lead to the deaths of many.
Personal autonomy of gangsters
One of the other most intriguing aspects of the gangster genre that helps to entertain the thoughts and emotions of the audience is the idea that a gangster has almost complete control of his or her own life. The gangster film’s principle character is usually portrayed as someone that comes from a life where they had not control over a stressful situation when they were young. Common examples of this being used in films are
- Past family violence and childhood trauma
- Unsteady financial times
- Rejection based on a cultural identity
It is because of factors like this that the character turns to the criminal lifestyle in many cases. They feel that they were weak and feeble in their youth and that prominent gangsters of their youth were not only respected but would never have to deal with the same issues that the character dealt with as a child. Motivated by factors such as these, the character enters the criminal world so that he or she can have that power and control.
One of the last major motivating aspects that gangster films encompass is the feeling of desperation. Director David Gitonga lays a question that many consider when viewing a film based in the gangster genre. He states,
“We keep saying crime is wrong, but are we really looking at why there is crime?” (Stenman).
His film examines the criminal world of Kenya and the individuals that are drawn to that lifestyle. It really brings home the idea that many people that get involved in the activities do so because they have no alternative to provide for themselves or their families. When faced with being homeless, jobless, and starving or being part of an organization that will provide for the person but on questionable moral and lawful activities, many people will do what they have to do to survive. Though no one condones the behavior that many gangster movies’ characters perform, there is a sense of empathy that viewers will feel to those that are motivated by little choice.
Gangster films as cautionary tales
The way in which gangsters justify their wrongful actions is key to understanding the character type. These characters justify all types of immoral behavior such as:
- Violent behavior
All of these are done in pursuit of the quest to have the ability to be in complete control of their life. The irony in this is that by wanting to be in control of their own fate, the character is for a time a puppet of someone else’s desires and ambitions. In many cases, the character eventually will rise to the top of the criminal organization and have complete control of their own fate only to realize that they have lost their identity along the way. What began as an essentially a good person trying to make their own way has been buried by the criminal act in which they have taken part, fundamentally changing their character. Though the life of a gangster may seem as a way to gain freedom, wealth, and security, the cost of actions cannot be undone and will weigh heavily upon the person forever.
Transcending the Genere
Gangster films can portray many different ideas through film. The films can take a variety of different points of view and tackle many different situations. The sub-genres that have been created because of the gangster genre have produced some of the most acclaimed films of all times, and the continuing development of new sub-genres continue to be new sources of innovative ways to create films. Whereas older films would show gangsters as serious, dark, and dangerous characters, modern films may use humor as one of the defining characteristics of the criminals in a film, the ramifications of which greatly evolved the genre. Because of it, the fact that they are capable of extremely violent behavior is simply brushed to the side.
The shifts of the genre have been noted from the 1930’s to the 2010’s. The gangster genre as a whole has come a long way since the early silent movie era films featuring Al Capone. Some of the most famous films of the time are even being remade to retell the stories that were so popular back in their original time of creation. For example, Scarface of the 1930’s was remade in the early 1980’s and has become one of the most iconic gangster films made in the modern era even though it was, basically, a remake of the 1930’s adaptation of the film that set the foundation for the gangster genre as a whole.
As viewers, we do not necessarily have to condone the actions of the gangster, but we do feel empathy towards him or her because they are simply trying to achieve what it is that many of us want as well. It is through the means that the common person would never attempt that the gangster gains his or her power, which aids in the fantasy of the viewer can live through the film. By seeing a character act in ways that they never would, the viewer is able to see the consequences of a completely different lifestyle than that of their own. Because many gangster films end with the principle character’s fall from grace, viewers are still left with the imbedded idea that the actions the gangster has taken are not the right way to live one’s life. Either way, the gangster genre has proven itself to be one of the most important genres of film and will continue on as one of America’s greatest film achievements.
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Stenman, Jim. “Gangster movie Kenya’s first Oscar contender.” CNN. 09 2012: n. page. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. .