The Gangster film has always struggled to maintain a precarious balance; to portray the Gangster as a charismatic and crowd-pleasing character, at the expense of his eventual demise for the social good. The Gangster, as Robert Warshow puts it, is a quintessential ‘tragic hero’, a character whose very nature and deeds ultimately condemn them to a short and fruitless existence, outside of the boundaries of normal society. The Gangster’s place within cinema is an important one, and the genre has now developed to a point of sophistication far beyond the flailing reach of the petty criminals on which it was based.
In this essay I intend to examine exactly how the Gangster genre has changed and developed during its 90 year life span. There are a number of ways in which to go about this, although I will be focusing on four in particular; where the genre came from, the mythology surrounding its protagonists, the development of the genre as a whole (both aesthetically and psychologically), and the film-makers instrumental in this development.
This approach, then, will obviously require references to both genre and auteur theory, and so I will establish how these two theories can coexist to develop and redefine a genre. To do this I will draw on much critical debate surrounding genre, as well as referring to specific examples from celebrated and diverse filmmakers and auteurs, such as Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks and Brian De Palma. Firstly, who is the Gangster, and what allows him to exist? The Gangster genre has had a different development to many of the other staple genres of the studio system.
Thomas Schatz, in his seminal book Hollywood Genres, identifies that the other genres being developed concurrently to the Gangster had in fact either been translated from literary formats, or had developed from an already established mythology within American society (the Western is a prime example of both). Conversely, the Gangster film, rather than dealing with modern sentimentality or attempting to rewrite history, was lifted straight out of the newspaper headlines. The passing of the vastly unpopular prohibition act in 1919 gave rise to enormous public demand for alcohol, something which many American immigrants and ambitious workers were only too pleased to fulfil. Thus the Gangsters of America’s cities rose to wealth and power by bootlegging quickly produced alcohol, and then distributing to or selling it in the secretive speakeasys, often their own. These Gangsters made great press.
The tabloids glorified the enigmatic social rebels and their vertically integrated industry day after day, until criminals such as Al Capone and Hymie Weiss became legendary for their decadent lifestyles and thinly veiled abuse of the system. The Gangster became an inverted hero, a twisted, parasitic advocate of the American Dream that people respected, admired and feared. Thus the mythology of the Gangster was born. D. W. Griffiths (perhaps Hollywood’s original auteur) laid the template for the Gangster film with The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1913.
However, it was not until the introduction of cinematic sound in 1927 that the Gangster film became a mainstream genre. The first talking Gangster film, Lights of New York (1928), introduced the Gangster protagonist as he would remain for the duration of the genre’s Classic period; a charismatic, ambitious underdog whose aspirations consume him, to the point that he kills his friends and his boss, and so must suffer death for his deviance from the social norm.
The films that followed invariably portrayed the Gangster in this way, and always depicted him as a social outcast, by way of his foreign status, fatherless upbringing or his role as a disillusioned war veteran. These characters were popular with the audience for a number of reasons. A public disgruntled with prohibition laws, the depression and a bleaker view of the American dream than they once had held found it easy to relate to these ambitious working class heroes.
It was also comforting to know that a major institution such as Hollywood was on the same wavelength as themselves, and could point out the intrinsic flaws in the state system. Hollywood product during the post-depression era certainly emphasised this, with films such as The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and Angels with dirty faces (1938) all showing the Gangster as being as much a victim of American society as an exploiter of it. The Gangster genre, as I have said, did not have any substantial literary foundation to draw from, and so the genre was initially constructed of an amalgam of literary, journalistic and filmic references.
Perhaps though, the most obvious source of inspiration for the Gangster genre was that of the Western. In terms of the setting, the iconography and the structure of the Gangster’s society, it seems at first that the two are not very closely related. However, if one is to look beyond the exterior of a Gangster film, many similarities can be identified between the two. For example, both perfectly fit the ‘genre of order’ suggested by Schatz, as well as readily conforming to Mcconnell’s genre cycle.
This goes further than to prove that they are just formulaic productions of the studio system. If one is to closely examine the various Western heroes that have developed during that genres evolution, it is easy to draw parallels between these characters and the Gangster. The Gangster is a social outcast, relying on his gun and his wits to get him out of trouble. He provides a service to the community (albeit it not a legitimate one) and depends upon that very society for his existence, although he can never be a part of it.
