Movie Cycles: Crime-Gangster Film, 1930-1934

Oct 4, 2022

The first cycle of crime-gangster films benefited from the introduction of sound technology, in the late 1920s.

One of the best-known gangster films in Hollywood history is Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar, made by Warner in 1930

Though it was not the first gangster film of the sound era (that was Lights of New York (1928), it’s considered by historians the prototype of future gangster films due to its compelling narrative structure, powerful characterization, critical reception, and cultural impact, in short and in the long run.

Taut, fast-moving, and well-acted by Edward G. Robinson in the title role, Little Caesar set the genre’s thematic and visual conventions, which were followed by other films of the era, specifically The Public Enemy, starring James Cagney, and Scarface with Paul Muni (see below).

The film depicts his rise to fame and then decline and demise—on the steps of a church. The title character, Caesar Enrico Bandello, was partly based on real-life gangster Al Capone, a vicious Italian mobster who experienced a similar rise and fall. [Little Caesar also resembled Brooklyn underworld gangster Buggsy Goldstein, and Chicago crime figure Salvatore “Sam” Cardinella.

The character of Diamond Pete Montana (played by Ralph Ince) was modeled on Big Jim Colosimo (Capone murder victim in 1920), “King of the Pimps” and “Father of the Chicago Mob.”

“Big Boy” kingpin (played by Sidney Blackmer) was based upon corrupt politician and Chicago mayor Big Bill Thompson.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Adaptation: Francis Faragoh and Robert N. Lee

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Writing Oscar was Howard Estabrook for Cimarron, which also won Best Picture

The narrative is simple and blunt, yet its hard-hitting gritty realism gripped audiences. Unlike other gangster films, the film did not show graphic bloodshed, on-screen violence, but its tone was somber and tough.

The low-budget sets and cheap, sleazy atmosphere added to the film’s impact. The striking black-and-white cinematography was by Tony Gaudio.

Little Caesar (or Rico Bandello) is depicted as a tragic hero: greedy and ambitious in his goal of becoming a crime lord. He achieves his dream in a rapid rise to power, but his decline is just as rapid, when he is machine-gunned in the final scene.

R. Burnett, the author of the novel on which the script (by Francis Faragoh and Robert N. Lee) was based, was also co-scribe of Scarface, in 1932.

This early gangster film, which opened in New York at the end of 1930, and then in other cities in 1931, was released alongside other prison-crime films, forming sort of a cycle.

Star-Driven Cycle:

The gangster genre made stars of “tough guys” actors like Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni, George Rift, and Humphrey Bogart.

The movie also elevated the stature of production head Darryl F. Zanuck, producer Hal Wallis, and director Mervyn LeRoy.

Cycle: Major Movies


The Big House, with Wallace Beery

Numbered Men, directed by Mervyn LeRoy


William Wellman’s The Public Enemy

Smart Money, with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney in their only teaming

Quick Millions, with Spencer Tracy

The Finger Points

Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code

Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets, with Gary Cooper miscast as a racketeer


I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

The Last Mile

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation


Lady Killer


Manhattan Melodrama


The Petrified Forest, starring Bogart and Bette Davis


Angels with Dirty Faces, late entry, with Cagney in a different role)

Cycle Decline and End

However, after 1934, the hard-hitting, violent gangster genre was curtailed by the restrictive Hays Production Code.

In fact, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were withdrawn from circulation and were not publicly shown until 1953.

Edward G. Robinson

Before this film, Robinson had already starred in The Widow From Chicago (1930) as a racketeer. For his eighth sound film, Robinson should have received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, but the film earned only one nomination, Best Writing Adaptation by Francis Faragoh and Robert N. Lee.

Though more versatile, Robinson was typecast and reprised his star-making tough role in other crime-gangster films, such as William Wellman’s The Hatchet Man (1933), John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Last Gangster (1937), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Brother Orchid (1940), Key Largo (1948), and Hell on Frisco Bay (1955).