A Beginner’s Guide to Gangster Movies

Later this month, Warner Brothers is releasing The Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics, which gathers four of the finest films from the Golden Age of the Gangster movie in crisp, new Blu-ray editions. These days, when we think of the gangster picture, we tend to focus on modern favorites like The Godfather and GoodFellas, but those films are descended from a rich heritage of tough, smart, timely pictures from the 1930s and 1940s. As you can see from this month’s ever so helpful Beginner’s Guide, the influence of those films has resonated for decades, from Cagney and Bogart to DeNiro and Pacino.

Crime and Early Cinema

From the early days of the form, filmmakers were fascinated with capturing and dramatizing the criminal lifestyle. Early documentary efforts like The Burglar on the Roof (1898) and How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900) gave way to the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). Most film historians recognize The Black Hand (1906) as the first “gangster” film, inasmuch as it explicitly identified its characters as involved in organized crime; D.W. Griffith’s short The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) was another early watershed. But the first feature-length gangster film was probably Regeneration (1915), which director Raoul Walsh shot in what remained of New York’s Five Points, memorably recreated decades later by Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York.