Gangster To Gangsta: A Godfather-Free History Of Gangster Films

August 23, 2013 2:41 pm

gangstersAfter the pressure of a world war in 1917-18, America had been prosperous. They had been on the winning side of the war, and the country’s morale was at an all-time high. Money seemed to flow freely as people celebrated freedom itself, creating the ‘roaring twenties’. The American Dream seemed attainable for all, and the high life not so far away as it was during wartime. People were free, and free to spend; therefore, the economy boomed. The well to do had plenty of leisure time, so media blossomed too, as jazz music stormed the nation, and in 1927, cinema changed forever with the first talkie, ‘The Jazz Singer’. Womanhood was changing as women were now allowed the vote. Big cities such as New York, London, Paris and Berlin were the places to be. A large rise in interest in the stock market swept the nation as people flocked to invest in the New York Stock Exchange. The French called the era “the crazy years”. But that was all about to change.


The Wall Street Crash of 1929 sparked The Great Depression of the 1930s, and brought America to its financial knees.  The stock market collapsed completely, sending the value of people’s investments through the floor. The whole country was affected. New York was transformed in a matter of days, from a place of prosperity and wealth, to a body-littered street, outlined by shantytowns for the homeless of the city. So many people lost everything. Over the next few months, some took their lives by jumping from the city’s buildings, while others struggled to stay alive in the slums. Survival was key as the country, and the world, fell prey to a financial disaster.
As the roaring twenties crumbled away, the only way for many people to get through was crime.

Homicide rates doubled between 1929 and 1933, and the number of people forced to steal to survive increased insurmountably.
However, certain members of the American public were used to lawbreaking. During the Prohibition of 1919 to 1933, bootleggers and rum runners broke the law to supply the country with its much-wanted alcohol. Having a ready-made business there for them, and the increase in want of something to take the
pain away, these bootleggers were set up quite nicely to ride the storm of the depression. Times were still hard, but for the hardened men of the ‘gangs’, this would be their time to shine with the moonshine.
This was the rise of the most famous gangster era in history.

In cities such as New York, where the depression really hit home, and Chicago, where by 1932 there were three-quarters of a million unemployed people, gangsters were easily hidden away, and thrived on the people’s needs. Cities were the homes of the gangsters.

The genre and narrative conventions of gangsters living in American cities were thus taken straight from reality. The cities built the gangsters, and as films would show, tore them down again. And the setting worked wonderfully for film, as the gangsters were hidden in the city jungle, hard to track, but easy to trap. The dark buildings, easily surrounded by policemen play a large part in many gangster films, often spelling the doom of the protagonist. Darkness is easy to get lost in, but hard to escape. It builds a story of a cat and mouse chase, and in the earliest gangster films the viewers are allowed to root for the mouse. However, by 1934, The Production Administration Code was brought into effect in Hollywood.

Glorifying gangsters in film was no longer allowed, as the real world police still struggled against the rise of very real mobsters. Film-makers were asked to explain each character of their film, i.e. banker, lawyer, doctor, minor, criminal etc. They then had to determine how that character would be portrayed, i.e.
comic, straight, etc. Film-makers also had to report any drinking, court scenes, crime, killings, violence, type of criminal, military, political, religious, foreign, or racial angles, or religious ceremonies, to be scrutinised. If that wasn’t enough, they also had to describe and get permission for each scene set in; a bedroom, on a beach, in prison, in bars, gambling rooms, nightclubs, saloons, churches and hospitals.And then explain any scenes of adultery, illicit sex, gambling, marriage, divorce or suicide. This was the end of the ‘classic’ gangster era, as many of these places and ideas were so often necessary.

crime-scarface-Crime, for example, was obviously the main aspect of any gangster film. ‘Little Caesar’ (1931) or ‘Scarface’ (1932) hyped gangsters as the character the audience could root for, where as after the Code was introduced, films such as ‘G-Men’, starred James Cagney as the protagonist on the right side of the
law, were made to appease the government.

Government also plays a large role in gangster films. Being directly addressed in ‘Scarface’, the government are represented as the authority that the gangsters are rebelling against. Their enemies are the police, but their motive is against the government, because the government presents the threat of power and ‘callous indifference’ (as quoted in the novel ‘Scarface’). They have the power to take away the alcohol, or to bring the country to financial collapse. They have the power to ruin the lives of the working class, so the gangsters are simply taking their power back. Afterall, in both ‘Scarface’ and ‘La Haine’, the signs “The World Is Yours” is placed in the background to remind people that the American
Dream is still out there for the taking.

Power is crucial. During the classic gangster era, the gangsters had power; they took money, land, and alcohol – whatever they wanted. (This would later change, as gangstas have less authority or power.)

The rise and fall narrative of every gangster film is imperative. Without it, the genre wouldn’t have its characteristic portrayal of the near-lovable criminal that’s doomed to fail. This classic prototype is routinely brought to life through the ‘Moll’.

The ‘Moll’ is the woman who often begins the film as the girlfriend, wife or mistress of the ‘boss’. The boss is the man in charge of the gang at the time – he basically calls the shots. As the film progresses, and the protagonist moves up the ranks, the Moll shows more and more of an interest in him. Her feelings for our gangster are an indicator to how well he is doing. The Moll’s character, in the ‘classic’ era, also tells us a lot about the role of women in society around that time. The Moll is often presented as easily dominated (even the strong ones), and in need of protection. The men seem to have a duty to look after the women in their lives, particularly the women of their families.

