Why we love GANGSTER MOVIES!
times in life, for most of us, when we become so frustrated we want to
strike out at someone. Swamped by taxes and a never-ending string of bills,
stuck in a job with no future, we'd like to punch out those in authority who
burden us with such things.
Of course, most of us don't do
that, because we’re law-abiding citizens and we don't want to end up behind
bars. But if we knew we wouldn't get caught, would we act on our darkest
Such daydreams are among the
reasons why crime movies, which in a way glorify the two-bit hoodlum and the
Mob boss, have been so popular for so many years, according to film
historian Clay Steinman.
"These films do provide a
fantasy outlet for such things for a lot of people," said Steinman, who
teaches at Macalester College in Minnesota.
Americans’ fascination with
the gangster actually has its roots in the 19th century and the Old West.
There were those who saw such outlaws as Frank and Jesse James and Billy the
Kid as romantic heroes who were robbing from the such as the likes of rich
railroad magnates and cattle barons — both of whom, in many cases, achieved
their wealth by suspect means.
Steinman said there are
obvious similarities between the gangster film and the western.
"In a way, the 20th-century
gangster genre is an extension of the western," Steinman said.
In both, there is usually the
gunman and his gang following what seems to be a carefree life of
lawlessness. Eventually they end up being pursued and cornered by the
police, i.e the posse. In one, the final shootout takes place in the natural
majestic canyons of the wide open West; in the other, the showdown unfolds
in the man-made concrete canyons of the big city.
The appeal of gangster films
crosses gender lines — though Steinman believes that older ones such as "The
Public Enemy" (1931) and "Angels with Dirty Faces" (1938) — both included in
the new six-DVD “The Warners Gangster Collection” — connect more with male
"It appeals to the male's
rebellious potential of making things right in his own world," Steinman
said. "The movies allow us to kind of play at being violent and rebellious."
He also noted that those older Warner Bros. movies have a grittiness not
found in later ones.
Dan Berman, who teaches a film
course at USC, believes the grittiness had more to do with budget than art.
"The Warner films were
certainly made for less money than many of today’s films," Berman said.
"But, in a way, that's why they have such a gritty feel to them and (are) so
Berman noted that in the crime
films of the 1930s and in later efforts such as "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967),
the principals become more like Robin Hood figures to the common folk.
"It's all about bucking the
establishment," Berman said. "And it was also about celebrity. Bonnie and
Clyde enjoyed reading about themselves. They had a lot of concern about
themselves and how others perceived them, something we can all understand."
Steinman classified movies
like "The Godfather" as the kind that can appeal to both men and women.
"They're an odd mix of genres
— crime and family," Steinman said. "I think we admire the order in which
the family is run. There is a code that most live by, and those who don't
... well ... Sometimes we wish we had such order in our lives."
Steinman likes to cite the
late New York critic Robert Warshow, who did an essay on the gangster as a
tragic hero. He died 50 years ago, but much of what he wrote still applies.
Warshow focused on the
contradictions that we feel when we find ourselves admiring the bad guy on
"In ways that we do not easily
or willingly define," Warshow wrote, "the gangster speaks for us, expressing
that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands
of modern life. .... We have the double satisfaction of participating
vicariously in the gangster's sadism and then seeing it turned against the
Steinman said other factors
also should be considered when trying to explain why some crime movies work
and others don't.
"The writing, of course, is
important," Steinman said. "But let's not forget the actors. I'm not sure
anyone would care about ‘The Public Enemy’ or 'Angels with Dirty Faces' if
they didn’t star James Cagney.
“Cagney was a dancer and he
uses that talent to evoke an attitude. He is amazing to watch. He is saying
something about the character with every movement of his body. He makes us
believe he is the gangster."
Steinman believes there's a
bit of the gangster in all of us.
"Given the right
circumstances, I think most any of us are capable of doing violent acts," he
said. "Look at soldiers. I'm sure most of them were just ordinary guys when
they joined up. But they eventually found themselves in a completely
different kind of world."
But for most of us, Steinman
said, our “inner gangster” stays suppressed, in part, because of the movies.
So the next time you watch
Cagney or Bogart or DeNiro or Pacino blow somebody away, remember, it's just