Gangster films have been categorized and theorized in many ways. Perhaps the most illuminating categories concern the different relations between gangster heroes and their organizations and between gangs and the larger society.
The earliest films to emphasize the fearsome power of gangsters came from abroad. In Fant̂mas and its four sequels (France, 1913–1914), Louis Feuillade (1873–1925) presented the gangster as a master of disguise capable of thwarting the police at every turn, a pattern expanded to epic length and complexity in Fritz Lang's (1890–1976) German film, Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit ( Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler , 1922). These films present the gangster as an octopus and his organization as a vast, omnipotent conspiracy seen as if from a great distance. This paranoid pattern, common in American political thrillers, is rarely found in American gangster films; the closest American analogue is The Phenix City Story .
Far more common is the view of the gangster as a once-normal citizen corrupted by greed, lust, or a masculine drive to power. Films that begin their stories before the gangster's rise usually offer sociological explanations for the hero's moral deviance. The Public Enemy sets the pattern for gangster films that root organized crime in economic deprivation among urban immigrants. Despite its gangster trappings, most of the seven murders in The Big Sleep (1946) are committed to protect or avenge a lover or a spurned offer of love. The four heroines of Set It Off (1996) are driven to bank robbery by racism and the oppression of the white men who control their financial destiny. Criminal gangs in these films, as in Once Upon a Time in America and Gangs of New York , are often fatal extensions of generational rivalries or childhood friendships—a particularly prevalent motif in gangsta films like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society .
Against this view of criminal gangs as a deformed version of childhood gangs may be set the strictly professional view of gangsters in The Asphalt Jungle , in which each member of the gang is recruited for a particular skill and paid a set wage, "like plumbers." American heist films, less brutal and romantic than French prototypes like Rififi , adopt a view of society at once technologically advanced and socially atavistic and ultimately ascribe the gang's failure to the unstable nature of the capitalistic ties that hold its members together. Frankly comic capers like Ocean's Eleven (1960, 2001), The Hot Rock (1972), Bank Shot (1974), and Ocean's Twelve (2004) get laughs by emphasizing the impossibility of the gang's task and the ingenuity of means taken to succeed. When the job looks easy, Hollywood caper films allow the gang to disintegrate under its own pressure, as in the obligatory double crosses of The Killing (1956), Heist , and The Score .
More broadly, criminal gangs can be framed explicitly as images of the societies they oppose. In comic versions like The Ladykillers (1955, 2004) and A Fish Called Wanda (1988), the gang's organization reflects the social order as it might be distorted by a funhouse mirror. But parody also informs less obviously comic versions like The League of Gentlemen (England, 1960), Fargo (1996), and Brian De Palma's (b. 1940) Scarface (1983), whose criminals, like the childlike, simian Tony Camonte in Hawks's Scarface , provoke laughter by their ill-informed attempts to mimic the behavior of the society whose most basic rules they are flouting. Still less comic versions like The Godfather films and GoodFellas exemplify John Baxter's premise that criminals are created by the society against which they think they are rebelling. Eugene Rosow has traced the closeness with which pre-Code gangsters reflected their audiences' fears and desires. More recently, the iconic gangster played by Godfather alumnus Al Pacino (b. 1940) in Donnie Brasco (1997) is destroyed by the undercover cop he adopts as his protégé as surely as the iconic gangster played by Robert De Niro in Heat (1995) faces off against the iconic cop played by Pacino as fully his equal, a potentially tragic figure destroyed by his mirror image. Like "G" Men , Heat reminds viewers that Hollywood cops are created in the image of Hollywood gangsters, not the other way around. The gangs and gangsters in these films, like Tom Hanks's doomed hit man in Road to Perdition (2002), are marked by the incompatible drives toward loyalty, equality, assimilation, and unlimited upward mobility characteristic of all American culture. Indeed Jack Shadoian, taking his cue from Robert Warshow, has called the gangster the archetypal American dreamer whose doomed trajectory reveals the futility of the American Dream.
Finally, gangsters can be portrayed as frankly heroic rebels against a corrupt or bankrupt society, more sympathetic, like Frankenstein's monster, than the society that has spawned and rejected them. The doomed robbers in The Asphalt Jungle , Bonnie and Clyde , They Live by Night (1949), and its remake, Thieves Like Us (1974), approach the frontier of the gangster film, a frontier crossed by outlaw films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Thelma and Louise (1991). Tarantino's ironic spin on this pattern is to create a world in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill from which the law and its representatives have vanished, leaving criminal culture, for better or worse, as the only game in town. Whether these films can truly be called gangster films is open to question. A world whose criminals provide the last best hope for the social order is a world in which gangsters like Robin Hood no longer seem like gangsters, no matter how many laws they break.
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