Especially in early mob films, there is considerable overlap with film noir.
Popular regional variations of the genre include Italian Poliziotteschi, Chinese Triad films, Japanese Yakuza films, and Indian Mumbai underworld films.
1910’s to 1920’s
The American movie The Black Hand (1906) is thought to be the earliest surviving gangster film. In 1912, D.W. Griffith directed The Musketeers of Pig Alley, a short drama film about crime on the streets of New York City (filmed, however, at Fort Lee, New Jersey) rumoured to have included real gangsters as extras. Critics have also cited Regeneration (1915) as an early crime film.
Though mob films had their roots in such silent films, the genre in its most durable form was defined in the early 1930’s. It owed its innovations to the social and economic instability occasioned by the Great Depression, which galvanised the organised crime subculture in the US. The failure of honest hard work and careful investment to ensure financial security led to the circumstances reflected in the explosion of mob films in Hollywood and to their immense popularity in a society disillusioned with the American way of life.
The years 1931 and 1932 saw the genre produce three enduring classics: Warner Bros.’ Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, which made screen icons out of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, and Howard Hawks’ Scarface starring Paul Muni, which offered a dark psychological analysis of a fictionalised Al Capone and launched the film career of George Raft. These films chronicle the quick rise, and equally quick downfall, of three young, violent criminals, and represent the genre in its purest form before moral pressure would force it to change. Though the gangster in each film would face a violent downfall which was designed to remind the viewers of the consequences of crime, audiences were often able to identify with the charismatic anti-hero. Those suffering from the Depression were able to relate to the gangster character who worked hard to earn his place and success in the world, only to have it all taken away from him.
Despite the genre spanning the decade before dying out, some argue that the gangster film in its purest form only existed until 1933, when restrictions from the Production Code led to films that did not have the same power as the earlier ones.
As the appeal and attraction of gangster movie stars such as Cagney, Robinson, Muni, and Raft grew, so too did the efforts to combat their fascination. During the early years of crime film, Scarface, arguably the most violent of gangster films created during the entire decade, particularly was the subject of criticism. Released in 1932, it ushered in the worst year of the Depression, and as profits slid, Hollywood did what it could to restore its earnings, which resulted in the upping of sex and violence in the movies.
Scarface can be interpreted as a representation of the American dream gone awry, presented when US capitalism had reached its lowest, and Prohibition was being seen as a failed social experiment and would soon be abolished. It faced opposition from regulators of the Production Code, and its release was delayed for over a year while Hawks attempted to tone down the incestuous overtones of the relationship between Paul Muni’s character Tony Camonte and his sister (Ann Dvorak).
Eventually the Production Code and general moral concerns became sufficiently influential to cause the crime film in its original form to be abandoned, with a shift to the perspective of the law officers fighting criminals, or criminals seeking redemption. This is illustrated by James Cagney’s role as a law officer in the 1935 movie G Men, and his part as Rocky Sullivan in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. These pictures demonstrate the growing acceptance of crime films during the 1930’s as long as criminals were not portrayed in a flattering light. For example, in G-Men, Cagney plays a character similar to that of Tom Powers from The Public Enemy, and although the film was as violent and brutal as its predecessors, it had no trouble getting a seal of approval from the Production Code office. It was now the law officers that the films attempted to glamorise, as opposed to the criminals.
Politics combined with the social and economic climate of the time to influence how crime films were made and how the characters were portrayed.
Many of the films imply that criminals are the creation of society, rather than its rebel, and considering the troublesome and bleak time of the 1930’s this argument carries significant weight. Often the best of the gangster films are those that have been closely tied to the reality of crime, reflecting public interest in a particular aspect of criminal activity; thus, the gangster film is in a sense a history of crime in the US.
The institution of Prohibition in 1920 led to an explosion in crime, and the depiction of bootlegging is a frequent occurrence in many mob films. However, as the 1930’s progressed, Hollywood also experimented with the stories of the rural criminals and bank robbers, such as John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd.
The success of these characters in film can be attributed to their value as news subjects, as their exploits often thrilled the people of a nation who had become weary with inefficient government and apathy in business.
However, as the FBI increased in power there was also a shift to favour the stories of the FBI agents hunting the criminals instead of focusing on the criminal characters. In fact, in 1935 at the height of the hunt for Dillinger, the Production Code office issued an order that no film should be made about Dillinger for fear of further glamorising his character.
