For a century now, the gangster has been daring us to love him. Long before Jude Law’s profane but pitiable character in the recent Dom Hemingway got all mushy over the sight of his grandchild, the professional criminal proved a master thief of the public heart. It has helped that, from The Public Enemy to The Godfather, Mean Streets to The Sopranos, he has always been a “family man,” connected to larger forces, domestic responsibilities and consequences in a way that, say, the western gunslingers rarely were not.
In 1912, D.W. Griffith unveiled what many consider the first fully fledged American gangster movie with The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a slum-set action melodrama that featured a character called Snapper Kid, a streetwise punk whose initial menace is undercut by his rushing to the assistance of Lillian Gish’s damsel in distress.
We applauded then as we applaud now, because the gangster, of all the enduring mythical archetypes in popular movie genres, is a bad guy with strings attached, a social menace with an emphasis on the “social.” Griffith transmitted this by planting Musketeers on the crowded, dirty, teeming streets of New York.
The point then was what it is now: The gangster is the product of specific conditions and circumstances, the inevitable byproduct of a society in which persistent poverty makes violent crime one of the only means of getting out of the gutter. And so, the classic gangster narrative is as locked in place now as it was when Griffith rolled 112 years ago: A man turns to crime to get those things – fame, power, influence, money, sex – that he can’t have without taking them from someone else. The gangster movie is among the most honest, powerful, persistent and universal of genres because it is based in real and recurring problems.
Directors such as Griffith and Josef Von Sternberg (who made the 1927 silent mob classic Underworld) mapped the initial gritty terrain of the gangster genre. In the early 1930s, the Depression, urban migration, movie sound technology and surging immigrant populations gave rise to the style of gangster movies that we recognize today – The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface – with stars such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni playing bad guys and laughing all the way from the bank.
These were actors who didn’t look like the standard studio beefcake: Cagney and Robinson were short, Robinson and Muni were hardly pretty, and all three radiated an inescapable aura of ethnicity. They seemed to achieve stardom in the way their characters had stormed society – brute usurpers of the old order. And it didn’t matter that, to a man, their characters ultimately died for their transgressions.
Crime, gangster and mob movies enjoyed another surge in the late forties and fifties, fuelled by the real-world phenomenon of damaged veterans, revelations of crime syndicate crackdowns, and the new medium of television’s appetite for small-screen genre repackaging. In the same way that westerns were shrunk and domesticated for the living room, the gangster genre was reborn in shows such as The Untouchables, which triggered controversy over permissible levels of TV violence.
The gangster was ultimately tamed a little by TV’s remorseless weekly cycle, so he broke out on the big screen in the 1970s and eighties in major films by so-called “movie brat” directors – Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and William Friedkin. The success of movies such as The French Connection, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Scarface had a discernible impact: In the nineties, gangster and crime movies proliferated like fake bills around the world – Hong Kong, India, England, Japan, Italy, France, Australia – and not just on the big screen. The current renaissance in TV drama is, let’s face it, crime-based: Would Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, True Detective – the list goes on – have been so popular without bad guys?
So in pop culture, the gangsters have the upper hand, a reality that’s reiterated by the flickering sign that Muni’s Tony Camonte sees flickering on the Manhattan skyline in Scarface: “The World is Yours,” it reads. But the only reason the movie and TV gangster can lay claim to the world is because we’ve let him take it. It’s a gesture of our loyalty and love.