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The silent era saw the introduction of the Gangster genre, which was marked by sirens, shooting, and screeching tires. Gangster originally referred to politicians in the 1890s but eventually came to stand for criminals. Lights of New York was the first well-known gangster film (1928). People started to lose faith in the system during the great depression, which was marked by bank closures, unemployment, and hunger. Gangsters came to represent heroes during this time. Many illicit activities, like gambling, became lucrative methods to make money (Hagemann, 1984). Gangsters had opulent lifestyles and impeccable attire. The audiences became fascinated by the extravagant lifestyle, and in a period of economic struggle and survival, gangster films emerged as a significant genre to escape the harsh reality.
Early gangster movies narrated the history of crime in America. This fact is because the plot of the film was primarily a reflection of what was happening in the country. As the fascination factor lay in this genre and the real-life criminals pillaging the United States, whenever criminal stories emerged different studios scrambled over them (Hagemann, 1984). With the tales, rose gangster characters including Baby Face, Nelson and AL Capone who awed the audience with their terrifying and carefully calculated escapades. Top films were mostly biographical and a direct portrayal of the criminals taken from the media headlines. As a result of the rapid growth and popularity of the movies, the Hayes code of 1993 was drafted to ensure that the American moral values were instilled into the films and the decency standards were set. The system said that gangsters were not allowed to be met with any sympathy. The filmmakers followed these regulations although the census had a problem with it as the criminals in the movies almost always got punished. During the last moments of the film in an exciting shootout where the gangsters died heroically. The criminal characters were usually bigshots and unbeatable, but in the end, they never went unpunished.
Warner Brothers, started in 1923, became the most popular gangster film producers of all time. The company was founded by four brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner. Its headquarters are in Burbank, California. The owners were unaware of the studio would shake the world after years of filmmaking. Some of their early projects included the Four Legged Superstar, Rin Tin Tin who had a high box office reliability (Campbell, 2014). They later did several projects that had no real impact. However, in 1927 the studio released The Jazz Singer which flipped the coin in the movie industry hence skyrocketing their ratings. As a result, this production put Warner Bros at the forefront of the filmmaking industry.
In 1930, the company pioneered the craze of gangster films with Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface, 1932. Throughout the 1930s, they produced other films which stared gangster characters (Campbell, 2014). Additionally, they were popular because of their tight budget and competency when it came to technically oriented entertainment films. This essay aims to delve into the three original gangster movies which had a considerable impact on the revolution of the film industry.
The Public Enemy
The film, The Public Enemy, produced by William Wellman was amicably received by the Americans as it was a classic film featuring a couple of criminals. It is most significant because of its direct relation to the Hayes Code set to regulate the moral standards depicted in Gangster films. The movie is also characterized by a myriad of seduction scenes, illegal production, and selling of drugs, representation of the law enforcement as a threat and the glorification of the unique gangster lifestyle. Most of the scenes in the film openly defied the Hayes code (Nickerson & Munby, 2001). However, there is an attempt to adhere to the law in some murder scenes. In the 1930s, most Americans were Americans who struggled to survive the great depression thus the characters in the movie seem relatable.
Its main characters; Tom Powers and his sidekick Matt led luxurious lives with all kinds of extravagant materials; a lifestyle that most American viewers adored. The opening scenes of the movie are significant as they point out the recurring theme of the film: alcohol. Families heading bars after work are visible and then from the background comes a loud gunshot, and then a lifeless body is seen midair. Also, consecutive shots follow and the body crumbles to the ground. As a result, smoke is seen coming from a policeman gun. The incident is followed by a scene of Tom and Matt robbing a bank which then cuts back to the view of the policeman standing over the body. The back and forth transitions are intentional as they aim to depict the panic experienced in the scenes.
Matt and Tom escape unscathed, but we see the shot character limp while holding a pistol. It is now clear that he was innocent and the audience's sympathies arise. A closer look shows that the character has been shot twice at the back, a show of disrespect. The police are depicted as a threat, and a close up of the policeman's smoking gun shows the intensity of gun violence in the film. So that we can understand the plot, it is vital to note that Tom's father was in law enforcement and he never failed to punish Tom whenever he made any mistake. The film shows his father as a dominant and threatening individual who could have been the possible catalyst for Toms rebellious attitude which is evident throughout the film.
