Livin’ In A Gangsta’s Paradise: The Era Of Gangster Movies

Livin’ In A Gangsta’s Paradise: The Era Of Gangster Movies

As far as we can go back to the early days of cinema, gangster movies have been a part of our lives. Whether we agree or not. The audience of all classes is both fascinated and repulsed by the dark lifestyle and the darker underbelly of society with passion and crime with gunfights and murder.

The film industry turned the gangsters into anti-heroes or anti-protagonists. And that is how they romanticize these gangsters as they rebel against the shackles of societal authority, who refuse to accept the stereotypical mediocrity of society.

With these movies, we were left awe-stricken with horror and shock after seeing the intense brutality and indiscriminating passion for violence that these men in well-tailored suits are capable of.

But we, as the audience, are spellbound. Rather, we are in awe of how they perpetrate swift justice upon whoever dared to cross them. It is possible that their way of making money can highly repulse us. And their lifestyle, full of drugs and prostitution, has become a plague on our society.

But we can’t deny the fact that the liberty and freedom they tend to enjoy is what attracts us to see more gangster movies. Also, we want to have that taste of freedom and financial freedom, along with their glamorous life.

Crime And Gangster Movies

Crime And Gangster Movies

During the 1940s, a new type of cinema emerged involving crime thrillers that revolved around themes of cynicism and darker film genres. This era of film is quite like that of the film noir era in France.

Although the French Noir era of French movies was based on post-war detective and mystery films. This may seem different from gangster movies, but the underlying theme is darkness and cynicism. But just like gangster movies, these movies have similar themes of suspense, crime, revenge, and police intervention.

When it comes to gangster movies, the themes are usually street-smart, materialistic, megalo-maniac, and self-destructive. They are shot in larger cities to set the landscape and atmosphere for the movie.

Certain subjects, like dark streets and nightclubs with neon light signs, fast vintage cars, cash piles, contrabands, sleazy bars, and shady houses, are exceptional to any gangster film. Gangster movies are incomplete without a few exotic locales, wealth, and adventure.

If you love watching gangster movies, then you would have noticed that most of these gangster movies are morality tales. Consider Horatio Alger or ‘Pursuit of the American Dream.’

Both these movies show an inverted world where criminals live a life of success and wealth. Mostly coming from immigrant families. These families are often very poor and fall prey to these gangster lifestyles in the pursuit of wealth, status, and power.

Early Crime- Gangster Films Until Dawn Of The Talkies

Early Crime- Gangster Films Until Dawn Of The Talkies

One of the greatest early crime and gangster movies during the silent era was Edwin S. Porter’s “The Great Train Robbery (1903)”. The movie holds up well, considering it is one of the early crime movies.

But in respect of timing, the earliest or first crime film was “Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).” It was a 45-second long, short film. Later, in 1905, Vitagraph released “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” which is the first Sherlock Holmes film ever created for the audience.

A few more films of that era that were gangster movies were D.W. Griffith’s “The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)” which is based on organized crime. The movie was marked as an avant-garde formal experiment. Since it had extreme close-up and wide sequences and shots of fragmentary, but distinctly shot scenes.

However, there are a few more of Griffith’s one-reel gangster films. They are The Moonshiners (1904), A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police (1905), and “The Black Hand (1906).”

Expressionistic German Crime Films

Expressionistic German Crime Films

Three of the most talented directors that geared the black and white era of German expressionistic crime films were,

  • Fritz Lang
  • Robert Wiene
  • F.W. Murnau

These three directors are known for their sharp-angle shots, chiaroscuro lighting, and monstrous characters. (insane scientists, crazed individuals, or insane doctors)

One of the most noteworthy movies of that era was “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919/1920).” Robert Wiene directed the movie.

The movie is about “a ghost-like hypnotist therapist at a fairground carnival named Dr. Caligari. He used his power of hypnotism to commit crimes through his performing somnambulist Cesare.”

Another great standout movie of that era was F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise (1927),” which is considered a silent classic movie.

The movie is about “a country village farmer who fell for the allure of a sophisticated, vampish seductress/temptress from the city. She tempted him under the moonlight in a swamp, and then persuading him to devise a devious murderous plan to kill his pure, innocent wife – by drowning her during a trip to the city.”

Lastly, one of the most influential German expressionistic films was M (1931). Fritz Lang directed the film.

The film is “is a psychological thriller about a child molester serial killer. The pedophile-psychopath was identified as Hans Beckett- his coat back was marked in chalk with the letter M. He was caught hiding in an attic and taken to a large, abandoned brewery building to stand trial, where he was questioned by a panel of underworld boss leaders.”

