The thirties were the heyday of gangster movies, with Warner Bros Studios leading the way. There had been one notable silent crime movie, Joseph Von Sternberg's Chicago-set Underworld (1927). In Germany, Fritz Lang had directed M (1931), with the criminal underworld and the Berlin Homicide Squad joining forces to track down a child murderer, chillingly portrayed by Peter Lorre. Originally called Murderers Among Us, the film was retitled when the Nazi party sensed it referenced their infiltration of society. The killer is described as 'a danger often cloaked in a friendly disguise' and the sense of paranoia, as fear and suspicion spread through the city like a plague, vividly brings Lang's depiction of urban criminality to life. But with the advent of sound, the crime genre really took off in the US, concentrating on the topical subjects of bootlegging, racketeering, gang war, kidnap and murder.
The most fashionable type of early gangster movies was the Broadway crime movie, which looked at the links between the underworld and the theatre world. The relatively recent addition of sound ensured audiences heard their fair share of musical numbers, in films such as The Lights of New York (1928), Tenderloin (1928 - which concerned bootleggers, not butchers), Broadway (1929) and Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933), with chorus girls on the ladder to stardom, mixing with mobsters. The influence of such early musical gangster movies can be seen throughout crime cinema; The Girl Can't Help It (1956), for example, featured Jayne Mansfield as a tone-deaf gangster's moll, who mobster Edmond O'Brien is convinced can be transformed into a singing sensation.
But in the thirties, a triumvirate of crime films quickly established a tougher side to the genre and ensured its global popularity. Each depicted a criminal's spectacular rise and equally dramatic fall, and all made stars of their leading actors. Edward G. Robinson starred as Cesare Enrico Bandello, alias Rico in Little Caesar
(1930). The film ended with the death of Rico on the steps of a church and his classic final line: 'Mother of God.. .is this the end of Rico?' (which was altered by the censors to 'Mother of mercy' in some prints). Rico was based on Al Capone, who was incarcerated that same year for the less-than-glamorous crime of three years' tax evasion; his defence was that he didn't think he'd have to pay tax on money garnered illegally. The second, and best, of the three crime films was William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931), with James Cagney's dynamic turn as Irish hood Tom Powers, based in part on Bugsy Moran's associate, Dion O'Banion. This also climaxed with the mobster's memorable demise: here Power's trussed-up corpse is delivered to his mother's doorstep.
The third and most controversial of the three was Scarface, Shame of a Nation (1932), directed by Howard Hawks and starring Paul Muni as Tony Camonte and George Raft as his coin-tossing sidekick, Guido Rinaldo. Based on the novel by Armitage Traill, it was written for the screen by Ben Hecht and W.R. Burnett, as another thinly disguised biography of Al Capone. Hawks had trouble from the censors concerning the film's violence (one version ends with Camonte being hanged) and the movie was held back for over a year. Hecht was visited by Capone's heavy mob, who had heard it was about their boss. Hecht managed to convince them it was based on other mobsters and the 'Scarface' reference was simply to attract cinemagoers. Capone reputedly liked the film and even bought his own copy.
With the success of these three films, many imitations followed, though few equalled their power. Unlike the conflicting wild-west heroes and villains, these gangster badmen were completely amoral: violence is underhand and treachery rife. A code of honour, which existed in the film versions of the old west, is completely absent from the crime movie. Death comes with a knife in the back, or machine-gun ambush, and there are no rules in the urban jungle. It was ironic that for the first years of the thirties, these men were heroes.
As the decade wore on, James Cagney made two more films now regarded as classics. First he starred in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), one of his most popular films. It is a highly moral version of the 'rise and fall' scenario, with a justly famous electric chair finale. Then Cagney released The Roaring Twenties (1939), which looked at how economic factors and unemployment following the First World War pushed men into a life of crime. In this period, future crime-movie icon Humphrey Bogart made his name as a supporting heavy, in Warners' films The Petrified Forest (1936) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), forever in the shadow of a star, which rankled with Bogart. There were also many spoofs of the genre, including Cagney and Robinson sending up their own gangster images in Lady Killer (1933) and A Slight Case of Murder (1938) respectively, while Buster Keaton parodied bootleggers with What? No Beer? (1933).
After their success in Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), rough and tumble street urchins the Dead End Kids started a fad for juvenile crime gang films. These ranged from social dramas to knockabout comedies and horror spoofs. The Dead End Kids' imitators, competitors or spin-off projects included the 'Little Tough Guys' series (see Little Tough Guy - 1938, Code of the Streets - 1939, You're Not so Tough - 1940, and six further adventures), the East Side Kids (stars of 22 features, including Spooks Run Wild - 1941) and the Bowery Boys (who made 48 features between 1946 and 1958).
Stringent censorship and the reining in and dismantling of the real gangsters' power saw the on-screen G-men (government agents) fighting back from the mid-thirties onwards, spearheaded by Cagney's turn as James 'Brick' Davies in G-Men, based on the book 'Public Enemy No. 1' by Gregory Rogers. Released in April 1935, G-Men was a box-office smash and spawned many rushed-out sequels and derivatives: Public Hero Number One (1935), Counterfeit (1936 - featuring T-men, treasury agents), Trapped by G-Men (1937), When G-Men Step In (1937) and the western-set Border G-Man (1938).
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