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A Brief History of the Real Life Gangster Movie

A Brief History of the Real Life Gangster Movie

gangster holding a gun in the shadows

Martin Scorsese’s latest labour of love The Irishman is a film firmly rooted in reality and continues a long-time love affair between Hollywood and the trials and tribulations of the dastardly and devilish gangster. It’s a subject matter that enthrals and intrigues, a world that seems so far removed, yet in many ways so close. What really turns the dial-up and lights a flame of fascination in us viewers, are the story’s that hail from actual events and characters based on the criminal underworld’s sharpest minds.

Perhaps we are drawn to those characters who live life by their own set of rules, chancers, villains, vagabonds, and the downright dangerous. Whatever it is that lures us in certainly works, as cinema history is littered with tales of those that live on the wrong side of the law. Where did it start and why is the recipe so successful? Here’s our brief history of the real-life gangster movie.

“You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.” – Al Capone (Robert De Niro in The Untouchables)

One of the earliest screen depictions of mobsters was in the original Scarface movie from 1932. Long before DePalma’s version in which Pacino chewed up all the scenery, was Howard Hawk’s film based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, which was inspired by the infamous Al Capone. The film follows Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte, a gangster who rises through the Chicago gangland, blazing a trail of violence with his trusty Tommy gun.

This adaptation preceded the era-defining moral compass that was the Hays Code. Otherwise known as The Motion Picture Production Code, it was essentially a set of guidelines and rules for American filmmakers to abide by. The code placed restrictions on all films produced and distributed, most notably that ‘crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light’ and ‘if someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen.’

This coincided with the ‘Golden Hollywood Age’ of films and for a notable period, depictions of criminality and gangsters vanished from the silver screen. In many ways this added gravitas to Scarface making it almost notorious and those that preceded it like Underworld (1927), but none quite cut the mustard in terms of the brutality and violence depicted in Hawk’s seminal movie. One of the film’s greatest admirers at the time was Capone himself who had his own print of the film and was rumoured to have thrown Hawks a party in celebration of what would later become a screen classic.

Scarface (1932)
Scarface (1932). Credit: United Artists

The 1940s and 50s saw a shift in blending with the film noir genre, with it’s low-key, black-and-white visual style and roots in German Expressionist cinematography. One classic from the period was 1949s White Heat, which saw James Cagney play Cody Jarrett, a character inspired by real-life gangster Arthur ‘Doc’ Cody, a vicious and brutal psychotic killer with an unhealthy affection for his mother, who was based on the infamous Ma Barker. The movie ends with what has become a much-repeated line in film folklore:

 “Made it, Ma – top of the world!”

Other notable efforts from the era include Dillinger, a 1945 gangster film telling the story of John Dillinger, 1958s Machine-Gun Kelly, with Charles Bronson as the famous prohibition-era gangster and the Rod Steiger starring biopic, Al Capone (1959), which chronicled the rise of the Chicago crime boss.

By the time the 1960s came around, it would be fair to say that gangster movies in the traditional sense were well and truly out of vogue. Certainly, the handful released failed to make their marks at the box office with one notable exception.

Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 was an Arthur Penn directed crime drama that showcased the violent crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) based on the real crimes they committed in the 30s. At the time Bonnie and Clyde redefined violence in cinema, casting its criminal protagonists as sympathetic anti-heroes, not without controversy as you’d expect. It heralded a new age of cinema, in many ways marking the end to the traditional studio system.

The 70s oversaw the revival of the gangster movie, in main due to the huge success of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather Part II. Although the general story itself isn’t rooted in real life, some of the characters and certain events in the first film were based on genuine people and happenings. Brando’s imperious Don Vito Corleone was said to have more than a passing similarity to Frank Costello, known widely as “The Prime Minister” of the Mafia. Brando based his voice on tapes of Costello and the character is diplomatic and maintains power in the same way the real-life mob chief was said to conduct his business.

Mafiosa tried to shut down the film’s production with mob boss Joe Colombo and the New York Mafia keen to avoid any more spotlights placed on the crime world. After a number of incidents the film’s producer, Al Ruddy, called a meeting with Colombo to try and work out a solution. Colombo said he’d get his boys to back off if the word ‘Mafia’ was removed from the script. A deal Ruddy was keen to shake on seeing the word only appeared once.

A year later a young Martin Scorsese was to bring us the delights of Mean Streets. This was one of his first forays into directing with a plot based on actual events Marty saw regularly while growing up in New York City’s Little Italy. It also marked the first time many saw Robert De Niro on screen, with this being just his second film.

The decade of the 80s, of course, gave us the most famous version of Scarface following Pacino’s Cuban immigrant Tony Montana as he takes over a drug cartel and introduces anyone who stands against him to “his little friend.” After DePalma wowed the world with this tale of greed and gunfire, he set his sights on another true-life gangster tale, 1987s The Untouchables.

