“He ain’t no gangster. He’s a real old-time desperado. Gangsters is foreigners; he’s an American.”—Gramp Maple, The Petrified Forest
Perhaps no genre captures the lower aspects of the national soul and the darker elements of its ethos better than the gangster film. The tale is almost always about, as the minstrel knucklehead 50 Cent would say, “coming up,” or furiously rising from the bottom. The gangster is never less than arrogant, resentful, and possessed of an optimism so naive that it might become ruthless. He represents a perversion of the anti-aristocratic attitude that began in the United States after the Revolutionary War. By the time Andrew Jackson became president, the popular sense of American democracy was that triumph was superior to a “noble” bloodline; that refinement was usually no more than the glaze of pretension; and that education did not necessarily make anyone better—or more clever!—than anyone else.
From the second half of 19th century forward, American slums became locations for social diseases, vermin, filth, and overcrowding as immigrants poured in from a class-bound Europe. In that context of urban poverty, the modern criminal emerged with the 20th century. He offered vice and defended both his territory and his corrosive wares with violence. Bloody action could travel all the way up the thermometer of crime until it reached murder, the most conspicuous of which was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929. The murders were ordered by Al Capone and executed with such contemptuous brutality that the public howled for law and order. The mood was perfect for the emergence of the gangster film, which arrived from Warner Bros. with the startling realism of The Public Enemy and Little Caesar in 1931.
The studio not only made the most of the classic machine-gun operas but provided the basic plotlines and the iconographic figures. These movies brought a casual but attentive accuracy to a new Wild West that had been reincarnated in the big cities of the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard. Warner Bros. also gave us James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and Humphrey Bogart, the three most important innovators in a style defined by the portrayal of gangsters, outlaws, and gunmen.
In the DVD anthologies Gangsters and Tough Guys, Warner Bros. brings together examples of its A and B lists. The former collection includes a number of indispensable films and equally indispensable performances, while the second includes entertaining films but furthers its quality with extremely well-done documentary special features thatput these movies right inside the cultural pulsation that was roaring when they were released. We also come to better understand the impact these gangster films had on American identity and on the imitations of American films that circled the globe.
Warner Bros. discovered that hard-boiled guys were more attractive to men—andto women—than any kind of good-mannered cotton-candy figures in tuxedos and expensive surroundings. In this spirit, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson maintained their tough style of talk and the cocky ways that they brought to early gangster movies. But things changed for the actors very quickly. By the middle ‘30s, they were recast as cops and government men so that the audience could still experience the fresh moxie of the actors but could also side with the law. More important, these characters strongly recalled the popular 19th-century American theater figure of Mose the Fireman, who had the basic sensibility of sandpaper but would lay down his life for a lady in distress or could be brought to tears by the plight of an endangered child.
With some variations, Mose reappears in “G” Men (1935) as James Cagney’s federal agent. This was a character who came up hard and has the rhythm of the streets in every aspect of his personal style: his talk, his dancing gait, and his readiness to war with his fists or a firearm. He comes to us another way through Edward G. Robinson’s undercover cop in Bullets or Ballots (1936) and still differently as the prison warden played by Pat O’Brien in San Quentin (1937). O’Brien was another of the confident Irishmen who achieved originality in the 1930s and was especially good in roles where he had to uphold the law or play a priest who hadn’t forgotten how to settle things with his fists. This is particularly true in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), where O’Brien plays the moral counterbalance to Cagney’s charming thug, who is a less circumscribed variation on his Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, whereas Cagney’s Powers has no morality whatsoever and has replaced a soul with brute appetites. By White Heat (1949), Cagney has evolved into Cody Jarrett, an ominously violent psychopath with a remarkably believable feeling of tenderness toward his mother. The great beauty of the performance is that, however much we might empathize with the humanity of the character, Cagney never allows us to forget that Jarrett is, finally, monstrous: a flippant murderer and a sadist.
Humphrey Bogart emerges as the outlaw, not the gangster. As Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart is a character of menace, desperation, and tragedy. He is, like Dillinger, a leftover from the 19th century of Jesse James; unlike the characters of Cagney and Robinson, he has no connections to powerful men in high, starched collars, the ultimate symbols of urban corruption. Mantee has made his way with a small gang that shares his doomed future. In both collections, Bogart’s signature menace comes through whenever it is needed, and one can see the degree of concentration he brought to his roles as either embittered men or hardened criminals who found joy in cruelty, murder, and torture. In A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Robinson proves himself capable of what is almost impossible today: He could be just as effective in comedy as he was in drama or melodrama.
In our time, graphic violence so often solves the problem of skillfully developing dramatic intensity that these earlier films seem tame in one way and ridiculous in another. They seem tame because of the absurd ways in which the actors pretend to have been shot, and they seem ridiculous because now everyone knows that a person shot at close range in his overcoat could not conceal his wounds in the way actors did in those days when no one who was shot on the screen ever gushed blood. In a one-two punch, Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather did away with those conventions universally.
But to see the evolution of these iconic representations of an era and the gifted performers who made the gangster and the urban outlaw part of our cultural pantheon is to feel present at the emergence of a new way to express the dark side of human complexity within the context of our roller coaster of a democracy, which never fails to descend, no matter how high it rises.