If it seems appropriate that “Public Enemies,” director Michael Mann’s film starring Johnny Depp as Depression-era bank robber and all-around gangster John Dillinger, is opening Wednesday in the midst of the greatest economic meltdown in 70 years, that’s because the 1930s were the golden age of the gangster film.
With their up-from-the-gutter storylines, movies like “Scarface,” “The Public Enemy” and “Little Caesar” not only helped define the gangster genre but also acted as a subtle critique of the capitalist system itself.
“It’s interesting to me that a major gangster film is coming out at a time when we are in a recession,” says Michael L. Stephens, author of “Gangster Films.” “In the 1930s, those films reflected the sentiment of the time, which still exists today, and we still identify with that anti-Wall Street, anti-establishment feeling.”
“There has always been a romanticizing of the outlaw in American literature and history, but, unlike the cowboy, who exists in this sprawling landscape, gangster films are urban and appeal to audiences that live in crowded cities,” adds Jay McRoy, one of the contributing writers in the forthcoming book “101 Gangster Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
It’s not that the gangster film hasn’t changed over time. But ever since 1912, when D.W. Griffith’s organized crime flick “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” jump-started the genre, the gangster flick has become an American — and eventually international — staple, reflecting the concerns and mythologies of any number of societies.
So, in the United States, those 1930s socialist/realist dramas, which tended to sympathize with the bad guy and his hardscrabble urban background, morphed in the late 1940s — thanks in part to the anti-Communism sentiment of the day — into the gangster-as-psycho film (think James Cagney in “White Heat”), the not-so-subtle message being that we’re not going to glorify such antisocial behavior. “The rebel figure became identified with anti-American types,” says Stephens, “where before, that was not the case.”
Then came 1967 and “Bonnie and Clyde,” which not only ratcheted up the violence level in gangster movies, but reflected the anarchic, anti-establishment spirit of the Vietnam era. Five years later, “The Godfather” melded myth, the family drama and an anti-capitalist critique into one classic package.
“A case could be made that the great American movie is no longer ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but ‘The Godfather,’” says Eddie Muller, author of “The Art of Noir.”
“‘The Godfather’ is a family drama, but it’s about power and capitalism, the dark side of capitalism. Here’s a shadow version of the accepted system, and the ‘Godfather’ movies touch on this notion of how similar are the accepted system and its shadow version.”
But the “Godfather” films also represented the end of the classic gangster era. With the demise of the real mob as an urban power, and the rise of drug lords and inner-city gangs, recent bad-guy flicks are as much about gunplay and bling as anything else (although the sociological underpinnings of “American Gangster” hearken back to Depression-era gangster films). And oddly enough, the most intriguing, and groundbreaking, recent view of mob life came not from a movie but from a TV show, “The Sopranos,” which gave the genre an entirely new tweak — a sociopathic mob boss and harried, middle-class family guy who runs his business out of a sleazy strip club. Not exactly Don Corleone territory.
“‘The Sopranos’ is groundbreaking in any number of ways,” says McRoy. “He can run a mob family but has difficulty controlling his own kids.”
Adds Muller: “I think the end of the big mob-boss era came out pretty strongly in ‘The Sopranos.’”
So other than period pieces like “Public Enemies,” does this mean the classic gangster film is now a museum piece?
“Those old gangster movies were a product of their time,” says Muller. “The white-collar criminal has replaced the old-school gangster. People are more concerned about conspiracies than they are criminal behavior. That’s been building since the 1970s, the notion of conspiracies that grew out of the Kennedy assassination, the suggestion that somewhere behind this are criminals we can’t touch.”
“Public Enemies” stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, legendary Depression-era bank robber. Angered by Dillinger’s success in robbing Midwestern depositories, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) sets golden-boy agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) after him. The hood, with his girlfriend (Marion Cotillard), finally meets up with the G-man after taking in a movie at Chicago’s Biograph Theater.
Director Michael Mann’s most recent film, “Miami Vice” (a 2006 remake of his TV series), was a critical and box-office dud. And period crime dramas like “Changeling” have not fared all that well in theaters lately. So the star power of Depp and Bale might be the key factor in whether “Public Enemies” will connect with the public.
TEN GANGSTER MOVIES YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW — BUT SHOULD
“The Big Combo” (1955) — Tough as nails film noir about a cop (Cornel Wilde) and his obsessive pursuit of a mob boss (Richard Conte). Plenty of stylish violence, with a fascinatingly contemporary subplot — mob thugs Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (Lee Van Cleef) are actually gay lovers!
“Rififi” (1955) — The gangster heist movie to which all other heist movies pay homage. This French flick also features a 32-minute burglary sequence without dialogue or music. Masterful in every way.
“Point Blank” (1967) — The gangster film as existential thriller. Betrayed by his wife and best friend, hired gunman Lee Marvin destroys what seems like half of Southern California in his quest for revenge. Structured like a European art film, with the monosyllabic Marvin giving a mesmerizing, terrifying performance.
“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” (1973) — Gritty movie about low-level Boston mobsters, their loyalties and betrayals. Incredibly atmospheric locations, pungent dialogue, with a masterful performance by Robert Mitchum as a chump desperately trying to stay out of prison by ratting out his buddies.
“The Long Good Friday” (1980) — Cockney gangster Bob Hoskins is about to close a big deal when he starts having a very, very bad day. One of the best British gangster movies ever, with Helen Mirren a standout as Hoskins’ mistress.
“Hard Boiled” (1992) — Hong Kong cop Chow Yun-Fat loses his best friend in a shootout then joins up with a hired killer to seek revenge. Amazingly kinetic crime flick from master director John Woo, and the final shootout in a hospital maternity ward has to be seen to be believed.
“Last Man Standing” (1996) — Director Walter Hill transposes Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic “Yojimbo” to the American Southwest, where a 1930s gun for hire (Bruce Willis) drifts into a town torn apart by a gang war. He hires himself out to both sides, hoping to take everyone down. Totally ignored when first released, this is a taut, violent and stylish contemporary classic.
“Sexy Beast” (2000) — Another top Brit crime flick, starring Ben Kingsley as a psychopathic hood sent to Spain to “convince” some retired mobsters to return to Blighty for one last bank job. Ian McShane oozes menace as Kingsley’s boss.
“Gomorrah” (2008) — Top-of-the-line Italian film about the Camorra, Neapolitan organized crime. Shot like a documentary on real slum locations, with a series of fascinating interlocking stories.
“What Doesn’t Kill You” (2008) — Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo are childhood friends and bottom-feeding Boston hoods. Ruffalo wants to leave the life; Hawke wants to pull off one last big caper. Solid acting and great Massachusetts locations make this barely seen flick one of the better gangster films of the past few years.