Gangsters the Era of the Gangster Movies Term Paper

Pages: 30 (9610 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Film

Gangsters

The era of the gangster movies began shortly after the era of organized crime in the United States first began. The outlaw, in one form or another, has always been a fascination of mainstream America, and this has been reflected in our popular culture. The dime store novels of the nineteenth century were, in some ways, the precursors to the crime-based films of the twentieth century. In these books, characters like Billy the Kid and Jesse James were immortalized as rugged individualists who lived by their own rules and challenged authority in cunning and daring manners. Essentially, the character of the outlaw has been fascinating to American audiences for ages. But what the Wild West outlaw was to audiences of the nineteenth century, the urban, organized crime element came to represent many of the same values in the following century.

Yet, although many of the same values were present, gangsters and Wild West outlaws, as portrayed in books and films, were different in the amount of violence they were associated with. Much of this came as a reaction to the highly visible and publicized acts of murder and mayhem that occurred in the 1930s, in some of the nation's largest and most crime-infested cities. During this age, Chicago emerged as the capital of organized crime in America. One character in particular, Al Capone, managed to both captivate and disgust people around the nation. Literally dozens of Hollywood films were made either directly about Capone or loosely based upon his actions; many of these films were made during his lifetime. Movies like Little Caesar (1930), and Scarface, Shame of a Nation (1931) adapted living characters and recent events into thrilling stories of a mobster's rise and fall from power. This established Capone, and the crime bosses of the 1920s and 1930s, as intensely compelling characters who thumbed their noses at authorities, and managed to live like kings for a brief period of time before being brought to justice. This last theme in most crime films often came as a moral lesson to audiences: although these individuals were fascinating, living such a violent and morally reprehensible existence always possessed dire consequences.

One of the most famous and popular crime films of the 1930s was Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). This film was an intensely moralized tale of the rise and fall of gangsters in the United States; ultimately, it is made clear that the consequences of the violent lives of gangsters are equally violent -- as the famous closing seen of an execution in the electric chair reveals. The characters from this film, the Dead End Kids, were so popular that the film spawned a series of related films and spin-offs, which ranged from crime dramas to comedies.

During the following decade saw a bit of a decline in the volume of gangster movies produced in Hollywood. After all, it was an age when the Nazis had suddenly emerged as the major enemy of most Americans; also, the era of prohibition and widespread bootlegging had come to a close. Nevertheless, a handful of popular gangster films still made it to the big screen; Lady Scarface (1941), Johnny O'Clock (1947), and Dillinger (1945) all followed the similar pattern of the rise and fall of these compelling urban outlaws.

The 1950s returned to the trend of producing biographical accounts of famous American mobsters in the Bonnie Parker Story (1958), Baby Face Nelson (1958), Machine-Gun Kelly (1958), and Al Capone (1959). Unlike many of their early counterparts, which were often thinly-veiled biographies of such individuals but with different names, these films borrowed the famous names but often embellished the stories to make them more appealing to movie-going audiences. One subtle change to the persistent themes in these films was than in many cases, it was no-longer apparent whether the police were consistently fighting for the common good or whether they were criminals themselves. This may have been a consequence of the early post-war political atmosphere, in which communists emerged as the enemy of the United States and many questioned the validity of condemning such a group in a society where political freedom was supposedly an innate right.

During the 1950s and into the 1960s heist dramas began to become more popular with audiences and filmmakers alike. Robbery (1950) and Crime Wave (1953) are two examples of this trend. In these films the plots often became more complex, and the main action of them involved the ingenious schemes devised to commit an individual crime; this was a clear departure from the biographical epic accounts of famous gangsters, which dominated Hollywood before this time. However, also in the 1960s, many crime-based films began to follow the trend established by the immensely successful and popular James Bond film series. These films surrendered realism in their plots and characters for the benefit of generating fantastically exciting storylines, along with a series of incredible stunts. This oftentimes campy approach spilled over into the gangster film genre, and spies often became a major component of crime dramas. Nevertheless, the biographical epics remained fairly popular in the 1960s with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was perhaps the most successful of these films, and reflected Americans' continuing fascination with violent criminals who live by their own rules, but often suffer an early demise because of it.

The early 1970s saw the creation of a pair of the most critically acclaimed and influential gangster movies that were ever created. The Godfather (1972) and the Godfather Part II (1974) arguably set the tone for organized crime-based films for the next three decades. These films took a somewhat unique approach to the long-established biographical account of the life of a gangster. The films were immersed in the Italian immigrant culture out of which much organized crime in the United States originated. In both installments of the Godfather, the characters were no-longer sensationalized creations coming purely out of the minds of Hollywood writers and directors; instead, these characters stove for a level of realism that made these intensely violent characters relatable as well as compelling. Fortunately for the makers of the Godfather films, crime films in general were experiencing a powerful comeback in the 1970s. An indication of this fact is that four consecutive years, from 1971 to 1974, crime-based dramas won the Academy Award for Best Picture; these films were both installments of the Godfather, as well as the French Connection (1971), and the Sting (1973).

Following these successes, however, gangster films saw a bit of a subsidence during the 1980s. Few films were able to adapt the formula mastered in the Godfather, and mold it into something original that movie goers had not yet experienced. A few notable exceptions to this trend were Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and the Untouchables (1987). Although Once Upon a Time in America received much critical acclaim, it was a box office flop. The Untouchables, on the other hand, drew in millions by, once again, evoking the mythic characters of Al Capone and Elliot Ness. The heroes of this film, like many crime films of the age, were on the side of the law; there was something more of a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and bad in the 1980s than appeared in the decade that preceded it. Scarface (1983) was the major gangster biography of the decade, and it reflected again the theme of moral corruption followed by a violent demise for criminals.

The tone, theme and plot of gangster and crime films took a dramatic turn during the 1990s, during which time two main film directors emerged as the dominant influences upon the entire genre: Martin Scorsese and Quinton Tarantino. Scorsese's manner of storytelling followed, to some extent, the traditional plotline of rise and fall in the lives of gangsters. However, each of his films approached this from a gritty and realistic point-of-view -- not shying away from violence -- and yet humanizing the characters by strongly developing the Italian mobster setting out of which they emerged. The most notable Scorsese films of the 1990s were Casino (1995) and, what it widely considered to be his masterpiece, Goodfellas (1990). Scorsese's films and many of the 1990s gangster movies, have commonly featured famed actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. Keitel, in particular, has also made repeated appearances in Tarantino's crime dramas as well.

Though Scorsese adapted the traditional gangster-drama story arc to modern times, Tarantino took a decidedly different approach to the gangster film. Deeply influenced by filmmaker John Woo, Tarantino took a blend of non-stop action and hip culture references, and used them to humanize his usually very violent characters with snappy and highly original dialog. Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1991) set the tone for this new brand of gangster films; the film is spliced together at different points in time, with the major plotline following a violent shooting after a botched bank robbery. Tarantino followed it up with Pulp Fiction (1994) which won the Palme D'or at the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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