In middle of the gangster epic, Public Enemies, in a scene that takes place in a movie theater, a public service announcement warns that the dangerous criminal John Dillinger is on the loose and that he could even be in this very theater! On the screen, the lights of the movie theater come up and audience members are urged to look to their left and to their right to see if they can spot the infamous robber.
The heads of the audience all swivel to the left and then to the right. All except one. John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) continues to stare straight at the screen. It’s a great scene (though it owes more than a little the tennis scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train), but it made me wonder what makes audiences continue, through the decades, to watch gangsters on the screen.
Back in the early sound era, gangsters were a sensation. James Cagney’s The Public Enemy and Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar both premiered in 1931 to public and critical acclaim but gained the ire of the censors. In fact, these films helped the Hayes rating board come about. For decades, violence would be muted.
But come the sixties, the Hayes board’s grip on the studios began to slip, and the ratings system of ‘G’, ‘M’, ‘R’ and ‘X’ rated films came into being. The letters would change, but there was a new freedom to again portray the violent world of gangsters. Audiences and even many critics were shocked by the violence of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and The Godfather (1972) would take the crown of all time moneymaker (bypassing Gone With the Wind and itself surpassed by Star Wars).
And gangster films continue to be made. So why are hundreds of films made about this unsavory profession while many, many fewer films are made about, say, architects or librarians?
Why do people go to see films about violent lawbreakers?
There are reasons to see this particular film.
Among the more superficial reasons to see this film are the art and costume design. Those trench coats, fedoras and black sedans are just plain cool. The movie seems to get many of the details of 1930’s right (though a radio broadcast in the background of a Cubs/Yankees game is just silly; there was no inter-league play in those days).
And Christian Bale as G-Man Melvin Purvis and Johnny Depp as John Dillinger are true movie stars, fun to watch. (In the midst of the film, we see clips from the 1934 gangster flick, Manhattan Melodrama, with Clark Gable and William Powell. And it says something that Bale and Depp hold their own against these great stars of yesteryear.)
The direction is sharp, as is much of the writing. (In one scene, Purvis and Dillinger meet, and Dillinger correctly assumes that the war on crime is keeping Purvis up at night. Purvis asks Dillinger what keeps him up at night. Dillinger’s simple reply is, “Coffee.”)
So yes, Public Enemies is a good example of a gangster film. But why do people enjoy gangster films at all?
I’m afraid one reason is the violence. The sin nature of people leads us to desire simple solutions. Instead of dealing patiently with a rude person, wouldn’t we like simply to put the person in his place with the sight of a gun or a quick slap to the face? But Proverbs 3:31 says, “Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways.”
A slightly more wholesome attraction of the gangster film is it seems like an answer to powerlessness. During the Great Depression, it seemed like there was no way out of the trap of poverty that engulfed the nation. But the advent of fast cars and machine guns allowed some to take their fate into their own hands, and Pretty Boy Floyd,
Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger became heroes to many in the nation who felt victimized by the banks. Some still feel affection for a robber that steals from the banks but “lets the little guy keep his own money.”
But the crimes they committed were not, of course, victimless. The banks would pass the cost of the robberies on to customers, and many innocent people were killed during the commission of the crimes.
I think another reason people like gangster films is because, compared to these guys, we feel like we’re not so bad. But Romans 3:10 says that there is not one just. We may not feel like we are as bad as a murderer. Matthew 5:22 says if we are angry with a brother or sister, we are guilty of murder.
Maybe a good thing about these films is the reminder that the consequences of sin are deadly and sure. And we do need to control our desires or they will lead to our destruction.
So, yeah, I like gangster films. But I try to root for the side of the law rather than the side of lawlessness. So here are five other gangster films I’ve enjoyed (and you can blame my sinful nature):
1) Scarface (1932) - . Paul Muni plays TonCamonte (fifty one years later Al Pacino would play Tony Montana in a film with the same name) in this Howard Hawks directed film. This film does not make the life of crime attractive; Muni plays the role as an apeman. Look for Frankenstein’s Boris Karloff as a rival gangster. (Made before the ratings system)
2) The Roaring Twenties (1939) – Cagney and Bogart. You can’t ask for more than that. (No rating)
3) White Heat (1949) – James Cagney again, playing a madman. Perhaps a lot closer to what the bank robbers of the 30’s were really like than Depp’s smooth and charming Dillinger. (No rating.)
4) The Godfather (1972) – Critics have consistently called this one of the top films of all time. Marlon Brando won the Oscar, but the film is full of great performances by Robert Duvall, James Caan, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton…well, just about everyone, including the horse. (Rated R for violence, nudity, language)
5) Miller’s Crossing (1990) – Joel and Ethan Coen delivered another of their many great films. Albert Finney and Gabriel Byrne give great performances. At the heart of this film is the question, do loyalty and faithfulness matter in a corrupt world? (Rated R for violence and language)
Public Enemies is rated R for violence, language and sensuality.