Breaking the Law: Gangsters, Warner Bros., and the Beginning of Crime Films

Films about gangsters, crimes, and devil-may-care felons are staples in the modern moviegoer’s diet. They’re fast, sinister: tunnels for adrenaline. Waxing psychological, they are ideal ways of living out our socially unacceptable fantasies of ignoring the law without suffering any of the real life consequences. A little word association will confirm an obvious truth: crime films are typically aggressive, graphic, obscene, and so on. They serve as bitter slices of reality, cautionary tales, and unabashed social commentary. Just the same, they can also be unanticipated glorifications, pivoting on the essential compulsion of man to be spectator to something atrocious. (Let’s face it: we’re charmed and enchanted by the grisly, seedy underbelly.) While many films of this genre are today exploited for action and violence appeal, they didn’t start out quite that way.

Early crime films are a cornerstone in film history—perhaps the greatest there is, in fact. Some of the earliest and most important films ever made depict crimes and their criminals. Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903 is a twelve-minute feature and a landmark in filmmaking. And yes, it’s about exactly what it sounds like: a great train robbery. In it is an exquisite scene where a bandit (Justus D. Barnes) fires his gun directly at the camera. This is a tactic that was later banned by state censors in the 1920s, ruled as inappropriate. The ending of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster masterpiece Goodfellas pays homage to this iconic scene when Joe Pesci fires a gun at the camera.

Fast-forwarding to the early 1930s, we find the official “grandfathers” of crime and gangster films.

Unlike the broad genres romance and comedy, early crime films were a product entirely of circumstance and timing. Three factors were major contributors to the very distinct genre: Prohibition, the Production Code, and a tide of real life media-star criminals.

Prohibition (the banning of consumption, manufacture, and sale of alcohol) was self-supporting fodder for the majority of organized crime in the 1920s and 1930s. With alcohol illegal but the demand for it greater than ever, head honchos like Al Capone got dollar signs in their eyes. Thus, bootlegging (a term that originated because smugglers often strapped a flask or bottle of liquor to the inner leg of their boots) exploded into a hyper-prosperous racket. Speakeasies cropped up and became emblems of the mob. While organized crime took advantage of the rum-running enterprise all across the U.S., Chicago became a top-drawer favorite. Almost immediately the Windy City found itself emblematic of the Cosa Nostra, and to this day the air of underworld dealings lingers in the skeletons of speakeasies. Prohibition lasted from 1919 to 1933—hence, “Prohibition Era.” Prohibition, traditionally at the center of organized crime during this period, repeats as the center of early crime films. Most of the plots of gangster movies prior to 1933 revolve exclusively around the bootlegging market. Without Prohibition, crime films as we know it would not exist.

The Production Code, as I have stated time and again, was an all-encompassing act of censorship passed in the film industry in 1930 that greatly restricted content that could be featured in films. Such content included “violent murder” and the glorification of crime. “Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc.,” in addition were “not be detailed in method.” What the Code was most tyrannical about was the punishing of criminals: “Revenge in modern times shall not be justified,” it read. In other words, criminals as characters could not escape justice and had to be caught, captured, or killed by the time the credits rolled.

The Code was notoriously ignored and not enforced until 1934, which is why films made between 1930 and 1933 are called “pre-Codes.” Nevertheless, crime films reigned into the mid- and late-30s, even if they had to play nice. Why? Because no amount of lobbying could enforce a censorship in the real world—John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Baby Face Nelson ran rampant in the 1930s as forces that no one could edit out. The public roared for more.

It is likely that crime films would have flopped considerably after 1934 if not for the legacies of ruthless, real-life bandits that gained superstar status in the media during the decade. The likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd were celebrities whose unusual fame was rooted in heated newspaper headlines, newsreels, and radio dramatizations. Their reckless social mutiny and complete abandon of law inspired a fierce national distinction, and so it was with little resistance that some of the most brutal and coldblooded killers made themselves cozy household names. Crime films of the period found ideal inspirations in these authentic modern villains and their habitually gory downfalls, and pursued their gritty realities as a challenge to the Code.

The Warner Brothers Studios held a deep monopoly in the genre, having presented the first true gangster film in 1931 (Little Caesar) in an effort to move toward more “realistic” storylines—in other words, to make movies out of front-page news. The industry wasted no time in baptizing Warner Bros. “the gangster studio.” Not one to stray from what cashed in, Warner Bros. ran with their new reputation and churned out gangster film after gangster film. Warner Bros. was singlehandedly responsible for legendary top tough guys Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom found success in continuing gangster films, whether playing the boss, the thug, or the “Blonde Satan” detective who does justice to the law by bending it himself. Warner Bros. today is still worshiped for its larger-than-life influence in the crime genre, and for its cementation of shady yet sophisticated baddies.

Modern crime and gangster films originated largely in three specific precursors: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932).  Little Caesar, considered the first true gangster film, stars Edward G. Robinson as a two-bit crook who climbs the ladder of organized crime. Rife with shameless violence, criminal aspiration, and simultaneous glorification and penalization of corruption, Little Caesar is credited as being one of the finest crime films ever made, if not the finest. The Public Enemy, essentially based on the adventures of Al Capone and his men, stars James Cagney in the first of his many, many crime films. The Public Enemy, alongside Little Caesar, is hailed as one of the greatest depictions of the life of a criminal ever committed to celluloid (pun intended!). Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, starring vastly underrated Paul Muni, was not a Warner Bros. vehicle, but still gave the perfect rise to its new genre. And yes, it was the basis for the ’83 adaptation starring Al Pacino, and is furthermore still considered the finer of the two.

These films had to be careful not to inspire crime to its audience, as they were indeed so well done and so well-performed that studios were worried the immoral characters, though punished in the end, would become idols for the public. After all, bad guys had up to this point never been presented in a way that they could be sympathized with or cared about the way heroes were. At the beginning of The Public Enemy, to protect themselves from a potential anti-hero conception of the characters, Warner Bros. issued a text disclaimer both before and after the film as part of the title credits, dissuading audiences from exalting the felons and assuring them that the world of crime is one to be confronted and extinguished.

Later years only found crime films aging healthily. Paul Muni furthered his typecast in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in 1932. Picture Snatcher arrived in 1933, G Men in 1935. The Petrified Forest was released in 1936, elevating Humphrey Bogart (future star of Casablanca) to critical acclaim. Angels with Dirty Faces dropped in 1938, The Roaring Twenties in 1939, and virtually flawless John Huston works The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and Key Largo in 1948. The consummate Cagney gangster film White Heat came in 1949 and is today considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest movies ever made to date. Several early crime films have been inducted into the National Film Registry and Library of Congress for their legacy and influence.

There you have it—the films that were parents to tour de forces Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, The Godfather in 1972, The Godfather Part II in 1974, Scarface in 1983, Goodfellas in 1990, and Pulp Fiction in 1994. It’s a goosebump matter trying to imagine how different our movies, our lives, our world would be without all of these explosive dominos way back in those far away 20s and 30s.

For what probably constitutes a solid sixty percent of your film entertainment, it’s safe to say you owe a pretty big ‘thanks’ to a couple of wise-guys by the names of Cagney, Muni, and Eddie G.