The Higher They Rise, The Steeper They Fall: The Rise and Fall, and Rise of the American Gangster Movie

The Public Enemy
James Cagney was the quintessential movie gangster of the 1930s, here in The Public Enemy.

Seemingly always en vogue, gangsters have been especially so in recent years. The grand seigneur of American cinema, Martin Scorsese, finally won his long-deserved first Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing for The Departed in 2007. Michael Mann’s 2009 effort Public Enemies was a big-budget production with high-dollar stars.

The HBO drama The Sopranos attracted millions of viewers per week for eight years. Sopranos writer Terence Winter teamed up with Scorsese in 2010 for another acclaimed gangster series, Boardwalk Empire, which won two Golden Globes earlier this year. Warner Bros., the studio that invented the gangster film, is hoping to get back in the game with a revival of the classic genre.[1] And Scorsese, who made his name with gangster films like Mean Streets, GoodFellas, and Casino, will likely return to the genre with mafioso thesps Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino in a new organized crime project tentatively called The Irishman. [2]

Because of the aforementioned successes and recently renewed interest in movies about criminals, it makes sense to have a look at the origins of the genre. The following is a narrative account that includes the development of the gangster film over the course of a decade; summaries of some noteworthy examples; how they were received by critics, censors, and the general public and what makes them still relevant today.


In the 1930s, a new film genre arises in the United States. It is a direct result of Prohibition, and Al Capone, the chief criminal of this period, serves as its key figure. Martin Scorsese in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies dubs the gangster picture as one of the three ‘indigenous’ genres of American cinema – the others being the western and the musical.[3] The director says that all three of them remind him of jazz, because they allow for ‘endless, complex, sometimes perverse variations.’ Gangster films enable ‘filmmakers to dwell on America’s fascination with violence and lawlessness,’ and those from the 1930s stand out for three reasons:[4] First, they deal with the extreme violence of the so-called ‘roaring twenties’ and portray ‘the gangster as the modern entrepreneur.'[5] Second, they mark the first significant shift away from the silent movies of the decades that preceded them. And third, there is a moral component to these films. They chronicle the rise and fall of the larger-than-life gangster. At the beginning, the audience follows his steep ascent in the underworld until he becomes rich and famous. But as soon as he reaches the top the tides turn, and the criminal always loses in the end. He gets what he deserves and usually dies at the hands of the righteous authorities.

Little Caesar

Melvin LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) is one of the earliest ‘talkies.’ In the tradition of the silent era, it opens with a title of a Bible quote, which reads, “’or all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Matthew: 26-52.’ The film is concerned with the rise and fall of the mobster, Rico Bandello, played by Edward G. Robinson. At the beginning, the wannabe mafioso sits in a countryside diner with his friend Joe Massara (portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks, jr.) and tells him of his ambitions:

Money’s alright but it ain’t everything. Be somebody. Look hard at a bunch of guys and know they’ll do anything you tell them. Have your own way or nothing. Be somebody.

Mere seconds later, after a fade-out, Rico joins an outfit on the East coast headed by Joe Vettori. He soars and eventually becomes a gangster boss known as Little Caesar. His friend, who aspires to be a dancer, also joins the gang. But it quickly becomes obvious that Joe is not made for the criminal lifestyle. He wants to be a lawful citizen, and when he meets a woman, Rico is afraid that his friend will betray him. He threatens Joe, upon which Joe’s new girlfriend goes to the police. Little Caesar hides from the authorities, who subsequently tell the press that he is a coward. Rico comes out of hiding and is killed by gunfire. He dies with the words, ‘Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?’

The storyline of Little Caesar isn’t extraordinary. It is a fairly standard tale about the rise and the fall of a single man. What is more interesting, however, is the film’s lighting – bright for the first half which coincides with Rico’s ascent, dark for the rest when the protagonist’s career hits a downward slope – and the depiction of the hero, if he can even be called that:

As an individual with a name – marked emphatically by its allusion to an imperial ruler and its Italian ethnicity – ‘Little Caesar’ stands out from the crowd. The irony of the gang environment is that he must rise above it to rule it and thus ends up alone.[6]

Robinson’s screen presence deserves special mention, and his interpretation of the gangster gives way to many later cinematic representations and caricatures. In Little Caesar, he appears as a larger-than-life character. His whole existence is magnified in the film. We even empathize with him despite his ruthlessness and greed. We are drawn into the narrative because we want to know what will happen to him. The actor’s performance supports this:

