Gangster movies had been around almost as long as the motion picture industry itself but gained in popularity during Prohibition, when the violent exploits of real life gangsters made headlines daily. Then as the news shifted its focus to gangster chasers- the G-Men- the movies followed suit. Still later, the genre would overlap with what we now call film noir with its own ripped-from-the-headlines depictions of the modern day gangster.
Underworld (1927) written by Ben Hecht and directed by Josef von Sternberg, is often cited as the first “modern” gangster film. Los Angeles Times review Marquis Busby called it one of the best crook melodramas to reach the screen. “If the baby has to go barefooted this winter, if the roof leaks like a sieve, and even if the lizzie needs gasoline, dig down into the jeans and go see Underworld” he advised. A “silent” film, it starred George Bancroft as gangster “Bull” Weed (a fictionalized version of escaped Chicago gangster “Terrible” Tommy O’Connor) with Evelyn Brent as his moll “Feathers” McCoy.
Bancroft and Brent were reunited for another gangster picture, The Dragnet, in May 1928, Bancroft now on the side of law and order as a policeman. Los Angeles Times arts critic Edwin Schallert gave it an enthusiastic review, warning, though, that some audience members might be put off by its excessive (though as yet, silent) violence. In June, the Clara Bow-Richard Arlen vehicle Ladies of the Mob had its showing at the same theater, followed in July by The Racket.
Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Lewis Milestone, The Racket was based on Barlett Cormack’s stage play of the same name and starred Lewis Wolheim as murderous bootlegger Nick Scarsi with Thomas Meighan in the good guy role. Marie Prevost plays a canary. Reflecting back on gangster pictures just three years later, Times reviewer Philip K. Scheuer would note that while The Racket was considered “daring and revolutionary” for 1928 in its “realistic spotlight on crime,” it would be considered tame” by 1931 standards.
In October 1928, Raoul Walsh’s Me, Gangster opened at the Loew’s State Theater. The picture, based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Fox screenwriter Frances Coe, was already considered “different” in that it did not depict now-typical, if silent, machine gun blasts and murders.
Christmas week 1928 brought Romance of the Underworld to Loew’s State. Directed by Irving Cummings, with Mary Astor and John Boles starring, it was based on a stage play of the same name and had already been filmed once before, in 1918. Though generally pleased with the movie, reviewer Busby complained that “underworld pictures are beginning to repeat characters, plots and incidents. To the constant filmgoer, the underworld must be as familiar as the family bathtub.” He suggested that producers making their New Year’s resolutions for 1929 might want to swear off making more underworld pictures.
For a while, it seemed as if critics got their wish, as Hollywood was preoccupied with upgrading its sound technology for talking pictures.
The gangster film genre was was revitalized by sound: the sputter of machine gun fire, the blast of a shotgun, the screeching tires of a getaway car, the wail of police sirens. Filmmakers also experimented with location shooting, with L.A. standing in for New York or Chicago.
Warner Brothers burst onto the gangster talkie scene in in a big way November 1930 with The Doorway to Hell directed by Archie Mayo. Based on Rowland Brown’s story “A Handful of Clouds” it starred Lew Ayers as a “baby faced killer,” and newbie James Cagney as his sidekick.
Then on January 30, 1931, Warner’s debuted Little Caesar, adapted from the 1929 novel of the same name by W.R. Burnett. The film starred Edward G. Robinson as the Al Capone-like gangster Rico Bandello. Robinson and the rest of the cast, along with director Mervyn LeRoy, and W.R. Burnett, who adapted the script, attended the gala opening.
April 1931 saw the L.A. release of City Streets, said to be a favorite of Al Capone, whose days as Chicago’s #1 gangster were limited. Based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, it starred Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sydney in a role that was originally slated for Clara Bow. Hell Bound came to the Los Angeles Theater on April 24 with Leo Carillo playing a “Napoleon of crime” and Lola Lane as his love interest. On May 4, The topical The Secret Six debuted at the Criterion. Taking its title from the Chicago crime committee devoted to bringing down Al Capone, the story was written and adapted by Frances Marion.
