Top Gangster Movies – A Look Back at the History of Gangster Films

While gangster films grabbed a larger audience during the 1930’s after the invention of the “talkies,” the silent era also provided us with a few incredible motion pictures depicting the world of “organized crime.”

1912 gave us the first real gangster film with D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley which told the story of organized crime in the western world. Prior to this full-length feature there were a few one-reel films released as early as 1904-1906. They included, The Moonshiners (1904), Edwin S. Porter’s A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars and Police (1905), and Wallace McCutcheon’s 1906 documentary of a kidnapping, The Black Hand.

In 1915, the film Regeneration displayed the graphic lawlessness in the lower East Side of New York City telling the story of a young Irish-American boy who grew up in the Irish Ghettos of New York only to become a professional gangster. The story points to the adversity of living in poverty within a lower socio-economic class system that affected a great many Irish immigrants during the early part of the 20th century as the primary cause of the boy becoming a gangster.

Hollywood gangster films really earned their place on the motion picture history map during the 1930’s and 1940’s. At this time the streets of New York and Chicago were the epicenters of violent crime in America and Hollywood decided to use this period in history to generate profits by depicting a sensationalized gangster culture on film.

These films, catering to the public’s guilty pleasure and the curious appeal of the shadowy side of criminal life, would permanently establish their legendary status on the silver screen.

Prohibition played a major role in the popularity of gangster films. The “bootlegging” of liquor during this period was responsible for a great deal of violent crime that included murder, intense gang wars, and all-out combat between the police and the mobsters. Prohibition had created an awkward curiosity for the audiences who had experienced these years and were hungry to learn more about how the underworld operated during this period.

One of the more famous early gangster films was 1932’s Scarface. The movie is loosely (maybe not so loosely) based on the life of Al Capone with the lead played by Paul Muni. Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Howard Hawks, the pictures release was delayed a year due to the amount of violence portrayed in the story. Today’s audiences are more familiar with 1983’s re-make starring Al Pacino which has become one of the most popular cult classics of all time.

In any discussion of early gangster movies one cannot leave out the great Humphrey Bogart. “Boggy” was one of Hollywood’s top stars during the thirties and forties, and he certainly made his mark playing the clever, street smart, tough guy in many of his earlier films. A standout among these was The Roaring Twenties (1939) staring James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Loyd Hart.

This classic tale of life as a bootlegger included all the crime film elements loved by audiences; the rise and fall of a criminal empire, romance, bloodshed, and betrayal.

Hollywood has tried re-create the success of early gangster films, but capturing the legendary and historic appeal of these movies is virtually impossible. The history of the crime and gangster film genre is firmly rooted in the 1930’s and 1940’s, right along with the legendary actors who starred in them.