Crime and gangster movies always exhibit a correlation in sense that they are both developed from the sinister actions that are always associated with gangsters. A gangster is a broad term that is used to generally used to refer to those people who do not operate within the boundaries of the law; for instance bank robbers, drug traffickers, underworld figures, outlaw hoodlums who are involved in constant killing of the innocent and many more.
The gangster movies always tend to idolize the gangster figures with a relation to the sinister activities that always define crime and the lifestyles of the gangsters (Dirks par.1). It cannot be argued yet, but the crime culture can be attributed to the rapid revolution of the crime and gangster movies since they were first produced. The theme behind almost all gangster movies is always the same although the crime genre has seen a tremendous transformation over the years.
Gangster films often tend to highlight the life events of a crime figure or the victims of crime and in most cases they attempt to glorify a given criminal figure or gang in the cast (Dirks par. 2). The idolized gangster in the film or in real life situation is always presented as an outlaw hero who draws admiration due to his toughness to go against the system, and in some cases the criminal figure is portrayed as villain to the society.
Almost all gangster films have the same plot and theme characteristic; the film gangsters are always presented as being materialistic, and tough to outdo the legal system and procedures. The plot characteristic is always based on criminal or gang rivalries that attempt to outdo each other.
Crime culture and gangster films have been around since the onset of the 20th century. Among the first movies under this genre was the film by D. W. Griffith during 1912: The Musketeers of Pig, The movie was basically about organized crime. It marked history as the first significant gangster movie that has survived against the tales of time.
Other examples of early criminal movies included The Moonshiners which was produced during 1904, A desperate encounter between the Burglars and police (1905) produced by Edwin Potter and Mc Cutcheon Wallace, and the Black Hand (1906) by the same producers.
Their availability and significance was very problematic at the times and resulted to them not being a major hit at the box office during those times. The early gangster films made use of rebellious figure as the main center point of the film to challenge the system and the business ethics, through which the gangsters made a successful career illegally. This meant that gangsters were respectable in the society irrespective of the unethical means of wealth acquisition (Dirks par. 5)
During 1915, the gangster movie genre witnessed a different transformation; one characterized by street violence. This was evident in the movie the regeneration (1915); it depicted violence on the streets of New York due to a boy who was subject to social changes before becoming a gangster.
Still under the same generation, there were gangster movies that were produced such as the underworld; which is considered to be the first modern gangster movie. The movie had the various elements of crime and its production was basically from a gangster’s point of view. It marked history as the first gangster movie that won an Oscar award under the category of original screen play.
The dawn of the 30’s presented again a major shift in the history of gangster movies; it is commonly referred to as the era of the talking pictures. It was then that the gangster movies began to become entertaining and majority of the audience reported liking the violence on screen. The gangster movies of the thirties were actually based on criminal occurrences and the existence of actual gangsters rather than myths as depicted by the first gangster films.
This was the dawn for the criminal culture and so was the rise in popularity of gangster films (Horsley par. 3). One of the key factors that made crime genre in film industry more interesting was due to the fact that the American gangster was portrayed differently and as a result, the cinema audience got much more satisfaction in terms gangster violence and violence against the gangster himself.
This made the audiences be of the view that criminal culture and rebellion was primarily due to the repressive social change in the United States. The outcome was that movie producers exploited this mythology to produce more gangster movies that could appeal to the audiences.
The sound era can be attributed for the rise of gangster movies as more sound effects could be incorporated to the films to make movie appealing to the audience. One such movie that incorporated all the video and audio elements was the City streets which were shot during 1931 by Dashiell Hammett.
Warner Bros. Studio was one of best known studios for the production of gangster films during the times. Some of the famous movie stars in the genre of crime and gangster films included: Edward Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Early gangster movie stars included Raft George and Muni Paul.
The three great gangster movies that were produced during the thirties are: the little Caesar which starred Edward Robinson and was produced Mervin Lerroy in 1930; the public enemy which featured James Cagney as a brutal outlaw gangster: the Scarface, which featured Paul Muni and was shot in 1932. This films depicted gangsters as being too brutal and specially, the Scarface: the shame of a nation (1932).
The Scarface was one of the greatest gangster movies of the times. The gangsters in the movie were portrayed ill-mannered criminals who did not understand the gravity of their acts. The Scarface was based on the actual criminal figures and the criminal events of the thirties; Tony Camonte was portraying the infamous criminal Al Capone, Johnny Lovo portrayed resemblance to the infamous Johnny Torrio.
