Like the western, the crime drama has been popular almost since film began. It, too, is rooted in the basic fight between good and evil. However, particularly with later gangster films, the audience is sometimes asked to identify and sympathize not with the forces of good, but with the forces of evil. The charisma, material wealth, and power enjoyed by the bad guys make them far more attractive than the good guys, who are often depicted as plodding, clueless characters with none of the charm of their adversaries.
The gangster film is really a subgenre of the broader genre of crime film. Many westerns might also be classified as crime dramas, including what is sometimes called the first western, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. Quite a few westerns deal with organized crime and political corruption, just like the gangster film. Indeed, the American Film Institute defines the gangster-film genre as centering on “organized crime or maverick criminals in a twentieth-century setting” (AFI, 2008). It is much like the western in that regard, except that many gangster films have been set during the times they were created, rather than some historical period. Even Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet is a film about vengeance-obsessed crime families, and adaptations such as Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Andrej Bartkowiak’s Romeo Must Die (2000), not to mention West Side Story (1961), emphasize the story’s gangster elements explicitly. Gangster films are certainly not limited to stories of the Italian, Jewish, or Irish-American mafia in the 1929s–30s or even the present. There are a large number of French and Japanese gangster films of the 1950s–1970s, and in recent years any number of British mob films or films depicting inner-city African-American or Mexican gangs. A variation on the formula of family-centered violent revenge can be found in Joshua Marson’s The Forgiveness of Blood (2011), set in modern Albania. In general, formulas tend to deal with a character’s thirst for and rise to power, a character’s betrayal of gang protocol or another character, and various gang or family rivalries. Unlike crime films with police protagonists or traditional westerns, in gangster films we often find ourselves sympathizing with the man in the black hat.
Still from The Public Enemy, showing a man pushing a grapefruit into a woman’s face.
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James Cagney (right) is a notorious heavy—the unlikeable villain. In The Public Enemy, he mashes a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face.
Early on, the gangster film was more traditional in its depiction of morality. But the height of the original gangster films occurred in the 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression, and things changed considerably. Gangsters had their own moral codes, and some appeared to be a greater threat to other gangsters than to law-abiding citizens. The coming of national Prohibition effectively turned most of the nation into lawbreakers, with bootlegging gangsters seen as providing a public service by selling illegal alcohol. And with all the devastating bank foreclosures after the stock market crash of 1929, some audience members may well have cheered for bank-robbing movie gangsters. Many gangster characters then had a certain mystique that made them appealing, almost heroic, in their ability to overcome youthful poverty and oppression to rise in power and wealth—even if it was by criminal means, and even if the criminal activities were condemned and the criminals ultimately punished. This would prove to be the case in later films as well, particularly in the Godfather series. The following three films are illustrative of the gangster genre.
James Cagney plays archetypal gangster Tom Powers, who rises from small-time criminal to powerful gangster. Violent and hotheaded, Tom mistreats women, with the exception of his mother, to whom he is devoted. Far from being discreet about his work or his lifestyle, Tom instead flaunts it, to the chagrin of his brother. Tom is eventually taken down by the end of the film by a rival gang, not by police officers. Some saw this as unflattering commentary on the deterioration of law enforcement and the government, so the studio tagged on a printed title at the end: “The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. The Public Enemy is not a man, it is not a character, it is a problem we must all face.” Studios were so concerned that their films were seen by public watchdog groups as glorifying criminals’ lifestyles that they often inserted in the films’ credits warnings about how their movies were not meant to glamorize these hoodlums’ lives, sometimes with a biblical quotation such as “those who live by the sword, shall perish by the sword.”
The brief run of outstanding gangster films in the early 1930s wouldn’t last. The original Scarface, released in 1932, was especially violent. This helped lead to greater enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, censorship guidelines that dictated what was and was not acceptable on film. Filmmakers were no longer able to depict gangster life as realistically (or as romantically), and the genre faded for a period of time, although organized crime was frequently at the root of the conflict in 1940s and ‘50s film noir thrillers.
The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974)
If ever there were films that rose above their genre roots, these are the two clearest examples. They graphically depict the extreme violence that is routine in the world of organized crime, as well as various other gang-related criminal activities. However, the Godfather saga is equally an epic family soap opera. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic gangster story is told clearly from the point of view of the Mafia family. They are the ones with whom we relate, whom we watch, whom we even root for. It’s the story of Michael Corleone, played by a then little-known Al Pacino, as he moves from the one son who was meant for something outside the family business to gradually taking over the mob family, becoming a ruthless, heartless gangster himself. By the film’s end, he is slaying his enemies while serving as godfather to his nephew.