May 15, 1931 was the Los Angeles premiere of Warner Brothers’ The Public Enemy, a Cain and Abel type gangster story directed by William Wellman, with James Cagney as a bootlegger, contrasted with his brother who chose a different path. Mae Murray (who famously gets a grapefruit in the face from Cagney in the film) and Jean Harlow also starred.
Despite critical and audience enthusiasm for The Public Enemy, reviewer Schallert noted by July 1931 that gangster films were currently held in “mixed esteem.” In real life as well, whether they knew it or not, the tide was turning against the gangster. The Depression had changed public perception of their lavish lifestyles. Cafe society no longer experienced the same thrill from rubbing elbows with public enemies. Capone, convicted of tax evasion and violation of the Volstead Act, went off to prison.
But like gangsters themselves, the gangster picture was hardly finished.
April 23, 1932 was the L.A. premiere of Scarface directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni as another Capone-like gangster, Tony Camon. Co-written by W.R. Burnett, it depicted a St. Valentine’s Day style massacre as well as a siege like the one experienced by New York gangster Francis “Two Gun” Crawley. Producer Howard Hughes had already battled the Hays office, who objected to the film’s excessive violence and demanded cuts before it would approve the release. Even so, the New York censor board, made further edits, in a prelude to Hughes’ later censorship battles over The Outlaw. Becaue of this, Edwin Schallert predicted it would be the last “out-and-out gangster picture that will be released in many a long day.”
Whether the censors were to blame or not, Schallert was right, as far as the Prohibition-era gangster was concerned. Many of its most colorful figures, like Al Capone and Jack “Legs” Diamond, were dead or in prison- yesterday’s news. A new type of Public Enemy, represented by midwestern bandits like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelley, Baby Face Nelson, was starting to make headlines.
In March, 1934, the Hays office banned studios from making films about John Dillinger. Meanwhile, the public imagination was captured by the “G-Men” of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI agents like Melvin Purvis, and the concurrent efforts of New York’s “gangbuster” prosecutor Thomas Dewey to go after mob figures. Hollywood, as always, capitalized on the heightened interest by focusing on the law enforcement side of gangsterdom.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with William Powell and Clark Gable, a Cain and Abel “crime doesn’t pay” type of gangster story of the type Hoover and Hays approved of, is mostly notable as the film John Dillinger saw at the Biograph Theater in Chicago just before he was captured by the FBI and killed.
In February 1935, it was reported that several “G-Man” films were racing to the screen. The first was G-MEN, directed by William Keighley with James Cagney in the tile role. Its violent depiction of machine gunning and killings resulted in the film being banned in Chicago for violation of the local film censor standards.
June 9, 1935 brought the low-budget but first-rate Let ‘Em Have It!, the “thrilling inside story of the Department of Justice’s war on gangland.” It was followed by Public Hero Number 1 on June 21 starring Chester Morris as a Melvin Purvis-like FBI agent. Reviewer Scheuer noted that at times the film “promises to approach that early, incomparable gangster cycle in stark realism.”
Scheuer called the next release, Men Without Names (originally tiled Federal Dick), with Fred MacMurray and Madge Evans the “best of the new crime cycle,” which was starting to peter out. J. Edgar Hoover praised Hollywood for its depictions of law enforcement officers in these films.
In 1936, Humphrey Bogart reprised his stage role as Dillinger-like gangster Duke Mantee in a film adaptation of Robert E. Sheerwood’s 1935 play The Petrified Forest with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Bogart’s fatalistic gangster on the run is not unlike doomed film noir anti-heroes to come.
In 1937, Melvin Purvis himself came to Hollywood. It was reported that he would serve as a technical consultant to films, most notably Dead End. Starring Humphrey Bogart as yet another “baby faced killer,” it was the first to feature the Dead End Kids ensemble.
Bogart co-starred as a Dewey-like prosecutor with Bette Davis in the title role of Marked Woman (1937), which depicted a fictionalized version of Dewey’s Lucky Luciano trial.
