Mob films — or gangster films — are a subgenre of American crime films dealing with organized crime, often specifically with the Mafia. Especially in early mob films, there is considerable overlap with film noir.
The American movie The Black Hand (1906) is thought to be the earliest surviving gangster film. In 1912, D. W. Griffith directed The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a short drama film about crime on the streets of New York City (filmed, however, at Fort Lee, New Jersey) rumored to have included real gangsters as extras. Though mob films had their roots in such silent films, the genre in its most durable form was defined in the early 1930s. It owed its innovations to the social and economic instability occasioned by the Great Depression, which galvanized the organized crime subculture. The failure of honest hard work and careful investment to ensure financial security led to the circumstances reflected in the explosion of mob films in Hollywood and to their immense popularity in a society disillusioned with the American way of life.
The years 1931 and 1932 saw the genre produce three enduring classics: Warner Bros.' Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, which made screen icons out of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, and Howard Hawks' Scarface starring Paul Muni, which offered a dark psychological analysis of a fictionalized Al Capone and launched the film career of George Raft. These films chronicle the quick rise, and equally quick downfall, of three young, violent criminals, and represent the genre in its purest form before moral pressure would force it to change and evolve. Though the gangster in each film would face a violent downfall which was designed to remind the viewers of the consequences of crime, audiences were often able to identify with the charismatic anti-hero. Those suffering from the Depression were able to relate to the gangster character who worked hard to earn his place and success in the world, only to have it all taken away from him.
Despite the genre spanning the decade before dying out, some argue that the gangster film in its purest form only existed until 1933, when restrictions from the Production Code led to films that did not have the same power as the earlier ones.
As the appeal and attraction of gangster movie stars such as Cagney, Robinson, Muni, and Raft grew, so too did the efforts to combat their fascination. Of the early years of the crime film, Scarface, arguably the most violent of gangster films created during the entire decade, particularly was the subject of criticism. Released in 1932, it ushered in the worst year of the Depression, and as profits slid, Hollywood did what it could to restore its earnings, which resulted in the upping of sex and violence in the movies. Scarface can be interpreted as a representation of the American dream gone awry, presented when US capitalism had reached its lowest, and Prohibition was being seen as a failed social experiment and would soon be abolished. It faced opposition from regulators of the Production Code, and its release was delayed for over a year while Hawks attempted to tone down the incestuous overtones of the relationship between Paul Muni's character Tony Camonte and his sister (Ann Dvorak).
Eventually moralists and the Production Code became so troublesome that the crime film in its original form was abandoned, and there was a shift to the perspective of the law officers fighting criminals or criminals seeking redemption. This is illustrated with James Cagney's role as a law officer in the movie G Men, and his part as Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. These pictures demonstrate the growing acceptance of crime films during the 1930s as long as criminals were not portrayed in a flattering light. For example, in G-Men, Cagney plays a character similar to that of Tom Powers from The Public Enemy, and although the film was as violent and brutal as its predecessors, it had no trouble getting a seal of approval from the Production Code office. It was now the law officers that the films attempted to glamorize, as opposed to the criminals.
Politics combined with the social and economic climate of the time to influence how crime films were made and how the characters were portrayed. Many of the films imply that criminals are the creation of society, rather than its rebel, and considering the troublesome and bleak time of the 1930s this argument carries significant weight. Often the best of the gangster films are those that have been closely tied to the reality of crime, reflecting public interest in a particular aspect of criminal activity; thus, the gangster film is in a sense a history of crime in the United States. The institution of Prohibition in 1920 led to an explosion in crime, and the depiction of bootlegging is a frequent occurrence in many mob films. However, as the 1930s progressed, Hollywood also experimented with the stories of the rural criminals and bank robbers, such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd. The success of these characters in film can be attributed to their value as news subjects, as their exploits often thrilled the people of a nation who had become weary with inefficient government and apathy in business. However, as the FBI increased in power there was also a shift to favour the stories of the FBI agents hunting the criminals instead of focusing on the criminal characters. In fact, in 1933 at the height of the hunt for Dillinger, the Production Code office issued an order that no film should be made about Dillinger for fear of further glamorizing his character.
Many of the 1930s crime films also dealt with class and ethnic conflict, notably the earliest films, reflecting doubts about how well the American system was working. As stated, many films pushed the message that criminals were the result of a poor moral and economic society, and many are portrayed as having foreign backgrounds or coming from the lower class. Thus, the film criminal is often able to evoke sympathy and admiration out of the viewer, who often will not place the blame on the criminal's shoulders, but rather a cruel society where success is difficult. When the decade came to a close, crime films became more figurative, representing metaphors, as opposed to the more straight forward films produced earlier in the decade, showing an increasing interest in offering a thought provoking message about criminal character.