Our interest remains exclusively on the level of the character’s response to the situation. We are interested, in Little Caesar, in what Joe’s disloyalty means to Rico, how it affects his feelings. Its importance is grounded in the character; it is not an intellectual concern of the film.[7]

Although flawed, the movie remains ‘fresh and vivid’ even for contemporary viewers because it represents a “genuine achievement, sometimes unique that the genre” does “not attempt again.” That is why Little Caesar  ‘is often called the grandfather of the modern crime film, [for it] rebelliously [challenges] traditional values’ and marks the beginning of the genre’s first heyday.[8]

The Public Enemy

The evolution of the gangster picture continues with The Public Enemy, directed William A. Wellman, which appears later in the same year. Its star James Cagney gives a career-defining performance as Tom Powers. The story begins with the protagonist as a young man in 1901. He’s introduced as ‘the meanest boy in town’ when he plays tricks on his best friend Matt Doyle’s sister. Powers and his companion are contrasted with their respective siblings: Tom’s puritanical brother, Mike, and Matt’s straight-laced sister, Molly. It is obvious from the beginning that the hero and his friend are crooked from childhood, when they steal watches and sell them in to a local hoodlum called Putty Nose. The film then moves on to 1915 and shows Tom and Matt as young men. They still work for Putty Nose, mostly running errands, but then he employs them in a much bigger job – the theft of furs. And they finally get guns.

This event, although a failure, triggers Tom’s journey through the underworld. His brother Mike, a virtuous character, tries to convince him to become a respected citizen again; Tom, however, refuses. Their mother is also drawn into the conflict. Tom is selfish, narcissistic and amoral. His proneness to violence is depicted in a legendary scene in which he shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face when she annoys. Tom, who will soon become involved with another woman, is a successful bootlegger in Chicago. This increases the conflict with his brother, who has returned from World War I as a shell-shocked veteran, only to see his brother swimming in a fortune of ill-gotten gains. Mike accuses his wealthy sibling of exploiting ‘beer and blood,’ upon which Tom retorts: ‘Your hands ain’t so clean… You killed and liked it. You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.’

Tom continues to thrive as a gangster. Eventually, however, his greed and arrogance catch up with him. The moral overtones of The Public Enemy, which are also prominent in Little Caesar, make it clear that crime does not pay in the long run. Tom collapses in the rain-slicked streets and is taken to the hospital, where he makes up with his family. Ultimately, he is abducted by a rival mob and returns home a dead man. The film’s final title card reads:

The end of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. The Public Enemy is not a man, nor is it a character––it is a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.

In both pictures, the so-called heroes get what they deserve. The Public Enemy is a box-office hit. It helps Warner Bros. become financially successful and take its place as a major Hollywood studio.[9] Yet, it also sparks a controversial debate and brings about the wrath of the United States’ most prominent advocate of bowdlerization, Will H. Hays. When the film opens, he remarks that ‘the American public,’ who he calls the country’s chief censor, begins ‘to vote thumbs down on the ‘hard-boiled’ realism in literature and on the stage [which marks] the post-war period.'[10]


The controversy surrounding The Public Enemy intensifies when Howard Hawks’ Scarface is released a year later. Arguably the most violent of all the gangster films from this era, it stars Paul Muni as Tony Camonte and is based on the life of Al Capone. The movie is supposed to come out shortly after The Public Enemy, but is delayed for almost a year due to censorship issues. Howard Hughes, Scarface’s eccentric multibillionaire producer, tells Hawks to ignore the problems: ‘Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.'[11] Most of the criticism surrounds the film’s extreme violence and the comedic elements interspersed within the more serious mood.[12] Capone himself has his henchmen threaten screenwriter Ben Hecht. Later, however, he becomes a huge fan of the film and buys a personal copy.[13]

Scarface opens with a disclaimer in the form of several titles right after the initial credits. The fact that the actual movie is preceded by a message is not noteworthy in itself. But the way in which the statement is made is. It is ostensibly directed at the theater audience, but its real targets are the censors who challenge the film prior to its release:

This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: “What are you going to do about it?” This government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?

The beginning of Scarface has Tony Camonte working for a local crime boss named Louis Costillo. The first time we see him is as a silhouette. He whistles a tune, cocks his gun, and shoots somebody three times, throws away the firearm, and leaves.

