Gangster Films

Introduction to the Gangster Films of the 1930s

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

The Gangster and American Capitalism

The mythologised gangster can only be understood in relation to the wider society, whether he is cast as a villain whose actions confirm the need for law and order or as an outlaw hero admired for the toughness and energy with which he defies the system. The gangster films of the early 1930s use the rebellious figure of the criminal and the hierarchical structure of the criminal organisation both to challenge and to ironise capitalism and the business ethic. Having made a career of illegality, the gangster functions as the dark double of ‘respectable’ society, undermining its claims to legitimacy and parodying the American drive to succeed; underworld activities image the injustices and vicissitudes of American economic life, with its illusions of upward mobility, its preoccupation with image-building and its hierarchy of exploiters and exploited.

The popular appeal of the American gangster figure during the thirties was divided. Cinema audiences experienced the double satisfaction of vicarious participation in gangster violence and of seeing violence turned against the gangster himself. This enabled them, on the one hand, to identify with criminal rebellion against a corrupt, hypocritical society, and, on the other, to enjoy fantasies of revenge against criminals who could be cast as ‘the root of evil’. The Hollywood gangster story was conventionally placed in a retributive frame, and the negative side of the gangster myth could be seen as the reinforcement of a belief in the ‘public enemy’ as an explanation of the collapse of morality, discipline and order in American society.

This villainising of the gangster is most apparent post-1935, when a ‘war against crime’ was waged in vigilante and G-Men movies exempt (because of their law-and-order bias) from the anti-violence provisions of the Hays Office production code that had, by 1934, virtually outlawed the gangster movie. In the 1935 film G-Men, for example, James Cagney has changed sides: ‘Hollywood’s Most Famous Bad Man Joins the ‘G-MEN’ and Halts the March of Crime!’

The Mythologizing of the Gangster

From the late twenties on, fictional American gangsters are no longer the crudely vilified ‘defectives’ and physical monsters to be found in earlier representations (for example, in the films of Lon Chaney or in early 1920s cartoons of grotesque, diminutive criminals skulking like creatures apart). Nor are they drawn as the kind of psychopathic gangster later epitomised by Ralph Cotter in Horace McCoy’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1948), played by James Cagney as an unbalanced sadist in the 1950 film adaptation.

Gangsters of the early 30s are instead characterised by their normality, and this essential normality is closely related to the ways in which fictionalisations of the gangster’s career can act as wide-ranging critiques of American society and economic structures. A high-profile gangster, like any man trying to live out a public identity, poses the question of what drives such a man to succeed and what qualities ultimately undermine his power. Sharing so much common ground with respectable, law-abiding citizens but at the same time functioning outside the law, the gangster serves both as a figure admirable for his toughness and energy, defying an unjust system, and, looked at from another angle, as a parallel in his activities to the criminality of supposedly honest society. He both collides with and replicates this society’s legitimate structures.

Many types of criminal, from the urban ethnic gangster to the poor farm boy who has drifted into crime, acquire, in the Depression, cross-class and cross ethnic appeal (the best discussion of which is in Jonathan Munby’s Public Enemies, Public Heroes). Both types become symbols of a rebellion impossible for ordinary law-abiding citizens to enact. The heroic rebel image was reinforced by the Hollywood versions of the myth, featuring performances of great verve and energy.

Movie gangsters such as Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were heroes of dynamic gesture, strutting, snarling and posturing, possessing a blatant, anarchic appeal. Standing outside the law in a period when Depression America was cynical about all sources of moral authority, they possessed an awe-inspiring grandeur, even in death. At the same time, however, they were a reflection of legitimate society. The criminal big-shot, viewed in the distorting mirror of the satirist, is a parody of the American dream of success, ironising the business ethic by the illegality of his methods as well as by his ultimate defeat; the inevitable fall of the big-time gangster creates a sense of entrapment in an economically determined reality. He is the victim of a society in which everyone is corrupt.

Gangster Sagas and Film Noir

It is usual for film criticism to distinguish the classic gangster film cycle of the 1930s from the films noirs of the 1940s and 50s. Silver and Ward, for example, in their ‘encyclopedic reference’ book, Film Noir, argue that there are fundamental differences in narrative attitude. They see the glorification of the gangster in early, Prohibition-era films such as The Underworld (von Sternberg, 1927) and The Racket (Lewis Milestone, 1928) as still present in the ‘demented idealism’ and ego-mania of Rico in Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930) and Tommy Powers in Public Enemy (1931).