Consequently his demise is as inevitable as that of the Western hero, he must either die or ride off into the sunset, as he has performed his duty and now cannot settle into society as he would like (a theme particularly emphasised in some of the more unorthodox Gangster films, such as Brian De Palma’s 1993 film Carlito’s Way). Thus the Gangster contains elements found in many Western protagonists, the parasitic, violent impulses of the Man With No Name, or the ability to simultaneously crave, protect and shun family values as Shane did, for example. The films deal with different settings and iconography, although the themes remain similar.
Whereas the Western hero struggles to transform desert into garden, in the Gangsters’ world the garden has developed a life of its own and overgrown into the untameable urban jungle, nurturing and subsequently destroying the characters it produces. Therefore, it is true that both the Gangster and the Westerner are a victim of their own environment, and both of them must be banished or destroyed in order to repay their debt to society. The fact that the gun is feared and respected within both genres as the method of entry into the protagonist’s profession is significant, as the gun also provides the exit from the narrative.
The gun is the most important artefact within the genre. It gives raw, masculine power to those who use it, but only at the ultimate price. The Gangster, like the Westerner before him, is inevitably doomed. This brings us to the next stage of our analysis, which filmmakers are responsible for creating such a socially deviant, yet likeable, character? French film critics writing in the Cahiers du cini?? ma in the late 1950’s collectively developed a new theory regarding the construction and internal authorship of Hollywood cinema, which they labelled the politique des auteurs.
This politique broke away from the previous theories of filmmaking as a collaborative process, and instead identified one artist as the creator (or author) of the film – the Director. They began to identify filmmakers such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, whom had been working during the days of the studio system, and argued that the films of these directors had a distinctive personal style that surpassed the limitations of the factory style of production. American film critic Andrew Sarris was at the vanguard of the English language auteur arguments, and stated that D. W. Griffith had already delineated every Hollywood genre by 1915, ‘The debt that all filmmakers owe to D. W. Griffith defies calculation. Even before The Birth of a Nation, he had managed to synthesize the dramatic and documentary elements of the modern feature film. ‘ He effectively argued, then, that the history of cinema could be attributed to a few ‘great men’, otherwise known as the auteurs.
The Gangster film is no exception to this, and this is a genre undoubtedly overrun with auteur directors. The Gangster genre is attractive to many visionary filmmakers for a number of reasons. Firstly, whereas the Classic cycle of the Gangster genre was prematurely shortened with the introduction of a stricter censorship regime, the opposite is now true, with filmmakers allowed unprecedented freedom since the changes in classificatory and self-regulatory laws introduced in the 1960’s. This allows modern filmmakers to capitalise on what had been previously forbidden – graphic portrayals of sex, drugs and violence that emphasise the level of excess by which the Gangster lives.
Secondly, the Gangster genre has always consisted of a highly stylised and overtly character-driven formula, which gives the filmmaker freedom to produce a highly complex psychological portrait of the American criminal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Gangster film has always been intrinsically American in nature – stemming from the genres portrayal of the protagonists’ search for the American dream, and how the unreality of that dream leads to corruption.
This gives the filmmaker an almost unparalleled opportunity to cross-examine contemporary American society, and in the process weave an intricate web of corruption and violence that encompasses every part of that society. This cynical and depressing examination is not even possible in that most American of genres, the Western, which is limited by the constraints of rewriting history in an ideologically correct manner. Therefore, the Gangster genre and the Western can be viewed as one.
Whilst the Western establishes the American dream and the difficult urbanization of the wilderness, the Gangster acts as an extension of this, with a new breed of cowboy and a new ideological struggle as a result – that of trying to maintain the dubious social order that that has risen from the ashes of so many Western heroes. Hence the Gangster can be seen as the most important of Hollywood genres, one in which the filmmaker can lay bare both the foundations and the present condition of American society, and criticise it in a detached manner.
It is, then, a genre that encompasses every aspect of America, from flag-waving patriotism to hard-hearted cynicism, and in the process uncovers corruption at every turn. This rich and intriguing subject matter can therefore make for compulsive viewing, and so the genre has attracted a multitude of talented and influential auteurs as a result. Scarface: The Shame of the Nation was directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes, and released in 1932.