The Hayes code also was restricted certain sexual activities in gangster films. Sex out of wedlock was prohibited together with an array of intimate suggestions (Nickerson & Munby, 2001). However, the film does close to nothing to hide its apparent defiance of the code. This fact is evident as we see Matt and Tom picking up random women from the streets and restaurants taking them to their houses. It is clear they have had sex as they are seen in pajamas the next morning.
The first four scenes of the movie are a clear insubordination to the Hayes code. Nonetheless, the director attempts to follow the law in some scenes. For instance, one of the major crimes that the dynamic duo committed is the murder of their old childhood friend, Putty Nose; which is highly censored. The two enter Putty's parlor where they intimidate him to a point where he starts begging for his life. He begins being nostalgic about their childhood together in a bid to convince them not to kill him. After a while, Putty begins singing a familiar song; probably one that they sang when they were young. Before he even finishes it, we hear a gunshot and witness his lifeless body crumble onto the piano keys. Matt is shocked, but Tom appears from behind with his face emotionless. The scene spares the audience the sight of a pool of blood. Both Matt and Tom leave the parlor with their faces unfeeling, a show of their gangster attitude.
As the film ends, Tom seeks vengeance for the murder of Matt who has been previously killed their rival gang. Tom lurks in the shadows as his rival group conducts a meeting in their usual place. A close up of his face is shown which then cuts to a scene of his entering the gang's meeting place. After his entrance, we immediately hear a round of gunshots and then a loud scream. An image of Tom existing the building while limping is suddenly visible. He crouches the doorframe, and we have a clear view of his emitting smoke. The next couple of scenes show a limping Tom making his way through the streets in the torrential downpour. The camera is tilted in a manner that depicts him larger than he is. A closer view shows that he has been shot as we see blood oozing off of his face. After a while, he collapses, and we hear sirens of the police.
In his deathbed, the audience is filled with sympathy for him instead of the law. In spite of his being a murderer and criminal, the viewer wishes for his survival. The brutality of his murder evokes sorrow for him rather than contentment that justice has been served. Evidently, the film praises the gangster.
The little film Caesar was also one of the most exceptional gangster films which potentially pioneered the edgier and risk-filled films that we view today (Kaminsky, 1972). It marked a revolution in the American film industry and led to the production of some of the most electrifying movies of all time. The film fostered a culture where the gangster movies included an anti-hero culture who was in search of the American dream which constituted a big desk and an array of modern architecture. Moreover, the new culture consists of a character usurping the abilities of his pioneer who he had overthrown and a tragic career path which begins with him in poverty to wealth and then back to the gutter.
This film captured the fear of the free enterprise which had cause the drastic fall of the stock market the year before; an aspect which appealed to the general public. The criminal characters in the movie were inspiring as they chose to act on and counter the sad circumstances. However, their illegal activities evoked a scary feeling thus sometimes the audience wished for their quick demise in a bid to still grasp on the idea of civil society. In spite of these anticipations, it was hard to get enough of the gangster's escapades in the movie.
Little Caesar tells a tale of the rise and fall of the central gangster Caesar Rico Bandello played by Edward Robinson (Nickerson & Munby, 2001). Rico begins as a small-time thief together with his dear friend Joe Massaro with whom he is seen watching the headlines about one of the biggest crime lords in the city, Diamond Peter Montana. Rico admires the mob boss so much, and according to him Diamond is somebody and could never be compared to small-time crooks like them.
Later, the two friends decide to chase their America dream in Chicago. Joe becomes a dancer and falls in love with his colleague Olga while Caesar begins working for a local gangster named Sam Vettori. Vettori later nicknames Rico little Caesar due to his short and sturdy build. Rico attempts to include Joe in his endeavors, but Joe wants out particularly when he realizes that the gang intends to raid Bronze Peacock, his workplace. We also see Olga trying to convince Joe to get off the life of crime for good.