This romanticising is evident as well in the emphasis on action and the flamboyant nature of the violence, with its staccato rhythms and blazing machine-guns. Silver and Ward do concede, however, that gangster films and films noirs also share iconic and narrative characteristics, and that they can both be viewed as part of a larger, ‘underworld film’ phenomenon, with slightly later gangster films like Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932) closer to the dark mood, the ironies and the sense of claustrophobic entrapment that characterise noir. Other recent critics have argued persuasively against seeing any sharp disjuncture. Most notably, Munby (Public Enemies, Public Heroes) presents a strong case for viewing film noir as a development of a ‘repressed but established formula’. Noir, in this interpretation, is an infusion of modernist stylistic attributes which enabled the earlier, ‘potentially seditious’ crime cycle to negotiate the censors.

The gangster films and novels of the 30s are in part about the self-publicising and the public interpretation of the gangster and about the nature of the myth-making. They explore the desire for legitimation and recognition on the part of the gangster. Such desires make the gangster vulnerable to the destabilisation of identity that afflicts the insecure, self-divided protagonist of canonical film noir, with gangsters like Little Caesar and Scarface often suffering from a splitting of identity that is evident, for example, in their doomed efforts to acquire the trappings of social success (flash cars, stylish suits) and to achieve upward mobility.

Little Caesar and Scarface

W. R. Burnett saw himself as the writer most responsible for the shift towards depicting crime from the point of view of the criminal himself.Little Caesar was, he said, ‘the world seen through the eyes of the gangster. It’s commonplace now, but it had never been done before then…The criminal was just some son-of-a-bitch who’d killed somebody and then you go get ’em.’ Little Caesar stands at the start of a period of fascination with the criminal’s own perspective, both in fiction and film. Written in 1929 and filmed in 1930, it was the most influential of the gangster sagas, imitated in dozens of early 30s films and novels.

Burnett’s gangsters are driven by a sense of social inferiority and, in the case of Little Caesar, by an overwhelming ambition that made him, in Burnett’s eyes, akin to the heroes of tragedy, ‘a gutter Macbeth’. As the novel’s title suggests, the central theme is the parallel between the gangster and the man of power. It is an analogy that works to ironise the ‘great man’ in a way which was to become, for European writers like Brecht and Greene, one of the more potent aspects of American gangland mythology. In Burnett, in contrast both to European version, however, there is pathos in the conception of Rico, who always has, under the confident surface, a sense of isolation and despair, very evident in the following clip from the closing minutes of the film of Little Caesar.

The historical figure who most influenced the conception of the big-time gangster was, of course, Al Capone, who had by the end of the 1920s become the symbol of American gangsterism. Capone was accepted as ‘a force in American life that government was powerless to control’, his phenomenal rise to power in Chicago’s underworld having made him not only feared and hugely wealthy but a substantial political influence and an example of how a gangster could make a business asset of his reputation. Burnett’s Little Caesar was partly modelled on Capone, but the most famous fictionalisation of his career was undoubtedly Armitage Trail’s Scarface, in which Tony Guarino (Tony Camonte on the film), the Capone figure, is both protagonist and scapegoat.

Trail (the pseudonym of Maurice Coons, who had been a detective-story and Hollywood script writer) immersed himself in Chicago’s gangland while he was writing, researching the book by getting to know Sicilian gangsters. But he also stood back from his material, incorporating numerous passages designed to establish a normative moral perspective and insisting that, as an exemplary figure, the gangster supplies a cautionary tale rather than a glamorous role model. This was in some ways an approach more in keeping than Burnett’s with the tendency of Hollywood studios of the time (under pressure to acquiesce in censorship) to add ‘crime doesn’t pay’ riders to gangster films, in an effort to counter charges that their aim was ‘to glorify the gangster’.

The controversial film of Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks, was one of the most violent of the 30s gangster films (the first in which a gangster uses a machine gun). Although it was filmed in 1930, its release was delayed for two years, until Scarface had been altered to placate the censors. Whereas Trail’s novel had emphasised the corruption of the society that created Scarface, the concern of the Hays Office was, of course, with establishing the viciousness of the gangster. Hawks himself refused to make the required changes, but his co-producer Howard Hughes eventually gave way to the pressures. The Hays Office demanded not just the cutting of a violent scene – the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – but insisted on a change of title that would point the moral (to ‘Scarface, the Shame of a Nation’); Hughes also agreed to add a prologue describing the film as an ‘indictment of gang rule in America’ and to the addition of other scenes that would incorporate into the film a moral diatribe against the of the figure of the gangster – countering the image of the romantic outlaw with images of the condemnation and defeat of gangland evil.

Copyright © 2002 Lee Horsley

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