Many of the 1930’s crime films also dealt with class and ethnic conflict, notably the earliest films, reflecting doubts about how well the American system was working. As stated, many films pushed the message that criminals were the result of a poor moral and economic society, and many are portrayed as having foreign backgrounds or coming from the lower class. Thus, the film criminal is often able to evoke sympathy and admiration out of the viewer, who often will not place the blame on the criminal’s shoulders, but rather a cruel society where success is difficult. When the decade came to a close, crime films became more figurative, representing metaphors, as opposed to the more straight forward films produced earlier in the decade, showing an increasing interest in offering a thought provoking message about criminal character.
In Italian cinema after the Second World War, the Mafia was depicted in genre that was very close to the Westerns produced by Hollywood at the same time, as people on the mainland of Italy tended to see Sicily as a ‘frontier’, an island that the Italian state did not entirely control, and as a remote, mysterious and dangerous place.
Typical of these films was In nome della legge (1949) directed by Pietro Germi, which told the story of the magistrate Schiavo newly arrived from the mainland in a town in Sicily oppressed by the corrupt Baron Lo Vasto, who employs the Mafia to terrorise the people. Schiavo who plays a role analogous to the honest Sheriff in American Westerns proceeds to ‘clean up’ the town by imposing the authority of the Italian state and by persuading the local Mafia boss that the Baron is the enemy of the town.
In this and other films like I Mafiosi (1959) by Roberto Mauri, the Mafia was portrayed in romantic terms, with Mafiosi depicted as criminals who lived by a strict code of honour which reflected a peculiarly Sicilian version of machismo. In late 1940’s-1950’s, Mafiosi were portrayed as a sort of an Italian version of the ‘noble savage’ as tough, but fundamentally warmhearted men who owning to Sicily’s isolation and predominately rural character had kept certain honourable and manly qualities that men in the rest of Italy had lost.
In the 1960’s, the Mafia became the subject of several Italian comedies directed by Giorgio Simonelli and starring Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia such as I due mafiosi , Due Mafiosi nel Far West and Due Mafiosi contro Goldfinger (1965) which reflected the stereotypes on the mainland of Italy about Sicilians being backward and rustic.
In all of these comedies the Mafia was portrayed as the ‘folkloric expression’ of a certain quaint if slightly disreputable Sicilian institution, which was in part made possible by widespread ignorance on the mainland of the more malign aspects of Mafia influence in Sicily.
The favourable portrayal of the Mafia in many Italian films was also in part due to the perception that the Mafia was a benign institution that together with the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Party and Catholic Church upheld the social order against the revolutionary challenge of the Italian Communist Party.
It was after a spate of high-profile Mafia crimes such as the Sack of Palermo that it became unfashionable to portray Mafia favourably. In the black comedy Mafioso (1962) by Alberto Lattuada, the Mafia was depicted as a sinister organisation that entraps a honest and good man in a life of crime, as the film’s hero is forced against his will to became a Mafia assassin. In other films such as Salvatore Giuliano (1961) by Francesco Rosi, Il giorno della civetta (1968) by Damiano Damiani, and The Brotherhood (1968) by Martin Ritt, the Mafia was depicted as a cruel, oppressive organisation, which both a result of Sicily’s backwardness and its cause.
In the 1970s there was a revival of mob films, notably with The Godfather (1972), based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Mario Puzo. It was followed by two sequels: The Godfather Part II (1974) and The Godfather Part III (1990). It also inspired other mob films such as The Valachi Papers, starring Charles Bronson.
The first Godfather film depicted a dichotomy in values between the first generation Italian-American Vito Corleone who still follows the traditional code of honour of a Mafiosi vs. his Americanised son Michael, who during the course of the films comes to lose all his moral bearings as greed consumes him. The Godfather films also offered up a perverted version of the ‘American Dream’ trope as the Corleones rise up to power and wealth via thoroughly illegal and brutal means.
In the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, events such as the Vietnam War and various social protest movements had caused many Americans to lose confidence in traditional American values, and so the twisted, dark version of the American Dream theme had a particular appeal when The Godfather was released in 1972. Since the Corleone family become more powerful under the leadership of the ruthless and business-oriented Michael Corleone than it was under the leadership of his father, the Godfather saga seems to be suggesting that these are the qualities that American society rewards.
Inspired by the worldwide success of The Godfather films, in the 1970’s Italian films depicted Mafiosi as anti-heroes, men who made their livings via crime, but who possessed a certain nobility and grandeur of character.