The Hawks/Hughes partnership was a particularly fertile one, and the two collaborated on many projects during the era of the studio system. This is interesting, as it immediately questions the validity of the director’s auteur status, due to the fact that much of the productions raw and violent nature was directly down to Hughes. The film was actually finished in 1930, but due to censorship issues with the (then) MPPDA, the film was only released after two years of lengthy court battles regarding the remorseless moral standpoint of the film, which Hughes, incidentally, won.
Despite this however, it is undoubtedly true that Howard Hawks maintained a distinctive artistic style whilst working within the constraints of the studio system, but does this mean that it is more appropriate to consider Scarface as such a production? Scarface is certainly recognisable as one of the very few landmark Gangster films from the Classic stage of the genre’s cycle. The film is notable in that its main protagonist, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), shows no remorse for what he has done to achieve his decadent lifestyle.
Not only this, but his status as Gangster is not depicted in the same way as characters played by James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Schatz mentions that, ‘Muni’s “Scarface” is not clearly superior in courage and intelligence to rival his own henchmen. In fact, his rise to power seems somewhat arbitrary, due primarily to the fact that Camonte was among the first gangsters in the city to procure a machine gun, that new innovation in the technology of urban warfare. This seems to indicate that, even though Scarface was among the first of the Classic Gangster films, Hawks was already toying with the psyche of the protagonist. Whereas other Classic Gangster films (such as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy) have a clearly deliniated ‘rise and fall’ structure, Camonte is in fact at the top of his game when he is destroyed, and his fall is precipitated by the events of a single night.
Therefore, it appears that Hawks is attempting to build on and consolidate the mythology of the Gangster, with overt references to the ‘Live fast, Die young’ existence and the inevitable descent into the gutter of the Gangster protagonist. If this is the way in which an auteur may be defined, then George Stevens is undoubtedly deserving of the same status for his similar attempt at consolidating the mythology of the Western hero in Shane (1953).
If not, then we must identify other characteristics that distinguish a Hawks film from other directors working during the same period, such as Mervin LeRoy (Little Caesar) and William Wellman (The Public Enemy). Scarface is certainly an interesting film, in that it confronts both the cinematic taboos at the time of its production (such as its explicit violence), as well as exploring the motives and ethics of the Gangster protagonist. This, then, is undoubtedly the scriptwriter of the film’s premise as much as the director’s.
Ben Hecht, an ex-journalist whom would obviously have had an intricate knowledge of the Gangsters of New York and their lifestyles, penned the script for Scarface. Hecht was renowned for his loaded dialogue and intense psychological characterisation, and so much of the credit for making Scarface a distinctive Gangster film must obviously go to him. If this is the case then it is true that Hawks is a distinctive director, but that Scarface is more accurately seen as the product of a trio of influential filmmakers, Hecht the scriptwriter, Hughes the producer and Hawks the director.
Many filmmakers have been labelled as auteur during the course of cinema, but few have produced, written and directed their own films entirely self sufficiently. Even directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, two who have attained the directorial Holy Grail in cinema, their name above the title, have failed to direct a film entirely on their own without artistic input from their writers or producers. Therefore, I suggest that the lone director needs his ‘gang’ as much as the urban lone wolf needs theirs.
The authorship of a film consists of a trio of roles, and it is rare indeed that one filmmaker can perform all three. Hence the auteur theory is flawed, but not so much that it cannot help us to identify a more deviant and intellectually challenging filmmaker. Therefore, I will identify whether the two remaining directors, Scorsese and De Palma, both working in similar genres during the same timeframe, can be classified as auteurs, both in Sarris’ sense of the word and my own.
Brian De Palma has had a chequered history of commercial success within Hollywood. This of course is the best place to begin an analysis of an auteur director, as the definition of an auteur is obviously determined by the industry within which they are working. The Cahiers du cini?? ma writers, and their English speaking equivalents, believed that an auteur director was one that could take a standard script, star and budget, and yet still stamp a distinctive, individual style on the finished product.
Due to the almost completely dominant status of Hollywood products within worldwide film criticism, and the commercially driven factory style of production employed at the time, it was not difficult for these writers to single out directors whom surpassed the production limitations of the studio system. During the days of the studio system, the production methods were so formulaic that if a film had a good script and star, then it was a surefire hit. It was up to the director to simply elaborate on the basics and incorporate their ‘sublimity of expression’ into what was, most of the time, standard fare. Now things are certainly different.