The Gangster Film in The Era of the “Talking Picture”

The Gangster Film in The Era of the “Talking Picture”

The era of gangster movies truly began in the 1930s, when the movies truly became entertaining and highly popular among the audience. The thrill of o-screen violence, lawlessness, and crime was at an all-time high.

After the events of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the Prohibition Era. And in addition, the presence of real-life gangsters such as “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Al Capone, “Baby Face” Nelson, and John Dillinger. They have escalated organized crime and violence, increasing the demand for this genre.

The movies in this era were all about that bad boy attitude, seeking the thrill of danger and violence. The desire for wealth and power was at an extreme level, and voluntary participation in gangs was high. These gangster movies showcased swaggering, wily, cruel, tough, urban gangsters and law-defying bootlegging.

A few of the movies of this era were “The Lights Of New York (1928),” “City Streets (1931),” and “Bad Company (1931).”

Warner Bros: The Gangster Studio

Back in the 1930s, Warner Bros. Studios was considered the par excellence gangster studio. The actors of Warner Bros. studios were defined and established as the tough guys in the genre.

These actors are Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and James Cagney. A few of the earlier gangster movies were George Raft and Paul Muni.

This was the generation that produced classic Hollywood gangster movies that incorporated aspects of the Prohibition Era. This was the era when gangsters were glorified and looked up to.

Three of the most influential movies that were made were,

· Little Caesar (1930)

The movie was directed by Director Mervyn LeRoy and starred Edward G. Robinson, he played a “gritty, coarse and ruthless, petty Chicago killer named Caesar Erico (or Rico) Bandello (a flimsy disguise for a characterization of Al Capone), who experienced a rise to prominence and then a rapid downfall.”

This was the movie that established Robinson as the “first great gangster star” of Hollywood. He created the pathway for all the gangster movie actors.

· The Public Enemy (1931)

Director William Wellman directed the movie. The movie starred the amazing James Cagney, and it was his breakthrough movie in the industry. He played a fast-talking, cocky, brutal, and nasty bootlegger/criminal with the name Tom Powers.

One of the most memorable gangster movie scenes ever was when Cagney’s character Powers smashed a half grapefruit into his co-star Mae Clarke’s face. She played his on-screen girlfriend.

The main story is about “two brothers, Tom (Cagney) and his straight, uptight brother Mike (Donald Cook), who grew up and pursued very different lifestyles. The pre-Code film emphasized how the early developmental environment clearly contributed to an evolving life of adult crime – and his inevitable gruesome death.”

· Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932)

The last film of the three films is Scarface, which Howard Hawks directed. The film stars Paul Muni, who is shown as vicious, power-hungry, beastly, and immature. His character was loosely based on the infamous gangster and murderer Al Capone.

The movie is an “ultra-violent, raw landmark film in the depiction of Italian American immigrant gangsters included twenty-eight deaths, and the first use of a machine gun by a gangster.”

The movie brought attention “to the Hays Code for its unsympathetic portrayal of criminals, and there was an ensuing struggle over its release and content. The disturbing portrayal of irresponsible behavior by the gangster almost encourages its attractiveness.”

Both The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) tried to deflect criticisms that they were sensationalizing the lifestyle of the hoodlums with unconvincing prefaces or disclaimers. Scarface (1932) began with a critical, written statement to indict gangster hoodlumism and the public’s and government's indifference. The audience was then blamed for promoting the role of the gangster with its perverse fascination in the phenomenon of mob activity - and then challenged.”

The Influence of the Hays Production Code on Gangster Films

The Influence of the Hays Production Code on Gangster Films

Now, coming to the Hays Production Code, we must return to the early 30s. This Code was the end when it came to “glorifying the criminal and approval of the ruthless methods and accompanying violence of the gangster lifestyle.”

The Production Censorship Code

The Production Censorship Code came from the Hays office in the 1930s. This Code “forced studios to make moral pronouncements, present criminals as psychopaths, and end the depiction of the gangster as a folk or tragic hero, de-glorify crime and emphasize that crime didn’t pay. It also demanded minimal details shown during brutal crimes.”

This Code created a type of uproar among the studios, emphasizing “America’s Shame.” It was to change the “criminals to the racket-busting federal agents, private detectives, or ‘good guys’ on the side of the law.”

C Man

One of the best examples of this is William Keighley’s film, “ C Man.” The film was from the new “gangster-as-cop” subgenre of gangster movies.

The film starred James Cagney as “a ruthless, impulsive, revenge-seeking, violent FBI agent to infiltrate criminal gangs on a crime spree in the Midwest. Although he was on the side of the law working undercover, he was just as cynical, brutal, and arrogant as he had been in his early gangster films.”

This gangster-as-cops subgenre portraying in more movies from the same era, such as Bullets of Ballots (1936), where “a police detective went undercover and joined an NYC racket.” Then, for the movie The Amazing Dr. Clitter house (1938), “Robinson portrayed a brainy crime specialist who joined Rocks Valentine’s gang and soon was masterminding heists.”