James Cagney, having been a G-man, played a gangster again in Angeles With Dirty Faces, which debuted in L.A. in November 1938. Like his earlier The Public Enemy, it was a Cain and Abel type story line of men who chose very different paths. But as Edwin Schallert noted, “While Angeles With Dirty Faces may actually be but the old gangster type of film with new trappings, it is many lifts and lofts, so to speak, above this well-worn level. Bogart made an appearance in the film as did the Dead End Kids.
Cagney played a gangster again in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, which debuted in Los Angeles in November 1938. Like The Public Enemy, it was a Cain and Abel type story line about two men who chose different paths. But as Edwin Schallert noted “While Angels With Dirty Faces may actually be but the old gangster type of film with new trappings, it is many lifts and lofts, so to speak, above the well-worn level.” Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft and the Dead End Kids had feature parts. In January 1939, Bogart appeared as a gangster in King of the Underworld, based on a story by W.R. Burnett, playing opposite Kay Francis, who played a “lady doctor” so many times she should have received an honorary medical degree.
As the 1930s drew to a close, a certain nostalgia for Prohibition set in. In November 1939 Cagney and Bogart appeared together in The Roaring Twenties, Mark Hellinger’s somewhat revisionist history of the bootleg era. Based on the life of bootlegger-nightclub owner Larry Fay, who was murdered by a disgruntled employee on the eve of Repeal in 1933, it also featured Gladys George as a Texas Guinan-type character and Priscilla Lane as Cagney’s love interest. Though he generally praised the film, Times reviewer John L. Scott noted “It doesn’t reach the status of epic of gangster pictures.”
The next decade didn’t bring a resurgence of the gangster on screen but it did see the a new type of crime picture that today is called Film Noir, which had its own take on the gangster. The films highlighted below are often included in lists of film noir titles today; to reviewers at the time, they were all just crime dramas.
In January 1941 Humphrey Bogart played a Dillinger-like public enemy-era gangster Roy Earle in High Sierra, written by novelist-screenwriter W.R. Burnett. Directed by Raoul Walsh, reviewer Schallert thought the film “recaptures much of the flavor of the author’s Little Caesar and other Warner gangster cinemas.”
In June 1942, Bogart played “Duke” Berne, his final big screen gangster, in The Big Shot, the story of “the rise and fall of a gang lord and his lady!” (Irene Manning).
In July 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, Dillinger blasted onto the scene. Lawrence Tierney played the title role of the highly fictionalized bio-pic.
The film’s gratuitous violence brought calls for a ban on gangster pictures from parent-teacher organizations, film opinion groups, religious organizations and others concerned with the increase in juvenile crime. Eric A. Johnson, the newly appointed head of the “Hays office” (aka the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association) was plunged into the thick of a censorship battle. As it had in the pre-Code era, the film industry advocated for self-regulation. Director Frank Borzage expressed alarm over the “trend toward another cycle of gangster and racketeer films.” Pioneer Sam Goldwyn also warned that “the stage is set for the return of the gangster age.”
In May 1946, Her Kind of Man was released. With Zachary Scott and Janis Paige, the film is set during the early 1930s era of bootleggers and racketeers, though the set design and costuming owes more to 1946 than 1931.
T-Men debuted in February 1947 with Dennis O’Keefe, an updated version of the G-Men films a decade earlier.
The Gangster, a low-budget King Brothers production came out in December 1947. Reviewer Scheuer said “it is a lot more accurate in its depiction of the small time underworld than many a souped-up, more tony ‘epic.”
January 1948 saw I Walk Alone with Burt Lancaster and Kurt Douglas as prohibition-era beer bootleggers who meet up again after 14 years. Burt took the wrap for a liquor beef while Kurt thrived as a successful gambling house owner in post-Repeal world. It is usually classed today as a film noir.
Key Largo opened in L.A. theaters for the first time in July 1948. Starring Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor, reviewer Schallert said it “sets off the fuse that ignites the powder keg of a vigorous gangster movie” noting that Robinson “succeeds in reviving his Little Caesar with tremendous effect.”
The Undercover Man debuted on April 12, 1949. Featuring Glenn Ford as treasury agent Frank Warren, quietly going about his work to bring down “the Big Fellow,” the story was based on the true story of Frank J. Wilson who helped put away Al Capone for tax evasion.
