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This is another highly masculine film genre, which also has a long cinematic history, dating back to D.W. Griffith's Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). The gangster genre surged in popularity during the 1930s, and most historians locate the beginning of its classical phase at this time. The gangster picture became an excellent format to display cinema's sound capacities: ballistic machine gun fire, screeching tires and sharp streets electrified the screen. The rise also coincided with historical conditions of Prohibition, notorious real gangsters, like Al Capone, and violent outbursts, such as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929.


Film historian Robert Warshow has argued that gangster films represent an American form of tragedy, pivoting on capitalism's dark underbelly. Warshow's formula for all gangster films typically involves a poor immigrant so desperate for the American dream--money, position, flashy clothes and cars--that he falls prey to a life of crime. His rise is feverish and his downfall complete, usually culminating in a spectacularly violent death. This climactic ending was necessitated, in part, by censorship's demands for compensating moral values. Filmmakers couldn't glorify crime; they had to make sure that it didn't pay in the final analysis.


Yet, the interest center--a film's most memorable and influential qualities--of the gangster film rests squarely with the use of guns, cars, piles of cash and street smarts. As with the Western, the gangster film reinvents the public's fascination with the swaggering male Western outlaw who has an underlying distrust of modern society, this time set in a decidedly urban milieu.


During the 1930s, cultural anxieties continued to mount over the ghettoization of major urban cities across America. Public attention was focused on individual's fight to access financial security, in addition to new forms of contraband. These factors ensured the success of the gangster film genre, which developed at this time. Key examples of classical gangster films include Little Caesar (1930), Scarface, The Shame of The Nation (1932) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

(From AFI)

 Scarface was made in 1932, starring Paul Muni

James Cagney in Public Enemy and Angels With Dirty Faces

Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway.  (This movie changed EVERYTHING.)

This film made stars out of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, and it also featured the screen debut of Gene Wilder as a mortician briefly captured by the gang. Its portrayal of Bonnie and Clyde as rebels who empathized with the poor working folks of the 1930s struck a chord with the counterculture of the 1960s and helped generate a new, young audience for American movies that carried over into the 1970s and for decades to come.

The Godfather, starring Marlon Brando and Scarface (1983) starring Al Pacino

 Once Upon A Time In America, starring Robert DeNiro and The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery

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