This was an altogether more fictional account of real events, that saw Kevin Costner’s straight-shooting lawman Eliot Ness face off against Robert De Niro’s unhinged crime boss Al Capone in an account of their real-life Prohibition feud. It’s a more cliched take on Capone, outshone in our eyes at least by the more complex character of Al Capone’s righthand man Frank Nitti (Billy Drago). The man who would go on to succeed Al Capone as head of the Chicago mob. Drago plays the intimidating silent type with aplomb.

The same year saw Michael Cimino direct The Sicilian. This was the tale of real-life Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano (Christopher Lambert) and his attempts, along with his gang, to liberate early 1950s Sicily from Italian rule and make it an American state.

It would be impossible to talk about real-life mob movies without mentioning Scorcese’s gangster great, 1990s Goodfellas. It’s renowned for its realistic depictions of Mafia life. All of which stem from the film’s source material, the 1986 nonfiction bestseller Wiseguy, which details the life of Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta in the movie).

Hill was an associate of the famed Lucchese crime family and was engaged in some seriously nefarious activity. As were his gangster friends such as James ‘Jimmy The Gent’ Burke, who De Niro portrays as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. Both of those men were involved in the infamous Lufthansa heist, which at the time was the largest robbery ever committed on U.S. soil. And anyone who’s seen the film knows the outcome of that escapade. It’s a film that feels just about as real as they come.

1991 gave us New Jack City, in which Wesley Snipes’ character, Nino Brown and his associates, were largely based on the real-life Detroit gang The Chambers Brothers and leader B.J. Chambers. Brown is the drug lord who Ice-T’s detective stalks around New York. Four years later came yet another Scorsese great in the shape of Casino. Here, De Niro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a character based on the gangster Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. Rothstein managed the Fremont, Hacienda, and Stardust casinos in Las Vegas for the Chicago mob back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Another notable gangster flick from the same decade, also very much based in reality, was 1997s Donnie Brasco. This tells the true story of Joseph D. Pistone (played by Johnny Depp), an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the Mafia Bonanno crime family in New York City during the 1970s, under the alias Donnie Brasco. Pacino’s role in Donnie Brasco, playing the real mafia boss Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero who vouches for Pistone is about as good as the actor has ever been.

The noughties continued in the same strong vein with 2002’s Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. The film was inspired by a story in Mainland China of Luliang City where a gang leader named Feng Xiaochun had planted his underlings in the police. However, the moles tipped him off leading to his arrest among 67 other people. The film is complex, gripping, with perfectly pitched performances. Little wonder the genres leading director Scorsese chose to remake it in 2006 in the form of The Departed, another enthralling watch, if not slightly overshadowed, depending on personal opinion, by Jack Nicholson hamming it up as crime kingpin Frank Costello.

We must also mention one more towering performance from ANOTHER Scorsese film of four years earlier, with Daniel Day-Lewis’ dazzling as the fearsome Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. A role that earned him an Oscar nomination. The tale was inspired by Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction book of the same name about the underworld and civil unrest among immigrant groups in the 1840s.

2007s American Gangster saw more true crime on the silver screen with Denzel Washington portraying the infamous 70s drug lord Frank Lucas, who flooded Manhattan with heroin thanks to his unique smuggling technique using the coffins of dead American servicemen to bring in drugs from Southeast Asia.

Two years later saw the return of another infamous figure from America’s criminal past in Public Enemies. As a bad guy known for his good looks and charm, it’s little wonder Johnn Depp was cast as the 1930s celebrity outlaw John Dillinger. Michael Mann’s film was sturdy if unspectacular. The highlight arguably being Stephen Graham playing Baby Face Nelson, one of Dillinger’s partners who helped him escape prison.

Three impressive foreign crime films were released in 2009/9 with Vincent Cassel on dynamite form in the two gritty, violent and quite brilliant films, Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Public Enemy Number 1. The two parts chart the rise and fall of notorious French mobster Jacques Mesrine and are thoroughly exhilarating. Another great addition to the gangster canon is Gomorrah (2008), based on Roberto Saviano’s controversial non-fiction book. This extremely authentic feeling look at the world’s most fearsome Mafia organization, the Neapolitan Camorra is unflinching, unglamorous, and all the better for it.

Tom Hardy showed off his considerable acting talent in 2015 when taking on the roles of not one but both Kray Twins in Legend. His nuanced performances in the duel parts of the violent but charming Reggie and the crazed paranoid schizophrenic Ronnie won him deserved plaudits. The East End villains were the most feared gangsters of London’s criminal underworld, and as Hardy illustrates in the film, they didn’t suffer fools.

In 2015, Johhny Depp had his criminal boots on again taking up the role of the sinister Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass. It’s based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s 2001 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob. The film sees FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) persuade Irish mobster Bulger to collaborate with the feds to take out the Italian mob.

With The Irishman freshly in cinemas and more gangster films on the horizon, such as next year’s much-anticipated movie prequel to The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark and Mafia movie Mob Town starring David Arquette being released next month, gangster films are well and truly back in the spotlight and the future looks bright. We remain fascinated with these men and women of organised crime, maybe because just like a certain Goodfella, we always wanted to be a gangster.

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