Rico continues to gain ranks in the mob, and he later overthrows Vettori and his most threatening rival, Little Arnie Lorch. His fast-rising success attracts the attention of the godfather of crime popularly known as Big Boy who seeks Little Caesar to oversee the territory of Montana. Big Boy is the mob boss that Rico and Joe had admired when they were still in their hometown. In spite of the friendly relation that Big boy fosters, Rico only has the intention of overthrowing him and taking over (Kaminsky, 1972). Nevertheless, his plans were not to be as his fame attracted the law enforcement who were led by an expert, the Bull Flaherty who had been looking for any information that could lead him to Little Caesar (Nickerson & Munby, 2001).
Flaherty gets the chance to finally catch Rico when he leaves himself vulnerable during a dealing with Joe. Rico is gunned down, and as he lays on the ground, he laments the famous line "mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
The role of Rico was the best for Emmanuel Goldenberg from Romania, who had immigrated to the United States in search of the American dream. His character was the epitome of reimbursement; a short guy who managed to garner so much power. Something about him inspired his fellow gangster characters who followed him without question. Rico is depicted as an intelligent character who avoided alcohol as did not want to alter his decision-making abilities.
This film portrays the relationship between the media and criminal activities. Rico's demise is predicted in a newspaper column as was his dream which originated from watching the headlines. Little Caesar is a straightforward narrative which captures the attention of many. Furthermore, the film shook the world to its core due to its sleazy atmosphere. It was easy to relate with at the time, and it popularized the Warner Bros studio who came to be named the King of gangster films in the 1930s. It was highly based on real-life characters and is considered the best as it constituted several subgenres including heist and detective films. The movie lay the groundwork for the productions made today in the movie industry.
Scarface is one of the gangster films that made an enormous impact on the hip-hop culture. The film has become a language, and the language of its characters continues to be used in rap lyrics by several artists (Spence, 2007). The film is a crime saga that depicts the rise and fall of a Cuban refugee who was a drug lord in Miami. Many artists have borrowed its fashion, language, and imagery and inculcated them into their music. These artists include Notorious B.I.G and the Mobb Deeps. Recent music productions in the hip-hop culture have embedded the very essence of Scarface in the contents. For instance, in 2003 an album named "Def jam Recordings Present Music Inspired by Scarface" was produced. It contained a collection of songs from different artists including Jay Z, Ice cube, and the Grandmaster Hash. These artists testified to the influence of the film into their music direction.
The plot of the film circles Tony Montana who arrived in the United States of America after Fidel Castro permitted 125000 refugees into the country. Tony is detained in a government refugee camp where he is later hired by Frank Lopez, a drug dealer, to kill a particular detainee to get a green card. It is from this encounter that he becomes a renowned drug dealer. Even from a distance, it is evident that the film has adopted the imagination of the pop culture. Tony's Porsche coupe, designer outfits, and broad chest medallions are an example of hip-hop materialism. The character's high rolling lives are what we see today in the hip-hop culture (Spence, 2007).
Gangster films have evolved from what they were in the 1930s. However, what remains constant is the influence they have had in today's movies. Today, holly wood gangster genre has reached its pinnacle with the production of a myriad of films that continue to be premiered day in day out. Despite the improvement of the quality of modern movies, the content from the 1930s is still deeply embedded in the fabric of the shows. Nonetheless, contemporary gangster films appear to be not easily relatable as they are not drawn from personal experience.
Campbell, S. (2014). Warner Bros. Film Matters, 5(3), 58-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/fm.5.3.58_1
Hagemann, E. (1984). Scarface: The Art of Hollywood, Not "The Shame of a Nation". The Journal Of Popular Culture, 18(1), 30-42. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.0022-3840.1984.1801_30.x
Kaminsky, S. (1972). “Little Caesar” and its Role in the Gangster Film Genre. Journal Of Popular Film, 1(3), 208-227. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472719.1972.10661657
Nickerson, C., & Munby, J. (2001). Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. The Journal Of American History, 87(4), 1548. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2674854
Spence, D. (2007). A gangster rap. BMJ, 334(7589), 370-370. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39125.486389.59
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