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Film Genres

This guide highlights library resources for some of the more popular film genres.

A short definition for gangster films

A subgenre of the crime film, set within the milieu of organized crime. There are numerous antecedents of the gangster film in early crime films such as A Daring Daylight Burglary (Frank S. Mottershaw, UK, 1903), The Moonshiners (Wallace McCutcheon, US, 1904), and Desperate Encounter Between Burglars and Police (Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon, US, 1905). There was a major cycle of gangster films (or ‘crook melodramas’) in the mid 1910s, including The Musketeers of Pig Alley (D.W. Griffith, US, 1912), and again in the late 1920s. Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, US, 1927), written by former reporter Ben Hecht and based on real events, is often said to herald the arrival of the ‘classic’ studio-produced Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s (see also studio system). More than fifty gangster films were made between 1930 and 1932, including Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1930), The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), and Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932). These films were popular with audiences and quickly established a distinct iconography of city settings (Chicago, New York), sharp suits, fast cars, the glamorous moll (gangster’s girlfriend), and machine guns. The gangster’s tough, masculine physical demeanour was marked in the performance styles of key stars such as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Paul Muni (see masculinity). The introduction of synchronized sound ensured that hardboiled dialogue, gunfire, and screeching car tires also became central features of the genre. The most common narrative arc in the ‘classic’ period follows the gangster from rags to riches to destruction (inviting comparison to classical tragedy). The genre’s strong association with Warner Bros, a studio with a commitment to making social problem films, ensured that the sensational violence, stylized mise-en-scene, and sharply-paced plots were combined with a notional aim to shed light on organized crime as a pressing social problem (see studio style). As such the gangster movie often makes claim to a certain kind of social realism, especially given its symbiotic relationship with contemporaneous events (with plots often taken from newspaper reportage) and fascination with real-life criminals such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, Charlie ‘Lucky’ Luciano, and Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Gangster film. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 Jun. 2022

Finding library resources for gangster films

To find what we have in the Library's collection, you can do a subject search for "gangster films" in the online catalog. That search will show you what film titles are classified as gangster films as well as books and other items about them. This search will also include books on the "history and criticism" of the genre itself. You will also get resources about gangster films produced in other countries.

Introductory reading(s)

Selected book title(s)

Other library resource(s)

Selected film titles

Find more gangster films in the library's online catalog.

Keeping up with Film Studies journal literature

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