Mob rule: enduring appeal of the gangster film
Ben Affleck might be best known these days for playing Batman, but he's also an accomplished director. His latest film, which is out here next week, has a distinctly retro feel and is inspired by his love of classic Warner Brothers gangster movies. Live by Night is set in the 1920s and 1930s, and stars Affleck as Joe Coughlin, the tear-away son of a Boston police captain.
After learning how to handle guns in the Great War, Joe returns home determined not to end up a wage-slave sap like his dad. He moves to Florida, becomes a bootlegger and falls out with the Ku Klux Klan. Brendan Gleeson delivers an excellent turn as Coughlin's tough father, and Chris Cooper and Sienna Miller co-star in a film that cuts quite a swagger without quite equalling the electrifying urgency of the films that inspired it.
But what were those films, and what was it that made them so special? It's fitting that Live by Night should be released by Warner Brothers, because that studio will always be indelibly linked to the gangster picture, thanks to a series of extraordinarily gritty and newsy pulp crime thrillers that were pumped out at breakneck speed in the 1930s. They were often inspired by real events, and brilliantly caught the lawless explosion in American society caused by prohibition.
The earliest gangster films were inspired by Al Capone. He was the prototypical American mobster, a Brooklyn hoodlum who hit the big time when he moved west to Chicago and cut a deal with the city's corrupt mayor. A prolific and incredibly violent bootlegger, Capone was dubbed public enemy number one by the tabloid press, and relished all the media attention. He wore pinstripe suits and fedora hats, and even coined the phrase "I'm a businessman!", so in a sense all gangster films owe him a certain debt.
A profile like that was bound to attract the attention of Hollywood, but contemporary film-makers fought shy of naming names for obvious reasons, and took care to disguise characters who were based on him. In MGM's Secret Six (1931), former silent star Wallace Beery played Louis 'Slaughterhouse' Scorpio, a ruthless street thug and minor enforcer who becomes a mob kingpin after realising the moneymaking potential of bootlegging and lords it over an unfortunate city.
It was Capone, no question, but this was Hollywood and all ended happily when 'Slaughterhouse' was dispatched to the electric chair. There were shades of Capone in the bloodthirsty racketeers played by Paul Lukas and Jean Hersholt in City Streets (1931) and Beast of the City (1932), and the latter film was heavily criticised for its violence. But it was the ground-breaking 1932 United Artists film Scarface that got closest to the bone.
The real Capone had three distinctive scar marks on the left side of his face, the result of a brawl in a Brooklyn nightclub. In Howard Hawks' Scarface, Tony Comante (charismatically played by Paul Muni) had scars too, and a psychotic personality to boot.
Scarface was set in Chicago: like Capone, Comante takes over the South Side before picking a fight with the Irish mob. The film's inspiration was unmistakable, and screenwriter Ben Hecht later claimed Capone's men had visited the set to find out how closely the film would mirror their boss's life.
They apparently went away satisfied that Scarface was sufficiently fictional, and it's said that Capone himself liked the movie so much that he acquired a print of it to show to friends.
Sometimes it's hard to offend a maniac.
Studios like United Artists, MGM and Paramount might have made the early running, but in the early 1930s Warner Brothers began to dominate the gangster genre, beginning with Little Caesar. Mervyn LeRoy's 1931 film may also have been inspired by Capone, and told the story of a small-time Italian American crook called Rico Bandello (Edward G Robinson) who moves to Chicago and seizes control of the city's north side.
The real Edward G Robinson was a cultured and fastidious Romanian Jew who collected impressionist art, but in Little Caesar he proved a chillingly convincing sociopath. He'd play unhinged gangsters many times, but a compelling mobster rival soon emerged at Warners.
Released in the same year as Little Caesar, Public Enemy starred a little-known song-and-dance man called James Cagney as Tom Powers, an Irish hoodlum whose rapid rise through the criminal ranks makes his downfall inevitable. Cagney bought an electrifying street swagger to the role, especially in the famous breakfast table scene where he smashed a half grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face.
That moment made Jimmy Cagney a star, but also helped inspire the Hays Code, a rigid set of industry standards that fundamentally changed the way movies were made. It was driven by one Joseph Ignatius Breen, a devoutly Catholic film censor with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America who saw Hollywood as a modern-day Mammon.
Breen and his ilk were horrified by the fact that the gangsters portrayed by Cagney and Robinson were swaggering anti-heroes the public clearly admired and might therefore wish to emulate. The Hays Code stated that all criminal action in the movies had to be seen to be punished, and that neither crime nor criminal should elicit sympathy from the audience.
Introduced in 1930, the Hays Code was strictly enforced from 1934 on, and watered down the crude vigour of early gangster pictures. That didn't stop Warners from churning out mob pictures: through the 1930s they made literally hundreds of them, and while most were pretty ordinary, a couple stand out as timeless classics.
Though James Cagney had been encouraged to clean up his image by starring as a pioneering FBI agent in the 1935 crime drama G Men, a few years later he was back doing what he did best, playing a ruthless mobster determined to claw his way to the top. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) begins in the early 1920s and tells the story of Rocky Sullivan, a tough street kid who's caught carrying out a petty crime and sent to reform school.
While his best friend Jerry (Pat O'Brien) grows up to become the neighbourhood parish priest, Rocky drifts further into a life of crime, and 16 years later has become a notorious gangster. When he's betrayed by his cunning associate (Humphrey Bogart, who always played sneering villains in the Warners gangster films), Rocky shoots him and is sentenced to the chair.
He's become a hero to the street boys in his old neighbourhood, so Father Jerry comes to visit him and begs Rocky to act scared on his way to the electric chair, so the kids won't follow in his footsteps. He does indeed beg and scream as he's dragged to his doom, but we never knew whether Rocky faked it or was really afraid.
Cagney and Bogart were reunited a year later in The Roaring Twenties. Cagney was Eddie Bartlett, a Great War veteran who drifts into bootlegging and becomes a big shot before his supposed friend George Hally (Bogart, of course) betrays him. Eddie winds up in the gutter but gets his own back on George, killing him before he himself dies melodramatically on the steps of a church.
All the mobsters in films of this era met grisly ends in the final reel, due to the censor's demand for appropriate moral retribution. And that convention was still in force in 1949 when Cagney returned to the gangster genre one last time to play Hollywood's first overt psychopath Cody Jarrett in the Warners classic White Heat. A snarling maniac with a worrying mother fixation, Jarrett shot his way out of jail and famously ended the film on top of an enormous burning gas tank shouting "Top of the World Ma!" before disappearing in a ball of flame.
By the late 1940s, however, the steam had entirely gone out of the mobster craze, and the genre fell from fashion until the early 1970s, when Francis Ford Coppola revived the gangster picture in spectacular fashion.