Film gangsters are as old as film narrative. The Great Train Robbery (1903), with its twelve-minute story of a railroad heist marked by meticulous planning, unexpected violence, and condign punishment, would be acknowledged as the first gangster film if its gangster credentials were not overshadowed, as in similar films to come ( Jesse James , 1939; Rancho Notorious , 1952; Man of the West , 1958), by its western mise-en-scène . Silent gangster films, however, were less likely to follow The Great Train Robbery than The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), in which the Snapper Kid, a tough, violent, personable criminal denizen of a New York ghetto, forms a momentary but touching alliance of convenience with the film's law-abiding heroine before returning to his life of crime. The leading gangsters of the American silent screen were noble savages, from the eponymous hero of Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) to the economically successful but romantically doomed Bull Weed in
It is hardly surprising that these early films so inveterately romanticize the gangster. Urban lawbreakers living on the edge of polite society had a great deal in common with the working-class, largely immigrant audiences who followed their adventures in movie theaters. This subversive identification with the gangster hero was fostered throughout the 1920s by the Volstead Act, which made the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal from 1920 to 1933. So long as Prohibition was the law of the land in America, law-abiding citizens could get liquor only from underworld contacts. Hollywood's response was to paint the gangster as the disavowed Other of American society, the outsider without whom the social machinery lubricated by alcohol would have ground to a halt.
In the early 1930s, however, the image of the Hollywood gangster was dramatically transformed. The Great Depression, ushered in by the stock market crash of 1929, upended previously stable stratifications in American culture, ruining dozens of paper millionaires and throwing millions of Americans out of work. The Hollywood gangster, often based closely on the career of such real-life criminals as Al Capone (1899–1947) and John Dillinger (1903–1934), emerged as the logical hero for such a desperate moment, a rags-to-riches success story fueled by the dreams of audiences across the country. At the same time, a new complication emerged with the industry's widespread adoption of synchronized sound. Sound, as Jonathan Munby has pointed out, gave gangsters a voice, and that voice in such gangster classics as Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface was not only laconic and brutal but identifiably ethnic. No longer an urban Everyman, the gangster became the object of sociological study, a promethean overachiever whose ambition and greed doomed his aspirations to ethnic assimilation. Although James Cagney (1899–1986) as Tom Powers, the definitive Irish gangster in Public Enemy , and Paul Muni (1895–1967) as Tony Camonte were both given hand-wringing mothers as moral counterweights, their cautionary tales, along with that of Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973) as Rico Bandello in Little Caesar , strongly implied that ethnicity was fate.
Since 1930, Hollywood studios had subscribed to a Production Code designed to prevent government censorship. It was not until 1934, however, that the Code was widely enforced under public pressure organized in large part by the Catholic Legion of Decency. The effect on gangster films was immediate. The Code forbade many of the visual trappings on which gangster films had relied: drug use, automatic weapons, protracted scenes of violent death. More fundamentally, the Code ruled that crime was always to be punished, never presented as appealing. Overnight, gangster films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933) were pulled from release; post-Code gangsters like Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936) were less sympathetic and more vicious than their predecessors of a year or two earlier; and much of the energy that had once gone into gangster films was poured into police films like "G" Men (1935), whose fast-talking hero, Brick Davis (James Cagney), is given all the trappings of a gangster: fast cars, lethal firepower, and suspicious ties to organized crime. By the end of the decade, films like Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) were treating the gangster as a deviant social problem to be explained rather than a mirror image of official American culture.