Gangster Film: Exploring the Underworld of Crime and Intrigue

James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) Gangster films have captivated audiences with their thrilling portrayal of organized crime and the shadowy world of gangs. These movies delve into the realm of criminal activities,...

Gangster film James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Gangster films have captivated audiences with their thrilling portrayal of organized crime and the shadowy world of gangs. These movies delve into the realm of criminal activities, highlighting the dynamics of both large criminal organizations and small gangs engaged in illicit acts. While gangster films belong to the broader genre of crime films, they have a distinct identity that sets them apart from Westerns and other crime subgenres.

A Genre Defined by Organized Crime

The American Film Institute defines gangster films as movies "centered on organized crime or maverick criminals in a twentieth-century setting." Recognizing their impact, the Institute included gangster films as one of the ten classic genres in its 10 Top 10 list released in 2008. Notable classics like Scarface, The Public Enemy, and Little Caesar made the list, showcasing the genre's prominence in early cinema.

However, due to the restrictive Hays Code, which governed the film industry until 1968, gangster films faced limitations. The genre experienced a revival during the New Hollywood movement that followed, with directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma crafting iconic films that explored the rise and fall of mobsters.

Different Categories of Gangster Films

As genre theory gained academic attention in the 1970s, gangster films were categorized and distinguished from other subgenres, such as Westerns. Martha Nochimson, a film scholar, outlines three main categories of gangster films:

  1. Outlaw rebels: Films that follow the adventures of rebellious outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde.
  2. Melodramas of villain gangsters: Movies that depict gangsters as villains with whom the audience can empathize and root against, such as Key Largo.
  3. Immigrant gangsters: Films that center around an outsider, an immigrant protagonist, who becomes a gangster and forms a connection with the audience.

These categorizations reflect the historical, ideological, and sociocultural contexts that shape gangster films.

Gangster Films Around the World

Gangster films are not limited to American cinema. They have found success and popularity in various countries, each with their own unique take on the genre.

Japanese Yakuza Films

In Japan, the Yakuza films emerged from the Tendency films of the 1930s. These movies portrayed historical tales of outlaws and the struggles faced by common people at the hands of corrupt authorities. Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) redefined the genre, inspiring filmmakers worldwide with its violent and realistic depiction of post-war gangs.

Indian Cinema

Indian cinema encompasses several gangster film genres. Dacoit films explore the lives of rural Indian gangs, drawing inspiration from real-life dacoits. Mumbai underworld films focus on gangs from the urban slums of Mumbai, with stories inspired by real-life gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim. Examples include classics like Sholay (1975) and contemporary films like Gangs of Wasseypur.

Hong Kong's Gun Fu and Heroic Bloodshed

From Hong Kong, the gangster film genre gained international recognition with movies like A Better Tomorrow (1986), directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun Fat. These films blend martial arts action with crime narratives, giving rise to the gun fu and heroic bloodshed subgenres. The Killer (1989) and Infernal Affairs (2002) are among the notable Hong Kong gangster films that have enthralled audiences worldwide.

British Gangster Films

The British gangster film tradition dates back to the 1930s, with movies like Night and the City (1950) exploring the criminal underworld. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a surge in British gangster films, drawing influence from Hollywood and mirroring trends in other countries. Films like Get Carter (1971) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) brought a dark and gritty tone to the genre.

Gangster Films: A Genre with Enduring Popularity

Gangster film The Petrified Forest (1936) trailer

Gangster films continue to captivate audiences with their exploration of the criminal underworld. Whether it's the Italian-American Mafia in The Godfather series, the Russian gangsters in Brother, or the Mumbai underworld in films like Satya and Company, these movies offer glimpses into the dark and complex lives of gangsters.

From their early days in Hollywood to their worldwide impact, gangster films have become an enduring part of cinematic history. With their thrilling narratives, memorable characters, and exploration of society's underbelly, these movies provide audiences with a unique and thrilling cinematic experience.

So, grab some popcorn, dim the lights, and immerse yourself in the world of gangster films. Discover the allure and high stakes of the criminal underworld as you watch these cinematic masterpieces unfold before your eyes.