Gangster films are films about gangsters, professional criminals who have banded together to commit crimes. This much is simple, and indeed a great deal of the genre's enduring appeal lies in its bold simplicity. As Robert Warshow noted fifty years ago, gangsters act out movie audiences' most violently untrammeled fantasies of unlimited upward mobility by following the golden rule of prototypical gangster hero Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932): "Do it first, do it yourself, and keep on doing it." Commentators from Carlos Clarens to Eugene Rosow have observed how movie gangsters plot, steal, and kill their way to economic and social supremacy until, like Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), they are alone at the "top of the world," though their meteoric rise is unfailingly followed by an even swifter fall. Yet the very name of the gangster film indicates three decisive complications at the heart of the genre: the gangster's status as both villain and hero; the chicken-and-egg relationship between gangsters and their gangs; and the variously reflective relationship between gangs and the societies against which they wage their criminal wars.
These problems are illustrated by the work of two acknowledged masters of the genre, Raoul Walsh (1887–1980) and Howard Hawks (1896–1977). Despite, or because of, the best efforts of the FBI, which rose to prominence by publicizing its pursuit of real-life gangsters in the 1930s, gangsters are perversely heroic figures, larger-than-life lawbreakers who triumph, at least for a time, over the laws of a community less vibrant than they are. Yet they are defined first and foremost as members of a gang more powerful than any one member. Whether Walsh and Hawks are directing westerns, war films, or gangster films (Walsh's High Sierra , 1941, and White Heat ; Hawks's Scarface ), they repeatedly explore the resulting tension between the heroic individual, almost always a male, and the community from which he derives his potency. In the case of the gangster film, a further complication, as Fran Mason has noted, emerges from the fact that criminal gangs, formed for the express purpose of providing a lawless alternative to the law-abiding social order, invariably cast themselves as imitations of the larger society in all its weaknesses. The resulting contradictions between heroism and heroic villainy, individual and communal identity, and lawless gangs and the laws necessary to their operation are the engine that drives the gangster film.