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The 90s Hollywood Gangster: Generic Reflections and Deflections


It took a combination of sound film, Capone's Chicago, Prohibition and the mood of the depression to inaugurate the first phase of the [gangster] genre" (Shadoian 2003, 29). It has been traditionally argued that the gangster genre was born in the early 30s thanks to three movies that established its codes, themes, and narratives: Little Caesar (Mervyn Le Roy, 1931), The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931), and Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932). Set in the city, mostly at night and detailing the illegal activities of gangs involved in the liquor business during the Prohibition era, the genre found tremendous success for several reasons. First, it reflected contemporary concerns: the expansion of gangster networks throughout the country; the corrupt, violent atmosphere of urban sprawls; the ruthless wars between ethnic gangs (climaxing on Feb. 14, 1929 with the Saint Valentine massacre). Second, it capitalized upon technological innovations. The advent of sound in movie theatres not only accelerated the pace of the movies (explanatory intertitles were no longer necessary) but also heightened the spectators' excitement as they could hear telephones ringing, tires screeching, and machine guns stuttering. Moreover, the Italian or Irish accents of the protagonists questioned the idea of a common American identity. Finally, the gangster genre challenged American ideals. The Promethean aspect of its hero appealed to an audience who endured The Great Depression and who felt betrayed by the Government. Voicing dissent and expressing tensions, the gangster genre was structured through paradigms (individual vs. society, modernity vs. tradition, defiance vs. obedience, freedom vs. entrapment) that highlighted its fundamental ambivalence: "the gangster is a seminal figure in modern cinema not only because he embodies modernity but also because the gangster film becomes a site for a set of tensions that have dominated the twentieth century" (Mason 2002, 5). The gangster is an iconic figure who stands at a crossroads between reification (a system of codes and conventions identified in the 1930s) and mutability (the remediation of social concerns that ceaselessly shift with time). Central to this paradoxical figure are the conflicting ideologies that shaped the country. The enormous public success of the 1930s filmic gangster led to its demise. The Production Code Administration (PCA), a body designed to ensure that moral standards were respected and traditional values promoted on screen, was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1930 and actually enforced in 1934 when films needed the approval of the PCA before being released. Primarily preoccupied by the representation of sex, the PCA became increasingly concerned with the extraordinary appeal of the gangster. In July 1935, a moratorium was imposed on gangster films. Outlaws were replaced by law-enforcers, and although the studios cast the same actors, audience attraction waned. The genre mainly survived in B-productions while Hollywood exalted patriotism and contributed to the war effort under the supervision of the Office of War Information. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the gangster figure mutated and reappeared in two subgenres: the syndicate and the caper/heist movie. In the former, the gangster is pictured as a helpless individual confronted to a foul system that outweighs him (Force of Evil, Abraham Polonsky, 1946; On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan, 1954); in the latter, he is one of the many individuals gathered to perform a robbery (The Killers, Robert Siodmak, 1946; The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston, 1950). In the Cold War context, the Film Noir aesthetics enhanced the idea of paranoia while the scenarios focused on the rampant corruption infiltrating all layers of society. Contrary to the omnipotent, exuberant characters of the 1930s, the postwar gangster was depicted as a mistrustful and sullen loner. In the 1960s and the gangster genre barely survived through to biopics that promoted nostalgia and debunked the mythical aura of
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hal-03660611 , version 1 (11-05-2022)



Karine Hildenbrand, George Larke-Walsh. The 90s Hollywood Gangster: Generic Reflections and Deflections. A Companion to the Gangster Film, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., pp.129-145, 2018, 9781119041665. ⟨10.1002/9781119041757⟩. ⟨hal-03660611⟩
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