Evolution of the American Gangster Movie – Part one

The ‘Godfather‘ movies are a significant step in the evolution of the American gangster film, in that many of the repertoires of elements conform to the classic conventions but present them in interesting and innovative ways. As films they  (well at least GF 1 &2) stand above the genre, and seemed to revivify it and set an new agenda for all gangster films to follow that is at least until Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas of 1990.

Unlike their antecedents from the 1930’s the godfather 1 and 2 don’t provide the same strength of narrative closure. What narrative resolution they do offer, has a common narrative aspect shared with the pre-production code gangster films in that they don’t appear to be resolved with a clear moral compass.

Some context – A history of American Gangster films

Often in the early 1930’s gangster films masqueraded as morality tales where criminals would invariably would get their just deserts. This was partially as a consequence of the introduction of the Hays code. However, the details of the gangsters’ sticky ends are split between pre and post code films.

Before the introduction of the production code they were little more than exploitation films offering a generic  pleasures (plenty and unrestrained morality, see Richard Dyer) in to imagined glamorous lives of plenty, and freedom for their largely economically downtrodden 1930’s working class audiences, this despite the claims in their opening title cards which claimed to reveal crime as a social problem requiring urgent action from the authorities (but offering no solutions).

The most memorable examples were Scarface (Howard Hawkes 1932 US) Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy 1931 US) and The public enemy (William Wellman 1931 US). In these two latter films, gangster are represented as outsiders from civil society, and indeed the police as representative of forces of conformity within normal society are relegated to the margins of story or are one dimensional personifications of corruption. Even the demise of the anti-hero remained remote from the authority of the law; at the hands of other gangsters, thus offering little by way of a moral compass for audiences, except that living by violence most often meant dying by violence. In many respects they are far more revealing of their time than gangster films made after the introduction of the PCA (indeed these films were partially responsible for its introduction). This could be seen in the glamourising of the gangster, as succeeding in a distorted version of the American dream (exploitation and violence replacing enterprise and hard work). Where enterprise and hard work failed in the economic crash of 1929. And their elliptical narrative structure a substitute for the heroes journey myth so familiar int he classic Western.

After the introduction of the production code, gangster films seem to adopt the theme of redemption, and this was often in the guise of the Catholic church, for example Michael Curtiz’s ‘Angels With Dirty Faces‘ (1938), which adopts the conventional narrative and ideological conventions that mis-guided youth in immigrant communities (a still enduring aspect of miss en scene in the gangster movie) are too easily fated to become gangsters, if not set straight. In this case it uses the narrative device of a crucial choice made at a single point in youth, where the life of crime or religious vocation seemed pre-determined. The twist which arrives with the gangster facing a choice between reclaiming his ill-gotten gains, and seeking to reintegrate himself into his community but no having the moral compass to do so. The tension arises in his ingrained corruption overseeing the path towards criminality of a group of underprivileged youths (the dead end kids). The moral counter to this narrative force is the representative of the other choice made earlier by his childhood friend Jerry Connolly, who has become a Catholic priest, locating the story within the conventional immigrant community. Compared to the Godfather, these films offered a pretty simplistic impression of the structural infiltration of criminal organisation into all aspects of American life. The Church also performs this redemptive role in that it in the final sequence from Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, the gangster antihero, seeking symbolic redemption he dies on the step of the Catholic cathedral

The gangster film in the late forties and fifties appear to shift the narrative perspective towards innocents who fall into the path of sinister and shadowy criminal organisations (in film noir), which are perhaps mirrors of existential angst and are opaque, extensions of principals’ paranoia, shrouded in mystery with an almost metaphysical existence. Metaphors for the threat of mutually assured destruction. One exception would be White heat (Raoul Walsh 1949 US)in which James Cagney returns to the genre as Cody Jarrett, whose oedipal psychosis is explored.

to be continued

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