Art How did we come to love gangster movies?
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How did we come to love gangster movies?

Tommaso Berra
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The dualism of social nature between criminal and officer of the law accompanies the history of the gangster genre since its first representations. The images of that essentially violent American myth, which through the western can refer to a past now remembered only for its historical value, with the gangster genre force the spectator to confront a reality close to him, with no conditions to be able to hinder it.
In spite of the crisis of 1929, Hollywood cinema managed to accelerate its consolidation, managing to deal with evolving themes such as that of gangster films, focusing attention over time not only on machine guns, but analyzing the conditions that make the phenomenon of delinquency possible and the places where it proliferates.
It is that romantic conception of the theme, developed since the 1960s in a wave of cultural relativism, that has offered an emotional figure of the gangster, like that of Coppola’s Godfathers or Scarface, in which violence coexists with inner dramas.
Crime Movies embody American history by proving that the artistic process and social experiences are inseparable. On this magnetic alternation between contempt and empathy has been built the fortune of a genre that does not wane, and is not ready to abandon the idea of making us feel well-dressed villains, fierce accomplices, in danger but always on the side of the good guys.

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The stories focus on the exploits of criminals, who carry out illegal activities by resorting to violence. Opposing the success of the robbery, kidnapping or theft is the police, for a long time a heroic version of public justice. Given the fascination it aroused in the public, the theme enjoys a deep filmography, beginning in early cinema with the first representations, essential in plot but already complete with all the structural elements.
In The Great Train Robbery (1903, directed by Edwin Porter), the theme is already complete, we see a victim, a gang of criminals intent on robbing a locomotive, the apotheosis of the story with the shooting and a happy ending, according to a pattern that will last intact until the 1930s. The genre then adapted to wilder scenarios with western cinema, in which sheriffs (always an officer of the law on the side of the good guys) fight lone riders, skilled and determined.

The genre originally developed through the figure of Griffith and a single camera on the streets of Little Italy. This is where films such as The Mustakeers of Pig Alley (1912) were born, in which the genre’s themes are already expressed in all their clarity and recognizability. Violence, kidnappings, spies and informers have in fact been assimilated by the society of cinema-goers as characters of an imaginary outlined over time. The gangster tradition consciously categorizes itself in the 1930s and from that moment until the 1970s, it will occupy 20% of all Hollywood productions. However, films such as Little Cesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) or Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) faced fierce criticism condemning the films’ amoral content, which Howard Huges (Hawks’ producer) referred to as “Basic Truths”. Instead, his lawyer declared “gangster pictures are action pictures. The screen has played them for years. It called them Westerns when they stole horses Instead of booze”.


The typical characters of the plots are repeated over the years through essential gestures, gradually modified by a less typical vision of the protagonist, not only a ruthless executioner, but a kind of folk hero, able, in the chaos of depression, to obtain what matters most: success. The means by which success is achieved are the same, namely crime and extortion.
The worlds in which criminality operates change, infiltrated in boxing bets or in the most diverse business sectors. The themes throughout the story do not change much, due to the fascination that arouses the criminal imagination at all levels, the plots are often overlapping and give a clear identity to the setting and characters.

The first are represented by modern cities, dangerous and sad, which produce gangsters, or fascinating characters who act with methods of which we do not know the secrets. In other words, these are characters who impose on others their own lives and their own choices, which, when they come to us have already been taken, the work of the gangster is developed by clear objectives and techniques. On the other hand, the spectators are not only recognized as pure voyeurs. On the contrary, they participate in the criminal activities almost as if they were vicars and end up enjoying the way the events turn against the tragic hero dressed in a Borsalino and dark suit.

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In Hawks’ Scarface, another theme appears that will be typical of the genre, namely immigration. In this specific case it is embodied in the criminal Tony, who, chasing the American dream, realizes that he cannot buy the only thing he lacks: his affections. Being alone is dangerous and this is a clear convention of gangster movies since the 30s. The life of the protagonists of these films is in fact characterized by a continuous effort to define themselves as individuals and to lead themselves out of the masses, only to die, precisely, alone, as individuals and not as heroes, nihilistic and paranoid towards the fate that is seen in a tragic way.

This psychological complexity is at the basis of the reinterpretation of the genre that takes place from the 1940s to the 1970s, a period in which the traditional attribution of roles changes and a less obvious model of con men is born, often created by left-wing writers who seem to appreciate the way in which, through this type of film, one can criticize American capitalism and the drift that the American dream has taken. 
The post-war period sees the birth of the genre with new characteristics, akin to noir, that project criminals on an anguished journey within themselves, searching for answers in the face of a world transformed as that of the 1940s-50s


The attitude that justified the work of law enforcement officers, even when, in order to capture the criminal, they resorted to violence or, even worse, murder, slowly disappears. Circumscribing the discourse to the decade of the 70s and to North American productions, we can find those examples that determine the major break with the classic Crime. These films are the offspring of a process that was already underway in the 1960s and which challenged the concept of classicism in cinema. A decade later, this process led to the birth of two of the most successful examples of the genre, such as the first two films of the Godfather saga, made in 1972 and 1974 respectively.

In them, the lesson of gangster cinema is blended with southern melodrama, obtaining a product difficult to classify. Other films are Once Upon a Time in America, The French Connection, Bonny and Clyde, Chinatown, or other cult films that deepen the fashion of the detective and crime genre, diversifying the themes and in many cases based on genre novels, which thanks to their notoriety favor the success of the film. 
The saga of the Godfather, for example, blends elements that are as evocative as they are uncomfortable for the institutions, but for this very reason they are suitable to create a successful cinematographic representation and make the fortune of Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount.

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The magnetism transmitted by the Corleone family defines the genre and modifies it forever, creating a real Godfather Syndrome, which did not please the whole public opinion, so much so that Time in a 1977 cover criticized the tolerance by society and the infatuation for the romantic aspects of a criminal organization such as the Mafia, highlighting how it persisted in American society and that from Coppola’s film onwards has provided more and more stories for successful films centered on gangsters such as Al Capone.
Gangster films were accused of using real names and real cities, as well as known scenarios such as the city of New York (among the favorites along with Chicago), shown in their slums, in which dirty, popular or combed gangster characters act. We will move with the evolution of the plots towards luxurious hotels or roofs of skyscrapers, from which to drop the threads that move as puppets the fate of the cities below.

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With their attraction to Mafia mythology, the Corleones become the best contemporary image, because they are immersed in mystery, an indispensable component of the epic. In the new gangster genre the family is composed of mythical heroes, paradigms of masculinity and power balanced by the absence of fear and control. Complex heroes who pay a price that is not physical but spiritual, to the point of bringing us to live the consequences of a destiny that we cannot thwart. The Mafia began to recognize itself, in Italy as in the USA, perhaps thanks to the novels and films.
Marlon Brando, who played Don Vito Corleone, defined The Godfather as a film not about the mafia, but about the ideology of corporations. Don Vito is therefore just an ordinary American tycoon and his tactics are no different from those used by large American industries. The gangster genre therefore appears as a metaphor for the abuse of power by the state, an aspect that is still preserved today. 

Even the violence changes, now no longer towards the lawman, at the center as in tradition, but described under a new aspect. Violence is part of an economic strategy or is used to punish treason. The suffering of the new villains lies in their pathetic and not tragic death, wrapped in a solemnity that is the real novelty brought to the gangster genre, because the caricature of the divinity has nothing monstrous on the outside, as was the case with Tony’s scar in Scarface, a symbol of the demonic or of inner madness. Following the steps of such complex and selfish creatures becomes a task to be accomplished, a proposal that cannot be refused.

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Written by Tommaso Berra
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