But since the genre is laced with an abundance of visceral brutality and is focused on ruthless characters with loose morals, what is it about the genre that has captivated innumerous viewers and earned wide critical praise? In my opinion, this fascination can primarily be attributed to the genre’s innate capability to depict the Shakespearean tragic figure in their pursuit of a glamorous façade of the “American Dream.” However, given the figure’s typically stubborn fallibility and quest for more power, typically the ramifications of this pursuit are made apparent by the film’s conclusion. Through this approach, not only does the gangster film genre cater to our primal fantasies of abandoning morality to whatever we please, but it also provides a critical perspective on the American Dream that warns us of the consequences associated with consumerism and greed.
Similar to most of cinema’s largest genres, the gangster film dates back to the silent era of film. Although it wasn’t the first gangster movie ever made, D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) is widely recognized as the first significant gangster film, as well as a film that established preliminary interest in the genre (Dirks). With that said, it wasn’t until the advent of sound in the 1930s that gangster films truly developed into an entertaining and rapidly expanding genre, as sound enabled the films to come alive via the inclusion of screeching car tires, gunshots, and so forth. Moreover, given that these films were released during the time of the Prohibition Era and when organized crime was on the rise in urban areas, audiences’ intrigue in the subject matter was heightened.
With Warner Bros’ release of Little Caesar (LeRoy, 1931), The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931), and Scarface (Hawks, 1932) at the start of the 1930s, the genre’s blossoming reputation was solidified. Moreover, in each of these films, the lead’s charismatic personality enabled viewers to identity with the character, but through the character’s inevitable violent downfall, viewers were reminded of the consequences of crime, and an effective formula for the genre was established. Nevertheless, given that these films did glamorize crime and glorify the criminal, initial attempts to censor the gangster film genre were quite strong, and the Hays Production Code forced studios to make moral pronouncements and present criminals as psychopaths after 1934 (Dirks).
Although these initial attempts to censor gangster films did hinder the genre’s progress for several years, by the 1940s, gangster films began to stretch the limitations of what they were allowed to show, which made them darker and more brutal, as noted by films like White Heat (Walsh, 1949). This progression slowly continued for several years, and with the release of the landmark film, Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), new screen standards for violence were set and the criminal lifestyle was greatly romanticized. With the 1970s, Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) brought a radical revival to the gangster film genre and proved the genre’s critical worth to the history of cinema. Since then, the gangster film genre has remained rather successful, gaining critical approval for films such as Scarface (De Palma, 1983), Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990), Carlito’s Way (De Palma, 1993), Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994), and recently, The Departed (Scorsese, 2006).
Ultimately, by contesting stipulations placed on it, the gangster film genre persevered and has become one of the most notable genres in the history of cinema. Through the depiction of characters that operate outside the constraints of the law, the gangster film genre enables viewers to vicariously experience a morally loose lifestyle, condemned by society. However, more often than not, the gangster film genre simultaneously functions as a platform to voice concerns with skewed interpretations of the “American Dream,” as central characters in these films typically allow their excessive greed and consumerist tendencies to lead to their downfall. With that said, even in the midst of violence and illicit behavior, as viewers, we can still derive vital lessons and reflect on our personal nature when watching movies associated with the gangster film genre.
Dirks, Tim, ed. "Crime and Gangster Films." Filmsite. <http://www.filmsite.org/crimefilms.html>.