Due to the financer status of the major Hollywood studios, it is now difficult to grant a more distinctive director a budget due to the uncertain financial return on such a project. An auteur director, for all of their artistic integrity and filmmaking prowess, is still undoubtedly going to have a few commercial failures listed in their filmography (take Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ or De Palma’s Mission to Mars for example). De Palma is notable in that he has managed to produce many highly stylised and self-referential films within the Gangster genre – stemming from his in-depth knowledge of Hollywood cinema.
This knowledge, gained from his studies at New York University, has helped him to identify key elements of genre, and subsequently deconstruct the Gangster film to assist in its development. One particularly good example of this is Carlito’s Way. Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is a character torn by the dilemma of choosing between the Gangster lifestyle and that of an ordinary citizen. The entire film is told in flashback, as a retrospective acknowledgement of the Gangster’s tragic status by the Gangster himself.
De Palma and Pacino masterfully portray the rise and fall of the charismatic protagonist, insinuating that the Gangster is created by society (Pacino buys a gun for self-defence, and subsequently becomes drawn deeper into the underworld) and destroyed by it, courtesy of Benny Blanco from the Bronx. Carlito is in fact very similar in nature to Shane; he is a reformist Gangster willing to settle into civilised society, but he cannot have children, maintain a relationship or find legitimate work, and his past will always come back to haunt him.
Carlito’s Way takes the inevitable demise of the Gangster even further than ever before. Whereas De Palma’s 1983 remake of Scarface had portrayed Tony Montoya (Al Pacino) dying in a hail of self-inflicted bullets ten years earlier, Carlito’s Way sees us sympathising as the protagonist is destroyed only moments from freedom. Both of these characters are flawed and are not, for the most part, operating within the confines of the law.
However, no matter how illegitimate the activities of the Gangster are, De Palma’s films invariably portray the society within which the Gangster is working as morally bankrupt, and indeed depict the Gangster as the only character with any real ethical or moral code. This idea of the Gangster as a morally sound and highly honourable character, despite their anti-social status, is one that has been explored regularly within the genre (particularly by another Hollywood auteur partnership, Joel and Ethan Coen in their 1990 film, Miller’s Crossing).
This is a crucial point, as De Palma’s juxtaposition of a deeply flawed capitalist ideology and the cinematic requisite of a likeable criminal protagonist has created a fertile ground for criticising American society. Therefore, for these reasons alone it seems that we have found proof positive that De Palma has been instrumental in developing and refining the Gangster genre. De Palma has certainly explored many facets of the Gangster lifestyle and their role outside of society, and has added much to the genre by way of his intricate psychological portrayal of the ethics and motives of the Gangster protagonist.
If this is the case, that some directors do indeed independently deconstruct and consequently develop a genre by way of their films, then is it more useful to view auteur directors as a genre unto themselves? Perhaps the fact that a Scorsese or De Palma film is so instrumental in adding to the genre’s development merits analysis from an individual point of view. If we are to analyse an auteur director within this context, then we must identify what drives such a filmmaker to create such provocative and influential films.
It is clear that any director with an intricate knowledge of Hollywood cinema, as well as the various theoretical frameworks used to analyse it, is going to be much better equipped to create what Christopher Frayling terms ‘critical cinema’. Should we, therefore, view an auteur director as a filmmaker creating ‘cinema about cinema’, within the confines of a certain genre? Should the films of such directors be placed under a sub-genre, or do they in fact push the genre into the next stage of its cycle? Martin Scorsese, like De Palma, has obtained an intricate knowledge of Hollywood cinema through his study of film at NYU.
His talent as a filmmaker is undisputed, and perhaps this, coupled with his passion for Hollywood cinema, allows him a critical free reign. Both Scorsese’s and De Palma’s Gangster films accurately fit Schatz’s genre of order and McConnell’s genre cycle, within which all can be placed in the Satire – Post-Modern category. Both directors are concerned with consolidating the mythology of the Gangster, mainly by depicting the Gangster as a tragic character of Macbethian proportions, and focusing on satirising the generic ‘rules’ laid down by Classic directors such as Hawks and LeRoy.
Thus films such as Goodfellas are certainly obeying the generic codes and conventions of the Gangster film, whilst still adding a new or deviant twist to the narrative (for example, Henry Hill suffers a fate worse then death in Goodfellas when he is condemned to the life of a ‘shmo’ under the witness protection program). Films such as Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1996) were both primarily concerned with establishing and satirising the mythology of the Gangster respectively.
