Power drives all of us. We desire, and we desire to control how we interact with those desires, and therefore, we want power. For some, this concept only serves as an accessory to their life. For others, the acquisition of power is all that there is, a lifestyle in and of itself. Gangsters are these types of people, and for this reason, they have been explored in film for decades.
In the 1930s, social and economic instability in America was at an all-time high due to the Great Depression. Honest hard work and careful investment of money was not being rewarded, leading to a distrust and disdain for the government that galvanized the organized crime subculture that existed in America. The most popular gangster films from this era were Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). All of these films followed the main characters through a fast rise to the top, with an equally fast descent to their deaths. The abrupt and violent deaths served as a reminder of the consequences of crime, but viewers, suffering economically from the Great Depression and thirsty from Prohibition, were also able to identify with these charismatic anti-heroes. The gangster worked hard to earn his place in the world, only for it to be taken away in the blink of an eye.
The appeal of gangster films grew over several years, but at such a critical time for regaining the nation’s stability, there were a great deal of efforts to combat the public’s infatuation with organized crime. This brought into play the Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral guidelines in the film industry, established in 1930 and strictly enforced by 1934, that severely hindered the creative spirit of gangster films in their purest form. 1932 was the worst year of the Great Depression, and naturally, profits slid for Hollywood movies. Hollywood combatted this by increasing the sex and violence in gangster movies, which reached its peak with Scarface (1932). US capitalism was failing immensely, and Prohibition was being revealed as a failed social experiment on the already downtrodden common American, and the themes and depictions of violence that glorified crime in Scarface showed this. The film ended up being delayed over a year while director Howard Hawks toned down the incestuous overtones of the main character and his sister’s relationship. This film represented a new low for the public’s view of the conventional, law-abiding American dream, and how deep people would go into the psyche in order to analyze the desire for power which Americans now hungered for on so many levels. Now this exploration of power had proven to be about more than money, it was about love, it was about pride, it was about the exertion of anger. That was the core that gave gangster films life, but the powers that be saw how threatening an overarching acceptance of these themes and characters could be. The Production Code became increasingly more influential until the crime film in its original form was all but gone from theaters. Gangster films shifted towards the perspective of the law officers or criminals attempting to redeem themselves. The Motion Picture Production Code had a large amount of rules, which were particularly stringent on characteristics that were essential to depicting the criminal experience and the necessary themes behind it. Some of the rules you would expect to be included, while others really speak to the nature of the era. Some of the regulations included bans on profanity, suggestive nudity, illegal traffic of drugs, inferences of sexual perversion (i.e. the incestuous overtones of Scarface), as well as bans on white slavery, miscegenation (sexual relations between whites and blacks), and scenes of actual childbirth. Within these parameters, these movies didn’t get any less violent, but the subject matter focused on more clear cut protagonists and cast an inherently unflattering light on criminals.
In the 1950s, movies became threatened by the competition of a new technology, television. People no longer had to leave their house just to watch a moving picture. Television actually had more restrictive rules for censorship, but it’s widespread popularity and convenience forced Hollywood to make changes to offer people something they couldn’t see on TV. Another competitive threat came from foreign films, who were not required to follow the Production Code. Movies became more and more explicit, and by the late 1960s, enforcement was impossible. The Production Code was abandoned entirely and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) created the basis for the film rating system that we know today, allowing artists much more creative license as long as it was advertised appropriately. The door for gangster films had re-opened.
It is impossible to talk about gangster films without acknowledging the immense role that The Godfather (1972) played in reinvigorating the genre. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written by Mario Puzo, The Godfather gave the nation just what it needed, violence with a little class. The film was based on a wealthy Italian-American family that did business outside the law, but who held a great deal of respect and power within their area. There was a slight re-emergence of gangster films preceding The Godfather, but Coppola’s film provided a previously unprecedented look into Italian culture and stereotypes in America, along with the mobsters being presented as characters with psychological depth and complexity. The gangster film was able to return to its thematic roots of power, legacy, and pride, with much more intellectual and cinematic flare. Coppola made a sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), which was met with even more financial success and critical acclaim, opening the door for many more successful depictions of the Italian-American mobster. The successful gangster films that followed were able to look at a more gritty and realistic depiction of gangsters, such as Goodfellas (1990) which was based on the real life of Henry Hill, a former member of the Lucchese crime family in New York City.
Today, remakes and new adaptions of crime life in the 1930s through the 1970s remain, a glimpse into a unique time in American history, where lawlessness and desire blended together into a genre of depth and historical significance. If you enjoy watching movies, watch one of these incredible productions about the complexity of crime life. It’s an offer you can’t refuse!