Tuesday, August 9, 2011

3 on 3: Gangster Films

Each week this month, the Cafe will present a "3 on 3 panel" in which three experts will answer three questions on a single classic film topic. This week, the Cafe poses three questions on gangster films to three of our favorite classic movie bloggers:  John Greco from Twenty Four Frames; ClassicBecky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food; and R. D. Finch from The Movie Projector.

1. What's the most influential gangster film of the 1930s?

Paul Muni in Scarface.
John: I will have to go with Scarface: Shame of a Nation. Most obviously because of the De Palma reimagination with Pacino and "his little friend," however I think there is more than just that. Hawks' film is almost epic in its filming and thinking. On the surface, the film is a reworking of Al Capone (like Capone, Tony Camonte, a small time hood comes to Chicago from New York to work for a Chicago boss) but screenwriters Ben Hecht, W.R. Burnett and three others go further, bringing in the Borgia family, incest, sexual fetishism and of course...violent murder. The film was so blatant in these areas many state censor boards from all over the country banned the film. Hawks and his screenwriters made Camonte a Neanderthal thinking killer with raw basic instincts rubbing out anyone who gets in his way. The brutal behavior and violence is offset by dark arty camerawork which I think truly separates it from other gangsters films of its time. As Camonte, Muni is bestial, lustful, and dangerously comical. He is sexually stimulated by his bosses' mistress (Karen Morley), his trampy sister (Ann Dorvak) and his machine gun. The film's influence can be seen in works as diverse as Coppola's The Godfather and Wilder's Some Like it Hot. In Wilder's film, George Raft as Spat Columbo pays tribute to his earlier role in Scarface when he asks another gangster who's flipping a coin: "Where did you pick up that cheap trick?"

James Cagney is The Public Enemy.
ClassicBecky: I chose the original Big 3, Scarface, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, in determining the most influential 1930's gangster film. My intellect says that Paul Muni's Scarface is actually the best of the three, and holds the unique position of progenitor of future gangster films to come decades later. My emotions tell me that Little Caesar is the best performance of an actor as mobster, with Edward G. Robinson bringing to life the true sociopathic gangster, frightening and amoral. However, as a movie historian, I believe that in the context of most influential gangster film of the 1930s, Public Enemy fills that bill best. James Cagney's performance as Tom Powers is the one that flowered into the tough but sympathetic mobster, with characteristics of mannerism and personality that appealed to audiences and became the prototype for classic era gangster films.

Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.
R.D. Finch: Three gangster films of the early 1930s, all made about the same time, had a huge influence on later movies of this type: Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface. Their great innovation was to elevate the gangster from mere villain to main character, and to cast magnetic actors in these focal roles. Those films followed the trajectory of classic tragedy—the rise to power, the corruption from excessive egoism, and the inevitable fall—and treated their gangster characters almost as tragic figures, as victims of their own character flaws as well as outside forces. These men did bad things and came to a bad end, yet viewers felt a kinship with them in a way they never did with traditional villains, like those in Westerns. The thing I find most interesting about those early gangster movies is that motivation—what drove the characters to become criminals—wasn't explored too deeply, nor was the psychology of antisocial behavior. I have to wonder if the social conditions of the time were responsible for the filmmakers' belief that audiences would accept the behavior of men like Rico, Tom Powers, and Tony Camonte without questioning motivation too closely. This was a time of great despair, with the effects of the Depression really beginning to be felt in 1930-31. The Hoover administration's hands-off attitude toward the crisis encouraged cynicism about authority, and gangster movies allowed the viewer the vicarious satisfaction of doing something rebellious in an environment where authority had become the enemy. In a subversive way, these films embodied the Great American Belief that with hard work anyone can be successful. If there were no opportunities to use innovation, ambition, and independence to get ahead lawfully, then you had to do it outside the law.

