The mobster and the movies
Getting to the root of the 'quintessential movie myth'
By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN
NEW YORK (CNN) -- American audiences prove, year after year at the box office and Nielsen desk, that they love their criminals.
The perennial themes of greed, misplaced loyalty, and the survival of some kind of morality in an amoral world literally dominate the screen, big and small.
Indeed, gangster cinema, in all its forms, has become such an ingrained part of modern popular culture worldwide that it's always worth taking a look at its silent, black-and-white origins.
In his new book, "Bullets Over Hollywood," film scholar John McCarty shows gangster movies go back almost 100 years -- and they haven't changed much.
McCarty starts with D.W. Griffiths' silent one-reeler, "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" (1912), and shows that some aspects of the genre are recognizable today. "In its brief, barely 17-minute running time, 'The Musketeers of Pig Alley' established most of the basic ground rules of the American gangster film," he writes, "from trading in sex ... as well as violence to exploiting material ripped 'straight from the day's headlines' to casting, if not a completely sympathetic eye, at least an emphatic one on its lead gangster ..."
"I perceived that the gangster movie had replaced the Western as the quintessential American movie myth," McCarty said in a telephone interview, consciously echoing the claims of several crime writers, including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
"The iconography of the Western, which was essentially America's story in the 19th century, is why I think they were popular ... and the gangster picture replaced that because it's telling the story of a modern America. Younger audiences can identify better with it.
"And," he added, "of course there are elements of the gangster picture one didn't find in the Western which in the gangster picture are brought to the fore. Sex, for example."
Creating 'the gangster film studio'
The central point of McCarty's developmental trajectory is the ready adaptation of gang-themed stories to the era of talkies in the 1930s, in which the consolidation of loosely confederated street gangs rode the tide of Prohibition to the forefront of the nation's headlines.
Parallel to this criminal restructuring, McCarty claims, was the development of the modern Hollywood studio system, staffed by a growing pool of professionals.
The wedding scene in "The Godfather" (1972) kicked off one of the great films of all time.
The crooks had Capone. The rest of us had Warner Brothers.
"I would say that as the sound period began, which is when most people consider the gangster film period as beginning to flourish, it was most clearly Warner Brothers, run by Jack Warner and headed by production chief Daryl Zanuck [that made its name with the gangster film]," McCarty said. "Zanuck was a firm believer in stories that were hard-hitting and straight from the headlines.
"Of course, that's what the headlines were full of," he added. "We're talking about the late '20s to the early '30s when the talkies began to flourish. You had films like 'Public Enemy', which was Warner Brothers with James Cagney, and 'Little Caesar' with Edward G. Robinson, also Warner Brothers. The three great gangster stars that we remember -- Robinson, Cagney, and Bogart -- were all Warner Brothers stars. Warner Brothers was the gangster film studio."
A reflection of America
"Bullets Over Hollywood" is at its best when discussing recurring themes in gangster films from the silent era into the 1950s, though the genre is still as strong as ever today -- witness the "Godfather" films, the 1983 "Scarface" (a still from which decorates the cover), "Goodfellas," and "The Sopranos."
McCarty's take on these later films is breezier, however, moving from "Gangs of New York" to "Mean Streets" to "State of Grace" to "Goodfellas" in the space of a few pages. He does, however, spend significant time on "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II," the key films of the gangster movie renaissance.
" 'The Godfather Part II' is that rarity indeed, a sequel that not only deepens our understanding of the original film but also betters it artistically," he writes.
Still, the most enriching part of "Bullets Over Hollywood" is the early history, when firearms, femmes fatale and film all came together to create a distinct genre.
As McCarty puts it: "Gangster films reflect America, and that's what Americans are most interested in."