Robinson also played a law professor at college and a special prosecutor who got justice for the movie I Am the Law (1938). Other than this sub-genre, another sub-genre that was developing in this period was the “Cain-and-Abel” sub-genre. This subgenre emphasizes the fact that “crime didn’t pay.”

Gangster movies like Manhattan Melodrama (1934) showed “Clark Gable and William Powell, two childhood friends, choosing two diametrically opposed lifestyles – gambler/racketeer and prosecuting attorney.”

Then the movie Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) showed “two young slum kids, James Cagney, and Pat O’Brien. Following two different paths, a criminal lifestyle, and the priesthood. In the electrifying finale, Cagney was taken on a long walk to his execution.”

15 Gangster Movies Based on Real-Life Gangster’s

If you look at most of the gangster movies created in the history of Hollywood movies, then you will see that most of these movies are based on real life gangsters to some degree.

This list here will give you a brief example of what I mean when I say the life of these real-life gangsters are nothing less than action movies, with gruesome violence and crime of every degree.

1. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

Based on one of the most violent and gruesome gang wars where seven members of the North Side Gang were killed in Chicago. Although it is widely speculated that the man behind the

massacre was none other than Al Capone, but due to the lack of solid proof the case remained unsolved.

Two rivals George ‘Bugs’ Moran and Al Capone were fighting for the control of organized crime in the city of Chicago that eventually led to the death of Bugs Moran in the massacre.

The movie is done in a docu-drama style to keep the facts straight, but still to add a little bit of drama and thrill to the whole movie.

2. Hoffa (1992)

One of the biggest mysteries in the modern American gangster history is “who shot Jimmy Hoffa?” If you have seen Scorsese’s The Irishman, then you know how Frank Sheeran, a known hitman for the Bufalino family confessed of killing Jimmy Hoffa. But there is no prove of that ever-happening other than the confession of a dying man.

This Danny DeVito film, based on Hoffa won’t be giving you any confirmed answers on who killed Jimmy Hoffa. The film revolves around the shady underbelly of Hoffa “business dealings” that included violence, embezzlements and racketeering.

Although the film was unable to show the supposed death of Jimmy Hoffa, since he disappeared back on July 30th, 1975, and no one knows for certainty whether Hoffa is dead or not. He was declare legally dead in 1982. The mystery of Hoffa’s disappearance and legacy is still up for debate.

3. Kill The Irishman (2011)

This is a true story based on the Irish man who couldn’t be killed. Different than another true story by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Played by Ray Stevenson, Danny Greene is an American mobster, who was famously known for his conflict with the Italian-American Mafia and the Cleveland crime family, which ended with his murder in 1977.

Greene once said, “I am an Irish Catholic. I believe that the Guy upstairs pulls the strings, and you’re not going to go until he says so. It just wasn’t my time yet.” Asking about knowledge of the underworld war, he said, “I have no axe to grind, but if these maggots in this so-called Mafia want to come after me, I’m over here by the Celtic Club. I’m not hard to find.”

The film revolves around the rise of Danny Greene, then after getting arrested, he becomes an FBI informant. This eventually leads with him having a conflict with the mob especially with Jewish mob leader Shondor Birns. The movie climaxes with the death of Greene by car bombing.

4. The Valachi Papers (1972)

The film is based on the life of Joseph Valachi, who was an American mobster with the Genovese crime family. He was the first one to acknowledge the existence of the Italian-American Mafia in a public domain in 1963.

While serving life-imprisonment for murdering an inmate he thought was a hitman sent by the Genovese family. Valachi became a government informant and witness in exchange for protection.

The next year Valachi testified in front of the US Senate, became from then onwards known as Valachi hearings. The film takes place while Valachi is serving his life-sentence and telling his story to a federal agent. The series of flashbacks that showed his past life leads to him testifying in front of the senate.

Valachi is the one who famously popularized the term Cosa Nostra (The Sicilian mafia also simply called the Mafia, a criminal society based in Sicily).

And by doing so he is also the first one to break omertà (It is a Southern Italian code of silence and code of honor and conduct that places importance on silence in the face of questioning by authorities or outsiders, non-cooperation with authorities, the government, or outsiders, especially during criminal investigations.)

5. Public Enemies (2009)

The story of the American gangster John Dillinger is full of action, both in real and reel life. The film Public Enemies is based on the real-life story of John Dillinger. Based on the book by Bryan Burrough that is also titled Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934.

The movie revolves around the plot of how Dillinger busted him and his gang out of jail was headed by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, a dashing Clark Gable-esque FBI agent. The film eventually leads towards the death of Dillinger in a shootout. The shot out that killed him was ruled out as “Justifiable homicide.”