White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh, was released in September 1949. A throwback to the old style gangster film, it “exploits the return of Cagney to gangsterdom” reviewer Scheuer wrote. Cagney played another gangster the following year in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, based on the novel by Horace McCoy. It debuted in Los Angeles on February 28, 1950.
Released here in February 1951, Bogart played a crusading D.A. prosecuting a murder-for-higher crime ring not unlike Murder Inc. His key witness is unable to testify after he goes out of the window, as real life Murder Inc. hitman turned mob informant Abe Reles (“Kid Twist”) did in 1941 while in police custody. A grand jury determined in 1951, the year The Enforcer was released, that Reles fell to his death in an escape attempt.
The Mob was released in October 1951, capitalizing on the televised hearing of the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce by led by Senator Estes Kefauver
These are only a handful of examples of the gangster as depicted on the big screen.
After a lull, the 1930s-era gangster burst onto the big screen once again with Baby Face Nelson in December 1957. Starring a still baby-faced Mickey Rooney, advertising for the film referenced gangster films of the past: “More Violent than Little Caesar! More Savage than Scarface! More Brutal than Dillinger!”
“The worst thing about Baby Face Nelson….” wrote Times reviewer John L. Scott, “is that it might start- heaven forbid- another gangster film cycle.”
Scott was right- it was the beginning of a new gangster film mini-wave, despite the objection of J. Edgar Hoover, who denounced the “gangster film” in general and Baby Face Nelson in particular.
But the screen gangster refused to lie down.
Taking their cue from Baby Face perhaps, these new gangster films tended to be “true life” (if heavily fictionalized) biographies rather than original stories, told in semi-documentary fashion.
A decade before Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Parker got her own biopic in The Female Mobster, which debuted on a violence-packed double bill with Roger Corman’s bloody Machine Gun Kelly. Together they unleashed “savage brute force” across Los Angeles on July 2, 1958.
Al Capone had been dead more than a dozen years when the biopic Al Capone arrived in L.A. theaters June 17, 1959 with Rod Steiger in the title role. “He ruled America’s most roaring era! He invented the rub out and the one-way ride and organized the crime syndicate we are still fighting today!” Fellow Chicago gangster Jack McErlane might dispute the “one way ride” part, but he too was long dead.
In September the same year, perhaps more to Mr. Hoover’s liking, was a new, midcentury take on the G-man film, The FBI Story, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Jimmy Stewart. Based on the 1956 book of the same name by journalist Don Whitehead, it was billed as “the story that out-excites every picture Warner Bros. ever made!”
Although gangsters stayed big, the pictures got small as the screen gangster found a new home on television at the end of the decade. As Los Angeles Times reviewer Cecil Smith wrote in July 1959, “Show business this year seems to be going in more intensely for studies of gangsterdom than at any point since Eddie Robinson and Jimmy Cagney shot their ways into public fame and Paul Muni created his indelible portrait in Scarface.”
In October he added “Televisions increasing preoccupation with gangsters and tales of the mobs of the prohibition and post-prohibition era is beginning to remind you of the old gangster cycle when Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface led to such a rash of pictures that every hard-faced extra in Hollywood was wandering around with a permanent gun bulge in his coat.”
On April 16, 1959 NBC aired The Lawless Years, created by Hollywood detective Barney Ruditsky, who drew on his experiences fighting gangsters as a detective with the NYPD from 1924 until his retirement in 1941. “It makes me sick when movies and television glamorize the gangster” Ruditsky told the Times’ Don Page, who wrote that the series “has every aspect of being one of the hardest hitting packages ever loosed upon televisions frustrated air.” Starring Brian Gregory as Ruditsky, it ran until 1961.
A few days later, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse debuted a two-hour special, titled The Untouchables, based on the 1957 memoir of the same name co-authored by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraleyr, airing in two parts on April 20 and April 27. Starring Robert Stack as Ness, it was a ringing success. Picked up by ABC, it debuted as a series in the fall alongside The Lawless Years.
The gangster has rarely been absent from the screen, big or small, since.