This gritty, violent scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. As viewers learn only seconds later, the killed person is Tony’s own boss. He is taken in by police, who interrogate him about the murder. At headquarters, one of the officers provides the audience with information on the life of the protagonist:

Tony Camonte. Aliases Gabe Rooney, Joe Black; assault; carrying brass knuckles; disturbing peace; street robbery on three counts; burglary; violation, Volstead Act; indicted for murder of Buck Kempner; member of Five Points Gang from New York in 1920. At present, bodyguard and strong-arm for Louis Costillo.

This biographical sketch bears an astounding similarity to Al Capone’s vita. It is therefore hardly surprising that Capone is concerned with his image being affected by the film. In Scarface Camonte apparently commits the murder on the orders of a man named Johnny Lovo, who then fills the void left by Costillo’s death and seizes control of Chicago’s South Side with the assistance of the protagonist as his chief subordinate. They sell huge quantities of illicit alcohol to the city’s speakeasies and muscle in on bars affiliated with rival outfits in order to make their fortune.

There is, however, competition from Irish gangs from the North Side. Lovo tells his top lieutenant several times not to take them on. But Camonte ignores his warnings. He starts shooting up bars in Irish territory and soon stirs the attention of both police and mobsters. But thanks to his recklessness, he also rises in fame and stature. Lovo, in the meantime, does not fail to notice that Tony is out of control in more ways than one; his top lieutenant also courts his blonde girlfriend, Poppy. At first, she rejects his advances, but as Camonte becomes more important, she also becomes gradually more attracted to him. Then the protagonist decides it is time to take over the North Side as well and declares war on the Irish. His close confidante, Guido Rinaldo (George Raft), kills their boss, O’Hara, in the latter’s own florist shop. This causes heavy retaliation. The hero escapes shootings more than once. Lovo cannot accept the fact that Tony has commandeered his organization, and confronts him. But Tony hardly pays him any attention at all. He points at a portable machine gun and says: ‘There’s only one thing that gets orders and gives orders, and this is it. That’s how I got the South for ya, and that’s how I’m gonna get the North Side for ya.’ Camonte remains undeterred and his soldiers destroy the Irish gangs by-and-large and take control of their territory.

Disgusted by Tony’s brash leadership, Lovo arranges for his assassination. Camonte, however, escapes once more and subsequently murders Lovo with the help of Rinaldo. Thus, he becomes the undisputed boss of Chicago. Yet, just like the gangsters from the films before him, his fall is inevitable. The heinousness of his vicious rule enrages the public beyond placation. The fact that he is overprotective of his own sister, Cesca, further adds to his decline. When the protagonist finds out that she has secretly married his friend, Guido, he becomes infuriated and kills him. It is hardly surprising that Cesca is miserable in the aftermath and plans to murder her brother to avenge her husband’s death. Camonte holes up in his house and awaits the police, who intend to arrest him for murder. Cesca cannot bring herself to kill Tony and helps him against the police instead. But a stray bullet from police kills her, and Tony’s final stand ends with his demise: ‘I told you I’d get you without a gun and you’d squeal like a yellow rat,’ says one police officer who ambushes Tony in his home. Camonte tries to flee one last time but is shot down. He dies, all alone, in the middle of the street. A cynical advertisement springs to the  foreground, ‘The world is yours.’

Scarface is followed by rigorous censorship. It thus marks the end of a circle of gangster films of the early 1930s, which “present their material with classic straightforwardness.” As Jack Shadoian characterizes, in his book Dreams and Dead Ends:

Their wish is to record the reality of the gangster’s world and his character, to convey, with non-metaphoric immediacy, the particulars of his behavior. The interest is in what he might really be like, the ways in which he is an actual menace. He is a character who exists as the film reports him to exist. These are essentially traditional, mimetic works––imitative, illusionistic, persuasively real. Conflict is used literally and transparently. The camera’s presence is hidden, its processes concealed.[14]

The gangster existence therefore becomes almost an existential drama concerned with the question of how to survive in an amoral world. That is not to say that justice is not restored at the end of these films. In each of them, the protagonist finds his death at the hands of either the law or rival mobsters. He receives his just deserts. But audiences are still fascinated with the criminal lifestyle, their recklessness and ruthlessness, and the danger they make for themselves and others. Or, as Howard Hawks puts it: ‘To stay alive or die: this is our greatest drama.'[15]

