Since Robert Warshow-an early sociological critic of American popular culture-published his brilliant, but brief, 1948 essay "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," little has been written which attempts to give the gangster movie its due. So it is a pleasure to see Eugene Rosow come along with a serious treatment of the genre, replete with an extensively annotated filmography of 80 of its finest products. Eschewing an ordinary history of the crime film which would trace the development of its conventions and analyze its artistic high points, Rosow intends rather, to dig out the origins of the gangster movie in american social history and to account for its continuing popularity in terms of its close connections to the rapacious capitalist society around it.
Initially this strategy seems dubious, especially as the first few chapters do little more than rehearse the fimiliar story of the robber barons, the Horatio Alger myth of success, and the awful conditions of the newly arrived immigrants who were piling up in the fetid cities. Gradually, though, these well-known aspects of early 20th-century American life take on new meaning when seen against the rise of the genre. One of the more interesting themes that Rosow pursues throughout is not only how closely the movie gangsters and their struggle to get to the top parallel the careers of the robber barons, but also how much these characters and their violence are found in the early history of the studios themselves. For example, the actual goons who were hired to keep the Biograph studio intact during the wild and woolly Trust wars were also used as extras in the first gangster film, The Musketeers of Pig Alley , which was directed by D. W. Griffith in 1912.
While his major impetus is toward a social analysis, Rosow does discuss-but not nearly enough-the basic conventions of the genre and its artistic development. He spends very little time on specific films, and less on the work of particular directors, with major figures like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh being given short shrift. Nor does he discuss the various "looks" by which one studio's product can often be distinguished from another's. But since it's clearly impossible to be definitive and cover all aspects of such a broad subject with equal thoroughness, it's Rosow's prerogative to concentrate on the area that interests him most.
The height of the forms' artistic achievement was reached in the early '30s with film like Little Caesar and Scarface . (Both of these were modeled to some extent on the exploits of Al Capone, who was reportedly pleased by the portrayals.) By this time, however, gangster films had become so popular that an outcry arose against the continued glorification of the criminal, despite the tacked-on "crime does not pay" endings insisted upon by the Hays self-censorship office. By the mid-'30s, something had to be done to answer the growing criticism, and so the gangster was magically transformed into the G-man. Now the "gun-toting Horatio Alger" could kill as many dirty rats as he wanted and still marry the girl next door and settle down to a nice middle-class life at the end of the picture. The "feds" also benefited by being made to look competent and trustworthy at a time when confidence in the government was low. Rosow's perception of this mutation is acute: "gangster films were poised between two alternatives that confronted America's crumbling economic system: socialism and fascism. The gangster as figure of both Robin Hood and Robber Baron dimensions symbolically resolved these contradictory elements by becoming a G-man as the New Deal temporarily resolved the dilemma between fascism and socialism."
However, the weaknesses inherent in Rosow's preference for social theorizing show up most clearly in the book's final section. Towards the end, he drastically alters his leisurely pace and in a few short chapters tries to summarize every significant development between 1935 and 1976, on the shaky assumption that by 1935 the conventions were set and everything that came after was a minor variation. In the last chapter, the films themselves seem merely convenient vehicles: "As a character who is associated with death and weapons and whose activities and attitudes help diminish respect for life, the movie gangster has remained a suitable representative of a society whose economy requires a high, sustained military expenditure." The rest is little more than a diatribe against American capitalism in general and the CIA in particular, and while probably well-deserved, it seems out of place. He is much better at the very end of the chapter when he outlines the surprising number of links among present-day producers, syndicate gangsters, and the multinational corporations which have taken over virtually all the major studios.
Rosow and his publisher have chosen to forego both the visually boring, academic film book (in which only a handful of anemic stills are reproduced) and the instant-remainder picture book (in which the vapid text serves mostly to separate the glossies). Instead they have decided to make the reader a viewer as well by illustrating the text with hundreds of well-produced and well-laid-out still photos.
One final item: I cannot leave off without mentioning the atrocious editing of this book. The text is sprinkled with sentence fragments, confusion of "it's" and "its," footnote numbers with no notes corresponding to them, mislabeled or reversed pictures, misspellings (the word "villain" is "villian" throughout), dropped lines and letters, etc. In such a generally thoughtful, provocative book which attempts to be attractive to the eye as well, these faults are especially annoying.