The 1983 remake of Scarface was not particularly well received at the time of its release, but over time it has come to be seen as a classic of the mob film genre. It went on to inspire films such as King of New York. On the other hand, Sergio Leone shot an epic crime drama film Once Upon a Time in America, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. Though its release of US Cut was a critical and commercial failure, the European Cut release and Director’s Cut were both critical success and regained its publicity and reputation. The 1987 The Untouchables directed by Brian De Palma, presented a very fictionalised version of the law enforcement efforts of Eliot Ness to bring down the ‘Outfit’ of Al Capone.
The 1980’s saw La Mattanza (The Slaughter) in Italy as the Corleonesi family proceeded to liquidate its rivals, leading to over 1, 000 gangland murders between 1981 and 1983 and in addition, the Mafia assassinated with impunity magistrates, policemen, and journalists. Notable victims included General Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa and his wife Emanuela Setti Carraro in 1982, magistrate Rocco Chinnici in 1983, the journalist Giuseppe Fava in 1984, the policemen Giuseppe Montana and Ninni Cassarà in 1985, the prosecutor Rosario Livatino in 1990, magistrate Antonio Scopelliti in 1991, and the magistrate Giovanni Falcone and his wife Francesca Morvillo in 1992.
In the 1980’s-1990’s, the general feeling in Italy was that the Mafia was out of control. As a consequence, Italian cinema in the 1980’s-1990’s turned towards the cinema democratico (democratic cinema), a series of realistic, gritty films that depicted the Mafia as an unstoppable force that had completely corrupted almost everyone and murdered the few honest people willing to stand up to it.
Films and TV series such as La piovra (1984), La scorta (1993) and Palermo-Milano sola andata (1995) had as their heroes a solitary policeman or magistrate, alone in cringing to his honesty and integrity, who had to battle not only Mafia assassins, but also his corrupt superiors and the prevailing apathy of Italian society.
The films of the 1990’s produced several critically acclaimed mob films, many of which were loosely based on real crimes and their perpetrators. Many of these films featured long-time actors well known for their roles as mobsters such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Chazz Palminteri.
The most notable from the decade was the 1990 film Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Ray Liotta as real-life associate of the Lucchese crime family Henry Hill. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci also starred in the film with Pesci earning an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture and Best Director, making Goodfellas one of the most critically acclaimed crime films of all time.
Following their collaboration in Goodfellas, Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci would team up again in 1995 with the film Casino, based on Frank Rosenthal, an associate of the Chicago Outfit who ran multiple casinos in Las Vegas during the 1970s and 1980s. The film was De Niro’s third mob film of the decade, following Goodfellas (1990) and A Bronx Tale (1993).
De Niro’s fellow mob actor, Al Pacino, also resumed roles in the crime film genre during the 1990’s, reprising his role as the iconic Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III (1990). The film served as the final instalment in The Godfather trilogy, following Michael Corleone as he tries to legitimise the Corleone family in the twilight of his career.
In 1993, Pacino starred in the film, Carlito’s Way as a former gangster released from prison who vows to go straight. In 1996, Armand Assante starred in television film Gotti as infamous New York mobster, John Gotti. In Donnie Brasco (1997), Pacino starred alongside Johnny Depp in the true story of undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone and his infiltration of the Bonanno crime family of New York City during the 1970’s. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Lo zio di Brooklyn (1995) was a vulgar Italian comedy with all of the characters are grotesquely misshapen in some way, being a metaphor for the stunted nature of Sicilian society that was being held back by the Mafia. Lo zio di Brooklyn (The Uncle From Brooklyn) followed the misadventures of three Sicilian brothers trying to operate business honestly who are the subject of extortion by Mafiosi who are portrayed by dwarf actors as to make literal the metaphorical smallness of the Mafiosi.
The 2000’s continued to produce box office mob films cast with high-profile actors.
Road to Perdition, a 2002 American crime film directed by Sam Mendes and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Max Allan Collins, boasted an ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig. The plot takes place in 1931, during the Great Depression, following a mob enforcer and his son as they seek vengeance against a mobster who murdered the rest of their family. Unlike many of its modern mob film predecessors, Road to Perdition sought to recreate the film noir genre while still using contemporary techniques and effects. The cinematography, setting, and the lead performances by Newman (in his final theatrical screen appearance) and Hanks were well received by critics.
