A Beginner’s Guide to Gangster Movies

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Later this month, Warner Brothers is releasing The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics , which gathers four of the finest films from the Golden Age of the Gangster movie in crisp, new Blu-ray editions. These days, when we think of the gangster picture, we tend to focus on modern favorites like The Godfather and GoodFellas, but those films are descended from a rich heritage of tough, smart, timely pictures from the 1930s and 1940s. As you can see from this month’s ever so helpful Beginner’s Guide, the influence of those films has resonated for decades, from Cagney and Bogart to DeNiro and Pacino.

Crime and Early Cinema

From the early days of the form, filmmakers were fascinated with capturing and dramatizing the criminal lifestyle. Early documentary efforts like The Burglar on the Roof (1898) and How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900) gave way to the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). Most film historians recognize The Black Hand (1906) as the first “gangster” film, inasmuch as it explicitly identified its characters as involved in organized crime; D.W. Griffith’s short The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) was another early watershed. But the first feature-length gangster film was probably Regeneration (1915), which director Raoul Walsh shot in what remained of New York’s Five Points, memorably recreated decades later by Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York.

The Depression-Era Antihero

Two sweeping historical events gave the gangster films of the 1930s — the so-called Golden Age — their cultural currency. First came the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, which began the decade-and-a-half prohibition of alcohol. Before Prohibition, gangsters were small-time operators, thugs, and thieves, but when bootlegging took off, gangsters became powerful figures with money and influence. Men like Capone and Dillinger become something like celebrities — the stories of their exploits captured the public imagination and sold newspapers, and many of those newspapermen would become screenwriters, turning those legends into fodder for gangster pictures.

The other event of import was the stock market crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression. In that era, the antiheroes of the gangster pictures offered an escape for moviegoers: they were fast-talking, take-what-they-want heroes who knew how to get rich quick. Sure, they came to grisly ends, but along the way, audiences reveled in the opportunity to live vicariously through them, and expressed empathy for their outlaw ethos. In his famous essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” critic Robert Warshow wrote of the movie gangster, “He appeals most to adolescents with their impatience and their feeling of being outsiders, but more generally he appeals to that side of all of us which refuses to believe in the ‘normal’ possibilities of happiness and achievement; the gangster is the ‘no’ to that great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives.”

Little Caesar

Arriving late in the silent era, Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) set the template for the Golden Age of the gangster movie, with characterizations, locations, set pieces, and a style that would become par for the course. But the first big hit of the cycle was Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). It was adapted from the novel by W.R. Burnett, who based his story of underworld boss “Rico” on that of Al Capone. Little Caesar had all of the crucial elements: a powerful leading actor, a “rise and fall” storyline with echoes of Greek tragedy, and a sense of inside information being imparted — Edward G. Robinson’s resemblance to Capone made it play less like drama than documentary to contemporary audiences.

The Public Enemy

When Martin Scorsese was a little boy, his father took him to a revival double feature of Caesar and the other gangster movie sensation of 1931, The Public Enemy. “It’s a shocking film, it really is, and it still holds up,” he says today. William Wellman directed the picture in a gritty, fast-paced, visceral style — when Warner Brothers execs were concerned about it following Caesar and other gangster efforts, he promised to make it “the toughest one of them all.” He cast charismatic young James Cagney plays the lead; the role made the song-and-dance man into a gangster movie icon. These days, the film is mostly remembered for the “grapefruit in the face” scene, but there’s much more to it than that; it is assembled with a gritty snap that’s still effective.

Scarface

The following year, Howard Hughes produced this classic (remade, very loosely, by Brian De Palma in 1983), with the great Howard Hawks in the director’s chair. Ben Hecht’s rough-and-tumble screenplay also broadly aped the story of Al Capone — its title was drawn from the kingpin’s nickname. But the violence and brutality of Scarface was so extreme (for the time, anyway) that Hughes had trouble getting it past national and local censorship boards. (Astonishingly, it wasn’t even released in New York and Chicago). Hughes shot alternate endings, and added “Shame of a Nation” as a subtitle, with little success. But his struggles with censors may have been exacerbated by his status as an independent — most of the big gangster movies were coming from one major studio.