However, this changes through the timeline of the gangster film: especially well shown in ‘Bonnie And Clyde’. By 1967 – the year ‘Bonnie And Clyde’ was made – women were equal to men. Women had work, the pill, abortions, and control and freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. This is reflected in Bonnie, even though the film is set in the 1930s and based on real people and events.bonnie___clyde_8 Bonnie and Clyde were an unmarried couple, sharing a bed, committing crimes, killing people, and glorifying the gangster once more, also showing that not only the views on women had changed, but also the views on film and what was appropriate. The makers of ‘Bonnie And Clyde’ had a lot more freedom to make their film than anyone trying to make a similar film around 1934. On the other hand, women in gangster films have always been portrayed as more sexual than the men.Even Clyde uses his gun as a sexual metaphor towards Bonnie, who is shown to be very sexualised.

Women have always had to be protected and/or looked at. This is another convention of gangster films, and is so, because the “camera is male”.
Dysfunctional relationships feature heavily in this genre. In ‘Scarface’, the hero has an oddly sexual relationship with his sister. He protects her too closely, as though he is saving her for himself. Although this is never explained, it is shown through acting, body language and actions. Again, in ‘Bonnie And Clyde’, their relationship is dysfunctional because Clyde is impotent. These relationships are important to character and narrative because the audience needs to see a weakness in the gangsters; on one level we need to know that these men are human, but also, that they are flawed, and not to be admired or copied.

As well as dysfunctional relationships, it’s easy to find that gangsters also seem to always have a sidekick somewhere, be that a rubbish secretary (Scarface), a local boy you just happen to pick up (Bonnie And Clyde), or a childhood friend you wouldn’t want to lose (Boyz ‘n The Hood). Quite often these sidekicks are there to give the gangster some humanity, to make them seem realistic and relatable. In fact, quite often, the sidekick offers some comic relief to the film, to take you out of the suspense and make you think about the characters and storyline.

As ‘gangster’ films moved into ‘gangsta’ films, the focus shifted more from the differences between men and women, and more onto the differences and similarities between black and white. There had been a lot of social change between 1900 and 1999.

On December 1st 1955, in Alabama, a black woman called Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. images (2)
March 1963 – there was a racial equality protest of over 200.000 people in Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. made his ‘I have a dream’ speech.
1964 – the Civil Rights Act came into force.
1965 – riots broke out over the lack of progress for equality – the Act wasn’t enough yet.
April 1968 – Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
1970 – a turning point in the end of segregation.
The same way all Americans had a reason to be angry with the government in the 1930s, the black community of the United States felt that they had right to be angry in the 1990s. Black Americans were still largely in poverty until the late 1960s, as progress was slow. Riots broke out all over the country,
and gangs formed rapidly.

In the 90s, when things had finally calmed down, gangster films made a big comeback, portraying their struggles. As gangsters, and films about them, had been controversial at the start of the century, these films were no different. But the world had grown since the days of threats with Tommy guns, so now machine guns, were used to express the violence. Women still played lesser parts than men, but now they were mostly equal. To that end, filmmakers had to introduce another type of weaker character – children. Rarely was there a child involved classic gangster films, but as the ‘gangster’ film became less controversial and more expected, ‘gangsta’ films needed something to shock.

crop-of-Poster-For-Boyz-N-The-Hood-film-545In ‘Boyz ‘n The Hood’ (1991), for example, the film starts with a group of boys, that we see already have the gang mentality, and pretend to be well versed in the arts of ‘gangsta’.

Gangsters in film, and in real life were always misfits in some way. The earliest gangsters of America were immigrants that stuck to the patriotism of their origin countries – therein creating gangs and gang war between themselves and other immigrants wanting a part of the American Dream. The later gangsta rightly wanted to be accepted and free in their own country, after years of struggle for equality.

Gangsters have never fit into society, which is probably why audiences find them so captivating. The casual coolness of the cold killers is eerie in some respects, but entrancing at the same time. Classic, young gangsters wore suits, with tilted hats, loosely tied ties and a cigarette hanging limply from his mouth, portraying the kind of bad-boy appeal that James Dean later became famous for. Older
gangsters were more uptight, with their ties always neat (until they lose their position, that is), and a manly cigar perched between their fingers.

Smoking is semiotic of coolness, confidence and a disregard for authority that all gangsters need to fulfil their character. Equally, though, the cigarettes and cigars were symbolic of wealth and ease of life for many, as the affluent ladies and gentlemen of the early 20th Century used smoking as fashion statement, as well as the general uses of today. Gangstas had the same disrespect for authority, but a different kind of ‘cool’, creating a fashion of gold jewellery and baggy clothes that swept the world in the later part of the century.jay-american-gangster-smoking

On the other hand, this worked both ways, as film gangsters were inspired by the cool fashions of the day, the real life gangsters were then inspired to dress that way. It’s said that many gangsters, and gangstas dressed to emulate the famous mobsters of Hollywood.

Nevertheless, the main conventions that make a gangster film are still there – money problems, dysfunctional relationships, anger, guns, death and hierarchy. As long as a group of people is missing equality, justice, or booze, somewhere in the world, we will always have gangsters. Controversial, popular, violent, and anarchistic, there is a certain romance to gangster films, and gangsters will always have a (throat) grip on an audience that no other kind of person or genre can.

%d bloggers like this: