July 07, 2009 at 07:40 PM EDT

Take your seats, class: We’re on week 2 of EW University, with our second class on gangster movies in pop culture. Check out yesterday’s class, featuring;The Godfather and Grosse Point Blank, 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.

Guys and Molls: Women in Gangster Movies

Who’s the most famous, most recognizable female character in thegangster-film genre? I’d have to say Elvira Hancock, wife of TonyMontana in the 1983 Scarface. Since a lot of gangstermovies are period pieces set during the Prohibition Era, it’s notsurprising that women have been largely relegated to being gold diggergirlfriends — “molls” — or innocent companions or mothers of the maleprotagonists. It wasn’t until the World War II era, when there weremore women sitting in movie-theater audiences, that the female roleswere made more substantial. There are enough exceptions to this rule,however, to make women in gangster films an intriguing area of EWUniversity study.

Most immediately, Marion Cotillard, as John Dillinger’s famous real-life moll Billie Frechette, is more of a presence than your average gangster accompaniment in the new Public Enemies, director Michael Mann didn’t cast this excellent actress (La Vie en Rose) to have her stand around and simper.

But let’s go back to Elvira in Scarface. This was Michelle Pfeiffer’s star-making role. Director Brian De Palma gave her one of the most spectacular entrances in movie history: dressed in a slinky dress that hugged every curve, Elvira descends slowly from a glass elevator, with Pacino’s Tony momentarily speechless, in awe. Wearing a blonde pageboy hairdo and talking tough, Elvira ends up matching Tony curse for curse and, as their cocaine consumption increases, toot for toot. This is a far cry from the original 1932 Scarface’s femme fatale, Poppy, played by Karen Morley. She’s little more than a pretty trinket Paul Muni’s Scarface Tony Camonte wears on his arm; the real woman in this movie is Scarface’s sister, Cesca, portrayed  by Ann Dvorak. She’s so loyal, she grabs a gun and stays by her brother’s side for the film’s final shoot-out. The clear implication throughout the film, although this could never be stated outright, of course, is that Scarface’s sister loves him more — is more like a faithful lover or wife — than his girlfriend is.

In one of the greatest 1940s gangster films, White Heat, the pivotal woman isn’t so much the dame, played by Virginia Mayo, as it is the antihero’s mother: Margaret Wycherly’s “Ma” to James Cagney’s Cody pampers him, indulges him, and ends up abetting his life of crime. Ma was an enabler before the term was coined. By contrast, gangster wives tend to have less control over the gangsters they love, but can make an indelible impact. In the Godfather films, Diane Keaton is the odd WASP woman out: a non-Italian entering a family and The Family as Al Pacino’s wife. In Goodfellas, Lorraine Bracco holds her own against Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, even when the cocaine overtakes their lives together. Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) brought director John Huston’s gift with actresses to bear on not one but two female characters: Kathleen Turner’s strong-willed hit-woman who falls in love with Jack Nicholson, and Huston’s daughter, Anjelica Huston, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Maerose, the granddaughter of a Mafia don.

Still, the movies await its first major-studio gangster picture in which a woman takes center-stage as a gangster. Lady Scarface, a lousy 1941 programmer starring Judith Anderson, doesn’t really count, I’m afraid. But there are at least examples of a woman as the full partner in a gangster’s blaze to glory: Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker in the blazingly original, 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. As part of the small but effective “Barrow Gang” with her partner Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), Bonnie, and Dunaway’s performance, are secured in pop-culture history.

Extra credit viewing: Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (1931) and Ida Lupino in High Sierra (1940)

More on gangster films in EW University:
Gangster Movies: An Enduring Genre
Gallery: 12 gangster movies to die for
Final exam: Test your knowledge of gangster flicks

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