Gangster Movie History 

Mob films are a subgenre of crime films dealing with organized crime, often the Mafia. Especially in early mob films, there is some overlap with film noir.

Mob films usually are about the rise to power of an organized gang, sometimes focusing on the gang's leader, as well as their fall. The message is almost always crime doesn't pay, though sometimes it focuses on their humanity making it more about a means to an end.


Though mob films had their roots in earlier silent pictures, the genre in its purest form was defined in the early 1930s. It owed its innovations to the instability of the time, an instability which resulted from the Great Depression, and catalysed the gangster scene. The failure of honest hard work and careful investment to ensure financial security led to the explosion of mob films on to the Hollywood scene, and their immense popularity speaks of a society disillusioned with the American way of life. Already established in 1930, the genre really took its form the following year, and these early films reflected the poor economic conditions of the time, while providing a social commentary on the nature of crime and criminals. Though problems would eventually come to the fore concerning the content and message of many of the crime films, the foundation was set, and their influence would be strong and far reaching.

1930s Film

1931 and 1932 saw the genre produce three classics: Warner Bros.Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, which made screen icons out of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, andHoward HawksScarface starring Paul Muni, which offered a dark psychological analysis of a fictionalized Al Capone. These films chronicle the quick rise, and equally quick downfall, of three young, violent criminals, and represent the genre in its purest form before moral pressure would force it to change and evolve. Though the gangster in each film would face a violent downfall which was designed to remind the viewers of the consequences of crime, audiences were often able to identify with the charismatic anti-hero. Those suffering from the Depression were able to relate to the gangster character who worked hard to earn his place and success in the world, only to have it all taken away from him.

Despite the genre spanning the decade before dying out, some argue that the gangster film in its purest form only existed until 1933, when restrictions from the Production Code led to films that did not have the same power as the earlier ones. However, the crime film seemed to undergo an evolution rather than a termination, and there was a continuity between the first wave of films and the subsequent films that carried the genre to the end of the decade. Despite all but disappearing in the decades to follow, there were rejuvenations in the genre, and many crime films from both the past and present remain popular.

Production Code

As the appeal and attraction of gangster movie stars such as Cagney, Robinson, and Muni grew, so too did the efforts to combat their fascination. Of the early years of the crime film,Scarface, arguably the most violent of gangster films created during the entire decade, particularly was the subject of criticism. Released in 1932, it ushered in the worst year of the Depression, and as profits slid, Hollywood did what it could to restore its earnings, which resulted in the upping of sex and violence in the movies. Scarface can be interpreted as a representation of the American dream gone awry, presented when US capitalism had reached its lowest, and Prohibition was being seen as a failed social experiment and would soon be abolished. It faced opposition from regulators of the Production Code, and its release was delayed for over a year while Hawks attempted to tone down the incestuous overtones of the relationship between Paul Muni's character Tony Camonte and his sister (Ann Dvorak).

Eventually moralists and the Production Code became so troublesome that the crime film in its original form was abandoned, and there was a shift to the perspective of the law officers fighting criminals or criminals seeking redemption. This is illustrated with James Cagney's role as a law officer in the movie G Men, and his part as Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. These pictures demonstrate the growing acceptance of crime films during the 1930s as long as criminals were not portrayed in a flattering light. For example, in G-Men, Cagney plays a character similar to that of Tom Powers from The Public Enemy, and although the film was as violent and brutal as its predecessors, it had no trouble getting a seal of approval from the Production Code office. It was now the law officers that the films attempted to glamorize, as opposed to the criminals.

1930s Culture

Politics combined with the social and economic climate of the time to influence how crime films were made and how the characters were portrayed. Many of the films imply that criminals are the creation of society, rather than its rebel, and considering the troublesome and bleak time of the 1930s this argument carries significant weight. Often the best of the gangster films are those that have been closely tied to the reality of crime, reflecting public interest in a particular aspect of criminal activity; thus, the gangster film is in a sense a history of crime in the United States. The institution of Prohibition in 1920 led to an explosion in crime, and the depiction of bootlegging is a frequent occurrence in many mob films. However, as the 1930s progressed, Hollywood also experimented with the stories of the rural criminals and bank robbers, such as John DillingerBaby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd. The success of these characters in film can be attributed to their value as news subjects, as their exploits often thrilled the people of a nation who had become weary with inefficient government and apathy in business. However, as the FBI increased in power there was also a shift to favour the stories of the FBI agents hunting the criminals instead of focusing on the criminal characters. In fact, in 1933 at the height of the hunt for Dillinger, the Production Code office issued an order that no film should be made about Dillinger for fear of further glamorizing his character.

Many of the 1930s crime films also dealt with class and ethnic conflict, notably the earliest films, reflecting doubts about how well the American system was working. As stated, many films pushed the message that criminals were the result of a poor moral and economic society, and many are portrayed as having foreign backgrounds or coming from the lower class. Thus, the film criminal is often able to evoke sympathy and admiration out of the viewer, who often will not place the blame on the criminal's shoulders, but rather a cruel society where success is difficult. When the decade came to a close, crime films became more figurative, representing metaphors, as opposed to the more straight forward films produced earlier in the decade, showing an increasing interest in offering a thought provoking message about criminal character.


In the forties and fifties the genre died down and was replaced by film noir. In the seventies, however, there was a revival of mob films, notably with The Godfather, based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. It was followed by two sequels: The Godfather: Part II and The Godfather: Part III. It also inspired other mob films such as The Valachi Papers starringCharles Bronson.

Present Day

Today, from the popularity of American mob films many international markets have been making a name in cinema with films related to organized crime within their nations such as TheYakuzaRussian MobIrish Mob, and Triads. Filmmakers like Luc BessonGuy Ritchie, and Tekashi Miike have also been introduced to the genre. Other notable films includeGoodfellas and Scarface and The Departed and Infernal Affairs.


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