2. Where would you rank The Godfather trilogy among the classic gangster films?

John: Considering that I rank The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as two of America's greatest films they certainly would rank toward the very top of the classic gangster film spectrum. The third film in the trilogy was a bit of a letdown though upon a second and third viewing its stature has improved. The first two films are perfect (has anyone ever seen The Godfather Saga, Coppola's re-edited version of the first two films made for TV?). In these films FFC merges art and commercialism, high and low art, turning pulp fiction into an epic tale of the American dream. It became the film that all future gangster films would be compared against. I have to admit I have a love/hate relationship in numerically ranking films. Styles, taste change with time, altering one's feelings and judgment. Along with the first two Godfather films though, I would include Angels With Dirty Faces, White Heat, Hawks' Scarface, The Roaring Twenties, GoodFellas, Mean Streets and The Public Enemy among the best. I think it's a fairly common list except possibly for Mean Streets. You will note these are all urban gangster films as opposed to the more rural outlaw films like Bonnie and Clyde and They Live By Night. That would be a whole other list.

The first of The Godfather trilogy.
ClassicBecky: I have to admit that I always think of The Godfather films as a fantastic duet of original and sequel. I thought Godfather Part III strayed way too far away from the first two. It had good things in it, mostly the addition of Andy Garcia's character, but it was definitely substandard in my opinion. The original Godfather and Godfather Part II rank very highly as a modern example of a new and fresh gangster genre that started a wave of films like GoodFellas, Casino and the cable series The Sopranos. In that respect, The Godfather trilogy represents the same kind of influence to modern audiences as the Big 3 of the '30s did to audiences of their day.

R.D. Finch: At the absolute top. They're (well, the first two parts anyway) not just great gangster films but among the greatest films of any type.

3. After the 1970s, the traditional gangster film genre all but disappeared except for occasional films like GoodFellas, Bugsy, Mobsters, and Carlito's Way. What do you believe led to the downfall of the gangster film?

John: There have been a few others (Casino, A Bronx Tale, Donnie Brasco) that I can think of, so I am not sure that the public has lost interest as much as the money men rather bet their dollars on comic book heroes, and endless sequels than take a chance on a gangster film, or say a western, which seems to be in a similar boat. They don't make this kind of film and it is rubber stamped as out of fashion. Then again, the majority of the movie going public seems to continually be getting younger and younger and the films getting made are geared toward their interests; over blown video game style violence and special effects. Al Capone may not seem like such a super villain compared to mutants, intergalactic evil doers and other extraordinary villains. Even Lex Luther from Superman may seem like a pussycat when compared. Will the gangster film ever make a comeback? I think so. When? That, I don't know, but there are some signs. Boardwalk Empire is scheduled to come back for a second season on HBO, and according to IMDb, Al Pacino, John Travolta and Joe Pesci are in a pre-production stage on the making of Gotti: In the Shadow of My Father. The near future may rest on how well these two works perform.

ClassicBecky: This is definitely the toughest question. Although 1980-2010 did have famous mobster movies (Scarface remake, Untouchables, Once Upon A Time in America, The Godfather Part III, GoodFellas, Casino, Road to Perdition, The Departed), they were not in my eyes true gangster films, except perhaps for Scarface (I hated it), Godfather III (hated that too) and GoodFellas (bloody but good). The others I mentioned are either nostalgia-based or personal struggle-type stories. I think perhaps the growing emphasis on marketing to younger audiences was partly responsible for this. Especially in the 80s, the sexual revolution was in full swing, and movies like Flashdance, Basic Instinct, etc. were popular. Light romantic comedies, the Indiana Jones movies, the Rocky movies, Star Wars sequels, Rambo, and the beginning of a proliferation of family Pixar-type movies seemed to be the wave of the future.

R.D. Finch: I don't think I can fully agree with this statement. Of course, part of it depends on how broad the definition of "gangster film" is. Other popular genres of the thirties like screwball comedy and musicals have all but disappeared, but the gangster film seems to have been more adaptable. Movies about professional criminals and organized crime are still being made regularly and sometimes successfully, although the gangster figure isn't always the exclusive focus of the film and, of course, there's far more awareness of the role of abnormal psychology in criminal behavior. Here are some that come to mind: De Palma's Scarface, Prizzi's Honor, Miller's Crossing, Quentin Tarantino's early films, Donnie Brasco, Cronenberg's A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Michael Mann's movies like Heat and the recent Public Enemies, and of course Scorsese's many excursions into the genre, most notably GoodFellas and The Departed.


