• Rudraroop Sen Gupta

The Evolution of Gangster movie genre in Hollywood

Gangster genre has always fascinated me as a filmmaker due its style of filmmaking and in some cases they try to introspect the on going class struggle of the society as many of the narratives of these films deal with primary characters belonging to the lower class of the society and showcase their journey into the world of crime and power.

Gangster movies is one of the most popular genre of films through out the world and Hollywood have been producing some of the most famous and iconic films of all time.

Early Days

The Gangster movie started to became an important genre in the 1920s, when America was under prohibition. Alcohol was banned and hence the black market and smuggling flourished.

Before coming to it own style of guns blazing, car chasings, fast-paced with slangy urban dialogues in the gangster films of the 1970s and 1990s, the genre its has come a long way.

One of the earliest Gangster was D.W.Grifith's The Musketeer's of Pig Alley in 1912. This film was set in a New York slum.

In 1915, a feature film named Regeneration was made, this time the story was about a New York street gang. However, the first true gangster film was Josef Von Sternberg's Underworld in 1927, starring George Bancroft. This was the first time we see on celluloid how organized crime works . Sternberg and Bancroft worked on some other crime films like The Dragnet (1928) and Thunderbolt (1929). Another early film on organized crime was Lewis Milestone's The Racket (1928).

Neo Realism

Well, here we are not talking about the famous Neo Realism movement of Italian cinema, but in Hollywood many crime films were released by Warner Bros. at that time, which achieved a new realism. Compared to the earlier films of this genre, these films were less dramatic in terms of its approach in narrative and mise en scene, because many of these films were based on real incidents.

The 1931 film Little Caesar, depicting the rise and fall of a gang boss, was loosely based on Al Capone, the famous gangster known by his nickname "Scarface", started the Hollywood crime wave. In 1931 alone, more than 50 crime films was released. In Bollywood also, we saw massive number of crime films made during the late 90s and early 2000s. Little Caesar made Robinson a star.

William Wellman's Public Enemy (1931) made James Cagney a star. There is an iconic scene in which Cagney shoves half a grape fruit into Mae Clark's face.

These films were making a lot of profit but there were also criticism. There were complaints that these films were glamourizing the gangsters. Then came the Puritanical Production Code in 1934, which enforced that Villains can no longer be Protagonists, so the studios switched to making law enforcement officers the heros. So, stars like Cagney and Robinson changed sides.

The End of an Era

World War II saw the demise of the gangster movie, which reappeared in the 1940s in the shape of Film Noir. Robert Corman picked up the genre in the late 1950s and 60s, with Machine Gun Kelly (1958) and The St.Valentine's Day Massacare (1967), this film was based on the true mass murder of seven members of the North side gang in 1929

Influences Worldwide

These early Hollywood Crime films actually had a immense impact on the world cinema, as many of the master filmmakers who have reached legendary status later on have either paid homage or had influence of these films in their works. Like in France, Jacques Becker's Hands off Loot! (1967) was the precursor to Jean-Pierre Melville's crime dramas of the 1960s.

Both Jean -Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut paid homage to the American Gangster films, in Breathless and Shoot the Pianist respectively.

Akira Kurosawa made two adaptations of Ed McBain cop novels in The Bad Sleep Well (1960) and High and Low (1963). There were other films on organized crime in Japan which had a influence of the old Hollywood Crime films in them like Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter and Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks

The Golden Age

I think with Frank Coppola's The Godfather, the whole game changed because from this film onwards some of the crime films made had a more classic, dramatic approach in their narrative and treatment. From this film onwards these films became more than just crime flicks about violence and gangsters, rather they started to talk about more human relations within the characters along with very subtle commentary about the whole socio-economical status at that time.

Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Brain De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone, Warren Beatty and Cohen Brothers have made this genre one of the most popular and fascinating genre ever. Their films are not just great in entertainment but these are technically exceptionally well made films. Anyone interested to learn the craft of filmmaking should watch their films.

This was the Golden period for the Gangster films. Some of the must watch films in this era are :-

  • Mean Streets by Martin Scorsese (1973)

  • Scarface by Brain de Palma (1983)

  • Once upon a time in America by Sergio Leone (1984)

  • Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese (1990)

  • Miller's Crossing by Cohen Brothers (1990)

  • Bugsy by Warren Beatty (1991)

  • Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino (1992)

  • Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino (1994)

  • Casino by Martin Scorsese (1995)

  • Gangs of New York Martin Scorsese (2002)

This was also the time when Guy Ritchie was starting the Gangster film trend in the UK with films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, later he made Snatch.

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