The Roaring Twenties

Later entries in the genre deconstruct the larger-than-life existence of the gangsters, in part thanks to the censorship of films and literature after 1934. Director Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, a movie much revered by Scorsese, does just that in 1939. The fascination with criminals fades slightly, for a time, because Prohibition has been laid to rest for more than half a decade when the film is released. A decade has passed since the Great Depression, and the lifestyle does not appear nearly as glamorous as it did only a few years earlier. As Scorsese himself points out, with The Roaring Twenties, the gangster becomes ‘a tragic figure.'[16] The film informs the audience in a voiceover how the consumption of alcohol actually rises while the Volstead Act is in place. The narration is accompanied by newsreel-style footage that makes the scene look like a documentary, and also provides an authentic account of the era. Eddie Bartlett, the protagonist, is a young man who returns home victoriously from the World War I only to find that his job has been taken by someone else. In the meantime, the Volstead Act is introduced, and life in America changes.

In order to make a living, Eddie works as a taxi driver. A passenger asks him to run an errand for him taking alcohol to a notorious speakeasy. He agrees and police catch him and he’s sentenced to sixty days in jail. Out of desperation, he resigns himself to the bootlegging business upon his release. Cue voiceover:

And so the Eddie of this story joins the thousands and thousands of other Eddies throughout America. He becomes a part of a criminal army, an army that was born of a marriage between an unpopular law and an unwilling public. Liquor is the password in this army. And it’s a magic password that spells the dollar sign as it spreads from city to city, from state to state. The public is beginning to look upon the bootlegger as something of an adventuresome hero, a modern crusader who deals in bottles instead of battles. And so, because of the grotesque situation, this new kind of army grows and grows, always gaining new recruits who care nothing about tomorrow just so as long as money is easy today.

Bartlett, played by James Cagney, rises in the underworld. Humphrey Bogart as George Hally becomes his chief competitor. The latter, a perfectly amoral character bearing some resemblance to Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, dies at the hands of the former. ‘This one rap ya won’t beat,’ says Bartlett just before killing him.

The demise of Bogart in The Roaring Twenties is justified, because he is an unlikeable character; in fact, audiences of the era expect ‘Bogart to die on screen, and usually to die like a rat pleading for his life.'[17] Killing him thus gives the down-and-out Cagney protagonist an opportunity to redeem himself. But there is no happy end for this main character, either. He is murdered on the staircase in front of the courthouse. The scene is set in the darkness of the rain-slicked streets. When asked about the dying Eddie Bartlett’s business, his lover, Panama Smith, replies, ‘He used to be a big shot.’ With this statement, the gangster ceases to exist as a glorified motion picture hero. Yet interest in criminals and amoral characters, or in violence generally for that matter, never completely vanishes. It simply manifests itself in other ways for a while in the aftermath of The Roaring Twenties. Film noir is one outlet. The Western is another. All genres which feature lonesome, melancholy, gunslinging protagonists. Audiences tastes really never changed much at all.[18]


[1] cf. Matt Holmes: “Warner Bros Reviving The Classic Gangster Picture!” (retrieved on 6 April, 2011).

[2] cf. Sandy Schaefer: “Robert De Niro Says ‘The Irishman’ Will Happen.” (retrieved on 27 April, 2011).

[3] Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson: A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies. New York: Miramax Books/Hyperion, 1997: p. 33.

[4] Scorsese and Wilson 1997: p. 47.

[5] Andrew Spicer: Film Noir. Harlow et al.: Pearson Education, 2002: p. 9.

[6] Jonathan Munby: “Gangs and Mobs.” A Companion to Crime Fiction, eds. Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley. Chichester: Blackwell, 2010: p. 216.

[7] Jack Shadoian: Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003: p. 31.

[8] Tim Dirks: “Little Caesar.” (retrieved on 29 January, 2011).

[9] cf. Howard Hughes: Crime Wave: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Crime Movies. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006: p. 9.

[10] Will H. Hays, as quoted in Mark Vieira: Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999: p. 33.

[11] Howard Hughes, as quoted in Vieira 1999: p. 68.

[12] cf. Thomas Patrick Doherty: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. New York: Columbia UP, 1999: pp. 149-150.

[13] cf. Stephen Prince: Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999: p. xiii.

[14] Shadoian 2003: pp. 29-30.

[15] Howard Hawks, as quoted in Scorsese and Wilson 1997: p. 47.

[16] Scorsese and Wilson 1997: p. 47.

[17] John T. Irwin: Unless the Threat of Death is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir. Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 2006: p. 215.

[18] cf. Robert Warshow: The Immediate Experience. New York: Atheneum, 1979: pp. 135-137.

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