The gangster film is a quintessential piece of classic Hollywood. It provides a unique look into the mindset of a complex character. The gangster hero is precisely who we want to be, but who we are terrified we will become. This character is completely self-involved in his pursuit to dominance, exemplifying the roots of the American dream. Since he took all approaches necessary to achieve his ultimate goal, he eventually fails. His final demise teaches viewers the cost of pursuing the American dream.
There are countless gangster films that incorporate fantastic writing, character development, genius scoring, and camera work that accurately illustrates the darkness of the underworld. The asphalt jungle is the backdrop for these films, rich with intrigue and shadowed corners.
There is a catch-22 to be found in gangster films. Classic gangsters – Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart – were leading men in Hollywood. However, the characters they portrayed represented the anti-hero. They were the guys audiences loved to hate, and when they failed, no one was all that surprised.
Little Caesar (1931) is a fantastic gangster film that authenticates the gangster role and begins an iconic trend of film characters:
“Thus, despite the successful ending to [Little Caesar’s] Joe’s life story, the film establishes an early repertoire of the Italian ethnic subject as urban criminal through the negative user of markers of Italian ethnicity in regards to both the criminal himself and the vast majority of the world that surrounds him” (Renga, 72).
Gangster films became a frequently produced genre in the early 1930s with the arrival of the Production Code. Since the code no longer allowed for films to advocate for sex, violence, alcohol, and any other theme to be typically found in these stories, filmmakers had to get clever. Gangster films became about the power of suggestion, showing things without really showing them.
This genre typically follows a formula. The criminal is the protagonist, there is a woman in his life of a similar class, they fight to achieve something, and he ultimately fails.
The sights, scenes, and sounds of gangster films haven’t changed much since the beginning. For example, this word cloud features the most popular words used in Goodfellas (1990). The script features many descriptive locations and words, such as bar, cabstand, gun, money, and cops. This particular script features lots of profanity, which obviously wasn’t the case in 1931.
While gangster films seem to overlap with action and film noir, there is an underlying allegory that coincides with the twisted plot. These characters are who we shouldn’t want to be, despite temptation, according to the production code and the noble followers of the American dream.
“Mortally wounded by his onetime confederates, he staggers up and dies on the steps of a church, a resonant symbol of the social institutions which have been unable to provide him with opportunities commensurate with his abilities. His epitaph – it could be that of every film gangster – is pronounced by a woman of his own class, a flapper who has unrequitedly loved him. When a cop asks her who he is and what his business was, she says, ‘He was once a big shot'” (Gehring, 53).