By the second film, Michael is fully entrenched as a Mafia chieftain. But Coppola goes a step further: He takes us back in history, to Don Corleone’s entry into America, an immigrant who rises from petty thief to mob boss, giving the story epic stature. Yet Coppola tells the story as if Corleone were any kind of hard-working immigrant fighting to make his fortune in a new country. A 1990 third installment in the series completed the epic trilogy with more intrigue leading to the ironic, almost poetic fate of the now-remorseful Michael, but it was not as successful critically or commercially.
Still from Goodfellas, picturing Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco during a prison visit scene.
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Martin Scorsese’s ironically titled Goodfellas uses voice-over narration, encouraging audiences to identify with the trials and tribulations of an ordinary thug’s life.
The success of the Godfather films led naturally to other gangster films in which gangsters’ lives were examined and in some cases glorified. The 1983 remake of Scarface and 1990’s Goodfellas are two examples. While both end with the defeat of the protagonist, they spare nothing in showing the trappings of wealth that the main characters’ illicit work has secured. This is also true of the popular television show The Sopranos, which ran for seven seasons beginning in 1999 and told the story of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the boss of a mob family who struggles with nuclear family problems as well. While creator David Chase and Gandolfini have stressed that Tony is supposed to be a monster, not a hero, he is nevertheless depicted as a sympathetic character.
This aspect of many modern gangster films, like those in the early 1930s, once again may be a symptom of widespread lack of public respect for a legal and political system that allows organized crime to flourish and may become corrupted by it. Effective gangster films, like any other, reflect the attitudes of both their creators and their audiences. They dramatize a social statement on a need for change, or demonstrate the destructiveness of a lifestyle in a way intended to discourage others from imitating it, although some may not recognize that point if the characters are appealing.
Gomorrah, an Italian film directed by Matteo Garrone, takes the opposite approach. It tells the interrelated, swirling stories of low-level mobsters working for Italy’s Camorra, which exists in real life (the title is a reference to the mob and to the biblical city destroyed by God because of its many sins). Instead of glorifying the lifestyle, the violence, and the crime, Gomorrah shows us the brutal banality. Some of these men simply treat their work as a sort of dead-end job. Two young would-be gangsters like to play-act scenes from the 1983 Scarface—with real guns. They are both pathetic and lethal. Gomorrah, in ways far more effective than any censorship by the Motion Picture Production Code ever could be, illustrates the age-old adage that crime doesn’t pay—for most people, that is.
Mysteries and Film Noir
A distant cousin to the gangster film and another subgenre of the crime drama, the mystery film typically involves a detective, private investigator, or regular person trying to solve a crime. Often he or she must not only figure out who committed the crime but also fight against corrupt or incompetent law enforcement along the way. Sometimes there may be gangsters involved. Along with the western, the mystery is a flexible genre, allowing for adaptations in horror, comedy, and science fiction. It also lends itself to many subgenres that blend with other genres. The “old dark house” subgenre of mystery (mystery stories that, exactly as the label implies, take place at night in an old house) may often be equally a horror film.
Still from Double Indemnity, showing a woman and man in conversation.
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Barbara Stanwyck (left) plays the femme fatale in Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity.
Other mysteries may be more specifically news reporter stories, crime thrillers, or detective stories. Perhaps the most notable of these is film noir, in which cynical, hard-boiled detectives, often tempted or betrayed by a femme fatale (a desirable but scheming “fatal woman”), solve crimes in a manner reminiscent of pulp detective novels. While gangs and organized crime may be involved, unlike the gangster film the film noir tends to center on individuals caught up in a dangerous world beyond their control, instead of the group or individuals who are trying to control that world. Some noir films, rather than focusing on detectives investigating a mystery, depict people trying to plan or commit crimes, or having general underworld dealings and double-dealings. Film noir literally means “black film” in French, and it applies to stories treating dark themes, shady characters, and, more often than not, physically dark settings with much of the action occurring at night. Low-key, high-contrast lighting and strong use of diagonal, expressionistic patterns and odd camera angles are common in noir films.
Many critics have interpreted noir genre as reflecting a new sense of alienation, unease, and cynical world outlook that seemed to be a post–World War II view of the world. The frequent presence of strong and usually dangerous femme fatale characters was seen by some to reflect the threat to a safer pre–World War II masculine order, for women had assumed much power and control during the war years as men left to fight overseas, forcing men to become more aggressive merely to survive and to live according to their personal code of rules.
Indeed, the noir protagonist can probably best be described as gritty, simply pressing forward in the face of all manner of obstacles. He (the detective is almost always male in these films) does not solve the crime for fame or wealth but simply because it is the right thing to do. Yet a noir protagonist himself is morally flawed and knows it, more of an anti-hero than the typical admirable heroic figure who would defeat the villains in a more traditional Hollywood mystery. A familiar narrative technique in a film noir is first-person point of view, often in the form of voice-over narration by the main character. This idea was taken to the extreme in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), in which virtually the entire film is shot through the eyes of detective Philip Marlowe.