Warner Brothers: Home of the Gangster Movie

In the ‘30s and ‘40s, each of the studios had something of a “house style”: there were certain kinds of movies you were most likely to see at certain studios. Paramount did knockabout comedies, MGM made flashy musicals, Universal did lowbrow programmers, etc. Warner Brothers specialized in contemporary stories taken from the headlines; the studio’s primary interest was social realism, relevant to concerns of the day. Studio head Jack Warner’s interactions with gangsters as a young man led to a life-long fascination with them, and an interest in telling their stories. The Warner contract directors cranked them out, several a year, in roughly similar style: they had a fast pace and were gritty, witty, and tightly constructed. And, early on, they were candid and honest as well.

Pre-Code and Adaptability

The period from 1930 to 1933 is often referred to as the “Pre-Code” era, but that’s something of a misnomer; the Motion Picture Code had been established in 1930, it just wasn’t enforced until ’34 or so. That fascinating period really was the heyday of the classic gangster movie — filmmakers still had to comply with basic rules of decency and a sense of justice (these antiheroes could act as badly as they wanted for 80 minutes, as long as they were gunned down in the street in the last reel), but they could be fairly free with violence, brutality, and sexuality.

When the Code was more widely enforced, gangster movies had to follow the rules, and they had to win a PR battle in which enforcers of morals accused gangster movies of glamorizing the lifestyle. But the genre was starting to wear thin anyway — the story of the criminal mastermind’s rise and fall could only be told so many times. So there were variations. There was a cycle of films in which actors known for playing gangsters and criminals were instead cast as feds and cops (like “G” Men, starring James Cagney). There were team-ups (Cagney and Robinson co-starred in Smart Money). There were parodies, like Lady Killer and The Little Giant, which gave way to gangland comedies (A Slight Case of Murder, Larceny Inc., Brother Orchid). As the years went by, the genre mutated further: there were juvenile delinquent stories (Dead End, Wild Boys of the Road, Hell’s Kitchen) and WWII stories that recast the gangster as patriot (All Through the Night). There were even horror gangster pictures, like Boris Karloff’s The Walking Dead and The Return of Doctor X, which starred a gangster movie utility player by the name of Humphrey Bogart.

Humphrey Bogart

Bogie got his big break in 1936, when Warner Brothers bought the film rights to The Petrified Forest, which he’d done on Broadway with Leslie Howard. The studio wasn’t interested in the actor, but Howard insisted that Bogart was part of his deal. He cuts a terrifying figure as a resourceful criminal in Forest, but it didn’t make him a star; he spent the next several years playing supporting roles to the likes of Cagney and Robinson in pictures like Bullets or Ballots, Kid Galahad, The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces, and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (yes, that was the real title of a movie). He ground out a decent living, but he didn’t become a movie star until George Raft turned down High Sierra, which gave Bogie the chance to reunite with his Roaring Twenties director, Raoul Walsh.

Raoul Walsh

Walsh had helped establish the gangster genre in 1915 with Regeneration, and in the decade between 1939 and 1949, he came back to the genre and helped bring it to its end. First came The Roaring Twenties, a Cagney/Bogart picture that became something of the last word on the ‘20s-era gangster movie; it is one of Scorsese’s 85 films “you need to see to know anything about film.” In 1941, he directed Bogart in High Sierra, the film that helped bridge the gangster genre with the next big movement (at Warners and elsewhere), the film noir. And in 1949, he directed Cagney in White Heat, the last great gangster movie of the genre’s golden age, with Cagney’s immortal “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” bringing it to a perfectly over-the-top conclusion.

Legacy

The gangster genre would continue to appear in the years after White Heat — there’s always a hunger for reveling in the excesses of criminals — but more frequently in low-budget films and on television. In fact, the track record of movies about organized crime was so lousy that Paramount originally wanted Coppola to update The Godfather to a contemporary setting in hopes of keeping the budget low, so modest were their expectations for box office success. To say the least, it over-performed, and begat a revival of organized crime movies. But you can still see the original gangsters in the likes of Scarface, Carlito’s Way, American Gangster, Casino, and GoodFellas — the latter of which even ends with an explicit homage to the famous gunshot fired straight into camera from The Great Train Robbery, the very first crime narrative.

The Ultimate Gangster Collection: Classics, featuring Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, The Petrified Forest, and White Heat, is out May 21 on Blu-ray.