“The gangster is the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture,” wrote the critic Robert Warshow. The gangster is an outsider who takes all that “land of opportunity” stuff and shoves it in his pocket… He is a grotesque caricature of the self-made man, a private businessman who believes that the success ethic trumps all moral qualms. His roots are often in the Old Country (in Italy, for one), but he is as American as Lady Liberty, a poor man seizing his piece of the Dream. Remember the first words we hear in The Godfather? “I believe in America…”
So why is the gangster the great American “No”? Because he goes too far too fast… He over-reaches. No gangster movie ends happily.
The gangster film isn’t as old as the western, but the contrast with the nineteenth century outlaws, the bank robbers, gunslingers and rustlers of cowboy movies is instructive. Except perhaps for Jesse James and his brother, it’s rare to find a sympathetic desperado in the early westerns. Bad guys wore black hats for a reason – so we wouldn’t have any trouble identifying them.
Forty or fifty years later, historically speaking, the gangster has swapped his rifle for a tommy gun, the ten-gallon hat for a Trilby. He’s still the bad guy, at least in theory, but he’s something most of the cowboy desperados were not: the underdog.
How did outlaws become sympathetic? For a start, Prohibition (1919-1933), which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol, put many otherwise law-abiding citizens on the other side of the fence. It’s harder to demonise a racketeer if you’re frequenting his speakeasy and drinking his booze.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the subsequent Great Depression of the early 30s, did more to undermine people’s faith in the establishment and the capitalist system. Between 1930 and 1933 Hollywood churned out more than 60 gangster films, and actors like Edward G Robinson – who played a thinly disguised Al Capone in Little Caesar (1930) – and James Cagney – who played Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1931) – became stars almost overnight. Charismatic and intense, they weren’t necessarily heroic, but they commanded attention for their dynamism and daring.
Meanwhile the front pages were full of reports of the exploits of real life bank robbers: the Barker gang; Pretty Boy Floyd; Baby Face Nelson; Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow; and John Dillinger.
At a time when the whole country was hurting economically, there was a vicarious pleasure in reading about their big money escapades.
The most attractive and daring of the lot, Dillinger cultivated an urbane image, joshing with his captors (he twice escaped from jail) and claiming never to have killed anyone (though it’s debatable). Just like in Michael Mann’s new movie, he would dress snappily, leap over the railings during bank raids, and affect a kind of bank robber cool. Coincidentally, or not, he was also an avid movie fan. In fact he was gunned down by government agents after watching Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy in the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama in 1933 – a fact that gets plenty of play in Mann’s film. Watching Johnny Depp watching Clark Gable live fast and die young, we get a strong sense of why the authorities were as alarmed by Hollywood’s crime wave as they were by the real thing.
Dillinger’s personal popularity was such that for the next decade the studios were banned from making a biopic – though elements of his life story did find their way into several Humphrey Bogart movies, including The Petrified Forest, High Sierra and Dark Passage. The Hollywood production code was enforced with new severity in 1934, drastically changing the ways that filmmakers could show acts of violence on the screen.
Meanwhile Cagney was drafted into J Edgar Hoover’s bureau of investigation to fight for the angels in G-Men (a nickname for “Government Men” supposedly coined by Machine Gun Kelly when he was arrested in 1933). Saying “No” to the Great American Yes was no longer permissible – at least for a while.
Little Caesar (1930)Edward G Robinson as Rico Bandello in the definitive Warner Brothers gangster movie of the 1930s. Loosely based on Al Capone, Rico’s rise and fall has the hallmarks of classical tragedy.
The Public Enemy (1931)James Cagney dominates this seminal gangster movie. His unbridled energy is hard to resist even when he rubs a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s kisser. Cagney went on to make such classic gangster movies as Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat.
Scarface (1932)Fifty years before Al Pacino dove into a mountain of coke, Paul Muni played Neanderthal brute Tony Camonte in the original Scarface, subtitled “The Shame of a Nation” to placate the censors.
Bonnie And Clyde (1967)Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as a much more-attractive-than-life version of the trigger-happy Depression era bank robbers. They became counter culture heroes in this 1967 movie, a landmark in movie violence.
The Godfather (1972)The epic mafia opus that spawned two sequels and more Academy Awards than anyone can remember. Marlon Brando is clan boss Don Vito Corleone, Al Pacino, James Caan and John Cazale are his sons.
Scarface (1983)“Nothing exceeds like excess”, says Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer), neatly summing up Brian de Palma’s brazenly baroque remake of the 30s classic.
Once Upon a Time in America (1983)Time’s a wasting in this magisterial, nearly four hour epic from the great spaghetti director Sergio Leone. Robert De Niro is kosher gangster Noodles in a film based on a slim 100 page memoir by “Harry Grey”.
GoodFellas (1990)“As far back as I remember I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” So says low-level wiseguy Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Martin Scorsese’s euphoric contribution to the true crime genre.
