Almost as soon as the movies could talk, they talked about crime. In 1928, five months after the premiere of The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers released Michael Curtiz’s Tenderloin, a “part-talkie” underworld potboiler that grossed almost $900,000 on a $188,000 budget. (The film has since been lost; Curtiz went on to direct Casablanca.) In 1931, Warner released Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, two films that, along with the Howard Hughes–produced Scarface in 1932, effectively invented the gangster genre. In these three movies we see every major hallmark of the genre take shape: the antihero who’s preternaturally fluent in violence; his intoxicating rise, spurred by an aversion to authority in all its forms; his sense of familial obligation, which grows fatalistic; the psychosexual dysfunction that pollutes his relationships with women; his turn to hubris and his violent downfall. Just about every major American gangster picture has contained some or all of these components.
Gangster movies quickly became one of the most vexing forms of American popular culture. Moral-minded conservatives were flummoxed by audiences’ hunger for this brand of entertainment in the same decade that John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and others were terrorizing the nation. (In 1934, the year of Dillinger’s death, the Production Code Administration expressly forbade the studios from making films about him.) “The experience of the gangster as an experience of art is universal to Americans,” the critic Robert Warshow declared in a now-classic essay, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Most American mass culture was relentlessly cheerful and optimistic, he wrote. The gangster picture offered a rare space for tragedy: It was a venue in which ambition and material success were avenues not to fulfillment but rather to alienation and death. Warshow’s view gained new relevance in 1967 with the release of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, in which the titular 1930s outlaws, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, were brilliantly updated to swaggering, anti-establishment icons for the high ’60s.