Thursday, March 16, 2006
Gangster Movies - Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangster
This is my original love, one of the greatest periods in film history, the gangster movies of the 1930s. It's an amazing run by the old studios, a cycle when they put out one after the other of movies highlighting gangsters and their downfalls. Many had a ripped-from-the-headlines sensation to them, a la Law and Order today, attempting to bring the stories of the cities to the screen.
I'm not sure why these movies intrigued me at such an early age, probably because my Dad was the one who loved them, who told me about Jimmy Cagney and his walk to the electric chair and his defiance. These were the movies he watched as a kid, staying up late. Why have they touched two generations? Not sure, although it probably has to do with their tough guy images, their bigger-than-life characters who made the city theirs. Or it could simply be that these are some of the best movies ever, well-acted, well-written and intense.
Above is a picture from one of the greatest of the genre, Little Caesar, starring Edward G. Robinson as the title character. It's kinda the prototype for the genre, a plot focused on one gangster and his rise and fall. Robinson is amazing, the little man with the big appetite and big gun whose quest for more leads to his downfall. It's especially great that Robinson plays this paragon of the Italian mafioso, being that he was born Eugene Goldenberg in Romania, but I digress.
The other great film from this era is well-known to anyone who listens to hip hop, although I am sure few have seen the original, Scarface. That's right, the Al Pacino version is not only not the original, it's not even close to the best. The 1936 version starring Paul Muni is the greatest gangster flick ever made, in my opinion. It's got it all, taking all of the elements mentioned above and doing them the best they've been done. It looks and sounds better than any of the movies made from this early period of talkies.
Beyond that, James Cagney is a great starting point, as well, possibly the most famous actor to make a name for himself during this period. He fits the casting perfectly, a little man with enough attitude for ten men. Angels With Dirty Faces and Public Enemy are his two finest, giving the viewer some of the most memorable scenes in film history. I mean, the walk to the electric chair is priceless, when he breaks down before death. Or when he smashes the grapefruit in Jean Harlow's face. Classic shit, iconic Hollywood, the original gangsters that the rest of us are still taking cures from.
-Lots of great resources out there to learn more, as I can't imagine not wanting to know the roots of so much of what inspires this blog. This might be the best resource, aptly titled The Ultimate Gangster/Crime Film Web Site, with tons of great reading and images. Or this one, called Original Gangsters, which is great for those just starting to watch these movies or those who think they know it all. Here is a great history of the gangster film, although I disagree with the ellision of film noir and gangster films. Crime Culture also has a nice summary of the period and on the larger crime movie genre. Here is a look at the Hollywood gangster of the 1930s, focusing on the very ones listed above.