In the 1970s there was a revival of mob films, notably with The Godfather, based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. It was followed by two sequels: The Godfather Part II and The Godfather Part III. It also inspired other mob films such as The Valachi Papers, starring Charles Bronson.
The 1983 remake of Scarface was not particularly well received at the time of its release, but over time it has come to be seen as a classic of the mob film genre. It went on to inspire films such as King of New York.
The films of the 1990s produced several critically acclaimed mob films, many of which were loosely based on real crimes and their perpetrators. Many of these films featured long-time actors well known for their roles as mobsters such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Chazz Palminteri.
The most notable from the decade was the 1990 film Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Ray Liotta as real-life associate of the Lucchese crime family Henry Hill. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci also starred in the film with Pesci earning an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture and Best Director, making Goodfellas one of the most critically acclaimed crime films of all time.
Following their collaboration in Goodfellas, Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci would team up again in 1995 with the film Casino, based on Frank Rosenthal, an associate of the Chicago Outfit who ran multiple casinos in Las Vegas during the 1970s and 1980s. The film was DeNiro's third mob film of the decade, following Goodfellas (1990) and A Bronx Tale (1993).
DeNiro's fellow mob actor, Al Pacino, also resumed roles in the crime film genre during the 1990s, reprising his role as the iconic Michael Corleone in The Godfather III (1990). The film served as the final installment in The Godfather trilogy, following Michael Corleone as he tries to legitimize the Corleone family in the twilight of his career.
In 1993, Pacino starred in the film, Carlito's Way as a former gangster released from prison who vows to go straight. In Donnie Brasco (1997), Pacino starred alongside Johnny Depp in the true story of undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone and his infiltration of the Bonanno crime family of New York City during the 1970s. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The 2000s continued to produce box office mob films cast with high profile actors. Road to Perdition, a 2002 American crime film directed by Sam Mendes and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Max Allan Collins, boasted an ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig. The plot takes place in 1931, during the Great Depression, following a mob enforcer and his son as they seek vengeance against a mobster who murdered the rest of their family. Unlike many of its modern mob film predecessors, Road to Perdition sought to recreate the film noir genre while still using using contemporary techniques and effects. The cinematography, setting, and the lead performances by Newman (in his final theatrical screen appearance) and Hanks were well received by critics.
In 2006, director Martin Scorsese returned to the mob genre in The Departed, starring the ensemble cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen. The film was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong Triad film Infernal Affairs. Set in Boston, the film follows the parallel double lives of undercover officer William Costigan Jr. (DiCaprio), who has infiltrated Irish mob boss's Frank Costello (Nicholson) and Colin Sullivan (Damon), who has served as a mole in the Massachusetts State Police. The characters are loosely based on famous gangster Whitey Bulger and corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, who grew up with Bulger. The Departed had gone on to win several awards, including four Oscars at the 79th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Scorsese), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Also notable is Public Enemies, a 2009 American biographical-crime film directed by Michael Mann and written by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman. It is an adaptation of Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34. Set during the Great Depression, the film chronicles the final years of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he is pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), and his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), as well as Purvis' pursuit of Dillinger associates and fellow criminals Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Scenes from Manhattan Melodrama, are depicted in the 2009 film as being the last motion picture seen by the notorious gangster John Dillinger, who was shot to death by federal agents on 22 July 1934, after leaving Chicago's Biograph Theater where the film was playing.
The 2008 Italian mob film Gomorrah was met with much critical acclaim upon its premiere in North America. The film was directed by Matteo Garrone, based on the book by Roberto Saviano that depicts the modern-day of the Casalesi crime family of the southern Italian region of Campania. The film follows five independent plots of people whose lives are influenced by organized crime in Naples and Caserta. Despite failing to represent Italy in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards, Gomorrah is still regarded as one of the more prominent mafia films from the Italian cinema.
The 2010s continued the 2000s trend of bringing new movies featuring both prohibition and post-WWII real life mob incidents into the box office.
Lawless 2012 based on the 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World the film follows a trio of siblings who run an illegal moonshine business during the Prohibition.
Gangster Squad is a crime film directed by Ruben Fleischer, from a screenplay written by Will Beall, starring an ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn. It is the story of a group of LAPD officers and detectives called the "Gangster Squad" who are attempting to keep Los Angeles safe from Mickey Cohen, a real life post-WWII Los Angeles gangster that became a powerful figure in the criminal underworld, and intended to continue to expand his criminal enterprise and his gang during the 1940s and '50s. The film was released January 11, 2013.
- McArthur, Colin (1972), Underworld U.S.A. (Vol 20 of Cinema One series); Secker and Warburg for the British Film Institute.