The Development of the Gangster Film Genre

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Evolution of Gangster Films Across Multiple Periods In Film History

Gangster films are a standout amongst the continuing and most prevalent film genre. They are developed from the malevolent actions of organized criminals and gangs. They focus on the egotistical, profane, materialistic and street-smart nature of gangsters, and where inter-gang conflicts for power and resources is a common concept (Mason). This paper tracks the development of the gangster film genre across multiple periods of film history and creates specific connections between the earlier gangster films and the later films they have influenced.

Origins in the Silent Era

The historical backdrop of gangster film currently traverses over a century. They date back to the beginning of film amid the silent era. The silent era time stretches out from the late nineteenth century, but most scholars agree that in America the silent era was between the 1910s-1930s, when the film industry developed into an organized venture after decline in in competition from European film developers as a result of World War 1 (Malkiewicz, and Mullen). Silent era was characterized by lack of synchronized sound in films, although movie theaters and other show rooms provided narrators, pianist and other sound machines to accompany the films.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), directed by D.W. Griffith, is one of the first films of the silent era to feature gangsters and organized crime. The film revolves around a male character (Elmer Booth) - an intense, brutal and friendly criminal native of a New York ghetto, who forms a transitory yet contacting union of comfort with an honest courageous woman (Lilian Gish) before going back to his criminal ways. The films had no synthesized audio dialogue like most silent era films due to technological challenges at the time. The film depicts the gangster side and the good side of Elmer as he is involved in theft of Gish's husband (Walter Miller) wallet but later protects Gish from being drugged in a night club by another gang member. The film is relatively free of police presence and their presence is not feared – a common ideology in modern gangster films where gangsters are not afraid of the police or have any respect to norms and rules of a polite society. The lighting and quality of the film is poor compared to modern films.

Scarface (1932) - A Bold and Violent Gangster Film

Scarface (1932), directed by Howard Hawks and co-producer Howard Hughes, is one of the boldest, most intense and violent gangster films ever created. The then Controversial film was based on the life of a well-known gangster Al Capone. The film is set during the prohibition period, featuring Tony Camonte who is an immigrant from Italy living with his mother and sister in the slums of Chicago. The films follows his rise and fall as a gangster in Tony Lovo's crime organization. Camonte is able to take over the organizations' leadership from Lovo but he eventually falls as a result of his overprotective nature towards his sister. Camonte kills his sister's husband, who was also his trusted friend Guino, after he discovers their about their secret marriage. The film ends after Camonte is shot down by police officers during his arrest and is sentenced to die by hanging by a judge for his involvement in Guino's death. This film followed the more established darker setting similar to Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) where gangster characters were portrayed to be lurking in the dark. Without the night as their settings, these classic gangsters could not survive. Gangster were depicted as atrocious and deranged characters that could not prevail in the light of day. The film release was delayed because of concerns raised over its unsympathetic portrayal of criminals and content. It is the first gangster film showing a gangster with a machine gun, a concept that is common in most modern gangster films. The depiction of the flippant conduct by the gangsters almost encouraged its appeal (Smith).

The Remake: Scarface (1983)

A remake of Scarface 1932, Scarface (1983) directed by Brian DePalma was released in 1983 amidst similar controversy encountered during the release of the first film. The film was lashed out at by critics for depicting violence, most notably the chain saw scene and its obscenity. The film follows the basic rise and fall narrative as the first film only this time Tony Montana and his ally Manny are Cuban immigrants instead of Italian. After committing crime in order to get out of a detention camp and obtain a green card, Tony and Manny begin working at a Cuban restaurant where tony is unhappy. Montana begins working for frank Lopez who is the head of a notorious gang in Miami. He works his way up the gang ranks and eventually became frank's right hand man and eventually takes the throne. Montana is overly protective of his sister and shoots Manny dead after finding him in his sister's home. The films ends after Gina and tony are Killed by hitmen sent to kill Tony for failing to go through with the assassination of a journalist. Though the plots of both films are similar, there are a few changes that show the evolution of gangster films.

Changes in Setting and Characterization

One of the notable changes was the departure from the earlier concepts were most gangsters had an Italian background. Scarface (1983) used a Cuban immigrant, something that might have been contributed politically following an increase in Cuban immigrants after the Opening of Mariel Port in 1980. The Setting of the Films is also different as Tony Montana (1983) exists in the daylight. This a change from earlier gangster films were gangsters were portrayed to prefer the darkness of the night and were rarely spotted in the day. The fact that Montana is seen during the day gives authenticity to his activities as most businessmen work during the day (Grazer et al.). The change in setting was a gradual process, as gangster films like the Godfather (1972) had already began showing that gangsters could also exist during the day (Cawelti).

Modern gangsters have also been depicted to have sympathetic character unlike early gangster characters. In 1932 Scarface, Camonte was depicted as a murderous villain who seemed to take pride in his murders. Montana on the other hand shows he has a sympathetic heart when he cannot accomplish the assassination of a journalist due to the presence of the journalist's wife and kids in the car. Modern gangsters are also depicted as huge successful individuals who head big companies and live 'normal' lives yet still involved in criminal dealings. Modern films also portray gangsters to be more organized and sophisticated than in earlier gangster films (McArthur). Better cinematography techniques such as bird's eye shot, jump cuts and key lightings have greatly improved quality of modern gangster films (Malkiewicz, and Mullen).


The vast majority of viewers can comprehend the plot and story of standard gangster films however stay ignorant of the more "abstract mythic, religions, ideological, or psychosexual significance" (Bordwell 2). The main Ideology of gangster film is to give viewers an insight into criminal lives and also show the dangers involved when one indulges in criminal activities. Gangster genre has evolved over the years and with the current technology and better cinematography techniques people can expect greater plot and quality of gangster films (Malkiewicz, and Mullen).

Work cited

D, Bordwell. Making meaning. Harvard University Press, 1989.

"Evolution of The Gangster Genre Essay - 1053 Words". Studymode, 2018,

Accessed 30 Nov 2018.

Grazer, Brian et al. American Gangster. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2008.

"History Of Gangster Crime Films". Tiki-Toki.Com, 2018, 30 Nov 2018.

J, Cawelti. Adventure, mystery and romance: Formula stories as art and popular culture. University of Chicago press, 1976

Leitch, Thomas. Crime Films. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Malkiewicz, J. Kris, and M. David Mullen. Cinematography. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Mason, Fran. American Gangster Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

McArthur, Colin. "Samuel Fuller's Gangster Films". Screen, vol 10, no. 6, 1969, pp. 93-101. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1093/screen/10.6.93.

Ross, Andrew. "The Chicago Gangster Theory Of Life". Social Text, no. 35, 1993, p. 93. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/466445.

Smith, Jim. Gangster Films. Virgin, 2011.

September 25, 2023




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