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The Gangster Film: As American as Jazz

ScarfaceWas anyone surprised to learn that American Gangster was the number one movie in the country the weekend it opened? Of course not – gangster films are one of the most popular film genres.

Let’s get our terms straight here. Gangster movies are distinct from  movies about criminals in that they portray groups of people who run counter to our own society. The fact that they are similar to us in many other ways—they have families, lovers, like to eat and hang around with their friends—lets us identify with them at the same time we’re repulsed by them, creating an irresistible tension. The gangster is the modern equivalent of Satan in Paradise Lost, who seductively tests our commitment to our own morality.

There were some silent gangster films, but the genre really took off in the 1930s.

The previous decade saw the explosion of organized crime in the United States, fed by the opportunities provided by Prohibition. The Depression had a lot of people considering desperate measures to survive hard times. Movies like Scarface and Little Caesar (both based on Al Capone), The Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces, Dead End and dozens of others made stars of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni and George Raft.

A different kind of Depression era gangster became popular with moviegoers in the 1960s as the success of Bonnie and Clyde ushered in a wave of films about glorified Midwestern robbers. But the classic gangster film came back strong in 1972 with The Godfather, which was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three, including Best Picture. A year later an unknown filmmaker named Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets, inspired by his own youth in New York’s Little Italy.

Gangster films have long been popular overseas, especially in Italy (birthplace of the Cosa Nostra) and France (where a generation of filmmakers got there start as critics swooning over obscure American crime films). In recent years the British have put their own distinctive stamp on the genre with movies like The Long Good Friday, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Sexy Beast.

Overall, though, the Gangster film is as American as jazz. Take our ranking poll to tell us what you think the all-time greatest Gangster classics are.

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