  1. Love starting my day with coffee & Tommy guns. I recently re-read Classic Becky's series on gangster films from earlier in the year. I think that AMC "thon" is getting to me.

    Very interesting discussion. Those classic films have been viewed so often that the perspective of others is needed to return the movies to their glorious originality.

    Tough times make for tough people, and the distance of time lends itself to mythologizing the characters. Emotionally, I can't look at the criminals in movies set in my time with that same understanding and detachment. Will future audiences feel that way about the 21st century gangster?

  2. I thought this was a fascinating discussion and I certainly can't argue with the "Big 3" as the most influential gangster films of the 1930s. However, if I could add a fourth, it'd be ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (which John mentioned) because Cagney's gangster possesses redeeming qualities that separate him from the vicious tough guys that preceded him. That set the stage for later films like HIGH SIERRA. As for THE GODFATHER films, the first two work for me because they focus on "family" drama and politics whereas many films in the gangster genre key on how and why an individual became a gangster (which is still a key component of GODFATHER PART II). By the way, I have seen THE GODFATHER SAGA and quite enjoyed watching the GODATHER and GODAFTHER II plots in chronological order. The third question posed is problematic because, as R.D. Finch points out, it depends one's definition of a "gangster film." For me, the traditional gangster film is the type mentioned earlier where the emphasis on how and why an individual turned to a life of crime. It seems like contemporary gangster dramas often ignore that aspect in lieu of more straightforward character studies, such as THE SOPRANOS TV series and CASINO. Like Becky said, today's blockbuster films focus on mass entertainment and that has relegated gangster films to "specialists" like Scorsese or De Palma.

  3. Technically, the yakuza film genre in Japan is also part of gangster films. There is a seemingly endless list of those movies, from directors such as Seijun Suzuki and Kinji Fukasaku, and they're still being made today by the likes of Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano. None of these movies seem influenced by U.S. gangster films, as they take more from Kurosawa (the earliest yakuza films had men with swords) and were shaped more by real world events, such as the aftermath of WWII, than earlier films.

    Also, I agree with R.D. about how the genre has adapted to the times. We aren't the same viewers from 80 years ago, who weren't fully aware of the sheer violence required for the Mob to function outside of the law. And why is the violence in current films criticized more than in the 1930s? These are movies about criminals, who murder and beat and steal. You can't praise films of yesteryear for hinting at violence and then condemn films of today for stylizing it. It's a similar approach: inclusion of violence in a roundabout way, so as to generate sympathy for those dispatching said violence. And GOODFELLAS, which presents violence in a more direct manner, offers the moral dilemma for an audience: should it or should it not feel for a violent criminal? Don't negate our cinematic gangsters of today because the results of their behavior are more bloody; they're the same people as the characters from the '30s armed with Tommy guns.

  4. It could be, w/the success of The Sopranos & Boardwalk Empire, that the gangster genre hasn't died, but only moved to the episodic tv format, which allows for a more leisurely, complex telling of story, as well as an exploration of not only motive and character, but the progression of the gangster tribe as 'family' (Coppola redesigning his Godfather I and II films into a tv 'saga' seemed to point the way). Excellent, insightful post.

  5. Caftan Woman, that's an interesting observation about the mythologizing of gangsters in real life and on the silver screen. Yet, I think that occurred even with a core of contemporary society in the 1930s. I wasn't around then, but know that my father was a Dillinger fan. He was fully aware that Dillinger was a criminal, but admired the gangster's style (for lack of a better word), which was enhanced by the national media and perhaps the need for Depression-era heroes. Sark, the growth of the gangster genre in other countries would make a fascinating essay. I can see the parallels between the warring factions portrayed in some samurai films and the gangs of American gangster movies. The growth of French film gangsters (influenced very much by American cinema) and the British variations (e.g., THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY) would also be interesting to explore in depth. John, I neglected to mention that I really like how you differentiated between urban gangster films and rural contemporary outlaw films. They are two very different kinds of films, yet both fit into the gangster genre.