The Scarface is one of the most brutal, potent and violent gangster movies ever to be produced. The movie narrates the rise and fall of an infamous gangster figure; the movie laid a framework for the release more violent and brutal gangster movies by Warner Bros.
The movies provided a depiction of the trends of gangster culture and as a result it was banned in majority of states which resulted to it performing poorly in the box office. This kind of portrayal of gangsters was subject to criticism in terms of content of the films (Dirks Part 2 par. 12).
The thirties marked the end of glorifying the gangster’s criminal culture and indeed focused on approval of ruthless fights against the gangster way of life. This led to the rise f the censorship codes in order to counter balance the effects of the gangster movies on the society through the enhancement of violent crime that gangster films always depicted.
The struggles in content and release of gangster movies son led to the birth of gangster as cop subgenre under the crime genre. The movies under this sub genre attempted to portray the good side of the gangsters whereby they were part of law enforcement bodies such as the FBI to help fight criminal activities.
A perfect example of a gangster movie under this category is the G- men, which featured James Cagney as an undercover FBI agent, although he played the same gangster behaviors while carrying out his regular duties. Other movies in this sub genre included: the bullet of Ballots (1936), the Amazing Dr. Citterhouse (1938), I am the law and the T-men (1947).
The developments in the gangster genre also incorporated the prison sub genre; which primarily revolved around the prison crime activities. They portrayed the prison as an avenue for giving birth to gangsters through transformation of innocent victims to highly feared criminal figures.
The prison movies also portrayed the various ways of prison evasion, attempted ways to escape from the prison and in some cases the imprisoned victims wanted to prove their innocence (Dirks part 2 par.1). Examples of the gangster films under this sub genre included the defiant ones (1958), the birdman of Alcatraz (1962) among many more.
Another shift in the gangster movies was through the organized crime gangster movies of the 1950’s. these films portrayed gangster attitude with a correlation between the organized crimes taking over which was characterized by tense action, immoral and corrupt gangsters who viewed the society as a sick lot and presented an opportunity for them to conduct their businesses.
They depicted the gangsters as more of businessmen who were out to enrich themselves through illegal activities rather than rampant killings and the gang wars that were a common characteristic of the earlier gangsters. Some of gangster movies under this classification include the God father series (I, II and III).
The Godfather I (1972) and The Godfather II were the most celebrated of the trilogy. The Godfather sequel is rated r for its graphical content and language and was credited with three Oscar awards. The Part II won seven Oscars while the third sequel did not win any Oscars.
The Godfather sequels presented an epitome of violence, honor, corruption and power associated with criminal culture in the United States (Dirks, par. 8). The epic film depicts the history of a mafia family over a span of 10 years. The family’s dominance is threatened by the rise of a new trend in crime by then: illegal drug business.
The movie narrates the rise and the downfall of the family through family loyalties and vengeful bloody scenes. The movie recorded over 53 deaths in its screen play; given that figure, the movie was rated s ultraviolent. These phenomena laid framework for the modern day gangster and gangster movies; associating gangsters with business through involvement with top notch lawyers, government officials and well known business men.
The gangster movies of the 1970s were basically based on the same plot characteristics of the gangster movies of the 1930s; which entailed ruthless gun killings and other violent criminal activities. Another movie of the seventies with the same plot was the getaway (1972) which was from the directors of the famous gangster movie the Italian job (1967).
The 80s depicted a completely different genre of the crime films; one characterized by serial killers who were out on a killing spree for the sake of their own purposes. Serial killer movies drew an inspiration from the real life events of serial killers that existed. One such movie was the sequels of the man hunter (1986) that was directed by Michael Mann (Dirks part 2 par 13).
The gangster movies of the 90s depicted different approach whereby they were based on the poor social settings that depicted poverty and as a result the involvement of crime and the crime culture. Examples of such movies are the Natural Born Killers (1994) and set it off (1996) that was directed by Gary Gray.
The criminal culture has seen a tremendous revolution, from the early portrayal of ultraviolent gangsters to the modern day business minded gangsters. The future of gangster movie will revolutionize how a gangster is to the society, from the ultra violent individual to the top notch corporate who attempts to practice decency while undertaking his daily gangster duties.
Dirks, Tim. Crime and Gangster Films. 2009. 7 January 2010
Horsely, Lee. Introduction to the Gangster Films of the 1930s. 2002. 7 December 2010