Movie Genres: Crime-Gangster–Theory and Practice

The Gangster as a Tragic Hero

In his seminal essay, the critic Robert Warshow noted: “The gangster  is the man of the city, with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placid, like a club.

“It is not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination, which is much more important, which is the modern world.”

For Warshow, “the real city produces only criminals, but it’s the imaginary city that produces the gangster.”

Crime-Gangster and Social Class

In his book, Cinema of Loneliness, the great film scholar Robert Kolker has observed that, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the low-budget gangster films, made outside the studio system, provided an opportunity for experimentation of both known and unknown filmmakers.

They permitted the kid of analysis of social class that mainstream Hollywood did not do out of fear of alienating some viewers.

This was manifest in sort of a down-to-earth movement back to the streets, so to speak, relying on on-location shooting, use of good actors (but not established stars), and black-and-white cinematography.

In this respects, the U.S. films noir influenced early works of the French New Wave, specifically Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” and Francois Truffaut’s second film. “Shoot the Piano Player.”

The main characters in the gangster films are always  portrayed as fascinated by the production of their own imagery, through photographs, radio broadcasts, and news reports.

In Little Caesar, Rico’s fall begins with a news photo that he himself insisted on having taken.

In the genre, the gangster-thug depends on his own exploits, being shown the world through reports (words) and images (pictures).


Shakespeare as Inspiration for Crime-Gangster Movies

Man of Laramie follows Shakespeare’s King Lear, in part.

Ken Hughes’ Joe MacBeth (1955), starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman

Men of Respect (1991), starring John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz


Actors/Stars in Crime Gangster Movies:

Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar

(Later on, in The Whole Town’s Talking, Robinson parodied his own gangster screen image)

Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy

Humphrey Bogart

John Garfield