Although the film plot is not 100 percent accurate since the screenplay is taken from the book. But it is the most historically accurate film that Hollywood has delivered in recent years.

6. The Irishman (2019)

Based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, by former defense attorney and prosecutor Charles Brandt, on the self-confessed hitman for the infamous Bufalino family, Frank Sheeran. Before dying, he confessed of killing the notorious crime lord Jimmy Hoffa, although those claims were never confirmed or proven.

The film was highly acclaimed for taking senior actors like Robert d Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci and de-aging them digitally, mainly for the earlier scenes.

7. Il Divo (2008)

The film is based on the life of Italy’s seven-term Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The film is basically a biopic on one of the most controversial Prime Minster of Italy, who throughout his whole career was surrounded with rumors of mafia involvement.

He was charged and criminally prosecuted for his involvement with the Cosa Nostra, or the Sicilian Mafia. The charges against him were based on bribery scandals and his alleged involvement in Mino Pecorelli’s murder, a reputed journalist. But he was repeatedly acquitted of having an enigmatic and powerful public image.

8. Bugsy (1991)

The film is based on the life of this suave and lady-killer notorious gangster, Bugsy Siegel. He along with his partners Meyer Lansky and Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano, came to California and Las Vegas leaving New York behind to be a part of the gambling market.

“Bugsy never hesitated when danger threatened. While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting. When it came to action there was no one better. I’ve never known a man who had more guts." said Stacher, a member of the Bugsy and Meyer mob.

The film went on to show the infamous relationship between Bugsy and showgirl Virginia Hill. This Barry Levinson detected film ended with the unsolved murder of Bugsy Siegel.

9. The General (1998)

Based on the life of Martin “The General” Cahill, he was an infamous Irish crime lord based in Dublin. The movie revolves around the life of the Irish crime lord and his unorthodox family life, which is equally intriguing.

Always able to hide his face from the media by covering with his hand, Cahill successfully carried out many heists and rumored to have stolen filmmaker John Boorman’s golden record which he won for Deliverance. But he was later arrested by the Irish Republican Army and later assassinated by an unknown assailant in 1994 when he was out on bail.

10. The French Connection (1971)

Although the story is loosely based on real-life NYPD detectives Sonny Grosso and Eddy Egan and turned into the story of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo and their quest to bring down wealthy Frech heroin smuggler, Alain Charnier.

The film was highly praised for being true to the actual story and gave us don’t one of the best car chases in the history of cinema.

11. The Untouchables (1987)

The story of an incorruptible crime fighter and his quest to take down mob boss Al Capone. The movie is about Elliot Ness, who was on the quest to take down Al Capone during the Prohibition days. He was the leader of a team of incorruptible law enforcement agents nicknamed as The Untouchables.

12. Black Mass (2015)

The 2015’s movie Black Mass is a story based on the organized crime boss Whitey Bulger, who led the Winter Hill Gang. The movie is primarily based on the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal by Gerard O’Neil and Dick Lehr.

13. Donnie Brasco (1997)

Inspired by Joseph D. Pistone’s memoir back in 1988, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia. The film is based on Joseph D.

Pistone who infiltrated the Bonanno family, being an undercover FBI agent. He pretended to be a jewel thief under the guidance of Lefty Ruggiero, who was an enforcer for the family.

14. Gomorrah (2008)

The movie is based on the explosive book of investigative journalism by Roberto Saviano in 2006. The book reveals the secret of the mafia-like group, Camorrah.

This group has hands deep in several crimes in Naples like control on garbage collection that resulted in a trash crisis to giving protection rackets and knock–off designer clothes.

15. Goodfellas (1990)

If you fell in love with gangster movies because of the classic movie, The Godfather, then you are going to love the movie Goodfellas. The movie is based on the biography called Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi in 1985. It is based on turncoat Henry Hill, who was a one-time gangster involved with the Lucchese crime family.

The Gangsta Way of Life!

In this brief explanation, you have seen that, over time, gangster movies and genres have reinvented themselves. Came up with new interpretations and even stopped the genre from becoming one-dimensional and flat.

Although they have reinvented themselves over the years, still the main synopsis of gangster movies remains unchanged. So, if you like this article surely let me know in the comment section.

Read More…
A Cinematic Valentine: The 50 Best Date Night Movies on Netflix for a Perfect Valentine’s Day
100 Crore Club Movies: Bollywood Box Office Collection
30 Sexy Movie Kisses, That Have Gone Down In Cinematic History

Share this post

Nabamita Sinha loves to write about lifestyle and pop-culture. In her free time, she loves to watch movies and TV series and experiment with food. Her favorite niche topics are fashion, lifestyle, travel, and gossip content. Her style of writing is creative and quirky.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *