American Gangster Films : An Analysis

                            The government is corrupt, its law officers and officials are corrupted. Either we tend to think that, this is the situation, or it is the reality. Gangster movies are born from this belief or reality. Because, gang movies are not only about guns, violence, but it also shows the deceiving and lying officers and politicians. 

The Beginnings
        When people invented movie cameras, and started to film real things, things looked magical. Then, they got the idea to tell stories through movies. So, film gangsters are as old as film narrative. "The Great Train Robbery"(1903), with its 12 minute story of a rail-road heist marked by meticulous planning, unexpected violence, and deserved punishment, would be acknowledged as the first gangster film. 

              D.W. Griffith, a movie-making pioneer, unleashed the power of movies, as a catalyst for social change. Griffith, first started producing these one-reel films, which depicted real events. During the time, Griffith was working on movies that would cause the audience to feel emotion. German film-makers had the goal to produce movies, that captured the attention of audiences, eyes and visual spectrum.

                  The German film-makers, at first were not interested in emotions. Whereas Griffith produced visually pleasing films, but they also evoked the audience's emotion and feelings about the characters and events in the films. One of the first feature film to be categorized  under the organized crime genre was 'The Muskeeters of pig alley.' The movie was produced and directed by D.W.Griffith in 1912. Organized crime films helped to fill the audience's need for reality. By having a violent male and romantic female, both sexes were, and still are, attracted to these films.

From Noble Savage To Social Problem

                 The mythologized gangster can only be understood in relation to the wider society, whether he is cast as a villain whose actions confirm the need for law and order or as an outlaw hero admired for the toughness and energy with which he defies the system. The Hollywood gangster story was conventionally placed in a retributive frame, and the negative side of the gangster myth could be seen as the reinforcement of a belief in the 'public enemy' as an explanation of the collapse of morality, discipline and order in American society. 

                  In the early 1930's, American peoples view of  a gangster changed, due to great depression, which put many hard-working Americans out of work. The gangster became the object of sociological study, a mighty overachiever whose ambition and greed doomed his aspirations to ethnic assimilation. By the end of that decade, film-makers started treating the gangster as a deviant social problem to be explained rather than a mirror image of American culture. 

A Metaphor For all Times

                   The gangster films might have continued indefinitely if not for three developments in movie industry. First the gradual decline of studio monopolies, second the emerging medium of broadcast television, and third a series of challenges to rating system, that broke the practice of releasing movies for all audiences. Gangster and crime films are marked as different films, appropriate only for certain audiences. 

                  Bonnie Clyde(1967) and The Godfather(1972), the two films that most decisively marked the return of the gangster. The seedy glamor of 1930s outfits and stolen cars were gone, and they had a generation that no longer trusted the social institutions of a democratic state. Michael Corleone, dark hero of 'The Godfather' and its two sequels was presented even more forthrightly as a microcosm of the American dream, its promise to newly arrived immigrants, and its betrayal by the drive to respectability. Both films weigh gangster against the gang, a family ultimately destroyed by the very loyalties the gangster struggles to honor. 

              The cycle of nostalgic gangster films, also includes the Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon A Time In America'(1984), yielded in turn to a return of realism fueled by widespread public fear of urban crime in civic culture apparently as intent on eradicating drug use as an earlier generation had been on criminalizing alcohol. 

               Martin Scorsese, who had already anatomized criminal life in New york in 'Mean Streets'(1973), attacked Coppola's idealized portrayal of mob family in Godfather films in his sharply revisionist 'Goodfellas'(1990), which ended with its hero ratting-out the friends who planned to kill him. Deniro's Italian American gangster found a highly influential African American counterpart in the gangsters of Boyz n the Hood(1991), Menace II society(1993), Clockers(1995), and Dead Presidents(1995). 

                     Quentin Tarantino combined the Hong Kong aesthetic of John Woo, with his fashionable nihilism to presented the criminal heroes of Reservoir Dogs(1992), Pulp Fiction(1994), Jackie Brown(1997), Kill Bill movies. Tarantino's ironic spin on this pattern is to create a world from which the law and its representatives have vanished, leaving criminal culture, for better or worse. Whether these films can truly be called gangster films is to open to question. 

                 Gangsters movies continues to flourish, even as American paranoia turned outward from domestic crime to international terrorism. A world whose criminals provide the last best hope for the social order is a world in which gangsters, no longer seems as a bad men, no matter how many laws they break. 


vinay said...

Now thats my fav genre of movies......
Nice description..You should have included some of the epic movies made in 1930s like The Public Enemy , Little Caesar , Scarface

Noopur said...

Nice work...

ArjunaUbacha said...

There is one movie which I find particularly interesting from an editing point of view is Leonard Bernstein's 1961 film - West Side Story.

Two New York gangs - Sharks and the Jets - are shown in this movie. The opening sequence showing the street conflict has no dialogue and it goes on for an amazing 10 mins. The editing is interesting with the camera angles either at a higher or lower to give a perspective of good or bad. Sharks are shown as heroic or good with the camera angle below eyelevel.

A modern gangster movie is Gangs of New York. This movie also has a gang fight as its opening sequence. Especially interesting is the effects - with the blood spilling due to slicking of somebody's neck. The accompanying sound and the slow motion makes you sit back.