  6. Just a little aside to John and R.D. as 1/3 of the 3/3! -- I think it's just fascinating that each of us chose a different one of the original Big 3! Interesting! I plan to and am interested in talking more about all the comments after the discussion is completed.!

  7. This was a very interesting 3 on 3 post. John, Becky, and R. D. have more similar, rather than divergent, perspectives and their essays are all informative and expertly written. Perhaps the Depression did permit the gangster film to seem more acceptable. Personally, I can't watch violent films any more. There is so much unrest in the world today that it is hard enough just trying to make it through the news. But I think this is a thought-provoking blog and appreciate all the interesting comments.

  8. I agree with R. D. Finch. I think that the modern gangster genre has morphed into a different animal but it's still going strong. That's true here and abroad as one commenter noted. However, John Greco noted astutely that the long form of television lends itself well to the genre as evidenced by "Crime Story" in the late 19980's.

  9. I also agree that the gangster genre is still going strong, so strong in fact I sometimes wonder if we all ought to be a little worried by how thoroughly it took the place of the Western in America's self-conception (as projected through the movies and TV).

    However, while I also agree the Godfathers are two of the greatest films ever made, I don't think they're "perfect". There was considerable room for improvement, especially in Godfather II. First and foremost, I'll never forgive actor Richard Castellano for demanding an outrageous increase in salary after the success of Godfather I, thereby forcing Coppola to replace Clemenza with a character we'd never seen before. Imagine the increased emotional impact if everything that happened to this "stranger", Frankie Pentangelli, happened instead to a character we were deeply invested in from the first film!

    Secondly, I find the sequence in which Pentangelli is set up by Hyman Roth extremely confusing. How on earth was it supposed to work? Did the people in on the setup know they were likely to get killed as it unfolded? One of them was a cop, for crying out loud! Maybe not a real cop, I suppose… but who knows!?

    Finally… damn it, Brando!! Coppola singlehandedly resurrects your career, allowing you to charge two gazillion dollars for five minutes of screen time in Superman, etc etc…and you won't deign to show up in the last five minutes of his movie, thereby not allowing a strong final sequence to become a mind-bogglingly great final sequence? Shame.

  10. I enjoyed everyone's interesting and thoughtful comments very much. These 3/3 debates are a great idea, Rick. John and R.D., we have a few differences in opinion, very few really, and I've never had so much fun conversing with 2 other experts without any contact at all! LOL!

  11. Rick, John, Becky, R.D., I thoroughly enjoyed your fascinating, in-depth "3 By 3" discussion of gangster films, then and now. My late dad was a restaurant manager who also happened to be a bookie on the side. Of course, Dad wasn't a gangster of any stripe, he just happened to rub elbows with them on his work time. Dad was more the Damon Runyon type than the Mario Puzo type. :-)

    Two gangster-movie-related anecdotes come to mind:

    1.) When THE GODFATHER was shown on network television for the first time, we were watching it. Dad came into the living room and peered at the screen for several minutes. Finally, he snorted, "That's a lotta malarkey!" and left the room.

    2.) When I was in my tweens, our family went to Las Vegas for a vacation and visited old friends of Dad's. Our host was a gent named Jasper, who know many of the same colorful characters I've just mentioned. Among other fun Vegas-y things, we went to see CASINO, which was based on a true story -- and one of the characters was based on Jasper. Mom and my sister Cara and I had great fun afterwards figuring out which characters were fact-based! :-)

  12. Dorian, those are great stories! You should do a piece on your own blog about that!

  13. Somw great comments here and I want to thank everyone for the lively discussion. I also want to thank Rick for hosting this and look forward to what is coming next in this series.