By Ken Tucker
Updated July 06, 2009 at 09:31 PM EDT

Take your seats, class: We’re starting up week 2 of EW University with a weeklong look at gangster movies in pop culture. Check out last week’s classes, featuring The Big Chill and Footloose, or click through our 12 Killer Gangster Movies gallery with Ken’s top picks, or skip ahead and see how you score on our final exam. Stick around all summer long for future EW University courses on Lost, Harry Potter and more.

Gangster Film
s: An Enduring Genre
Nowadays, gangster movies are treated mostly like period pieces, occasions for actors to wear fedoras and shoot tommy guns and ride around in old jalopies. Sometimes the results are great — the contemporary touchstone for the gangster masterpiece is probably The Godfather, parts one and two. And recently, the great filmmaker Michael Mann threw his fedora into this ring with Public Enemies.

Gangster movies took off as a distinct movie genre in the 1930s, but gangster movies were being made even during the silent-film era. (Joseph von Sternberg’s 1926 Underworld is just one notable, visually exciting example.) But as organized crime mushroomed during Prohibition, in the ’30s the movies were the pop medium where this subject became literally explosive. The first, 1932’s Scarface, starring Paul Muni, featured so much machine-gun action, and made it look like so much fun, that filmmaker Howard Hawks was forced to attach the subtitle “The Shame of a Nation” to his movie, lest it seem as though Scarface was glorifying gangsters. Well, sorry, but the movies have always glorified gangsters: There’s something about outlaws in snazzy clothes, brimming with ambition, and toting big guns that has attracted people for almost a century now. Gangster movies have it both ways: they can present a lone hero as a daring guy (and they do tend to be guys), whether it’s the Paul Muni or the Al Pacino Scarface, but also as men who belong to a family. A crime family, but a family nonetheless: Thus one of the many allures of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, which revived the genre in the 1970s with an unprecedented popularity, and have been acclaimed as both high art and as populist art that inspired other pop forms. (Without The Godfather and Scarface, there would be no gangsta rap, to take just one example.)

There have been funny gangster movies (Jack Nicholson’s goofy hitman in Prizzi’s Honor; John Cusack’s fine cult flick Grosse Pointe Blank, Danny De Vito and Joe Piscopo in Brian De Palma’s dreadful Wise Guys) as well as dead-serious ones. The gangster genre seems able to absorb any tone a moviemaker wants to bring to it.

The gangster film was in some ways the logical progression from the Western: an urban version of men with guns who grapple with lawlessness, with dangerous dark streets the equivalent of the wild frontier. And like the Western, women tend to play secondary roles, as girlfriend, mother, wife, or helpless victim (with a few exceptions, of course, like Shelley Winters in the jolly-fun 1970 exploitation film Bloody Mama, about real-life gang leader Ma Barker).

Freedom from societal constraints, action, and daring: these are key elements of the enduring appeal of gangster movies. That’s why filmmakers keep returning to the subject again and again, whether the movies take the side of the law-breakers or the law-enforcers (for all the movies based on the real-life Al Capone, some of the most popular have been about his chief nemesis, FBI agent Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables” squad). It’s this dichotomy — our identification with both sides of the law — that a new movie like Public Enemies hopes to tap into, and add to the glorious history of a low-down genre.

Extra credit viewing: The 1932 Scarface, Underworld, The Public Enemy

Extra credit reading: “The Gangster As Tragic Hero,” an essay in Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theater, and Other Examples of Popular Culture (1962)

For discussion: Why does the gangster film continue to appeal to filmmakers and audiences? Do you think that, in the future, it will be harder to make gangster movies because, like the Western, their era will seem increasingly remote or irrelevant? What elements in gangster films are still relevant in today’s pop culture? Please discuss in the comments section below.