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Gangster Movies: America's Love Affair With the Bad Guy


No matter how much we like to see the good guy triumph in the end and those who have committed crimes be punished for them, we can never quite shake off that sneaking enjoyment that comes from bad guys doing what they do and being good at it! Gangster movies have been a part of American cinema from the beginning and by taking a quick look at the genre, we definitely can see why.

The two movies that are considered the grandfathers of this film genre are Little Caeser, starring Edward G. Robinson and Public Enemy, starring James Cagney. In both of these films, the gangsters get their comeuppance, but often, that's not what the audience remembers. In Little Caeser, you remember the scenes of Robinson's character Rico living it up in the lap of luxury and in Public Enemy, you fondly remember Tom Powers, played by Cagney doing a delighted little two step on a public street when a girl smiles at him.

Gangsters in Hollywood come in a variety of different flavors and Al Pacino has played two extremely different archetypes. In the Godfather movies, he is the elegant and doomed Michael Corleone, the war hero who got dragged reluctantly into the family business, while in Scarface, he plays the crazed killer Tony Montana, a Cuban who rose from immigrant to drug kingpin. Both of these characters were (in very different ways) extremely charismatic and its easy to see how we're drawn to them.

There are also quite a few movies that pay homage to the classic gangster movies, or satirize them, depending on your point of view. The prime time show, The Sopranos, features a modern day organized crime association where the members are quietly and sometimes not so quietly obsessed with Goodfellas and The Godfather and will quote them at any opportunity. Brick, a movie about love and death in high school, was heavily influenced by the classic Miller's Crossing in terms of tone and language.

The story of the gangster can be seen as the American Dream that is played in fast-forward. It usually starts with a young boy looking for a way out of poverty and with some luck and some help, he makes it to the top. Maybe that's the appeal of the gangster genre, and maybe that's why we're so willing to forgive the things they do to get there.

Don't look for a morality lesson when you watch gangster movies. You'll end up rooting for the wrong guy and when he inevitably gets what's coming to him, you'll be annoyed and disappointed. Gangsters top the charts in charisma, but their life expectancy and chances for lasting happiness are practically nil.


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