PUBLIC ENEMIES: THE MOST WANTED LIST
The ultimate 30s gangster movie, Public Enemies gives us the low-down on half a dozen real life “yeggs” (bankrobbers), the desparadoes who dominated newspaper headlines from coast to coast, and who inspired J Edgar Hoover’s “War on Crime”.
LOVEFiLM presents a Who’s Who of the Public Enemies, the public servants to chased them, and the actors who play them...
John Dillinger (Johnny Depp)
In this rare instance, the man lives up to the legend. John Dillinger wasn’t tall (5’7), and he wasn’t quite the eye-candy that 5’9 Johnny Depp is, but he was a natty dresser with a lop-sided grin and a certain flair; cool as a cucumber in a shootout; and by all accounts, charismatic and charming. Unlike his peers he mostly refrained from killing people (with one possible exception) and was usually solicitous and polite during a stickup. And he really did break out of jail twice, once, apparently, with a fake gun carved out from a piece of wood. Finally, he really was gunned down by the FBI after watching the gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama.
He was such an attractive figure Hollywood was forbidden from making a Dillinger movie for ten years after his death, though aspects of his character and story showed up in several gangster movies at the time. Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs) played him in the first biopic in 1945. Warren Oates was closer to the mark in 1974’s Dillinger, and Robert Conrad played the part in 1979’s The Lady in Red, a fictional film spinning off the story of the informer who tipped off the FBI (though in reality she wore orange that night).
Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham)
Nelson (real name: Lester Gillis) teamed up with Dillinger for a spell in 1934, but the two men were of completely different temperaments. While Dillinger was cool and courteous, Nelson was a trigger-happy hothead who terrorized even his closest associates with his psychopathic rages. Born in 1908, he was five years younger than Dillinger, and jealous of the older man’s worldwide fame.
Following in the footsteps of Mickey Rooney (!), Richard Dreyfuss and C Thomas Howell, Stephen Graham is hardly a ringer for the real Baby Face, but anyone who saw his terrifying skinhead Combo in This Is England will understand why Michael Mann has cast him.
Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi)
Karpis was the real brains behind the Karpis-Barker gang who carried off two big money kidnappings in 1933. (Hoover always claimed “Ma” Barker was the mastermind, but this was a ploy to cover up her death in a gunfight with his agents.) Karpis was smart enough to outlast his more famous colleagues, evading justice until 1936, when he was arrested by Hoover himself and sent to Alcatraz. He was released in 1969 and died ten years later in Spain.
Karpis, nicknamed “Creepy”, has never made it to the movies before, but Giovanni Ribisi was born to play the part.
Homer Van Metre (Stephen Dorff)
A member of the Nelson-Dillinger gang, Van Meter was a natural clown but a lifelong criminal. He got on well with Dillinger (nobody liked Nelson) and spent much of 1934 in hiding with the “public enemy number one”. They even underwent rudimentary plastic surgery together. The surgeon used acid to remove the tattoo on Van Meter’s shoulder – the word “Hope”. He didn’t live much longer.
It’s fair to say that Stephen Dorff (Alone in the Dark) looks nothing like him, either before or after the surgery.
Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)
Played by Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose; A Good Year) Evelyn “Billie” Frechette was métis, of Native American/French descent. She hooked up with John Dillinger in the summer of 1933 – they met at a nightclub where she worked as a hatcheck girl. According to Frechette his first words to her were, “Hey, Baby. Where have you been all my life?” Dillinger seems to have really cared for Billie, and tried to convince his associates to help him mount a rescue after she was arrested by the Bureau in April 1934. For her part, Billie withstood the intense 48 hours of interrogation and gave them nothing. She was sentenced to two years and a day. After her release in 1936 she went on a speaking tour with the Dillinger family, entitled “Crime Doesn’t Pay”.
Jedgar Hoover (Billy Crudup)
Director of the Bureau of Investigation from 1924, John Edgar Hoover was a methodical, hardworking government bureaucrat who realised the opportunity presented to him by the wave of notorious bank robbers and kidnappers in the Depression years. Announcing a “War on Crime”, Hoover established a network of field agents across the country, laying the groundwork for what became a national law enforcement agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 1935. Hoover was a good dresser, but he looked more like Bob Hoskins than Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup).
Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale)
The Bureau’s supervisor in Chicago, Purvis became a national hero after he personally tracked down notorious bank robbers Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. A former favourite of Hoover’s, Purvis was banished when he was deemed to have hogged too much of the limelight. The truth is, though, that Purvis was in many ways an inefficient and sloppy investigator, lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He presided over several botched attempted arrests and bloody shoot-outs, while the arrest of Dillinger was conducted more along the lines of an execution. Odds are that Christian Bale will be playing the idealized version invented by the newspaper reports of the time.
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