Inculcating Gangster Genre: An Art Form, Culture, And Human Value Within Our Emerging Society

Joseph S. Spence, Sr.

- Joseph S. Spence, Sr.

There was a time when gangster movies were fascinating, and gangsters discussed as a folk hero art form inculcating human culture and values in society. Many didn’t consider them a threat or menace to life. Gangsters in 1930s were classic, had tommy guns, dressed well, had fancy girls, speak intelligently, and movies about them were enjoyable. Some were considered notorious for running whisky. Gradually, the suspense changed around 2008. Drugs infiltrated society, language and clothing style changed, things exploded, urbanism became prominent, and the classic wing tipped black and white shoes vanished. Pretty babes with feathered hats, men double breasted suits, fancy cigars, wide brimmed hats, three-piece suits, etc, disappeared, with the classic art form of folk hero; thereafter, human trafficking, narcotic, drugs, needles, tattoos, graffiti art, and beards became prominent.

Key Words: Gangsters narrative, existentialist philosophy, Bonnie and Clyde, Godfather, gutter.


Gangsters in the 1930s took over the movies with violence, like an erupting volcano lacking positive assimilation, growing by aggression, and firepower. Eventually they descended to the gutter from whence they came, for others to see as a past phenomenon, leaving trails of destruction behind. Such is the essence of life gangsters once lived. This lifestyle articulated by Robert Warshow, shows an image, of gangsters drawing themselves out from the crowd, and subsequently dying as individuals, based on the principles of: production codes, narrative trajectory, metaphor of the gutter, existentialism, epistemology, and tragic heroes.

The rise of gangsters coincided with films, appealing to society in the 1930s such as: Little Caesar, Public Enemy, and Scarface. Thereafter, the Motion Picture Codes of 1933 and 1934 curtailed such movies.[1] They imposed restrictions, by not letting gangsters win, showing crime does not pay, and not escaping with stolen riches. They are doomed to die, and shot down completing the narrative trajectory cycle of their lives.

The narrative trajectory shows gangsters as tough guys, motivated by power, greed and women, not playing low-keyed positions, since they are egotistical and seek the limelight. They desire to take it all, seeking independence as their own boss, taking over others’ lives, and calling them negative names as in the Godfather and Goodfella’s movies. The narrative trajectory shows them rising from the gutter and back down from attacks on others as their ideological construct.

Metaphor of the Gutter shows gangsters as a subclass living by exploitation. This is evident in Scarface where the protagonist gangsters died in the gutter.[2]  They are outside the stream of working-class people, unable to work constructively with honest citizens, and earn their living by deceit, deception, and death.

While earning their living as a subclass, they unleash attacks on others, destroying their surroundings, and losing protection, while rising from the gutter and returning by death. The movie, Public Enemy, shows Rico, rising and falling this way,[3] from his egotistical and maniatic actions, which attracted bullets from others taking over his position within the gang’s hierarchy.

The existentialist philosophy determines gangster’s existence. They are what they become, people of violence, taking their violence and turning it into cultures as their core of existence, thus, subordinating others by force and intimidation for future activities. They have no control and accomplished things egotistically. They obey no rules, create their own, and evolve as nightmares over others’ lives.

Their actions consider others as nothing, displaying no ethics or good faith. Their ways are based on their philosophy, and ideological construct making them standout. They desire to control the streets violently, eliminating others in their quest of reaching the top as successful gangsters. They live by macho codes driving them into spheres of isolation, leading to their death because they are individuals, in the genre of order as opposed to the integration.[4]

The integration genre is based on musical, melodrama, comedy, etc, is civilized and stable. It embraces, love, marriage, community and cooperation, unlike the genre of order which is contested, hostile, and unstable. The Wizard of Oz is an example of the integration genre, unlike White Heat where the order genre exemplifies killings as an ideological construct.

The gangsters ideological construct is a choice. The choice defines them, as gangsters not living as ordinary citizens. This is a glorious profession, as stated by Henry Hill in Goodfella’s, “To me being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” The evolution of vicious gangsters also has its foundation in the principles of epistemology, regarding original gangster films establishing an archetype and body of knowledge.[5]

The concept of transparency regarding the rise of gangsters in newspapers is linked to the principle of epistemology, creating a cyclical rising and falling lacking social values. The gangsters were bold enough to have newspapers and movies consulting them to ensure the accuracy of their publications. They enjoy public laudatory accolades as villains with glorious foundations. However, they are brought down by the spirit of the production codes sealing their fate by them not defeating the law.

According to Robert Warshow, gangsters live their lives as tragic heroes. The protagonist gangsters fighting for their ways are no other than what they are. They don’t realize what they do, yet proceed without considering the consequences. Their ideological construct, shows this being right. Once entrenched with the commission of a crime there is no turning back. This was exemplified by Rico in Little Caesar (1931).[6] Rico continues his life of crime until he dies from law enforcement bullets.

Other gangsters glorifying themselves as tragic heroes were Bonnie and Clyde (1967)[7]. Leading a life of crime, Bonnie glorified the gang with articles to newspapers for publication. Reading his poetry, were motivation for robbing banks and continuing their narrative trajectory, only to be gunned down by bullets from federal agents.

Gangsters as tragic heroes are never to be alone, especially when they have killed other gang members from lack of trust or paranoia. Being alone is deadly. It’s the end stage of the narrative trajectory where they will die from a bullet, and return to the gutter.