Scorsese and De Palma are certainly noteworthy as auteurs in one respect, their attempts to revitalise a genre with each new film, whilst still conforming to the constrictive nature of a well-established set of generic conventions. Both directors’ films are constructed of many cinematic references, for example, De Palma’s use of many of Hitchcock’s most recognisable imagery, or Scorsese’s imitation of Hawks’ overhead crowd shot in Scarface (1932).
These directors produce self-referential and intertextual films that provoke and stimulate audiences and filmmakers alike, thereby guaranteeing the genre’s progression to the next stage of its cycle. Goodfellas is a fascinating and diverse film. Scorsese seems to have clearly held in his mind exactly how he wanted his Gangster to appear, and he consequently adds much to the genre by way of his portrayal of the rise and fall of real-life Gangster, Henry Hill. Henry Hill is the embodiment of the twisted, parasitic advocate of the American dream mentioned earlier.
He is not a highly intelligent or courageous man, much like Tony Camonte, but proves himself willing to exploit the system at every turn, in order not to end up as ‘just another 9 ’til 5 shmo’. The film satirises the mythology that has built up around the Gangster persona, by emphasising the decadence and glamour of the Gangster life style through a number of distinctive characters. The protagonist, Henry Hill, narrates the film and we realise at the end of the film that he has given us a blow-by-blow account of how he came to be a Gangster by way of a courtroom confession.
Throughout the film we are introduced to a number of Henry’s surrogate mafia family, all of whom give us a little more insight into the psychology of the Gangster and his underworld. For example, Henry’s pathologically insane mentor, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro), proves to us that an older Gangster must be erased from society, as the lifestyle begins to take control of its owner. Henry’s accomplice Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) pushes the violence employed by the Gangsters to the extreme at every available opportunity, swearing and kicking his way into the role of the most psychotic Gangster ever to grace the screen.
As for the rest of the family, Paulie is a Gangster stuck in his ways, an old man with a deep-rooted fear of becoming ‘institutionalised’ by New York State Penitentiary until the end of his days. Henry’s headstrong Jewish wife Karen, at first completely at odds with the criminal Italian-American lifestyle, becomes drawn deeper and deeper into the equation before finally resisting the sordid and unbearable lifestyle of the Witness Protection Program, ultimately a much stronger character than her husband. This surrogate family, then, serves to present an inverted microcosm of society.
The Gangster values family above all else, and yet ironically is incapable of sustaining any kind of family lifestyle himself. The Gangster community lives off a society that they can never be a part of, on the fringes of civilisation as an outmoded and insecure bunch of immigrant misfits, psychopaths and outcasts. An analysis of the iconography utilised within a Scorsese film is essential to creating a full appreciation of the text, as the characterisation of these Gangsters is emphasised by their clothes, cars, guns and their dependence on these items.
The Gangster seems to have literally acquired more money than sense, and Scorsese plays on this with references to their overblown demeanour, terrible gaudy taste and lack of discretion with respect to their criminal activities. However, this is counter pointed by the fact that the Gangster does not fear the law. In fact, the Gangster is above the law. The only things that the Gangster fears is loss of their excessive lifestyle and lacklustre surrogate family, two things that the Gangster cannot avoid, due to his own self-destructive nature.
Thus Scorsese emphasises elements of the Gangster only alluded to by Hawks and De Palma. The Gangsters of Goodfellas are parasites – unintelligent, violent and excessive characters that live only to exploit society. These characters are irredeemable, everything they touch is corrupted, even that rare commodity (and indeed a commodity they are) in the Gangster film, a ‘good woman’. Thus the Gangster is a misogynistic, materialistic degenerate, and yet still captivates the audience with his charisma.
The audience can still identify with the criminal, even though they have never performed the acts depicted, because of the Gangster’s caricatured status. Upon viewing of a Gangster film the audience must suspend disbelief, emphasising the illusionary and tragicomic nature of the Gangster lifestyle. Therefore it is clear that the films of films of directors such as Scorsese and De Palma are highly critical of the mythology that has developed around the Gangster hero, and so prompt the audience to re-evaluate the Gangster as a character bereft of any socially acceptable features, save for their crowd-pleasing charisma.