The gangster genre originated in the 20th century as it originally took many of its narratives and characters directly from the activities of those involved in the highly influential gang culture which developed in America during the 1920’s. As such, by the subject matter they cover, gangster films are restricted to portraying the negative aspects of society, or anti-social as shown by the culture of criminality they project and the careless morals of the film’s protagonists. However, they also offer the representation of ideologies that can be viewed as positive. Pro-social behaviour refers to “voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals.” As such these definition refer to consequences of a doer’s actions rather than the motivations behind those actions. Such behaviours include a broad range of activities from sharing, comforting, rescuing, and helping.1 Therefore the consequences of these are as Knickerbocker states “key to harmonious interpersonal and group relations.”2 This essay will examine the pro-social and anti-social ideologies of the gangster film genre, with specific reference to early gangster films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s 1931 film Little Caesar and later more contemporary incarnations including Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino.
Early gangster films before the Hay’s Production Code in the 1930’s such as Little Caesar (1931) which was loosely based on the life of Al Capone. Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello (Little Caesar) rises from a petty country criminal to a big time crime boss in this dark and gritty film. The ending where Rico is gunned down by a cop, leaves the criminal a fallen man. This therefore left a clear moral message to viewers at the time that ‘crime does not pay’, a common feature in early gangster films. This decline and death imposing a clear binary that law is good and mobsters are bad, and that they will pay. Cleary this gives the view that the only way to truly achieve the American Dream is through legal means. Hollywood was a highly political and social tool and to send the wrong message that is apparent in more modern films such as Ocean’s Eleven (2001) that perpetrators could get away with crime was unthinkable in the 1930s. Again, in comparison, whereas modern films of gangsters have cinematography that shows the glamour and appeal of living a life of crime, early gangster films were gritty and presented their characters as unappealing and that achievement through illegal means may bring short time power but long term unhappiness and failure.
Even though the violence and bloodshed was mostly off screen in conference with what was and could be shown at the time period, the film was withdrawn from distribution by the Hays Production Code and not re-released until 1953. Therefore, even though gangster films at this time offered an ultimately pro-social message as they end with the bad being punished, they were more viewed as anti-social as they threaten the social fabric of their time and pushed the boundaries of what was seen as acceptable. In addition to this it was thought that impressionable viewers may view the anti-social ideologies exhibited in gang culture to be seen as desirable in the movies and influence people in real life.
This idea of an almost perfect lifestyle being achieved through legitimate means can be read as directly promoting the ideologies of the country in which it was produced. In this sense America, as much in the 1930s as now, generally promotes good people achieving their dreams and prevailing over bad people. However, the Gangster genre has included characters which appear to have a similar level of power and wealth which has not been achieved through socially acceptable means. A classic example of this is Sam Rothstein in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino, played by Robert De Niro, who runs a casino in the place of the mafia, for a while is married to the woman of his dreams, and is a well-known member of the Las Vegas community. The roles of pro-social ideologies within a group that run a casino in Las Vegas in the 1970s and 1980s, which happens to be the Mafia, are highly important to the success of their business. They, for a time, work effectively as a group while offering members a chance at financial independence and friendship. In this sense, converse to the crime does not pay message, films such as Casino offer the ideology that ‘crime pays big, and it’s cool!’ as Ace, Nicky and in a way Ginger, lead successful and fulfilling lives through crime. Also the police are not overtly the ‘good guys’ at this point, but are part of the corrupt system that the mafia thrive in. Indeed, these characters are not undone by the law but by themselves. However, these ideologies are overtly anti-social to the outside world who are not members of this group, as the Mafia uses violence and intimidation to ward off competitors or threats to their group and/or business. This includes later in the film where Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) becomes a threat to the potential for government agents to get information and bringing down other people with him. In this way Casino offers both pro-social and anti-social ideologies.
These actions that “benefit of the group” allow for pro-social behaviours such as loyalty that gives protection to the individual gangster against going to prison for their crimes, as this could lead to taking the whole gang or “family” down, and from other gangsters and gangs. Apart from some members being actual family such as Nicky and his brother Dominick, the bond of being part of the gang if often referred to as being a family. In Hollywood Genres, Thomas Schatz outlines the differences between the two different ideologies presented in film texts; pro-social and anti-social ideology. Pro-social texts in addition to what Eisenberg, Mussen and Knickerbocker said above, support the status quo and re-affirm existing societal values and ideologies. Conversely, anti-social texts question the status quo and these existing values and ideologies of this society.3 Although gangster films are well known to fit into representing anti-social ideologies, there are some elements of Casino that can be seen as pro-social. Casino starts in Las Vegas in 1973, a city of glitter and dreams and a stage for billionaires, politicians and glamorous showgirls. Therefore the film offers a pro-social ideology in the way the gangsters look after others in the group or family and focus on the goal of achieving the American Dream through wealth and success.
However, the film also has a dark underside of drugs, pimps, prostitutes and of course organised crime. The film interweaves all of these elements into subplots in the film. Anti-social elements come into the film in the way that the gang, whilst being a harmonious and caring group at certain levels, can also be a place of treachery and instability if an individual or group within the group go against the groups’ morals and codes. The role of family and the gang is then tested when Nicky and Ginger begin an affair that goes directly against the codes of the gang, as members do not get involved with other members wives.
Although Casino is focusing on the role of the American Dream, it is an inverted version of this ideology. In this way the crime that is openly accessible in gambling casinos allows these gangsters access to consumption that the ideology of hard work ethic does not. In addition to this the success of the casino allows Sam and Nicky to become infamous in their own rights, creating themselves as individuals. In one scene where Nicky and his wife are checked by security at an airport in relation to a diamond theft, Sam’s voiceover comments “cos Nicky enjoyed being a gangster, and he didn’t care who knew.” Going by the law would not allow this level of notoriety, especially for someone like Nicky whose life is violence and intimidation to feel power. In a way this is a hyper version of the American Dream and the potential for individuals from any background, in this case Jewish and Italian American, can gain individual success.
Overall, the real anti-social threat to society is not that gangsters are successful or violent, but that they threaten to overturn existing society’s codes and conventions. In this way it would be in society’s best interests to promote ideas that a pro-social and would harmonise society rather than romanticise violence and crime as a way of becoming rich and successful. However, the producers of gangster films today, unlike those during the period when the Hays Production Code was in place, do not have to promote these messages. Of course, part of the appeal in fact for audiences is to watch an anti-social crime text, especially with gangster characters, is that it offers elements of glamour that are enjoyable and voyeuristic. This is signified by the endless jewellery that Sam buys Ginger, their wedges of hundred dollar bills and the circles they mix in.
1 Eisenberg, Nancy and Paul H. Mussen. The Roots of Prosocial Behavior in Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
2 Knickerbocker, Roberta L. “Prosocial Behavior .” Learning to Give. Accessed January 5, 2018.
3 Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 1981. 54.