Tag Archives: The Gangster Film

Harry Watts – ‘The Devolution of the Gangster’


Video Essay:


Creator’s  Statement:

Investigating the Gangster film is crucial to understanding cinema past the silent era. From the 1930s “the western had been replaced by the Mob story as the central epic of America”[1]. During the decade the Mob movie had risen to unprecedented popularity due to its distinct working class mode of address. The Gangster film appealed to lower class audiences who had just witnessed and were deeply entrenched in the initial consequences of the biggest financial crash in history. Life in 1931 for blue collar workers and their families was very hard indeed, so the release of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (as well as subsequent titles) provided necessary escapism. Moreover, films made in this period began and evolved to further provide specific experiences tailored for depression audiences, as to provide them with the most effective release from their real social contexts. Key to achieving this end was the Gangster archetype, who was very intentionally formulated over the period by filmmakers to serve as a spokesperson and icon of strength and solidarity for the lower classes.

In achieving this end, the Gangster genre adopted a very distinct set of connotations and a mode of address which allowed for the presentation of spectacle to be directed in a fashion that allowed audiences to voice their lamentations with their real existence while simultaneously indulging in their destructive fantasies through the Gangster archetype as a surrogate. The Gangster existed as a vessel for audiences; any lower class individual could implant themselves in the position of Tom Powers or Rico Bandello and live a rise from poverty. The character allowed for the average citizen “to become a maverick”[2] and involve themselves in the excitement of the criminal lifestyle, while relinquishing all the danger upon the fictional character. Robert Warshow highlights that the Gangster, in suiting this aim, was made to be intentionally spectacular. He brings our attention to the intentional fictionalisation of the Gangster and his world. The Gangster “inhabits and personifies not the real city, but the sad city of the imagination”[3]. Through this process, the Gangster genre over the decade manifested a fictional reality that mediated and reflected the genuine fears of the audience amongst increasing social unrest and organised crime, yet conveyed them with a certain glamorisation that undercut said fears and allowed audiences to embrace them and temporarily escape their social anxieties by confronting them within a power fantasy, piggybacking off the Gangster archetype. The glamorisation of aspects which in the real world were points of fear and concern characterised the classical Gangster aesthetic. The Gangster film as a result refined strict patterns of presentation and spectacle that consolidated the aesthetic and form of the genre. The first section of my video essay aims to identify the conventions that became embedded within the genre after it was established with this agenda.

These conventions actually proved to be a financial and repressive tool to constrict and control lower class audiences. Firstly, the Gangster film was an effective and proven paradigm for repeat custom and profit. Once the Mob film was established to appease and voice lower class views and concerns, audiences consistently flocked to theatres, eventually relying on cinema to continue coping with the dire circumstances of their existence. Under the surface, however, is a much more malicious possibility. The Gangster film was refined as a tool for the oppression of lower classes because it passifies them through allowing fantasies of resistance. If the Gangster film provides relief, then tension cannot be built up and potentially explode out into real protest and potentially revolution. The Gangster film, although contested by Will Hays, was explicit in its disregard for law and order and thus allowing the population to demonstrate their authoritarian attitudes, but in a manner of which they could be controlled by the very institutions the films appears to resist. This content is crucial to informing the form of the 30s Gangster film. These motivations provide insight into how the genre should be judged, by its ability to provide relief to audiences as this is what the genre was intended to do. Crucially, the depression was over by the end of the decade and the Gangster archetype was made redundant. If he existed to reflect, provide escapism and potentially control audiences during the depression, and the form of his depiction was suited for this purpose, then what was the meaning of the gangster past the 1930s? My Video essay will identify the changes in the gangster figure between 1940 and 1990. I will pay particular attention towards how attitudes change regarding the figure and identify how the form of the gangster film changes as a result of growing critiques. I will focus on particular milestone films that highlight a greater psychoanalytic critique of the Gangster, showcasing changes in societal or technological contexts, and demonstrating changes in the original form of the Gangster film. These milestone films will include: Angels with Dirty Faces, White Heat, The Godfather, Scarface, and Once Upon A Time in America. Through working systematically through these films I will demonstrate how since the end of the 1930s there has been a consistent growing psychoanalytic critique of the Gangster since he has served his purpose for depression audiences. Moreover, I will note how the form of the original Gangster film is commented on and adapted as the deployment of the Gangster changes. Overall I will demonstrate that as the decades progressed, critique grew and the Gangster devolved further from his original purpose. By the 1970s the Gangster represented a broken, flawed and regret-ridden man, and by the 1980s with the release of Once Upon a Time in America, the Gangster consolidated in the 1930s was finally completely eviscerated both as an idea and a set of aesthetic attitudes. Leone, more than any other director, takes the basic principles of the 1930s Gangster and deconstructs and undermines them, with a particular focus on exposing the hidden inherent violence that underpinned the genre all along. Not only this but he comments on what the post depression Gangster is, which is ultimately a violent and vindictive, yet lonely and empty pathetic excuse for a human being, demonstrating a clear devolution from the glory days of the 30s.





Thompson, R,J. The Godfather (Berkeley: Reissue Edition, 2002)

American Film Institute. AFI 10 On 10 (New York: CBS, Air Date: 29 May 2008)

Warshow, R. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, Notions of Genre (Texas, University Press, 2016)


[1] Thompson, R,J. The Godfather (Berkeley: Reissue Edition, 2002)

[2] American Film Institute. AFI 10 On 10 (New York: CBS, air date: 29 May 2008)

[3] Warshow, R. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, Notions of Genre (Texas, University Press, 2016)

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 110 – Angels with Dirty Faces

We continue our Michael Curtiz kick with Angels with Dirty Faces, a James Cagney gangster film with surprising subtleties. We consider Cagney’s stardom and how he remains unique, the film’s themes of hero worship and glorification of crime, and the interesting relationship between Cagney’s gangster and Pat O’Brien’s priest.

A film that’s very much of its time but remains an interesting and entertaining watch.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.