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Tough Guys: Gangsters and Robbers

by Charles L.P. Silet

Crime movies have been a staple of the American cinema from its beginnings, and the ones featuring organized crime and gangs of robbers have been among the most popular. During the 1910s, the growing urban American environment and its influence on criminal behavior provided a staple background and the traditional story lines for crime film that exploited violence, poverty, greed, and the rise and fall (and occasional redemption) of a variety of sociopathic characters. D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) is perhaps one of the best-remembered of those short films from that earlier era. In the 1920s the genre expanded, and Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927), among others, helped to create the look of contemporary urban crime: murky cityscapes, shrouded in fog or smoke, inhabited by driven men (and women) who live outside the law and conventional social norms--the doomed denizens of the dark side of the cinematic world.

Following contemporary history, during the 1930s organized crime and the mobster became a frequent subject in the films of the decade and the gangster film came into its own with the series of movies (many produced at Warner Brothers) starring such actors as Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1930), James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931), Paul Muni in Scarface (1932), and Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936). It is a tradition still carried on in the films of such directors as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.

During the early years of the 1940s, the crime film took another turn, and the end of the World War II witnessed the emergence of film noir, dark movies that exposed the underside of post-war America with their cynicism, anger, and disillusionment. Noir films crossed genre boundaries and encompassed a variety of criminal types: Although there were lone killers and crooks like Roy Earle in High Sierra (1941), there were also gang crime movies such as Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949) and mob films like Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). The late 1940s and early 1950s also saw the rise of the caper film involving a number of individual crooks who get together to pull off a daring and intricately planned robbery. Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946), John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) are among the best.

Since the 1960s, films about organized crime increasingly emphasized its corporate and social structure. The Godfather trilogy is probably the most famous, but abetting Coppola's films are those of Martin Scorsese, which have added to the tradition. And the robbery film still thrives in Don Siegel's Charley Varrick (1973) and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) as does the lone-wolf crime film in John Boorman's Point Blank (1967).

It is apparent from each season's offering that the mob and the robber remain a staple fare of the American film. Such movies continue to provide us with social commentary on the darker aspects of our lives and titillate us with their vicarious thrills and secret desires. For a variety of reasons, audiences all around the globe continue to be enthralled by the exploits of the criminal classes who appear to be as fascinating on screen as ever.

MysteryNet recommends:

Gangster and Robber Movies

Little Caesar (1930)
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Glenda Farrell. 3 1/2 stars.

High Sierra (1941)
Directed by Raoul Walsh. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino, and Arthur Kennedy. 3 stars.

The Killing (1956)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Starring Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Ted de Corsia, and Marie Winsor. 3 1/2 stars.

Point Blank (1967)
Directed by John Boorman. Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, and Carroll O'Conner. 3 1/2 stars.

Charley Varrick (1973)
Directed by Don Siegel. Starring Walter Matthau, Don Baker, and Felicia Farr. 3 1/2 stars.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Directed by Sergio Leone. Starring Robert de Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, and Tuesday Weld. 3 stars.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi. 3 stars.