In 2006, director Martin Scorsese returned to the mob genre in The Departed, starring the ensemble cast of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg and Martin Sheen. The film was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong Triad film Infernal Affairs. Set in Boston, the film follows the parallel double lives of undercover officer William Costigan Jr. (DiCaprio), who has infiltrated Irish mob boss’s Frank Costello (Nicholson) and Colin Sullivan (Damon), who has served as a mole in the Massachusetts State Police. The characters are loosely based on famous gangster Whitey Bulger and corrupt FBI agent John Connolly, who grew up with Bulger. The Departed had gone on to win several awards, including four Oscars at the 79th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Scorsese), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Also notable is Public Enemies, a 2009 American biographical-crime film directed by Michael Mann and written by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman. It is an adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s non-fiction book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934. Set during the Great Depression, the film chronicles the final years of the notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) as he is pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), and his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), as well as Purvis’ pursuit of Dillinger associates and fellow criminals Homer Van Meter (Stephen Dorff) and Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham). Scenes from Manhattan Melodrama, are depicted in the 2009 film as being the last motion picture seen by the notorious gangster John Dillinger, who was shot to death by federal agents on 22 July 1934, after leaving Chicago’s Biograph Theatre where the film was playing.
Gangs of New York (2002), also directed by Scorsese, was the first modern gangster film to focus on the 19th century Irish gangs. Although the gay nineties had been a popular setting for prewar crime films, from the 1950’s until the early 21st century most gangster movies were set in either the prohibition era, postwar America, or the present day.
The 2007 film American Gangster directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe also bears mention in fictionalising the life of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas and his rivalry with the American Mafia.
The 2000’s saw a twist to the Italian cinema democratico genre in that in films like I cento passi (2000), Placido Rizzotto (2000) and Alla luce del sole (2006), the solitary hero who takes on the Mafia is not a policeman, but rather on a common citizen like the trade unionist Placido Rizzotto, the Catholic priest Father Pino Puglisi or the Socialist activist Giuseppe Impastato, all of whom were murdered by the Mafia.
Unlike the films of the 1980’s-1990’s which were always set in the present, the newer cinema democratico films tended to be set sometime in the past, and portrayed the Mafia as a product of centuries of backwardness and oppression in Sicily, a sort of collective disease that can only be cured by the reformation of society.
In Le conseguenze dell’amore (2004) portrayed a rather ordinary and boring man who works as a money launder for the Mafia in Switzerland, a hero trapped by the ruthless mechanism of the system. The stockbroker hero, Titta Di Girolamo, is notable for avoiding all human contact for last 8 years of his life, which is revealed half-way through the film to be a punishment by the Mafia after he made a poor investment; if he ever speaks to anyone again, he will be killed. After a chance encounter with a barmaid, Sofia, Girolamo falls in love with her and is killed by the Mafia by being lowered into concrete. Since falling in love leads inexorably to Girolamo’s murder, the film suggests the Mafia is the opposite of everything good in humanity and Girolamo’s relationship with Sofia is a rebellion against Mafia power.
The 2008 Italian mob film Gomorrah was met with much critical acclaim upon its premiere in North America. The film was directed by Matteo Garrone, based on the book by Roberto Saviano that depicts the modern-day of the Casalesi crime family of the southern Italian region of Campania. The film follows five independent plots of people whose lives are influenced by organised crime in Naples and Caserta. Despite failing to represent Italy in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards, Gomorrah is still regarded as one of the more prominent mafia films from the Italian cinema. The animated movie Shark Tale contained an Italian Mob boss as one of its main characters and had several references to the acclaimed The Godfather including character traits, etc. In addition, mob film veteran Robert De Niro playing a Mob Boss and notable mob film director Martin Scorsese behind the voice of an integral character.
The 2010’s continued the 2000’s trend of bringing new movies featuring both prohibition and post-World War II real life mob incidents into the box office.
In 2012, Lawless was based on the 2008 novel The Wettest County in the World as the film follows a trio of siblings who run an illegal moonshine business during Prohibition.
Gangster Squad is a crime film directed by Ruben Fleischer, from a screenplay written by Will Beall, starring an ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Nick Nolte, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn. It is the story of a group of LAPD officers and detectives called the Gangster Squad who are attempting to keep Los Angeles safe from Mickey Cohen, a real life post-World War II Los Angeles gangster who became a powerful figure in the criminal underworld, and intended to continue to expand his criminal enterprise and his gang during the 1940’s and 1950’s. The film was released 11 January 2013.
A 2015 Italian mob film, Suburra, directed by Stefano Sollima, based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, starred Pierfrancesco Favino, Elio Germano and Claudio Amendola, and focused on the connections between organized crime and politics in Rome in 2011.
A 2018 biographical mafia film, Gotti, directed by Kevin Connolly, stars John Travolta as John Gotti, released in June.
In 2019, Martin Scorsese released a biographical mafia film through Netflix, The Irishman, starring all three heavyweights in the genre, Robert De Niro as Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino.