In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gangster Films

  • Introduction
  • Critical Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Collections of Essays/Anthologies
  • Founding Studies of the Genre
  • Genre
  • History of the Gangster Genre
  • Regulation and Censorship
  • Social and Cultural Contexts
  • Gender, Ethnicity, Class, and Crime
  • European Crime and Gangster Films
  • Online Resources

Cinema and Media Studies Gangster Films
Fran Mason
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0102


The study of gangster films extends back to the 1970s when the development of film studies as an academic discipline generated new perspectives to provide a scholarly framework for the analysis of film. Alongside the study of film theory, national cinemas, and film histories, genre theory and the parallel creation of a taxonomy of genres and the study of specific genres were among these new approaches to film. During the 1970s the iconography, narrative structures, and ideological or cultural parameters of the gangster film were established as part of this critical methodology, very often alongside or in contrast to the western, because of shared concerns with individuality, masculinity, and social concerns. From the earliest articles and books on the gangster film, the genre has predominantly been considered in relation to its historical, ideological, and sociocultural contexts, and such perspectives have continued to inform the study of the genre in recent accounts of masculinity and the gangster and in new studies of the Mafia film. The gangster film has, in particular, been considered in terms of realism, often in contrast to the “mythic” style of the western, but most critics who adopt such a view are more concerned with its symbolic or imaginary representation or refraction of social and political relations than with examining verisimilitude in the mapping of criminal activities. The gangster film has, as a consequence, been considered to be a subversive form of filmmaking, not only in America, but also in European and Asian versions of the genre, even if notable critics such as Richard Maltby and Paul Kerr question such a viewpoint by arguing that institutional and production concerns often contain or deflate the political and ideological messages of specific films. The presumption of the genre’s subversive politics is often based on its critique of American society, and much criticism of the gangster film has focused on Hollywood films at the expense of other traditions. However, in recent years this balance has been redressed with the development of critical strands examining Asian and European cinema, not only because of the awareness of the global reach of criminal organizations and the development of representations of crime in cinematic traditions outside of the United States, but also because of recent critical works that have been produced on Asian, British, and French crime film traditions as well as on the developing crime forms in Latin American and post-Soviet Russian cinemas.

Critical Overviews

Very useful introductions to the gangster genre are provided in a number of books that either offer introductions to cinema or film studies or which provide a wider survey of film genres. In the case of introductions to film studies, Gledhill 2007 offers a survey of key themes in gangster films and Griffith 1976 studies the gangster film by reference to the notion of the “film cycle.” In texts focusing on genre study, Schatz 1981 and Neale 2000 have produced surveys of the gangster film by reference to genre in Hollywood film-making, while Mitchell 1995 and Langford 2005 provide accounts related to genre theory but linked to social aspects of the gangster film.

  • Gledhill, Christine. “The Gangster Film.” In The Cinema Book. 3d ed. Edited by Pam Cook, 279–285. London: British Film Institute, 2007.

    Originally titled “The Gangster/Crime Film” in the first edition of Cook’s classic anthology of film studies essays, this article is an excellent short introduction to the study of key themes through an account of positions adopted by important critics of the gangster film.

  • Griffith, Richard. “Cycles and Genres.” In Movies and Methods. Vol. 1. Edited by Bill Nichols, 111–118. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.

    A discussion of the early Hollywood gangster cycle that developed at the end of the 1920s and culminated in the classic cycle of the early 1930s.

  • Langford, Barry. “The Gangster Film: Genre and Society.” In Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond. By Barry Langford, 132–157. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

    Within a wider survey of the operations of genre in Hollywood, Langford provides an accessible and concise account of the gangster film.

  • Mitchell, Edward. “Apes and Essences: Some Sources of Significance in the American Gangster Film.” In Film Genre Reader II. Edited by Barry Keith Grant, 203–212. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

    An account of the gangster film that focuses on the importance of the genre’s “repetitive patternings” and on social meanings as a way of understanding and interpreting individual films.

  • Neale, Steve. “Gangster Films.” In Genre and Hollywood. By Steve Neale, 76–82. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Offers an excellent survey of the main strains of criticism that have been used to interpret the gangster film, identifying key theorists and their creation of a meta-narrative of generic codes, while also tracing a history of key forms and subgenres from the silent ear to the 1980s.

  • Schatz, Thomas. “The Gangster Film.” In Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. By Thomas Schatz, 81–110. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

    Schatz emphasizes the classic gangster cycle of the early 1930s and films from the immediate postwar period as canonical forms to argue that the key concerns of the genre are the internal conflicts within the gangster between desire and duty, between individuality and the common good, and between savagery and morality.

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