Gangster Films


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thomas Leitch

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

James Cagney.

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

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

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