Movies now generally termed film noir are a certain style of mystery that critics recognized as starting to show up during and especially right after World War II; they were popular through the mid-1950s and faded out around the time of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). Movies such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown in 1974 and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat in 1981 helped revive the genre so that by the 1990s what is now often called neo-noir has again become a popular if sometimes more self-conscious genre, as seen, for instance, in Sin City in 2005.
Part of the satisfaction of a successful mystery movie, much as with a mystery novel, is in solving the crime along with the on-screen detective. It makes the mystery a more participatory genre than others, at least when done well. Just as the protagonist attempts to stay a step ahead of the femme fatale or the crooked cop, so do we, and some directors make this easier for us than others. The following films offer an instructive look at the genre, how it can blend with other genres, and how it is open to different interpretations.
The Thin Man (1934)
While this film offers a genuine mystery, it’s also a first-rate example of another genre, the 1930s screwball comedy, which incorporated a strong female character and playful battles between the sexes. The banter between husband-and-wife amateur detectives Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy) would inspire similar back-and-forth rapid-fire conversations for generations.
The Thin Man is an important example of a genre film in another way as well: It inspired five sequels. Genre films, when financially successful, often spawn more films following the same characters, known as sequels, though few are as successful as the original (The Godfather: Part II being a notable exception, critically and commercially).
North by Northwest (1959)
Though he would later venture into horror with such films as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), for much of his career Alfred Hitchcock was an acknowledged master of the film mystery, though he himself denied it. “The mystery form has no particular appeal to me because it is merely a fact of mystifying an audience, which I don’t think is enough,” Hitchcock says (as cited in Stevens, 2006, p. 258). And indeed, if that were all his films did, it would not be enough. But through the performances, the direction, and some iconic set pieces, or stand-alone scenes, North by Northwest transcends the genre. It doesn’t just mystify the audience; it engages them. It contains the classic elements of a mystery—mistaken identity, an innocent man wrongly accused, a man trying to learn why others are out to kill him, secret agents, and elaborate charades—but it also rises above its genre trappings.
Still from Pulp Fiction, picturing John Travolta and Samuel Jackson standing together. Jackson holds a briefcase.
© Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection
In Pulp Fiction, the briefcase functions as a MacGuffin. It’s the object everyone is after.
Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who is mistaken for another man and then kidnapped. Things fall apart from there, with thugs trying to kill Thornhill, Thornhill being accused of murder (at the United Nations, no less), a series of double-crosses going down, and more. In an iconic scene, Thornhill, in the middle of nowhere, sees a mysterious plane in the distance, as a man says, “Dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” The plane then begins chasing and shooting at Thornhill, instantly turning the mystery into a life-and-death suspense thriller. Another famous scene involves a struggle atop Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock slyly poking fun at the iconic American monument as his characters try to kill each other on its face. The film also contains, in the form of the microfilm that everyone is after, a MacGuffin—any object, Hitchcock has explained, that is vitally important to the characters in the film but that may be all but meaningless to the viewing audience. In many ways, this is the classic mystery film, incorporating the many elements of the mystery film genre, yet using them in such a way that it becomes something more. Typical of Hitchcock, it crosses genres and may be termed both a romantic comedy and a suspense spy thriller in addition to a mystery.
Here the genre film is used to tell a larger story, one beyond what is simply there on the screen. It contains the usual elements of a film mystery—a missing person, disguised identity, and murder—and adds more: incest and a huge conspiracy. Jack Nicholson plays J. J. Gittes, a private investigator investigating a case of adultery (or so he thinks). The case leads to much, much more, eventually enmeshing Gittes in a theft of water rights from citrus farmers that would eventually help establish Los Angeles as a major American city. He will also uncover secrets about the woman who hired him and her father, the man behind the water grab. In the classic noir mystery sense, Gittes is a man in way over his head. Yet like many private investigators in film mysteries, he is also a fighter, someone who plods along, collecting evidence, sometimes at great risk to himself, until he solves the case.
Screenwriter Robert Towne (who won an Oscar for the film) provides layer after layer of intrigue, forcing Gittes—and the audience—to burrow deeper into the corruption and immorality that drive the film. Chinatown serves as a metaphor for the corruption of cities, of the costs of progress, and not just for Los Angeles. Broken down into its individual parts, Chinatown can be viewed as a noir-inspired mystery of the classic form. But seen as a whole, it works to become much more. At the end of the movie, a character utters the famous line “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It is. But we’re supposed to see that it’s everywhere else, as well. Again, it is social commentary disguised as a genre film.