In White Heat.[8] Cody Jarrett is alone. Trapped on the top of an oil refinery tank, he is isolated as a tragic hero, does not have his gang, and faces the police alone. He has come to grips with his existentialist end of dying alone, and is brought down by bullets from the law. As a killer, he stands on his own two feet, and returns to the gutter as a tragic hero. 

In American Gangster, a different example of the gangster genre appeared. The movie showed the integration genre. In the order genre, the gangster is left alone in danger and dies. In American Gangster, the protagonist hero did not die, his network died, family members arrested and convicted. His cooperation with the law allowed his release from prison after sentencing.

He did not physically die based on the narrative technique, he died mentally without his crew. Protagonist gangsters die in the gutter or where water is present. Denzel Washington asked the law for some holy water.[9] The water is a form of absolution symbolizing an ending in the narrative trajectory. The message is atonement. Metaphorically, he is cleansed of past sins.  

The difficult part of the gangster genre is when individuals are hurt, from not knowing the gangster’s world of existence, as in, Scarface and Public Enemy. Literally, one could state the gangster genre has touched many lives in various ways.

The principles of the production codes, narrative trajectory, gutter metaphor, existentialism, epistemology, and the gangsters as tragic heroes are evident in the genre. These conventions are critical to understand the roles of gangsters, their motives, character traits, and actions.


The era of classical gangsters has ended. A new era of gangsterism started with urban gangsters in the movies as a new art form of art and culture. The folk hero theory, wing tipped black and white shoes, double breasted pinned striped suits, fancy cars with pretty girls immaculately dressed, language style, and dress codes have changed. The concept of transparency of rising in the newspapers and movies is not linked to the epistemology principle anymore. Today’s gangsters operate in secrecy, are opportunistic, act on spur of the moment, and nothing is published in the news by them.

Drugs have taken over, narcotics, needles, tattoos, graffiti, beards, jeans and tennis shoes are now classy. The narrative principle is the same regarding trajectory of the gangsters. They exist outside the moralistic code of people. Their cyclical rise and fall are evident, based on their ideological construct, and existential philosophy. The conventional trajectory for power, has not changed. Gangsters are now insulated and do not move alone. Their ideological construct of attacks has expanded with proliferation of guns and bombs.

Based on discovery statistic by news media, and other agencies, one must ask the question: “Should the ideological construct of gangsters as tragic heroes, existentialists, genres of integration or order, and narrative trajectory, be considered as advantageous or a disadvantageous art forms and culture in the emerging society?” My belief—it’s disadvantageous and should not be considered an art form inculcating human values and culture in society!

1. “American Gangster,” Denzel Washington. DailyMotion, 2007, (Assessed 7/12/19),

2. “Bonnie and Clyde.” Netflix, 1967. Newman, David, and Robert Benton. (Accessed 7/11/19),

3. “Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Robert Warshow (1948).” University of Tsukuba Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 4 Apr. 2016, (Accessed 7/17/19),

4. “Goodfellas - Quei Bravi Ragazzi.” Robert DeNiro. DailyMotion, 1990. (Accessed 7/10/19),

5. “Little Caesar.” Edward G. Robinson.” DailyMotion, 1931. (Accessed 7/14/19),

6. “Public Enemy.” James Cagney. Glasmon, Kubec, and John Bright.” DailyMotion (1931). (Accessed 7/15/19),

7. “Scarface.” Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft: Pre-Code 1929-1934-Classic Cinema Central.” Universal Studios (1932). (Accessed 7/16/19),

8. “The Godfather.” Marlon Brando, Al Pacino. Paramount 1972. (Accessed 7/20/19),

9. “The Wiz.” Dianna Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell. Brown, William F. Universal Studios, 1978. (Accessed, 7/22/19),

10. “White Heat.” James Cagney, Virginia Mayo. Warner Bros 1949. (Accessed 7/19/19),

[1]  The code named after Will H. Hayes, who presided over Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association in 1922. The codes were ignored until the establishment of the Production Codes in 1934.
[2]  In the end of the movie, Scarface was eventually shot, and died in the gutter. The symbology of the water is atonement of his sins.
[3]  In Public Enemy, Rico is shot down in a hail of bullets by law enforcement. He completes the narrative trajectory by dying when he is alone.
[4] Existentialism is an integrated part of the genre of order. The action of the gangster is existential, since he lives in a world that is hostile, indifferent, and involves bad faith.
[5] Scarface, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar established a foundation for the study of knowledge and justified belief of the gangster genre, especially when coupled with newspaper articles praising the gang. 
[6]  In Little Caesar, Rico robs a gas station. This makes him a successful gangster with no turning back. He becomes more successful alienating others. Alone, he was shot in the end.
[7] In Bonnie and Clyde, a series of articles and poetry were submitted by Bonnie to the newspapers, glorifying their life of crime. Others looked at them as folk heroes based on the glorifying articles.
[8] White Heat shows Cody Jarrett, a violent killer, and raving maniac as a gangster trapped by the police in an oil refinery. He is alone, on top of an oil tank proclaiming to be “On Top of the World.”  He is shot and in returning fire, shot and exploded the tanks causing his death, an end to the rise and fall trajectory.
[9] While assisting law enforcement with information about the network in American Gangster, Washington, made reference to Holy Water. The symbology is being atone for his sins before going to prison. His life was spared because his sentence was shortened and he had an early release from prison.


  1. Thank you very much my beloved bother and editor for reviewing, accepting, and posting this article. Have an awesome day and blessings always!

  2. Thank you my dearly beloved editor Sharma, for your acceptance and publication of this review. Have an awesome day and blessings always!


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